Saturday, May 11, 2013

Last month I joined a Sierra Club group on an overnight trip to
Hite Cove, outside Yosemite along the Merced River.
The wildflower displays were spectacular, and hikers
 brought varying amounts of equipment and conveniences
 (including salmon for dinner!) for the two day trip. 

Lighten up: MYOG*
 *Make your own gear

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel May 3, 2013

As I write this, hundreds of hikers are gathering at Lake Moreno, in the dry grasslands of east San Diego County, readying themselves for the hike of a lifetime. After a weekend of camaraderie, psyching up and final preparations, they will be shuttled south to the Mexican border to begin the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—a 2,663-mile-long trek that will take them all the way to Canada along the Sierra and Cascade ranges, with elevations ranging from sea-level to 13,153 feet. If they hike the entire trail in one year, they are deemed “thru-hikers”—a rare breed of human able to walk from dawn to dusk for up to six consecutive months with a loaded backpack, willing to suffer all the pains and deprivations inherent in the attempt.

Hiking the PCT takes months of planning and incredible dedication and stamina, and it’s estimated that only about 60% of those who attempt to thru-hike the PCT, actually succeed. For most of us, though, backpacking doesn’t need to be an extreme challenge to be satisfying. A week-long hike into the breathtaking splendors of the Sierras can provide durable memories. And even just a single night spent sleeping under the stars in the quiet wilderness can reawaken your senses and renew your spirit.

I recently began backpacking again after a 20-year child-rearing “vacation”—starting my first weekend hike with a 33-lb. pack—and, although I saw some beautiful backcountry and made some new friends, I quickly realized that my overall enjoyment of the experience had a direct correlation to the weight on my back. And so I began to learn from my fellow hikers and many backpacking resources (reinforced by my physical therapy co-pays) that carrying so much weight was old-school and counter-productive. They showed me not only how to find the lightest equipment, but more importantly, how to make it. By making your own gear, you’ll lighten your load, save money and backpack with gear that’s exactly right for you.

Ken Koval bought a sewing machine and became an adept
 gear designer, so he could make his own tarp tent, backpack,
 trekking poles and other customized backpacking equipment.
Step one: Bookmark these websites
1)  The most comprehensive website for making your own gear (MYOG), Makegear provides plans and instructions for making a variety of backpacks, shelters, stoves, sleeping systems, cookware and accessories.
2)  The place for raw materials, Questoutfitters sells fabric by the yard, down, foam, mesh, webbing, seam-sealer, fasteners, sewing supplies, replacement parts, patterns and instructions.
3)  An online magazine and forum for ultralight backpacking enthusiasts, Backpackinglight teaches you the basics and beyond, and provide lots of updates on trends, gear, techniques, and technology.

Step Two: Concentrate on The Big Three
The heaviest items on my back were the backpack, my sleeping bag/pad, and my tent, each of which weighed around 6 lbs. or more. Luckily, technology has provided new materials which allow dramatic reductions in the weight of “the big three” to around 2 lbs. each.

  1. The backpack
One way of reducing the weight of the backpack you already own is to perform surgery: cut out/off all the non-essentials, including the internal frame, and most belts, pockets, straps, stays, foam pads, webbing and cords. “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips” by Mike Clelland (a great book that will make you rethink the word “essential”) provides a diagram of what to remove, replace or modify and how to do it.

Another option is to sew a frameless pack, which is essentially a large sack made from lightweight fabric (ideally silnylon, Dyneema or Cuben Fiber) with shoulder straps. Your sleeping pad functions as an internal frame. For frameless backpack patterns, instructions and materials, see the Step 2 bookmarks,, or

Many ultralight backpackers use a floorless tarp, instead of a tent, which can be held up by two trekking poles and stretched tight with stakes. Most tarps cover a larger area than a tent and so keep all your gear out of the elements, and even allow cooking in wet weather. Fellow backpacker Doak Jones introduced me to tarps on a group hike in March through the backcountry of Henry Coe State Park.

  1. The tent
Most ultralight (UL) backpackers use a floorless tarp, instead of a tent, which can be held up by two trekking poles and stretched tight with stakes. Most tarps cover a larger area than a tent and so keep all your gear out of the elements, and even allow cooking in wet weather. For a simple or a more complex-shaped tarp, see the Step 2 bookmarks, the “projects” tab at, or Google “BlackCat Tarp” or “MYOG Tarp.”

  1. The Sleeping System
Unless cold temperatures are expected, many UL backpackers prefer to use a down quilt (which is like a sleeping bag without a zipper) and a bivy sack, which offer more flexibility and functionality than the sleeping bag/ground cover combo. The quilt keeps you warm, while the bivy sack is multi-purpose, with its waterproof bottom and breathable, water-resistant top. Besides keeping the quilt clean and dry, the bivy provides added warmth and is the stuff sack for the quilt. For instructions to make your own quilt, bivy, bag or hammock, see the Step 2 bookmarks or the “projects” tab at,, or

Backpacking in Henry Coe State Park,
Richard Roullard of Santa Cruz
rehydrates a homemade meal
using Esbit tabs for fuel.  He also
 uses a windscreen he made from flashing
that holds the pot above the flame. 
Step Three: Every Ounce Counts
Tip #16 of author Mike Clelland’s “153 amazing and inexpensive tips” is, “Never say ‘It’s only a couple of ounces.’” The ounces add up and if you’re serious about getting your pack lighter, a 2.4 oz. Cliff Bar won’t be on your checklist.  Here are a few more UL items easily made with online instructions, introduced to me by some local backpackers.

  1. Cooking stove: My JetBoil (1.44 lbs. with fuel) boils water quickly, but Richard Roullard saves a lot of weight by using Esbit tabs (.54 oz. per tab) which take slightly longer. Richard has fashioned his own ventilated windscreen from aluminum flashing, which also supports his cooking pot above the flame.  Richard also uses a piece of inexpensive Tyvek (retrieved from a construction site) as a ground cloth.

There are many versions of the Fancy Feast
 alcohol stove, and instructions for making
 them are plentiful on the Web. Ken Koval’s
 double-wall stove is light and efficient,
 and uses pieces of coat hanger wire to
 support the pot above the flame.

Ken Koval showed me another UL cooking option—a double-walled alcohol stove he made from a sample-size saving cream can, a Fancy Feast cat food can, and some wire.  Relying on denatured alcohol is good for long trips because it’s easy to store and refill along the way.

  1. Trekking poles and pot cozy: Ken has made some light, collapsible trekking poles from three sections of tent poles and pipe insulation covered in fabric for the grips. The points are salvaged from heavier trekking poles. A pot cozy saves on fuel by keeping your dinner hot while it simmers and rehydrates. Ken made his UL cozy from reflective insulation and metal FlexFix tape.

Ken Koval of Burlingame has developed some compact,
 lightweight meals that don’t require rehydrating or cooking,
  and so save on fuel, such as his spaghetti chips, barbecued
 chicken chips and kale chips. He says his chewy/crunchy kale chips are, “basically a smoothy with a little quinoa in it.”
  1.  Dried food: Ken Koval—a backpacker and member of a group of “trail angels” who provide a carb-loaded spaghetti dinner in June to PCT hikers in the Sierras—has also developed some compact, lightweight meals for his own use, that don’t require rehydrating or cooking, and so save on fuel. “It’s hard to get nutrition on the trail,” says Ken, “and I don’t want to pay all that money [for purchased backpack food].” With a food dehydrator he makes high-protein, low sodium kale chips (kale, quinoa, bananas, strawberries), spaghetti chips (Prego, ground, turkey and oatmeal) and barbecued chicken chips (chicken, sweet potatoes, grains, and barbeque sauce). “When I go on my trip in June I’m not going to be cooking spaghetti—I’m going to be eating spaghetti chips. I’m pretty happy with my spaghetti chips,” says Ken with a smile. “I nibble on these and they get better and better.”