Multipurpose Items Are the Key to Lightweight Backpacking

Are you trying to figure out how to cram everything into your pack without making it so heavy that you can’t walk more than a few steps? Check out these tips from Mark Crews, the co-owner of Apex Outdoor Gear in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was recently featured in an article in the Outdoors section of the Grand Rapids Press. I think even seasoned, veteran backpackers will find some helpful ideas here.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I tend to be swayed by high-tech, newfangled, lightweight gadgets with some hefty price tags. Mark points out that the most lightweight items aren’t necessarily the most expensive ones – valuable advice that I need to keep in mind. Even those trusty Nalgene water bottles that I throw into my pack without questioning could be replaced with a lighter and virtually no-cost soda bottle.


I’m not quite ready to take all the advice that he’s doling out (Using a bandana as toilet paper? No thank you!), but his remarks on compression backpacks, stuffsacks, and knives are words of wisdom.

He also takes a balanced approach and recognizes that backpacking is supposed to be fun, and hence it makes sense to bring along a few luxury items, such as chocolate and beef jerky, even if they do add a few ounces to the weight of your pack.

And the one gem of the article? Crew says that when your trek ends, you should “divide items systematically into three categories: always used, never used and sometimes used.” That makes a lot of sense to me, since you can use this info to pack more quickly and easily for your next trip.

Board Sports on Steroids

This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time, the perfect toy for anyone who loves snowboarding, skateboarding, or off-roading adventures. Motor-powered vehicles don’t get any lighter than this.


Scarpar, an Australian company, is trying to develop “the next powersports vehicle category.” Based on the videos of the prototype, I’d say they’re well on their way. This board has a powerful 6-horsepower, 80cc engine that lets you cruise over snow, sand, grass, gravel, or just about any other off-road surface except water. It can go uphill or downhill, and even navigate logs that lie across the path. A handheld controller handles acceleration and braking, and it will be able to go about 20 miles on a single tank.


The device is still being developed, so you can’t buy it yet, but their engineers estimate it will cost somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000. They think it will be available sometime in 2010, although they’re having trouble raising enough capital to really stay on schedule. If you’re interested in learning more, check out their forum or sign up to receive updates via email.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this toy. I just hope they’ll make it light enough to strap on your back for some serious outdoor adventures. Right now, the engineers are saying it will be a little too heavy for that, and that they’re focusing on safety and reliability more than weight. But they still have a year to fiddle with making it more lightweight, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Hubba Hubba – The Best Tent Ever

Recently a friend recommended that I check out the MSR Mutha Hubba. “The wha-a-t?” I asked him. He told me it’s the absolute best tent he’s ever used. The cool design intrigued me, so I decided to find out more… and “hubba hubba,” he was right.


This tent is really easy to set up – and quick, which is a huge advantage when storm clouds are moving in, threatening to drench you and all your gear. It’s great for areas where it rains all the time, because you can easily keep the tent dry. Unlike many other tents, with this one you can set up the fly first, and then put up the tent underneath it, so your tent never gets wet. Most other designs expose your tent to the elements for at least a few minutes, since you normally have to set up the tent first and then pull the protective fly over it. And as anyone who’s ever had to sleep in a mold- or mildew-ridden tent knows, a dry tent makes for a better outdoor experience.


This tent weighs in at just under seven pounds, yet it has enough room for three people inside. It also has two entrances and two large areas just outside the door once the flap is down. You can use that space to store all the things you’ve brought along, keeping the sleeping area clean and neat.

And if you don’t believe me, note that Backpacker Magazine gave this tent one of its 15 Editor’s Choice Awards in 2006 – valuable testimony if you don’t plan to test all the tents in the marketplace. This one’s a winner.

How Lightweight Can a Sandal Be?

When I go hiking or backpacking in the fall or early spring, my trusty hiking boots are all the footwear I need. But as the warmer summer months approach, I’ve started to think about taking a pair of lightweight sandals along. I want a good water sandal that will let me splash in the streams without cutting my feet on the rocks, and also something that will be comfortable enough to walk around camp in the evening without having to trudge around in heavy boots.


Most of the water-sport sandals I’ve looked at are too heavy to pass the test when I’m trying to figure out which items deserve a space in my already-overloaded pack. Then I found the Aruba sandal made by Waldies. It has a funky design and is available in twelve different colors. But the best part is that they’re super light, weighing in at only 7.1 ounces for the pair. They’ve got good traction on the bottom and some nubby little pieces on the sole of the food for a gentle massage and stimulation for your circulation. Not bad for $34.95 plus shipping.


The only downside is that they don’t have a strap around the back of the ankle, so I don’t know how well they’ll stay put if I use them for crossing a stream. But the fit is pretty snug, so as long as I stay away from fast-moving waters, they’ll probably work out pretty well.

And for those urbanpackers out there… this could be a handy alternative for flip-flops when you’re sharing showers at low-budget hostals. A must-have for anyone who’s squeamish about foot fungi.

Just Add Water, then Bon Appetit!

There’s nothing like a long day of hiking to work up an appetite, so it makes sense to put a lot of thought into the types of foods that you’re going to bring along in your pack. Obviously you don’t want something that will weigh you down, but it has to be packed with energy, healthy, and nutritious – and of course it would be nice if it tasted good, too.

Fortunately, many companies make dehydrated foods that are specifically designed for throwing into a pack and enjoying in the great outdoors. If just-add-water instructions make you think of flavorless, mushy instant oatmeal, never fear – the dehydrated foods available these days are a far cry from what they were in the past.


There are a lot of brands of dehydrated food, so you’ll want to do your own taste-testing to find the one that’s best for you. Personally, I like the ones made by Pack Lite Foods. These are 100% vegetarian meals with decent portion sizes, no preservatives, and great flavor.

Here was my menu on a recent day-long hike:

  • Breakfast: Wilderness Granola with Milk (the milk is already in the bag in powder form – just add water and a handful of fresh berries if they’re growing along the trail)
  • Lunch: South o’ the Border Chili, with lots of high-protein beans, fresh veggies, and just the right kick of spiciness
  • Dinner: Will’s Wild Rice Dinner, chock full of vegetables and cranberries smothered in a creamy sauce

Dehydrated foods can get expensive, with a dinner selling for $4.75, but the feeling of having a full belly at the end of a long day is definitely worth it. And it’s nice to know that you’re giving your body the fuel it needs without all the extra salt and fatty meats that many other brands add to their dehydrated foods.

What about you? Have you found a favorite brand of dehydrated foods? Let everyone know which ones you think taste best and offer the best value.

The Joys of Shared Bathrooms in Hostels

Whenever budget-minded travelers get together, the conversation inevitably turns to hostels and the desperate measures we’ll take to save a few bucks on our travel accommodations. Hostels are great for the pocketbook, but not so wonderful in some other respects.

You know what I’m talking about. You want to save money, so you opt for a hostel that has a shared bathroom, even though the lack of privacy makes you a bit squeamish. When it’s time to take a shower, you have two choices. You can try to get dressed inside the shower stall, even though the clothes always get wet no matter how carefully you shower, either from splashing water or because other lodgers have already soaked every possible surface. The other option is to wrap yourself in a ridiculously small, threadbare towel and run through the hall back to your little room, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the other guests who are smirking at you.

Of course, there is a better way – use a bathrobe. But a terrycloth bathroom is a bulky, heavy luxury when you’re trying to live out of a single backpack for several weeks or months, so I’ve always done without – until now. I recently found this lightweight travel robe that’s full size, but weighs only one pound and packs down pretty small, perfect for urbanpacking. And it’s made of micro-fleece, so it will keep you cozy, warm, and wrinkle-free.


And if my testimonial isn’t enough to convince you, note that the Wall Street Journal called it “Best Overall.” Granted, the Wall Street Journal writers are probably using it in the comfort of a private hotel suite instead of a hostel full of peering strangers, but it’s nice to know that they like it nevertheless.

I’m not sure the $69.95 price tag is entirely justified, but I guess it all comes down to just how much you hate getting dressed in shared hostel bathrooms. As for me, I think it’s worth it.

Binoculars That Are Worth a Second Look

I’ve been looking for the perfect pair of binoculars. You know, the perfect pair that will let me zoom in on a fast-moving bird, take in panoramic landscapes, and not weigh a ton. Turns out, there’s no such thing as the perfect pair of binoculars. As with everything else in life, choosing binoculars is an exercise in trade-offs, balancing quality, size, price, and durability. I haven’t made a final decision yet, but here are the ones that have really captured my attention so far.


This Pentax 8×21 UCF R is a standard, inexpensive pocket binocular that should meet most needs. And at only 7.1 ounzes, it will certainly be easy to carry around.

Here’s another pair of compact binoculars that would be good for carrying into the great outdoors: the Tasco Essentials 8×21 Binocular. It’s even a little more lightweight than the first one, weighing in at just 6.5 ounces.


If you’re looking for the ultimate option in terms of portability, the Sun Company 5 in 1 Pocket Binocular is great, because it folds down flat and weighs just 2.3 ounces. In addition to being a pair of binoculars, it is also has an LED light, a magnifying glass, a luminous compass, and a mirror. But with all that multi-tasking, I have to wonder whether it will really perform as well as more traditional binoculars.

If size, weight, and price were no obstacle, then I’d jump at the chance to buy the ATN Phantom IR Thermal Vision Binocular Thermal Vision Binocular. Of course, at more than $20,000, this is a bit beyond my budget. But just think of all the things you could see and do with this kind of night-vision capability!

And here’s another one that caught my eye: the ATN Night Shadow-3 Gen 3 5x Magnification, Night Vision Binocular. At “only” $3,000, it seems like a bargain compared to the last one, and it has a cool proximity sensor that turns the night vision on automatically.


Last but not least, check out the Brunton Echo Pocket Scope Monocular. This is a great tool for espionage, just 3.25″ x 1.25″ and 1.8 ounces.

Sea Otter’s Burning Man Bag

Burning Man Gear

Burning Man Gear

Seaotter22 psoted her core burning man gear. I thought it made a fabulous addition to the “Whats In The Bag” section. Burning Man is a unique event with unique needs. One fundamental component of Burning Man is “radical self reliance.” Here you will find people who want to survive and thrive in a relatively challenging environment. Everything you pack in, you must back out. The event is “leave no trace”, meaning the group leaves absolutely nothing behind. Bring enough to survive, but bring nothing more than you’re willing to take responsibility for. Definitely a go lightweight event. Click the image above to explore all the items in the photo.

Nothing’s Worse than Wearing Wet Socks…

When backpacking, the weight of my pack is inversely correlated to my enjoyment of the trip. The heavier my pack is, the more tired and grouchy I become, complaining to my companions about my aching shoulders and quivering knees. So I’m always on the lookout for ways to lighten my load.

Of course, some things are simply necessities, either because we cannot survive without them (e.g., water and food), or because we make a conscious decision that we absolutely must have them. For me and many others, it boils down to having clean underwear and socks – one pair for each day we’ll be gone. That’s fine for a quick overnight trip, but if you’re planning a longer adventure, those extra undergarments can add a lot of bulk and weight to an already bulging pack.

Washing clothes along the trail or in a hostel bathroom is an obvious solution, but it doesn’t work so well in wetter climates. In humid, rainy areas, it’s virtually impossible to get those undergarments (and especially heavy socks) to dry overnight. And few things invite discomfort and blisters more than the squishy feeling of wearing wet socks inside your hiking boots, whether you’re enjoying the great outdoors or pounding the pavement in a foreign city.


Fortunately, new, quick-drying synthetic fabrics are a vast improvement over cotton and wool. The latest fabrics are easy to wash and dry in just a few hours, even when it’s cold and damp outside. And although I normally prefer good old-fashioned cotton for my tidy-whities, I must admit that the new lines of quick-dry undergarments are surprising comfortable. They never itch, snag, or tear – and these are all critically important if you’re bringing only one or two pairs for a long trip.


I haven’t tested all the products that are out there, but ExOfficio basics seem to be a great product line. They are a bit pricy, but you can save some money by taking advantage of sales (this one, 25% off, ends on March 31, 2009) or visiting the clearance section on the manufacturer’s website. You can also find a lot of quick-drying undergarments at bricks-and-mortar sporting goods stores.

A Tent, Jacket, and a Bag All in One

If you’ve ever marveled at how snails, turtles, and various marine species carry their homes on their back in a compact shell, then you’ll definitely appreciate this latest invention in self-sufficiency.


A young designer named Justin Gargasz recently unveiled the Vessel, which is a beautiful, creative, and innovative tent, jacket, and bag all in one.


First and foremost, the Vessel serves as a medium-weight jacket to protect you from the elements on a cool or wet day. The jacket is reversible, so you instantly have a jacket in two colors for those who are more fashion-conscious in their outdoor adventures. As the weather heats up, you can easily convert the jacket into a sling bag where the arms tie around your body so that you can keep your hands free.


But the coolest part of the Vessel is that when you’re ready to retire for the evening, the jacket magically transforms into a cocoon tent just large enough for one person. The body of the tent is mostly opaque, meaning that you can perceive light and hear and smell the great outdoors from within the confines of your cocoon. The door also has a one-inch mesh strip, letting you see what’s happening in the outside world.


Naturally, a tent that can be worn as a jacket will never really compete with a full-sized tent that you can carry on the bottom of your pack, but the designer has something else in mind. Although the tent could be used for camping, Justin recommends using it “whenever one feels the need to escape interactions in their present environment.”


He continues, “Individuals feel the need to escape interactions in their environment every day. Whether it be interactions with excessive technology or other people, this psychological and physical need to get away is where I began my investigation.”


In other words, if you’re traveling through downtown New York and begin to feel overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds, just take off your jacket, convert it into a tent, and you’ll have instant peace and solitude – just kidding, we don’t think that’s really the best use for the Vessel. But we do think you’ll enjoy owning one, considering all the benefits it has to offer for your next backpacking or urbanpacking adventure.