Craig Wisner

Old-School Ultralight

Stuff.  Too much expensive stuff and too many choices to weigh us down.  While our gear may be the lightest money can buy, a different sort of burden comes with it:  My stuff!  Don’t get that Western Mountaineering bag dirty!  Don’t leave it compressed too long or you just might ruin your stuff.  Watch that fire man, lest you want holes in that tissue-thin windshirt or 900 fill down floating everywhere!

Ever notice that John Muir never really talked about his stuff ?  He talked about light and rocks and grasshoppers and trees.  But he didn’t seem to care much about stuff.  The stuff he carried was a means to an end, not an end in itself.  John Muir didn’t need a spreadsheet.

I like the term Adan uses:  Lightness of mind.  Lightness of mind, as in not having to think about your gear, not having to baby things, not obsessing over choices.  As opposed to lightness of pack.  The two do not necessarily coincide.

This Saturday Adan and I had the chance to try some “new” things on an overnight up the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, the theme of the trip being to simply carry a minimal, traditional kit, a kit not focused on modern synthetics and hi-tech gear, but a simple kit that would loosely resemble what people might have carried 100 years ago.   Flannel shirts and canvas pants would replace nylon and spandex, wool would replace Pertex.  The goal was not historical accuracy, but to get a feel for what this sort of gear was like, functionally speaking.  We were fully prepared to do a little suffering, to rough it.  But that just never happened.  It was actually one of the easiest, most comfortable trips I’ve had in some time.  There was simply no stuff to worry about.

Go forth little dog!

Our camp. East Fork, San Gabriel River.

My gear.

Adan's bedroll.

Lounging by the fire, roasting hot dogs and cooking ramen and vegetables on the coals, sipping sotol and whiskey- without our expensive, hi-tech gear, we waited for the hardship to begin.   Nope, nothing yet.  Purifying water by boiling, staying warm by staying close to fire.  No headlamps, no ditty bags full of little odds and ends.  No unnecessary or delicate stuff.  The night carried on, drinks and food were consumed, Adan finished carving the spoon he’d use for breakfast (he forgot his), and we made our way to our beds: wool blankets atop canvas military half-shelters as groundcloths, right next to the fire ring, sand beneath us.  I wrapped up tight, dog curled under the blankets beside me.  No worries about being in the sand and dirt, about ashes or sparks from the fire, only warmth and drifting to sleep.   Still no hardship to be found as the temperature dropped into the 40s and the clouds rolled in.  A few hours later I caught a bad wind shift and the smoke from the fire was too much for me, so I got up and drug my whole bed 20 feet away.  The sand was colder away from the fire, but I slept fine; I’ve had far worse nights with sleeping bags and inflatable pads.  In true old-school style, Adan was using hot rocks from the fire to warm up inside the blankets.  I was using my dog.

I woke to dim light and Adan stoking the fire back up to boil water for coffee, draped in his wool blanket.

Nope.  Still no hardship to be found.  Nothing but a beautiful night beside the river.


My carried gear (not including food/clothing worn):

Golite Jam2  (Simple and durable.  I see no sense in buying a canvas rucksack just to prove a point/imitate a style at this time. )

2 wool blankets

Steel fork/knife/spoon (not necessary to carry them all, but it’s a cool, older nesting set I have)

Mora w/sheath

Wooden matches

Cookpot w/foil lid

Kupilka cup (not necessary, but for fun)

Wool cap

Wool gloves

Wool socks

Flannel shirt

Hooded sweatshirt

Twine (never used it)

Aluminum water bottle


That’s it. 

Adan’s kit was nearly identical to mine, though he carried both canvas shelter halves in.  I suspect our base weights were around 10 lbs.

What was especially interesting about this trip was packing: It felt like there was nothing to pack and hardly any choices to make, no little stuff sacks full of odds and ends, toiletries, “essentials”.  Just grab some blankets, a pot…and you’re gone.  In addition, there was nothing to worry about.  Everything was durable, fire-resistant, leaving us with no concerns about just throwing down in the dirt.  With this system, everything can be left packed, ready to go, indefinitely.

Lightness of mind; the gear became invisible, nothing to get in the way of the experience.

Now to start extending this style into more difficult weather and onto longer trips.

…and stop thinking about stuff.

10 responses

  1. Great post! I want to try this at some point too. It’s fun to try new gear, but it’s a short lived type of joy/happiness, and it introduces even more stuff and choices into our lives which are already filled with them. Very inspirational post. Thanks.

    June 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  2. Jonathan

    Very cool report. Did you see anyone else during your trip? Any fishing?

    June 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    • We actually had a couple join us at camp that night. They had gotten a late start and didn’t want to continue to their planned spot. Getting visitors in this canyon can be a little weird as it can attract some….errr…interesting folk. We had a great time though; invited them over to share the fire and dinner and some drink.
      As for fishing, the flow has been sort of high there lately. Adan is a more seasoned fly fisherman than I, but we both agreed it wasn’t looking too productive, at least not for bigger fish, so we skipped bringing tackle to keep it simple.

      June 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  3. Adan

    Thanks for the report Craig, as usual it was a good time drinking and telling stories. An idyllic night in Asuksa-gna. And with the gear (or lack of gear) we had with us, it felt even more wild and rustic than usual. At night I woke up a few times to replace the stones in my blanket with hotter ones from the fire, and in the shadows of the elders, I think I saw a Tongva boy giving me the thumbs up.

    June 13, 2011 at 11:24 am

  4. A brilliant post! Thanks! This is something I also come to think occasionally but I think I’m not quite ready to adopt the style in my everyday hiking as there are some things I want to do… But simplicity should be ultimate goal, not the small number in the end of spread sheet. And the traditional style would provide refreshing variety to backpacking. Wool plankets and big fires, here I come! (In autumn, when the mosquitoes have died…)

    June 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

  5. Tony

    Really great post. I’d love to try this sometime. Thanks for putting things in perspective.

    June 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    • Thank you for the kind comments everyone.

      June 13, 2011 at 7:56 pm

  6. Right on, great stuff. Adan’s bedroll needs to be strapped to a sissy bar. Please tell me you and Adan rolled up to the trailhead in the vein of Easy Rider, that image is in my head and I can’t shake it.

    June 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm

  7. Jerry

    I am pretty sure you could leave the backpack behind.

    Warp up everything in the bedroll and tie both ends with one rope.
    Then use the rope over your shoulder to carry it. Just like David Carradine in Kung Fu.

    Great trip sounds like fun.
    I would have gone but I was still trying to get the perfect pitch on my new tarp.


    June 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  8. A dog, eh? Hmmm…what brand? What colour? Natural fibre or synthetic? What’s its pack weight?

    A nice, interesting antidote to all those hiking blogs that overflow with gear reviews. I’m always on the lookout for walking blogs that walk a different path. Glad I discovered yours.

    July 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm

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