Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking

It’s a myth that ultralight backpacking makes you cold, wet and hungry. It doesn’t. In fact, I’ll wager that with my 5 to 9 pounds of ultralight gear I’m more comfortable, sleep better, and eat better than many campers carrying 20 to 30 pounds of conventional/heavier backpacking gear. So, here are 3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve UltraLight Backpacking.

Picture above: A 1.5 pound pyramid shelter is an excellent choice for protection from wind, rain and snow. Weighing a fraction of a conventional tent, it also has far more room to relax and spread out.

If 5 pounds sounds a little too light…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List is likely the best fit for most backpackers. So, if you want to lower your pack weight but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Freeze or Starve

 

3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking.

  1. Have good camping skills: Good camping skills rule! They are far more important than the weight of your gear for keeping safe, warm and dry. And by camping skills, I don’t mean the questionable survival “skills” of reality TV—I mean the basic, garden-variety skills that every backpacker knows—like putting on rainwear or a warm jacket when needed, selecting a good campsite, and doing a decent job of pitching a Good UL Tent or Tarp/Pyramid Shelter.
  2. Take light gear, appropriate for the conditions: I pick the lightest, fully-functional gear appropriate for the actual conditions I backpack in. Light gear like:
    1. UL Backpack
    2. UL Sleeping Bag or UL Down Quilt (my favorite!)
    3. Warm UL Down Jacket, and a light 6-8 oz Rain Jacket
      All of these work as well as conventional (heavy) gear at 3 times the weight.
    4. Appropriate for the conditions: I take gear for actual conditions for the time of year and location I am backpacking. E.g. I don’t take 4-pound, 4-season dome tent, a +20F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm May trip on the Appalachian Trail with expected lows in the 60s—you’d be surprised how many people do!
  3. Pack nutritious high-calorie food: Intelligent selection of food is key:
    1. My food gives me 3,000 nutritious and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day.
    2. This is the same number of calories provided by 2 pounds of average backpacking food.
    3. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying twice the food weight.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Ultralight done right: warm, dry, well-fed and lovin’ life on the trail!

In Summary

It’s not the weight of your gear but 1) rusty camping skills, 2) poor gear choices and 3) uniformed food selection that will make any backpacker more prone to being cold, wet and hungry. This is just as true for conventional (heavy) backpackers, as it is for lightweight or ultralight backpackers.


Reason 1 – Have Good Camping Skills

Good camping skills are the main reason why you won’t freeze or starve ultralight backpacking. Having confidence in your camping skills, means that you won’t compensate by packing a bunch of heavy, over-kill gear and backup gear. Here are some of what I believe are the most important camping skills:

camping skill 1 – Campsite Selection

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. I only set mine up when there is a slight chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack.

Good campsite selection: While I could have pitched this lovely HMG UL Tarp higher up on the canyon wall on a shelf with great views, I chose to camp in a warmer & more protected place in the trees. And discreetly camping out of sight, away from the trail & in the trees is a favor to others sharing the canyon with me. [Note that one tarp ridgeline is solidly anchored to a cottonwood]

Pitch your shelter in a protected area, preferably in trees.

First, discreetly camping out of sight in the trees, is a favor to others sharing the area with you—rather than advertising your presence to everybody for miles around. Second, trees do a number of lovely things for you:

  • Trees provide shelter anchors: for tarps, shelter tie-outs, and hammocks. Far more secure than stakes in the ground.
  • Trees block the wind: which keeps you a lot warmer (reduces convective heat loss). It also lowers wind load and stresses on your shelter and tent stakes.
  • Trees keep you warmer: Trees prevent radiant heat loss. They reflect the day’s heat back to the ground at night in the same way that a cloudy sky makes it warmer overnight.
  • Trees keep you drier: Camping in the trees is also less prone to the heavy dew and condensation of exposed campsites.The worst place for dew is in a treeless meadow at the bottom of a canyon. The best place to be is in the woods on a flat area a few hundred feet above the canyon bottom (or surrounding lower area).

Finally, make sure that your tent is not in an area where water will pool-up or stream through.

camping skill 2 – Know How to Pitch your Shelter

Be solid on this before your trip. It’s not rocket science. Anybody can pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter with just a bit of effort.

  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. They are likely excellent.
  • Setup your shelter in the backyard, or nearby park/playing field a few times before you go. If you are backpacking with a partner do this together. You should be able to easily pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter in 3 to 5 minutes.
  • For a basic tarp, there’s no need to get fancy. An A-frame pitch between two trekking poles (or better, two trees) will work fine 95% of the time. In strong winds, pitch it lower to the ground and flatter.
  • Orient your shelter to the expected wind direction. Orient tarps with the narrower/rear end low and into the wind, pyramid shelters/tents with the door facing away from the wind.
  • In very strong winds, use the the additional tie-out points on your shelter.
  • Use sturdy Y-stakes. They have great holding power, and you can pound them into rocky ground. Always carry 1-2 spare stakes and a few hanks of spare cord.
  • Shelter cord adjusters can slip. Know a few basic knots and guyline management—a figure 8 loop at the end of a line; a girth hitch and a trucker’s hitch for guyline tension adjustment.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Safe, well protected, warm and dry at 11,000 feet in a 1.5 pound pyramid shelter: We are above tree-line so it was really important to properly pitch our shelter and use lots of sturdy Y-stakes. In this case we used 8 stakes. (And had the option to put in 4 more if needed.)

camping skill 3 – Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s really cold.

  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. You get cold quickly, and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or even after you been walking for a few minutes.
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Late winter conditions, windy and in the 20s on the Appalachian trail: I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. My entire pack for 100 miles including food and water is only 10 pounds.

camping skill 4 – Clothing Adjustments

  • Put on just enough clothing to keep you warm when moving. Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness.
  • Only add warmer clothing when you can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
    Note: I have a lot of experience staying warm and comfortable into the 20’s F when hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer), a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. [Although my warm down jacket comes out mightily fast at stops!]
Caption: Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place—especially your down bag, and down jacket. A Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams combined with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks is a great way to keep your gear truly dry.

Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. Good stuff sacks for your down sleeping bag and jacket are important, along with a waterproof pack liner, or better yet a waterproof pack.

camping skill 5 – Keep your Gear Dry

The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. This means putting on your rainwear before you get wet. Not sweating out your clothes with perspiration while hiking. And keeping the gear in your pack dry (especially your down bag, and down jacket).

  • Pack contents dry: A trash compactor bag inside your pack is lighter and works considerably better than a pack rain-cover. Inside that, put your down bag, and down jacket in their own waterproof or highly-water-resistant stuff sacks. Even better but more expensive, get a Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams along with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks. This is a great way to keep your gear truly dry and is less complicated and time consuming that pack rain-covers or liners.
  • You and your clothing dry: And finally, even tho it seems obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack (I like the large rear pocket) so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain.
  • Don’t sweat out in your rainwear: Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.

Reason 2 – Take Light Gear Appropriate for the Conditions

I am going to be blunt. Some gear is outright better than other gear. My ultralight gear, by almost every measure, outperforms the similar conventional (heavy) gear recommended by “trusted experts.” Look through my 5 Pound Ultralight Gear List and 9 Pound Light weight Gear List (full comfort) for what I think is the best lightweight and ultralight gear on the market.

light gear 1 – Use a weather report to help you select the right gear

  • Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or less, a good weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out.
  • This will let you pack a shelter, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions.
  • It will also deter you from taking fear-based, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, a +10F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  • For short term forecasts, the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate. The best weather app for your smartphone is Weather Underground: Custom Forecast & Local Radar App.
  • For longer term gear planning there is historical average weather Data on Accuweather which will help you intelligently select gear months before your trip.

to-overlook

light gear 2 – Your tent doesn’t keep you warm

  • The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
  • Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
  • What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. So…

light gear 3 – Get a good down jacket and a down quilt (or sleeping bag)

  • Down is the best and most weight efficient way to stay warm. At a minimum get a good down quilt (or sleeping bag and a down jacket.
  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t do a good job of keeping me warm. New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.
  • The only advantage to synthetics is price, and then only in the short term. In the long term I find they usually lose loft after less than a season of use. This makes them a poor long term value. A good down bag will easily last 5 to 10 years.
  • And make no mistake, a wet synthetic sleeping bag or jacket is no joy! Keeping your gear dry is a better strategy for both down and synthetic gear.
  • Bring a sleeping bag for the average temp: I bring a sleeping bag (or quilt) rated for the average expected low temperature for the area and time of year I am backpacking. If I get a period of unexpectedly cold weather (it happens), I supplement my sleeping bag with my fleece mid-layer, down jacket, warm hat (and down pants and booties if I have them).
caption

This luxuriously puffy, one-pound, +20F down quilt is warmer and almost 1/3 the weight of a +32 synthetic “conventional” sleeping bag. And make no mistake: a wet synthetic sleeping bag is not warm or fun! Plan A should always be to keep your quilt/bag dry in the first place.

light gear 4 – Extra shirts, pants and base-layers are a poor choice to stay warm

  • Your money and gear weight is better spent on buying a warmer down bag and jacket. Or even down pants, down hat and down booties. All of these are far warmer per ounce than extra shirts, pants, and base-layers.
  • And you only need one 6-10 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

light gear 5 – A tarp or pyramid shelter may be drier than a tent

  • The small, confined, and less ventilated area inside a tent can be wetter than a larger (and much lighter) pyramid shelter or tarp. This is also a recommendation to buy the larger tarp or pyramid shelter. For just a little more weight you get a lot more living space!
  • Condensation is a big problem in small tents. It’s very easy to get your gear wet from the high humidity inside. In tight quarters it’s almost impossible not to brush your sleeping bag or down jacket against condensing tent walls. And if you happen to get into the tent with wet gear it is unlikely to dry in the humid climate.
  • In contrast, a tarp or pyramid shelter might have twice the room & be better ventilated & less humid.
  • And if you’re stuck in the shelter for an extended period of time, you’ll welcome the larger and less constricted living area of a large tarp or pyramid shelter. During long rains, small backpacking tents become more like coffins than dwellings!

light gear 6 – Finally, resist the temptation to take extra/backup gear

  • This is the time to trust yourself, your gear and your camping skills!
  • If you’ve carefully selected the right gear, and researched trail conditions and the weather… then there should be little reason to bring “backup clothes or equipment.”
  • Not bringing unneeded gear, is the easiest way to save weight and money.

Reason 3 – Pack Nutritious High-calorie Food

food 1 – Take high calorie food and save food weight

You can save a lot of weight and even money by selecting the right backpacking food. My nutritious and high calorie Backpacking Food gives me 3,000 tasty, healthful and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and as much nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying almost double the food weight. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly

trip-food

The right food will keep you well-fed and save you 5 pounds or more of food on a trip vs. a typical backpacker’s food.

food 2 – Maintain nutrition

Try to get the most calories per unit weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balanced diet with good protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and other nutrients.

  • I take healthy homemade meals, unsweetened, unsulfured dried fruit, freeze dried vegetables, nuts, homemade gorp, whole grain crackers, whole grain pasta, healthier-higher-calorie trail bars, and lean jerky and powdered milk and powdered soy for my protein.
Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

A nutritious dinner in the Alaska Range near Denali.

food 3 – Don’t carry extra food

The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is hooey. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. Of course, I am not recommending going without food, just saying that you can live if you end up short on food. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe you will just bring a bit less extra food next trip.

food 4 – “Skip” one day of food

I eat a big breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a big meal when I get out. By boosting my off-trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack.

food 5 – Drink when thirsty and carry less water

  • Drink to Thirst: I carry only the water I need to meet my thirst. When I drink to thirst I rarely carry more than a liter, and usually a lot less.
  • “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated,” are myths. My article The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty is based on the current best science (from experts in the field of sports hydration not beholden to sports drink and bottled water companies). It suggests that “drinking to thirst” is the safest and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.

Conclusion

People pack heavy, because they pack for their fears—for their wildly imagined “what if the worst happens scenarios.” Rather than relying on their camping skills (which should be more than adequate) and the predicted weather and conditions for their hike, they choose to overcompensate for their fears by packing heavy, over-kill gear, extra clothes, extra food etc. But heavy packing doesn’t make you all that much safer, warmer, well fed or comfortable. It just makes your pack heavy and walking slow and unpleasant.

Put a little faith in yourself and your gear and go lighter!

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By | 2017-05-19T01:54:26+00:00 July 26th, 2016|Beginners, Skills|11 Comments

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11 Comments

  1. Nick July 27, 2016 at 11:52 pm - Reply

    Great post I couldn’t agree more with you, people especially those new to backpacking tend to actually sit and think of all the things they should bring for that “what if” scenario. I think it’s such a terrible feeling unpacking at the end of a trip pulling out an item and thinking: I didn’t use this at all! You seem to be a really big fan of tarp shelters and I can see the appeal. Personally I much prefer sleeping out in the open and not even bothering with my tent. My question is have you ever run into issues with bugs? Sometimes that mosquito netting is the greatest invention man has ever come up with!

    • Alan Dixon July 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm - Reply

      Yes Nick, sometimes like summer solstice in Alaska there are a lot of mosquitoes. And yes, at those times mosquito netting or even a light shelter like a 2 lb TarpTent are welcome additions to your kit. But for the most part, “bad” mosquitoes are more of a fear based thing than on-the-ground realty. At least for me, it takes more than a few mosquitoes to ruin my zen.

      And there are a number of things to you can do to mitigate moderate mosquito pressure. Like go at a time of year when the pressure is not heavy, and don’t camp in windless and/or swampy areas where they are present. Good campsite selection will go a long way to lowering mosquito pressure. Even in Alaska, at summer solstice, we spent most of our time outside without mosquito netting over our heads–even sitting around at camp cooking dinner with bare feet, face and hands. This was usually up on a bluff or higher area with at least a slight breeze.

      And finally, even when present, mosquito pressure usually settles down significantly after dark. This is especially true for places like the High Sierra which have a big temperature drop at night. That usually shuts them down. But this even happens in the Everglades of Florida which do not have as big a temp drop. YMMV.

  2. Mike July 28, 2016 at 4:52 am - Reply

    Outstandingly thorough post! Thanks so much for sharing. I’ll definitely be taking my time to go through all the great information here. Appreciate you taking the time to put this all together.

  3. Gill Wainwright July 28, 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Some good points, however in Australia, most of our trees are gum trees (eucalypts) which are notorious for dropping branches and so it is not recommended to camp beneath them if at all possible.

    • Troy May 13, 2017 at 11:03 am - Reply

      My thoughts exactly.

      And in some areas we have pine plantation forests, but shallow rooted radiata pine trees love to tip over with a moderate wind after god rain.

      Having used bivys, tarps with garbage bag floors etc, I’m sold on my Zpacs Duplex, under 700grams with carbon poles and stakes. Great ventilation, bath tub floor, 2 good sized vestibules and easily pitched in 2 minutes. Beats a bivy and/or tarp in my opinion.

  4. Mark Langley August 4, 2016 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    I actually love a pyramid-style shelter (as opposed to a tent) most in the snow. You can dig the floor out at the entry which creates a cold sink and provides additional height, a place to sit to put on boots, etc. And you don’t need netting when you don’t have bugs.

    I would also add that even if you are not going ultralight, shaving a few pounds on the core camping equipment allows for including some luxuries (special foods and beverages, camera gear, book, game, camp chair, etc.) that make trips more comfortable and enjoyable.

  5. Brandon D September 22, 2016 at 2:34 am - Reply

    I’m fairly new to back packing, I absolutely had the “fear” packing mentality; however after reading your article I have changed my approach for preparing for my next trip in the back-country. We are not only conquering the mountain, but conquering ourselves. Thank you for the enlightenment and work you have put into this site. Cheers!

  6. Michael F October 9, 2016 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Cold I can deal with. Wet, too. But bugs, man. Please talk about AT sleep systems that best deal with insects.

    Thanks.

  7. Sophie August 24, 2017 at 10:24 am - Reply

    I’ve found staying warm while camping is the most difficult thing for me when it comes to packing light. I’ll have to try your 6-10 ounce wool garment tip.

    • Alan Dixon August 24, 2017 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Glad you liked the post Sophie. As to staying warm in camp AND packing light. The true answer is down and lots of it. My wife Alison runs cold and this is what does the trick for her. Here’s to staying warm and cozy in camp. Warmest, -alan

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