Let’s start with the carrying. In other words, the backpack, and let’s avoid a very common mistake: buying the bag first before thinking about what to put in it.
Because even if you are reasonable about the size, you will inevitably end up with a cast iron trunk.
Crossing the Cevennes, 1994. At least 30 useless litres. Note also, for the more observant, the magnificent salt marks on the shoulders, witnesses of the suffering of the body in mule mode…
Thus, I used it for a long time:
55 litres expandable to 65 litres by a gusset system. Not very heavy for a big Cordura bag dating back to the early nineties: 1.2 kilos. A faithful and indestructible companion, dragged in the mountains or during more exotic dots on the world map. Ideal?
No. Too bulky. It inevitably calls for filling, and therefore superfluity.
The advisors in specialised shops will always recommend a minimum of 60 litres for a walk lasting more than ten days with a tent and a duvet.
Don’t listen to them!
Here, today, I’m walking around with this:
When I sleep in a hotel, bed and breakfast, gîte or refuge.
Or with his big brother:
When I take my tent, a sleeping bag and a mattress with me. Sometimes I even remove the top pocket – it’s removable, on purpose. And I’ve cut off the unnecessary lengths of strap.
Both are from Osprey: there are certainly lighter models – some ultralight hikers make their own – but these two models suit me very well. Their comfort is real, their design and accessories are well thought out and their price is not prohibitive.
So before you buy a backpack, at the risk of repeating myself, first ask yourself what you’re going to do with it. Hiking? That’s fine. Where will you sleep?
In a refuge or in a hotel? So forget the stove, the tent, the mattress, the duvet: 22 litres will be more than enough. My little red one is perfect. It weighs 750 grams when empty, is very cleverly designed, and allows me to carry what I detailed above.
You’re going on an autonomous trip? Let’s admit it: but what autonomy? Only the sleeping bag and some food just in case? Or also a fortnight’s worth of supplies, Auvergne hams, an oak table, silver candlesticks?
You’ve got it: content first, container second. From the point of view of lightening the load, listing what you decide to take, grouping it together and testing its volume with various bin bags, then allows you to choose the right bag. Do the opposite, and you will inevitably end up back at the mule.
At the bivouac
In ultralight mode, there are two schools of thought for shelter. The tent or the tarp.
Many hikers recommend the tarp: a simple coated canvas, which you hold up with your poles and a few guy ropes. The advantages are the extraordinary lightness, the versatility of the shelter and the feeling of sleeping in the middle of nowhere.
Well, from the age of eighteen to thirty, I loved sleeping under the stars. Not even a tent! Furiously ultralight. Then something strange happened to me: I got older. I got inexplicably tired of the insects that ran across my face or down my duvet – a little black scorpion once in the Cévennes. Ants, mosquitoes, aoutas, I forget: I got a bit tired of the animal world and, to sleep better and recover fully, I decided to return to the tent.
I first invested in a model from MSR. The Hubba NX. 1 kilo 4 including the poles, the flysheet, the chamber and an additional ground sheet that makes the whole thing self-supporting and protects the thin and fragile bottom of the chamber. I was very happy with it, even without the inner chamber.
Too heavy! I sold it to invest in a much more technical – and therefore more expensive – model from the American specialist manufacturer Zpaks: the Plexamid. For the anecdote, I had planned to have it delivered to New York where I was to spend two weeks last spring, in order to save on postage and especially on customs. And bam: Covid. Goodbye New York. Hello taxes… Anyway.
It’s a single-wall tent that holds two hiking poles. 431 grams! To which you have to add 100 grams of sardines.
Hubba or Plexamid, it doesn’t matter: I sleep quite well in a tent. I’m not bothered by bugs anymore and I’ve even gained in temperature. Irreplaceable.
No hammer for the stakes, of course: I plant them by hand and the ground is always suitable. Eventually, I use the sole of my shoe.
Of course, it’s not enough to have a roof. You also have to organise your bedding.
There are two possibilities for a sleeping bag: synthetic or real down. Synthetic is more resistant to moisture than feather. But synthetic is heavier and more difficult to compress, with the same heat produced.
So I prefer down, for the above qualities. I compress it in a small waterproof bag. I’ve had several over the years. I’ve sold some, kept others. My latest favourites are here:
Sea to summit SPARK III
700 grams including the compression bag. This one is from the Australian brand Sea to summit, and it’s the Spark 3 model. Comfort temperature: two degrees. With the old bag, which was 200 grams heavier, at zero in the tent, i.e. at minus two or minus three outside, even using my merino suit, I had been cold – but I hadn’t eaten anything, or hardly anything at all, which also explains that. Useful clarification: when you are cold, you don’t sleep. At all. That’s just the way it is. That said, when you’re really cold, after a while you fall asleep… and you never wake up. So you might as well not be cold, right? And that’s why: don’t lie to yourself: some people will sweat in a duvet and let others chatter their teeth. I’m cold, so I plan accordingly. With this duvet, at zero in the tent, I’ve never been cold. On the other hand, on a mild night at around 10 degrees, I was too hot. In these cases, I used the open bag as a duvet.
Sea to summit SPARK 0
225 grams for summer sleeping. Comfort temperature 14 degrees. Limit of 10. Ultra light (hard to beat) and compact. This is the bag I now carry for all my little summer kayaking trips. The beer can for the ladder is a 25 cl.
The advantage of the Spark 0 is that I can take it with me as an inner liner for the Spark III and sleep in sub-zero winter temperatures.
There are several ways to proceed. Some people choose a foam mat that they cut up to save space and weight. Others take self-inflating mattresses: expensive, heavy and not very durable.
For some time now, there have been air mattresses that are incredibly efficient and comfortable. Some even have a layer of insulation, for those who like to sleep on the snow. Don’t laugh, there are some out there.
Initially, I had opted for this one:
I sold it for two reasons: it slips – and despite the careful choice of the bivouac area, you sometimes camp on a slight slope; and it condenses. I found myself with a very unpleasant feeling of humidity under the duvet. I therefore chose another one, from a competitor brand, which solves these two drawbacks and weighs 80 grams less. For those who are curious, it is the Tensor, from Nemo. A little expensive, 120 euros, but the quality of sleep is better.
The pillow : with or without?
For a long time, I used rolled up clothes in my neckband and that did the trick. Except that, let’s be honest, it was not as comfortable as a real pillow. So I tested several and sent them back again and again until I found what I wanted.
The Fillo Elite, from the same brand as my mattress, Nemo. Soft, comfortable, ridiculous weight and size. A real pleasure for the neck!
I suggest you watch this funny video of a lethargic hiker who tried many models like I did. His choice was the large model. The small one is, in my opinion, more than enough. But the guy had a lot of work to do!
Well, I think we’ve done the trick.
The next article in this series will be the occasion to detail what I take for drinking and eating, and to explain my choices in this domain.