Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Going Ultralight

Stripped Down Ultralight Backcountry Travel, By Mike St. Pierre

going Ultralight doesn't mean freezing your butt off or starving
Going ultralight doesn’t mean freezing your butt off or starving.

People new to thru hiking and backpacking often don’t realize they need far less than what they think or what their local big box outdoor store salesperson tells them they need. They base what they bring on their fears. Don’t fall into this trap. Understanding what you need is the secret to knowing what you don’t. You absolutely need something to sleep on, to sleep in and to sleep under. Plus you need insulating layers, waterproof layers, some kind of water treatment, a knife, a headlamp and the right kind of food at the right time. Anything else is gravy. I’m not saying you must leave your nonessential, favorite items behind; I simply recommend you strip down to the bare essentials, and then rebuild your list from there with your wants.

These are some common fears or questions we’ve heard over the years:

  • How warm is that tent?
  • I’d better bring 2 layers of fleece in case I get cold!
  • What if I don’t have enough food?
  • I need a stove to cook.

These fears are misplaced, and here’s why.

Staying Warm

You can be warm going ultralight
Freeze not!

You shouldn’t be asking how warm a tent is. It can add a few degrees of warmth, but that’s not a tent’s primary function. Your tent blocks you from the wind and rain. Neither will bringing two fleece jackets heat you up, especially wearing both means a tight fit. A puffy jacket will provide more warmth; air gaps between the down create an insulating layer that keeps the air next to your skin from cooling down. Layer on the fleece, and you’ll lose that insulating layer and actually get colder.

It’s all about conduction and convection. Convection is when wind blows heat away from the surface of your skin; conduction is when you’re sitting on a cold rock, and your heat ebbs away. Prevent convection by hanging in your tent, by wearing a down coat and/or by putting on rain gear. Plus, a breathable rain jacket may be thin, but it works windproof wonders by trapping heat in.

So buy your shelter based on how well it protects you from the elements. And leave the heavy layers at home, and get some light, high-quality insulating layers. Down jackets are easy to come by and really affordable if you do a bit of bargain hunting online.

You won't freeze if you go ultralight.
Graze all day.

Not starving
As with many other things, a stove is not a necessity. It won’t make or break your adventure in the outdoors. You can eat cold tuna out of a bag if you really want to go lighter. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t bring your stove; take it if you can’t live without your cuppa joe in the morning. Just understand you don’t need it; there’s a big difference between needs and wants. Stoves are a luxury; food is not.

Bring enough food, and make sure it contains enough calories to keep you going. I’ve noticed that many people underestimate the actual calories they are consuming each day, especially over multiple days; and this is problematic because you’ll start to slowly slip into bonking (and become that stereotypical emaciated thru-hiker). You burn between 2,000 and 4,500 calories per day, depending on how hard you are hiking. However, if you’re not climbing mountains on your thru hike, you probably need about 3,500 calories. For three-season conditions, this equates to about 1.5 pounds of food (2 pounds in the winter). Keep these tips in mind:

  • 1) Find light, calorie rich foods by looking at the ingredients and nutritional facts. I bring lots of bars, GORP and nuts, and I stuff these in the side pockets of my pack so I can grab them on the go.
  • 2) Salty versus sweet. The longer you’re out there, the more likely you’ll crave salty foods more often. I’ll put uncooked Stove Top stuffing in flour tortillas with a few other things for a salty, crunchy snack.
  • 3) Stay away from empty calories. I love chocolate as much as the next person, but I don’t rely on refined sugars. I get my sweet calories from dried fruits. Soak some dried fruit in your water to make a fruit drink.
  • 4) Eat fatty foods. I eat nuts all day, and for dinner I make noodles and fortify them with cheese or bacon bits. I also put butter in my hot chocolate or coffee. You can also bring full-fat dried milk products.
  • 5) Eat protein-rich foods at dinnertime. Your body has to work all night digesting hard proteins; so it’ll keep your furnace firing and provide you with nutrients to hit it hard the next day.
  • 6) Graze all day. Once I’m packed and ready to go, I don’t stop all day. I walk at an easy pace, and I graze all day. It’s hard to eat when you’re working all day, but not if you just chew a handful of food.
  • 7) Other recommendations: many hikers bring easy-to-cook grains and pulses, such as couscous, quinoa or instant rice or lentils.

All About Necessity
To me it’s about necessities; it’s about understanding what is truly important. You’re not going to leave anything you really need at home; you’re going to choose the right things that you really do need. I always plan for the potential worst conditions I might experience, but I plan practically and thoroughly. My trips have been successful because I put a load of work into the master plan, I create contingency plans, I watch the weather forecast for periods of time, and I read up on the terrain, climate, etc where I’m going. Remember the old Boy Scout adage, “Be Prepared.”