Ultralight for littl'uns

You don't have to be a gear-obsessed Dad who saws his toothbrush in half to realise that when you're carrying three sets of everything the weight of your gear starts to become quite important, quite quickly....

 You essentially have two options:

1) Man/Woman Up and just console yourself with the fact that you won't be hiking far (unless you're taking toddlers on an Appalachian thru-hike, in which case, kudos); or 

2) Start thinking about "ultralight" gear and methods, or more realistically "slightly ultralight" as Sean from Oookworks puts it.  

At its simplest, the ultralight philosophy is a combination of taking less with you; relying more on your knowledge, experience and skills than on products; and using gear made from new lighter, (although often more expensive) materials. 

I have been shaving the grams off my pack-load steadily over the years, and although I've a long way to go compared to many, I have really enjoyed the outcome.  It is gratifyingly noticeable when your pack weighs half as much as it used to. Particularly so if you have back and knee issues, as I unfortunately do (too much fun has worn me out a bit).

With a lighter pack you find yourself chatting as you climb, enjoying the view, and only then notice you companion's head is down, tight lipped in effort.  It's like gaining a bit of extra fitness, without having to lock yourself in the gym!

It's important to point out that if you get too carried away it can become an expensive habit, and arguably an unnecessary one unless you're covering long distances and/or going up and down a lot of hills.  As noted above, though, when you're carrying a whole family's gear, any weight you save can be welcome.

Rather than suggesting you dive straight in, and replace everything you own with crinkly Cuben Fiber or shiny Titanium, I think it is well worth worth dipping a toe in the water: becoming aware of the lightweight gear available; starting to think harder about what's in your pack; and perhaps most importantly learning both what you can do without, and which pieces of your current gear can do double-service to save weight.  

One of my late father's favourite sayings was "any fool can be uncomfortable". He told stories from his days instructing at the Army Outward Bound school in Tywyn, and drummed two points home:

i) there is an undeniable value in bringing a few well-chosen luxuries along for the trip (e.g. a coffee pot to help you cope with over-excited boys at 6am, or a Kindle for when they've both passed out in hammocks by 6pm...); but

ii) you shouldn't underestimate the luxury of not having to carry on your back the same camping load that you would usually consign to the boot of your car, plus the several kilograms of "just-in-case" additional bits and bobs you threw in your pack in the last five minutes before leaving the house.

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The cornerstones of ultralight outdoor gear

  1. Start to think about what you're taking in "systems" (Sleeping, Shelter, Cooking etc.) and work on lightening each of those as a system, rather than item by item.
  2. Eliminate stuff that on reflection you can actually do without (some of these will almost certainly be the same things that you took with you on your last three trips and brought home again unused).
  3. Avoid the really tempting pocket-filling urge before you leave the house. 

While I'll give a few ideas or suggestions, it's you who will best know your comfort zone and the needs of your kids.  

So think of this mainly as a prompt to revisit some received ideas of what you need, and to think again about what would really make you happier when heading out with the kids to sleep on a hill. 

Without sacrificing comfort or safety, it's amazing how little you actually need, for an overnight #microadventure

It's hard to do the subject justice in one post, but for more detail read on below about the gear and systems we use.

Our gear reviews will also revisit the theme from time to time.

 

Stockists

Alpkit have good reliable, and often lightweight gear, with a helpful stock of all you need for an overnight Bivvy Adventure, on their aptly named "Bivvy Adventure" page.

backpackinglight.co.uk have a great section on "going lightweight" and of course plenty of gear to sell you, as do ultralightoutdoorgear.co.uk

 

Overall, I want to draw out that "ultralight" or "lightweight" gear and philosophy isn't just for people crossing Alaskan mountain ranges.  It has real benefit for families hoping to enjoy, rather than endure, adventures outdoors. 

The key thing is to understand what you're carrying, what it weighs, and why you really need it - you'll be surprised what you take but never use if you keep an eye on it!

And when "upgrade" time comes around, think light!

 

Post a comment below if you'd like to know more. 

 

 

 FURTHER READING - The systems and some gear recommendations

The key systems can be split into:

  1. Shelter system
  2. Sleeping system
  3. Cooking system
  4. Clothing
  5. Carrying (rucksack)
  6. Other crap you may or may not actually need.  

 

Shelter

Probably the most obvious, but what are you sleeping in or under?  This is very much down to personal choice, but the key point I'd like to make is that for a short trip or #microadventure, you simply don't need a large (or even small) tent, and that it can be wonderfully liberating and "adventurous" to sleep out in a bivvy bag under the stars, or under a simple tarp.  

You feel so much more a part of the natural environment you've headed out to enjoy in the first place.  

As Al Humphreys puts it, "in a tent you are basically in a rubbish version of indoors".  

Bivvy Bags - Oe solution is a bivvy bag - a waterproof sleeping bag cover.  I know that if you've not tried it, it sounds odd, but rather than having to read the wonderful Book of the Bivvy from cover to cover, I would simply say that a simple bivvy bag (the general consensus on best value is the £35 Hunka from Alpkit) turns the sleeping bag you already own into something you can (reasonably) happily sleep out under the stars in.  

I've slept in a bivvy more nights than I care to remember, and its beauty lies in its simplicity.  But I've good friends can't stand them, and I'd be disengenous if I didn't point ought that, like a journey in a Land Rover Defender, a bivvy bag is reliably "no-frills".  It's never going to match the four poster bed you had on your last mini break, but the view in the morning might be better. 

Happy Bivvy

Happy Bivvy

If it's going to rain, you can rig up a tarp (a waterproof sheet - see more below) or simply can it, and go again another night when the weather looks better!  (Or if you've forgotten the tarp and failed to bail out in time, you can roll over and try to sleep on your tummy as a last resort, but I can personally vouch that's just properly Type 2 fun). 

Bivvy Bag PROs

  1. Smaller than a tent.
  2. Lighter than a tent.
  3. More fun than a tent.

Bivvy Bag CONs

  1. Colder than a tent,
  2. While obvious, and potentially a "pro", depending on your mindset, you really do feel more "outdoors" than a tent.

This last "con" is kind of the point of a bivvy bag, but I just wanted to make clear that on your first trip to sleep on a hill you may find yourself staring at the cracking view, while on your first trip to sleep in a wood, you might find yourself staring at rustling bushes...  this passes in time, but my tip for success is start with hilltop, then work up the to woods!

If you've never used one, I do know it does sound a bit weird, but my first experience of these was mind-blowing.  

Aged 13, on a school trip, I took the waterproofed army bag my father had lent me, and snuck out of the camping barn near Symonds Yat, to sleep in the "Wilderness" of the sheep-field outside.  If I didn't perhaps sleep quite as much as I might have done inside, that was purely because my mind was reeling with excitement from the depth and clarity of the Milky Way laid out in front of my eyes.  

Shooting stars, a canopy of twinkling lights above, whatever cliche you care to mention...  it blew my mind, and kindled a love of wild-camping that hasn't yet left me.  I was lucky it didn't rain...  (I didn't learn about tarps till later!)

Since then I've slept in a bivvy in all sorts of places, some more successful nights than others, but each time, I've loved the freedom a bivvy brings, and can't recommend them highly enough for a simple overnight escape.

Tarps - at their most simple, a rectangle of waterproofed nylon that can be rigged above you to keep the rain off.  

They are now made in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the more complicated among these look almost like tents without floors.  Which essentially they more or less are, as they are normally combined with bivvy bags (see above).  

There are all sorts of weird and wonderful materials one can make a tarp from nowadays, but most lighter ones are either some kind of siliconised nylon (rather cleverly called Silnylon), or something slightly more technically advanced (i.e. expensive) called "Cuben Fiber", which is made from some amazing man-made fibres called Dyneema.  If you're a trust-fund adventurer, or are really going to get your use out of it, then research Cuben tarps and shelters, or drop me a line. There are some incredible things out there, such as a the Z-Packs Hexamid, the BearPaw Designs Lair, or the Gatewood Cape (a solo shelter which doubles as a rain coat, and weighs about 300g, how's about that for ultralight!) but not all of these are family- or wallet-friendly. 

Otherwise, mortals should stick to Silnylon, which is a great material, light, and easier to pitch.  Expect to pay between £30 and £150 depending where you are on the spectrum from a simple rectangle with tie-out points (versatile, light, useful, but needs a bit of practice or knowledge to pitch properly) to a "shaped tarp" which can be awfully clever, but can usually only be pitched one way (these are typically less confusing to pitch, feel a bit like a tent without a floor, but are less adaptable). 

I'll suggest two easy good options in that spectrum here - the straightforward Alpkit Rig Tarp (shown here in its single man version, the Rig 3.5, although I'd be tempted to take the Rig 7 with kids - basically the same but bigger). Typically you'll use guy lines, walking poles, and pegs to pitch them as some form of A-frame or a lean-to. 

Alpkit Rig 3.5 with Stu from Bearbones

Alpkit Rig 3.5 with Stu from Bearbones

The second option is a pretty classic and well respected shaped tarp - the award winning Trailstar from Mountain Laurel Designs in the US. A great family mountain shelter. You have to get your head around the fact that it's still a tarp, not a tent (at least until you get sometime to make you a mesh inner to go under it...) but this is a perfect shelter for a more adventurous family trip, and costs about £150, depending on exchange rate and whether you get stung for customs charges (bit of a lottery). 

It sheds wins and rain better than the best of tents (I pack it over my Hilleberg Anjan if conditions are bad) but it still leaves you feeling really engaged with the environment around you - out in the wilds, but under a shelter.  It takes a couple of walking poles (or sticks) to pitch (in no time at all) and weighs about 650g including pegs. Massive space for one, and room to spare for (you guessed it) Dad plus two boys.  

Here's an awesome video of a Trailstar being pitched by a family on a #dadventure in the US.


FYI, mine's a slightly more "stealthy" grey-green, rather than his cheerful yellow. 

Wild Ennerdale

Wild Ennerdale

Interestingly, you can can get beautifully made inner tents for the Trailstar, and many other shelters, from a great guy in Scotland called Sean at Oookworks.  We hope to get a nest made this Spring to test out, and I'm hoping it be useful for when either the bugs are about, or the wind is biting cold.  This ups the weight a bit and may interrupt the magnificent views, but all in should still leave us with a tent for three weighing just over a kilo (about 40% lighter than my v. lightweight tent).  

Tents - If it really has to be a full on tent, lighter is still possible, with options such as the Hilleberg Anjan 3 only weighing 1.9kg all in, and fits three adults happily; or pyramids such as the WikiUp SUL which give you lots of space for little weight. 

 

Sleeping system

If you haven't yet bought a sleeping bag for the kids, or are willing to invest in an upgrade, this is one of the biggest potential wins for weight saving and also performance. 

A major bugbear of mine are our supposedly "well-regarded" kids sleeping bags which weigh over a kilo, take up half a rucksack each, and are rated for only 1 season (i.e. summer) camping... I have one sleeping bag o similar weight, which fits a big hairy grownup and will take me down to about -15C.  What's in these things?!

So, this is a great place to start.  Unless you've just bought your own medicine-ball kids sleeping bags. 

I'm going to suggest two good ideas which you'll think are daft, initially, but you might well thank me if you try them - Quilts, and Elephant's Feet! They keep your sprogs warm, but free up some weight and space in your pack. 

Quilts - think lightweight duvet, i.e. they can open flat (added bonus of working as an extra jumper and/or cuddly blanket when sat around a campfire), but with a cunning drawstring / zip / poppers system at the foot end that can be cinched in to snuggle around your feet and lower leg. The rest of the quilt (from about the knee up to the neck) is either draped over you loosely, if you like, or can be attached snugly down to your sleeping mat if you're a wriggler. 

Now for the science bit - insulation works by trapping the warm air that you are generating in its "lofted" material (either down, or synthetic). The "loft" is what you see when you take a sleeping bag out of its stuff sack and it gets bigger and more fluffy looking. The warm air sits within all the lovely spare space between the feathers or fibres.  But what you may not realise is that about a third of that lovely material you're carrying around is going to be crushed underneath you all night long while you sleep. Hmm. Not lofted. So not really helping. So what keeps you warm from the ground (massively important, and actual sometimes overlooked)?  Well that would be your groundsheet.  Not your sleeping bag.

So a quilt gives you insulation where it works, but skips the stuff that's dead weight underneath you. It's has the added bonus of feeling less constrictive and more natural. To the extent that my boys actually ask to use theirs at home. 

I'll put a review of our own quilts from Enlightened Equipment in the US, and which were a major success, but in the meantime here's a great video review from a family, explaining how it all works, and here's a link to Alpkit's new quilt, which I tried to get hold of, but which sold out in five minutes flat. (Also reviewed here). 

We have one sized for "youths" in down that should see Henry through the next 10 years, and a smaller synthetic one for Hector. Down is lighter for the same warmth, but synthetic can go through a washing machine, and stays warm if wet. Enough said. 

(BTW, a "top bag" is another option with the same idea. It's a sleeping bag as you'd know it, except that the bottom half has no stuffing (see "the science bit" above). But they don't make one small enough for kids. At least not one I've yet seen - let me know if you know differently.)

Elephant's Foot (Pied d'Elephant) bags - great name, but in a nutshell, just think half a sleeping bag (the bottom half). Designed for daft climbers wanting to keep their legs warm overnight while wearing a down jacket on top, but actually perfectly pint-sized for your little ones.  

Two boys in 0.5 of a sleeping bag

Two boys in 0.5 of a sleeping bag

These have a little bit of history attached, in that they were originally developed by climbers (often a good sign of useful lightweight gear), for quick overnight bivouacs on ledges. The climbers figured they'd be carrying a good insulated jacket anyway, so why take that off at bedtime? Therefore the idea was to stick your legs in the bag, keep your jacket on, and then get into your bivvy bag for the night. 

These fell out of use as full sleeping bags got lighter, but have recently seen a resurgence with people looking to cut weight further, with both PHD Designs and Alpkit now making them for the UK market.

We are currently testing the Alpkit Point 5, and will let you know once we've taken it through its paces, but the initial things I like for "grown-up" use include that the foot opens with a drawstring, so you can walk around with it on in camp (think snuggly down kilt - not skirt, ahem), and that it looks like it could boost a summer bag to the warmth of a winter bag (or alternatively boost one of my summer bags to a summer bag one warm enough for my colder-sleeping other half!)

 

Cooking System

One our key family rules is never to go on an adventure without hot chocolate!  But that said there are at least two good options for a short trip:

  1. Don't bother cooking at all - bring a thermos of hot chocolate and/or soup, and it's surprising what you can get away with for a quick overnighter (cheese and ham wraps for tea, and chocolate spread / peanut butter wraps for breakfast, plus lots of snacks).
  2. Take a water boiler and use it for hot drinks and dehydrated or boil-in-the-bag food.  I've yet to convince my kids of the the joys of Mountain House ration packs, but they love the "Look What We Found" meals from supermarkets, or packets of  couscous, mild curry, pot noodles, soup with bread etc.

If you're hard-core and/or experienced, there are commercially available alcohol/meths stoves, like Trangia, or ultralight cottage manufacturer versions, like Bearbones bikepacking (20g for a stove anyone?)  

But my recommendation is a good light gas stove (great comparison here on OutdoorGearLab), like the MSR Micro Rocket, the Optimus Crux stove or Alpkit's Kraku.  There are some very good but more expensive systems with pots and heat-exchangers built-in, (making the whole thing simple, fuel efficient and extremely quick) such as Jetboil, and the MSR Windburner or MSR Reactor.  

They all boil water brilliantly, although don't expect them to do much else. for those without one, a windshield or some sort will make your an awful life a lot easier, but can be improvised, and don't forget a back-up lighter!

Good Morning porridge

Good Morning porridge

 

Clothing

You're the best judge of this for your own little ones. Don't let them get cold, and don't let them stay wet.

I won't go into clothing other to say that it's well worth making sure that where possible things should be layerable and complementary, rather than taking along  a bunch of different options to pick and choose from when you're out.

Ideally you'll be layering people up, when it gets cold, and taking layers off when active, rather than exchanging one item for another all the time. 

The final point on this is not to underestimate how useful good base layers are - they help keep any moisture away from the skin, we use either merino or synthetic, depending on what I've been able to find in the sales, but good merino is just lovely and really versatile

 

Carrying System (Rucksack)

Empty your rucksack.  Pick it up by the loop on the back.  Are you sure it's empty?  If you needed to double check, it might be that your rucksack is pretty heavy on its own, which is a bit annoying, isn't it?

I don't actually recommend you do much about this for now, unless you have a birthday coming up - rucksacks are quite a big purchase - but it's well worth bearing in mind the weight if/when you buy a pack again.  

As a rough guide, an old school 65l rucksack probably weighs upwards from about 2.5kg; a lightweight 40l or 50l rucksack (which is probably all the space you need) and with less fiddly bits on it weighs about 1kg; and if you're buying a hardcore ultralight pack, it will be between 0.3kg and 0.75g.  

So, all in, the weight difference is like taking your sleeping bag out of the your rucksack and having someone else carry it, and then getting them to carry your water bottle too.  Worth doing, but do look at other stuff first.

My high-level recommendations for good, light packs that are easy to find and try are Osprey.  Lovely packs, but as above, try to focus on lighter ones, rather than the ones with fancy things that look good in the marketing catalogue but you'll never use!

 

Conclusion

It's hard to do the subject justice in one post, and our gear reviews will revisit the theme from time to time, but the thing I wanted to draw out in this article is that "ultralight" or "lightweight" gear and philosophy isn't just for people crossing Alaskan mountain ranges.  It has real benefit for families hoping to enjoy, rather than endure adventures outdoors

The key points are to understand what you're carrying, what it weighs, and why you really need it - you'll be surprised what you take and never use if you keep an eye on it!  

When "upgrade" time comes around, think lightweight!

Post a comment if you'd like to know more.