Ultralight

As you may have noticed I’m on a mission to find out how few material possessions I need to survive, and maintain a wholesome lifestyle. This will enable me to travel light and fast and have more fun adventures. Apart from my goose feather down clothing and the synthetic clothes which I wear cycling, this is everything I currently carry in my bag:

For an inventory list including the contents of my piano tuning kit please see my new page entitled Stuff, where I describe everything I need for this lifestyle and explain why certain ‘essentials’ got left out.

For a while now I’ve been travelling in the ‘ultralight’ category. Wikipedia gives a good intro to Ultralight Backpacking:

 

“Ultralight backpacking is a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest kit safely possible for a given trip.[1] Base pack weight (the weight of a backpack plus the gear inside, excluding consumables such as food, water, and fuel, which vary depending on the duration and style of trip) is reduced as much as safely possible, though reduction of the weight of consumables is also applied.

“The terms light and ultralight commonly refer to base pack weights below 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) respectively. In contrast traditional backpacking often results in base pack weights above 30 pounds (14 kg), and sometimes up to 60 pounds (27 kg) or more.

Enthusiasts of ultralight backpacking sometimes attempt super-ultralight backpacking (SUL) in which the base pack weight is below 5 pounds (2.3 kg) and extreme-ultralight backpacking (XUL) in which the base pack weight is below 3 pounds (1.4 kg).”

 

When I started cycle touring and living outdoors early last year I carried about eight kilograms of camping gear, clothing and piano tuning tools. 

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Over the next year, with some ruthless minimalism, I eventually halved my luggage. The biggest change was to ditch the little tent and sleep in a bivvy bag instead. For more about my first stage of enlightenement see the post entitled My Path to Enlightenment. The end result was one bag weighing about 4.5 kg, verging on the ultralight category: 

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Cycling was already much more fun – nippy and responsive. I was hooked, I had caught the ultralight bug, and was determined to learn how to travel as light as possible.

I was recently experimenting with a compression sack which is a bag with four straps that give you the leverage you need to compress your sleeping bag and clothes into a very small space.  After using it to squash my sleeping bag/mat/bivvy bag combo I was surprised when I managed to squeeze all my stuff into a 20 litre backpack, which is pictured below next to the bag I was carrying before.

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 I was delighted because I would like to do away with the rack and pannier I normally use. The Blackburn rack weighs 750 g and is useful for carrying heavy loads of up to 25 kg in up to three bags. The bright yellow Ortlieb pannier bag from Germany weighs 900 g and is waterproof, almost bulletproof. The bag and rack have been put through endless abuse, been ridiculously overloaded, and have made it through with flying colours. We’ve been on many adventures together.

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But the combination of bag and rack weighs 1.65 kg. 1.65 kg of equipment to carry less than 3 kg of luggage! If I could reduce the bulk of my belongings even more I could save a lot of weight by using an alternative carriage system. I experimented by taking the rack off my bike and trying to secure the backpack to my seatpost:

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This is the approach preferred by the bikepacking community – to travel light and effectively make the bike wear a backpack (bikepack) without resorting to heavy additions like pannier racks and the associated heavy bags. The above experiment didn’t work very well, it was a right fiddle to get the bungee straps to hold and with some rough riding it all fell out. I decided to get professional help, and bought myself a seat-post harness called The Tiger, hand made by Wildcat Gear in Brecon, Wales:

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It’s very tough and is a rock-solid way to attach a bag to your seatpost ready for some serious off-road riding. It was designed to hold an eight litre dry bag so I ordered one. At the time I thought I was going mad – I had somehow deluded myself into thinking that by the time the bag arrived I could somehow learn to travel so light that I could fit everything into a space of only eight litres! However it turned out to be a very useful delusion because I did manage to ditch some stuff from my pack, then exchanged the sleeping back for the down suit, and got a much smaller but much warmer mattress (on the right in the photo below):

A packed 183 cm Thermarest Prolite next to a packed 168 cm Thermarest Neo-Air Xtherm

If you get a bag that’s too small it’s surprising how quickly you can get rid of stuff. When I added a few extra items to the eight litre orange bag it wouldn’t close properly and weighed about 2.5 kg so it drooped a bit in the harness. I think I could solve this by packing it better and putting the heavier stuff nearest the seat post, but there remained the annoyance that every time I lock the bike up and walk off I have to occupy one hand with my belongings – I’d rather have them on my back.

I think the seatpost harness is perfect for what it’s designed to do – to compliment a frame bag and possibly a handlebar bag, both of which you can also get hand made by Wildcat Gear in Brecon. The heavier stuff goes in the frame bag to keep the centre of gravity low and central, whereas the lighter stuff can go in the saddle/seatpost bag and the handlebar bag. This is the classic bikepacking setup.

bikepacker's bike

Large panniers hanging on the side of racks can get caught on rocks and vegetation, and the heavy weight makes the bike feel sluggish and unresponsive. The bikepacking solution pictured above resolves this in two ways: firstly by travelling light and secondly by securing all the luggage to the bike in a way that centres the mass in the middle and doesn’t protrude out the sides. As a bonus it’s more aerodynamic than pannier bags that stick out the side. Altogether these advantages make off-road adventure more fun.

However I have one major problem with the classic bikepacking setup – theft. It’s alright leaving your stuff on your bike all the time up in the remote highlands, but you can’t do that in Central London – it will all get pinched in no time! Now that I’m moving from Urban Cycle Touring to Urban Bikepacking I need to find a simple way to have my bike carry the load while I’m riding it, but when I lock the bike up I want to be able to sling my possessions onto my back and walk into work or into a friend’s house without worry.

I had to chuckle when it dawned on me that the ultimate solution would take me back to my teenage years when I used to cycle up the hill to school every day; it seems I have come full circle. Back then I used to use a very basic backpack made by companies like Nike or Umbro, filled to exploding with textbooks, stationary and my packed lunch. Sometimes the shoulder straps would rip off. After many years of sweaty-back cycling I learned how to carry everything on a pannier rack on the back of my bike and I swore I’d never carry loads on my back ever again. It felt as liberating as independance day, that day when my faithful steed took all my burdens from me. But as my quest for a simple life progressed and my load got smaller and lighter, it would have been much easier to carry on my back, however my previous rejection of backpacks meant that I didn’t even consider that option.

That is until now, when I realised that my belongings have become so few, so small and so light that putting them on my back is no longer a burden. so I bought the Terra Nova Laser 20 pack, a twenty litre mountain marathon racer’s pack, designed by a company in Derbyshire and made in China.

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This is the same British company that designed the lightest tent in the world in which I had my first outdoors experiences. It’s a good tent.

A mountain marathon is an extended fell running race, typically starting at the beginning of the weekend and competitors have until the following day or perhaps even until the bank holiday Monday to reach the finish which is many miles away. They might be asked to check in at certain way points but apart from that they’re free to choose any route they want, sleeping and eating wherever and whenever they want to. They must carry all their food supplies with them. Consequently they are ruthless in their minimalism when it comes to deciding what to pack.

The Laser 20 pack was designed for this type of race, that’s why it’s water resistant, has multiple mesh and hip pockets and weighs a mere 328 g. Most importantly it’s designed with waist and sternum straps to hug the body in a secure fashion so that it doesn’t move around when you’re running around. This is ideal because until now when ever I wanted to go for a run I’ve had to hide my bag in some bushes or put it in a locker at the gym. With a mountain marathon runner’s pack and minimal possessions I’ll be able to carry all my valuables with me and continue running without a worry for as long as I like.

Although I almost managed to squeeze everything into an eight litre bag, I much prefer having twenty litres capacity because this is easier to pack and it gives my down clothing space to loft out a bit. Here’s a picture of my new pack next to the old one:

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So from aged eight to aged thirty years old I’ve come full circle – from light backpack, to heavy backpack, to trailer, to rack and two panniers, to rack and one pannier, and finally my load has gotten so light that I’m using a little backpack again.

It’s immensely convenient to just hop on and off the bike without having to unload anything and I keep both hands free wherever I go. It’s also useful to have both hands for climbing onto roofs to sleep. These advantages more than make up for a slightly sweaty back after some hard riding, and the mesh spacing on the pack goes some way to allowing a little ventilation. If it were much heavier it would quickly become tiring to lug around, but the pack is so light and designed to fit me so well that it almost feels a part of me and I forget it’s there.

It weighs about 3 kg which puts me firmly in the ‘ultralight’ category, which I feel immensely pleased about. However I should not boast because I am cheating a little – in the city there’s so much ready-prepared food around that I’m not bothering to carry my cooking system. Most backpacking folk do carry this, and some form of shelter (a tarp usually being the lightest) – even including these things some of them still manage to travel ultralight.

I decided that my ultimate carriage system would include this ultralight backpack plus a frame bag. This is a frame bag made by Wildcat Gear:

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When I tour around the countryside I could carry stuff anywhere, but in the city I’ll keep anything of value, for example piano tuning tools and sleeping mat, in my backpack, then put anything less valuable like food and spare piano parts in the frame bag. That way if some selfish idiot sees my bike locked up on the street and decides to have a look inside the bag I won’t loose anything of value. The full wrap hook&loop (Velcro) will secure the bag firmly to the bicycle frame and make it difficult to remove. In this manner I can have a very minimal weight on my back with the freedom to lock my bike up and walk off without any hassle, and offload any non-valuable weight into the frame bag which will have at least fifteen litres capacity. This will keep the centre of gravity low and central and improve aerodynamics. As an added bonus I can advertise my piano tuning services on the side of the frame bag.

The frame bag will give me the carrying capacity to become more independent (read: more frugal and more environmentally friendly). This is because instead of breakfasting on a sandwich bought in Sainsbury’s or an English breakfast bought in a café, I can brew my own bowl of hot porridge with delicious Scottish oats. Not only does this healthy and nutritious meal only cost me fifteen pence, but it also costs very little to the environment. For example, most Sainsbury’s sandwiches contain a little palm oil and other exotic products, and the hot drink I buy from the café is heated using electrical energy generated by coal-fired power stations. Instead my porridge meal will be made of oats from up north and heated using a renewable fuel like bits of dead wood. I’ve done this before with my old BushBuddy stove but I will wait for the frame bag before I carry a stove again.

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After concluding the above I ordered a frame bag from Wildcat Gear. I was going to wait until I get my dream bike because frame bags start at £120 and they’re custom made to fit each bike frame exactly, therefore a frame bag for my current bike won’t fit my next bike. But I decided to go ahead anyway, reasoning that I’ll learn from the first frame bag and be more specific about the second one when I get a new bike next year. There’s no waste because I can give the frame bag away with the bike, one of my brothers or friends will use it.

I made a template out of cardboard:

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Before I scribbled on it and posted it to Wildcat Gear I presented some of my belongings to see how they would fit.

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There’s plenty of space in the extra-large frame of my ‘Mongoose Crossway 250′ hybrid, but realistically I think the frame bag will be reserved for foodstuffs, non-valuables, piano spares and SPD cycling shoes because in the city I’m on and off the bike all day so anything valuable should stay in my backpack.

I feel closer than ever to my dream touring setup – it has taken nearly two years of trial and error but I’ll reap the benefits for the rest of my life: long distance cycle touring so light and efficient that it feels like a bike ride completely free of burden.

In the meantime I’m enjoying travelling possibly lighter than I ever will because I’m not carrying food or cooking equipment – I’m dependant on what I buy in the city. Although perhaps not the cheapest nor the most environmentally friendly way, it is probably the most convenient, since all I need is a little backpack and I can eat and drink in cafés and restaurants. I’ve got plenty of work so there’s no need to count the pennies. For the time being I’m just enjoying cycling around London with no physical burdens.

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My next goal is quite easy to quantify – I currently travel in the ‘ultralight’, sub-10 lb (4.5 kg) category so my objective is to make my load lighter until I’m in the ‘super-ultralight’, sub 5 lb (2.3 kg) category. I currently carry about 3 kg sans cooking equipment or shelter.

(Is it a blessing or a curse to live in the United Kingdom where we can’t decide whether to use metric or imperial measurements? My friend who studies biochemistry at Imperial College in London says that they have two drinking holes in the student’s union: a nightclub called ‘Metric’ and a bar called ’568′ – which is one imperial pint measured in metric millilitres!)

I suspect that most of the folk on internet forums who claim to be super-ultralight backpackers don’t live outdoors permanently – they’re only super-ultralight for a few days at a time. So if I manage to pull it off, if I manage to travel ‘super-ultralight’ in my state of perpetual nomadism I’ll be well chuffed.

As for the ‘extreme ultralight’, sub-3 lb (1.4 kg) category, well that’s just ridiculous… surely that must be a category limited to Summer overnighters? But then that’s what I thought about ‘super-ultralight’ until recently, because now I’m almost there… My friend Scott has witnessed me arrive with ever-smaller bags – he jokes that one day I’ll show up with nothing but a Swiss army knife! But I’m no survival expert, I’m just an urban cycle touring piano tuner…

Of course I can throw these figures around but they don’t include the weight of my faithful steed, my trusty not rusty aluminium bicycle. It weighs 14 kg (30.8 lb, or 32 lb including the mud it has accrued), but my next bike will hopefully weigh under 9 kg (19.8 lb). So another aim of mine is that in the future my bike plus all my possessions weigh less than my bike does now on it’s own. I currently carry only 3 kg of stuff so with a 9 kg bike that should be easy.

And finally there’s my own body weight to deal with. When I stand on one of those smart (a bit too smart!) weighing scales at the gym it tells me that a 188 cm male like me weighing 94 kg is in the amber band of healthy BMI – admittedly I could loose a few pounds around my middle. It’s so easy to spend hours pouring over the exact weight of my gear and discussing it on the internet when I could just go outdoors and ride or hike or swim a bit more and shave a lot more weight off my load by loosing some body fat, and as a bonus gain some extra muscle mass to put a spring in my step.

If this all sounds a bit ridiculous to you, permit me to demonstrate how it can make a big difference to cycle touring. When I started cycle touring last year the combination of bike + rider + gear was about 120 kg (264 lb). Now it’s 112 and if I combine a new bike with me loosing a further 5 kg body weight I’m looking at a total of around 100 kg (220 lb). This means that, compared to my original state, I’ll be 16% faster in accelleration and 16% faster up the hills on my bike, for the same amount of expended energy, not to mention the increased ease of lifting my bike over random obstacles.

Ultimately I see this period as a time of stripping right back to the bare essentials, a valuable exercise that I need to do at least once in my lifetime. Then, when I’m satisfied that life cannot get any more simple, I’ll consider adding certain items, complications, commitments and the like, but only after considering carefully whether the cost in time, money, and effort is worth it when weighed against the benefit or potential acheivement.

15 thoughts on “Ultralight

  1. It is fascinating to see this new setup. Well done. I’ve been wondering lately if I could fit a light camping load into a French-style handlebar bag with a quick-release decaleur. Have you considered these in your research? See here for an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30468375@N08/5383604315/in/photostream/

    The bags have a mechanism that holds it firmly on a very light rack but can be lifted straight off in an upward motion to take away with you (you do not strap them to your handlebars). They usually have a shoulder strap for carrying. A bag like this with the tiny front rack would weigh more than your current setup but one of the advantages is that you can access the contents while riding. They also include a clear mapcase on top so you can read a map while riding. This might be useful if you find yourself in an unknown region with a dead phone. These are the bags used by many randonneurs who ride hundreds of kilometres with minimal supplies (mostly bike tools and food).

    The advantages would be more noticeable on a long tour than in your routine travels through London, I suspect.

    During the summer months would your down clothing take up less space than a summer-weight sleeping bag?

    • I like your style ;-)
      Just a small story for you….
      About 15 years back I bought a “tent” which was actually not much more than a very large biwak bag. The clue was, you put your bike INSIDE the tent and as soon as you apply tension on the ropes outside the tent the bike was secured standing upright.
      This gave enough space inside the tent for two people (one person sleeping at each side of the bike) and two small 20l backpacks.

      The tent was weighting 866gr. including alloy nails and carrybag. The carrybag was equiped with velcro tape to secure the tent at the handlebar which worked very well on a roadbike.

      Unfortunately I don’t remeber the brand of the tent but if you are interested maybe Google knows….

  2. Another thought Richard have you explored Warmshowers, you possibly could register using your parents address or willing friend. Then put yourself down as un available, which is what I did for years!
    MikeG

      • No Warmshowers is a not for profit organisation of cyclist. Who on a reciprocal basis offer help and assistance , from a bed for the night, food,somewhere safe to store your bikeAnd sometimes food, look it up on Facebook and or Google it. I understand the title is a bit ??. But used wisely it allows for a lot of help and assistance!

          • Sorry I was distracted when trying to write that last comment – I meant that I’d feel a bit cheeky registering with WarmShowers when I have no warm shower to offer anyone in exchange.

            I think it works for people who have a house and leave it to go on cycle touring holidays but not sure about people like me who are cycle touring as a way of life.

            My second thought was that one day when I’m older there’s a possibility that I might have settled and therefore have a warm shower to offer to make up for years of using other people’s showers.

            Do you have to book these warm showers in advance? Do you have to promise to show up on a particular date? With my super-flexible schedule that would be a real deal-breaker…

          • Yes out of courtesy you make a specific date, what I meant was when you start to spread your horizons, it would help. It gives you a bed, a shower and often food, from people who of similar mindset.
            The cheeky side, you register with known address but show yourself as travelling so un available, when you get to that point in your life when you have a roof over your head (settled down). You reciprocate all of the kindness that has been shown you! This is a totally accepted use of the system, lots of travelling cyclists travel on this basis.
            Another option would be Couchsurf.
            Both are rather like using friends or family, but maybe in places you want to be.
            Also if used around London and the suburbs would give you another option!
            All of which allows less kit to carry!

            Just thoughts

            MikeG

          • Thanks! I want to become self-sufficient, but will certainly keep this in mind in the long run.

            I run into so many nice people cycle touring, and have friends to visit, who invite me to stay, so that I often appreciate spending evenings alone for some thinking time to take in everything I’ve experienced. I guess I’ve never been alone in my life so it still feels like a privilege, and at a time when I’m mulling over so many of life’s big questions.

            I also have a major issue with making appointments and fixing a schedule when cycle touring, which might be necessary when depending on other people like with WarmShowers. For me it takes away half of the fun; the beauty of being self sufficient is that if I’m tired or the weather has broken I can just bed down anywhere and continue the next day. I hate being in a hurry especially when it’s raining.

          • Bear in mind with Warmshowers, they are fellow cyclists who understand that things can change (wind,mech breakdown or just tired), so as long as they are told, they will understand and may even be able to offer another night. Thus giving you another option!

            MikeG

  3. I’m with you on hating schedules (part of my life to long), travelling light, option of Warmshowers ( as back up ). My preferred way to travel. I love to cycle along until I’m ready to rest or sleep, eating when I feel the need.
    Though cycling as a pair does leed to some planning required!

  4. Possible thought on travelling light is to reduce the biggest mass You ?
    There is blog of an ultralight cyclist who goes a long way toward your goal. Think he is Russian or something from that area!

    • Good point, I weigh five times more than my bike and gear combined, and my weight is carried high up when cycling.

      Fortunately I don’t have to do anything about it, just continue cycle touring and learn to restrict myself to responsibly sourced food (e.g. no palm oil) – this naturally lends to a much leaner physique.

      • And cut out the fry ups at your favourite cafe eh!
        There is a theory that grazing is better than three square meals. Which is how I tour, a good breakfast, followed by frequent snacks of fruit and nuts through the day. With a reasonable evening meal based around carbs. Our trip to France and Belgium allowed me to reduce my mass to 70kg, though sadly this has crept back up despite biking regularly and three trips to the gym. Clearly taking more in than burning. Oh dear, come 2013 he he.

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