The Prepper Journal

Six Lessons From the Ultralight Backpacking Movement

Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from Phillip Meeks.


I declared myself a backpacker in sixth grade. I bought an army surplus pack, a Sterno stove and a ten-dollar Rambo knife from the flea market. I subscribed to a magazine on the topic, checked out all the relevant books from the library and began the lifelong task of arming myself with the perfect array of gear. Back then, the conventional wisdom was to carry no more than one-fourth of my body weight on my back. By the time I hit 18, I was six-foot-four and thin as a rail, but I was still allowed a 45-pound pack, according to the standards of the day. And on a weekend outing, I could hit that goal easily with my external frame pack, my stainless steel cook-set and two changes of jeans.

Shift ahead a few years. I’m 50 pounds heavier and a father of three. I have a job that limits the number of weekends I have available for multi-day trips. And my knees aren’t what they used to be. I have no intentions of ever carrying a 45-pound pack again unless it’s entirely unavoidable. Fortunately, I stumbled across the ultralight backpacking movement a few years back, in which the name of that game was space-age materials, homemade gear and pack weights of fifteen pounds or less. That got my attention, and I jumped right in, trading my external frame pack for an internal frame, my tent for a tarp and my bulky sleeping back to a compressible down model. My core weight for those three items dropped from 14 pounds to 6. I learned to manage with a minimal selection of clothing and began to plan my meals precisely without a lot of waste.

The Osprey Atmos 65 AG is only 3.9 pounds.
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG is only 3.9 pounds.

September 2001 was a significant month for me. My first child was born on September 9, two days before the terrorist attacks. I was faced with the realization that security was my duty to my family, and my passion slowly began to shift from hiking and backpacking to preparedness. I still hit the trails often, but today I’m more apt to consider my time in the woods a chance to hone my skills and to teach my kids about water purification, hypothermia, fire-building and wild edibles and other bush-craft proficiency.

During this transition, I found that many of the changes I had made in going from conventional to ultralight backpacker were equally valuable lessons in my preparedness goals. Here are a few examples:

A few pounds can make a huge difference

When you test a 23-pound versus a 26-pound pack in the driveway, they may seem equal. But hike 15 miles over uneven terrain, and you’ll wish you’d packed dry pasta instead of canned chili. So, when investing in gear for your bug-out or get-home bag, consider titanium, down, sil-nylon and other lightweight materials. These tend to be more expensive, but you can take other weight-saving steps that aren’t as costly, such as making an alcohol stove from a cat food can or securing a piece of scrap Tyvek for an emergency shelter or ground cloth. Another common mistake is packing way too much food. It’s good to have one extra meal at the most (think one pack of ramen noodles), but don’t pack two weeks’ worth of food into a 72-hour kit. A better option for expanding food security would be to learn to forage for wild edibles or carry some basic fishing gear.

You don’t have to pack a lot of clothes for three days. In fact, you can get by with one pair of pants (and perhaps a pair of running shorts to cover your nakedness when the pants are drying). For socks, t-shirts and underwear, consider wearing one pair and packing one clean change. Clothes get surprisingly clean with just a vigorous rinsing in water. If you’ve selected fast-drying materials (read, no cotton), then everything you rinse before supper should be dry by morning.

The back-country is the ideal place to test yourself

The safety net is gone, and this makes it a bit more real. If you overcook your meal, you’ll have to eat it anyway. If you can’t manage to get the fire started, then there goes some of the evening’s comfort. If you haven’t made your bedding choices wisely, it could prove to be a long night. As for myself, I once decided to test the value of space blankets on an overnight trip, and I left my sleeping bag at home. It didn’t get terribly cold – just down to the mid-50s on the Fahrenheit scale – but that experience was enough to teach me that I’m never going to rely on just a space blanket again.

Time can be your most valuable resource, so plan accordingly

Of course, this isn’t always going to be possible during a bug-out, but when backpacking with a lighter payload, I’ve found that it’s much better to set up camp a couple of hours before sunset, rather than pushing things too closely to dark. You can select the tarp sites with the best drainage and get your water and fire fuel needs covered while you can still see and therefore preserve flashlight battery power. Likewise, you’ll always stay drier if you have the option to wait out a downpour instead of wading through it. Even the most expensive rain gear will soak you through condensation and sweat.

All items you carry should have more than one function

A cook pot can double as a means of scooping water out of a creek. A bandanna can be a pre-filter for water collection or an “oven” mitt. A poncho could also serve as a lean-to in a pinch. Doubling up on uses for your gear can help streamline the contents of your pack and may even save some cash.

Reducing weight is important, but a collateral benefit is the reduction in bulk

I was pleased when my pack weight dropped from 40 pounds to 25 (not ultralight by today’s standards, but a huge step in the right direction for me), but I was also happy with how streamlined my profile had become. No longer did I have to worry about my bulky, external frame pack bumping against rock ledges and fallen trees. My smaller pack conforms to my body much better, and this in turn permits me to do more off-trail bushwhacking.

List-making is an art

I know of no backpacker (or prepper, for that matter) who ever reaches a point where he or she says, “Yes, I’ve arrived. This is the perfect assortment of gear, skills and knowledge, and I never intend to modify anything.” Rather, it’s an ongoing period of trial and error. A notebook and pen can reduce the time it takes to get to that as-near-perfect-as-possible point in your life. Take notes on gear that works for you, as well as those things you’d prefer to trade in. Jot down some thoughts on menu choices. Did that particular dinner option fill you up? Was it easy to prepare, or did it require relatively too much fuel? Epiphanies come while you’re lying beneath your tarp at night, so use that time to write down gear you wish you had tossed into your pack.

Backpacking isn’t necessarily the same thing as bugging out. In an actual emergency, there could be a need for more weaponry or communications equipment. Maybe established trails wouldn’t be involved. And it most certainly won’t be a recreational experience. But a weekend backpacking trip is a good test – for you and your gear. There are many lessons that one can learn from the ultralight backpacking movement that will translate to the bug-out bag you keep in the trunk of your car.

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