Category Archives: Ultralight

Bleach as Backpacking Water Purifcation

You’ve probably got a jug of bleach next to the washer. Next time you’re packing for a trip, don’t forget to toss it in.

Okay, well, maybe not the whole thing.

Turns out, ~5 drops of non-fragrant all purpose bleach can purify a liter of water.

I heard rumors floating around on several internet forums of bleach being used as a cheap chemical water purifier. My first impression, as might be yours, was less than optimistic.

After some research (look for yourself) I found several reputable sources indicating that bleach is indeed a safe chemical purifier. Used in the proper ratios it’s absolutely acceptable.

I use an old saline eye dropper bottle (about an ounce) from which I have removed the label and written “Bleach” in large block letters. I keep it in a homemade shoulder strap pouch for super quick access.

Let’s talk about when bleach won’t work.

Bleach won’t work effectively if there is sedimentation in your water. Microbes can hide in the microscopic cracks in the debris suspended in the water, making it less likely that bleach will effectively neutralize the harmful little bugs. Filter visibly dirty water first, then use your bleach (I’d use an extra drop or two per liter to increase the likelihood of thorough purification).

Bleach will not filter out chemical contaminants. If you’re filling up from the cooling pond of a nuclear reactor, bleach won’t help you. If you’re filling up down stream of an industrial plant that is leeching chemicals into the ground water, bleach won’t help you.

Bleach is an awesome option if you’re currently using AquaMira. I have always been a huge proponent of AquaMira, and they make an excellent product. In lieu of this most recent discovery, however, I must say that my current recommendation for any backpacker purifying non-stagnant and non-sedimented water sources is bleach.

I used bleach for a month of Appalachian Trail hiking this summer and never had a single issue with it. Personally, I don’t even hardly notice the taste.

Be safe out there!


Backpacking Meal Planning by Caloric Density

You are reading a tutorial on how to use caloric density to calculate meal plans and rations for backpacking. If you haven’t already, open up my table of caloric densities by clicking here so you can follow along.

Why take the time to calculate your daily caloric expenditure and intake? There are several reasons, let me enumerate them:

  1. To be aware of how much energy you’re expending and how much you’re putting in and, therefore, avoid carrying excess or stretching yourself thin.
  2. To better minimize the amount of food weight carried between resupplies. In other words, to become more efficient.
  3. To increase your personal awareness of what you’re carrying.

How Many Calories Will I Burn?

In order to do this we’re first going to need to get a rough estimate of how many Calories (see my article on caloric density for the difference between Calories and calories).

There are  a few sources of reference I’ve been able to find and use as a judgment of caloric expenditure on extended backpacking trips.

Andrew Skurka, a long distance backpacker whose judgment I find very sound, plans 5,000+ Calories a day when hiking 30+ miles. I paraphrase his words, but you can find his information on his site and in his book The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. The book is well worth your time as are many of his articles on his site.

Another reference for calories burned while backpacking is NutriStrategy’s site. I’ve stumbled across their numbers before and, to be honest, I have no idea at all how they came up with the numbers on their list. However, doing a quick computation it seems their numbers are reasonably within the ballpark of what I’d expect. Use them as reference for rough computations.

The final source of reference for caloric expenditure should be your own personal experience. Sites like are full and overflowing with hikers (and forum lurkers who think they’re hikers) more than happy to regurgitate numbers at you from their experience as well. Take it with a grain of salt.

Getting Started

Now let’s get down to it. For the sake of this tutorial we’re going to plan a diet of 4,500 Calories per day while backpacking 25 miles a day over mountainous terrain at low elevation (Appalachian Trail).

You’ve got the list of caloric densities open, don’t you? Good, let’s continue.

We’ll start simple. Let’s figure out how many ounces of Sun Chips we need to eat to provide our daily 4,500 Calories. In order to do this we are going to divide our daily total by the caloric density of Sun Chips (140 Cal/oz).

4,500 Calories /140 Calories per Ounce = 32.14 oz

Algebra tells us that the unit “Calories” in this equation cancels out and the number we’re left with is simply ounces. So we would need to eat 32.14 ounces, almost exactly two pounds, of Sun Chips to meet our intake goal.

You might see the problem with this by now. We can’t eat just one thing and, often, there will be multiple ingredients in each meal. So how do we calculate this increasingly complex number?

Breaking it Down by Meal

We need to know the caloric density of every ingredient we’re using to make our meals and we need to know precisely how much of that ingredient we’re using. Don’t worry it’s simpler than it sounds.


One possible GORP recipe.

Above is a simple GORP recipe with some high caloric density foods. Caloric yield of each ingredient is calculated by multiplying caloric density (cal/oz) by the total ounces of the ingredient in the recipe. Then add up the total weight of all ingredients as well as the total number of Calories in the meal. Finally, divide total Calories by total meal weight for an overall meal caloric density.

Were we to eat nothing but this GORP, we could get 4,500 Calories per day by carrying a meager 27.6 oz of food.

Determining Target Caloric Density

Use the table below to decide what caloric density seems right for you.

Weight (oz) needed per day for each given caloric density.

This table was made to solve for caloric density given a target intake and total daily weight. Ideally I’d like to carry as little food as possible to achieve my 4,500 Calories for the day. So at 32 oz (the chart doesn’t go below two pounds of food per day) I’d need an average meal density of 140-145.

Alternately, let’s say you know your daily caloric requirement is 4,500 and your average meal density is 120. Simply go to the 120 cal/oz row and find the column of daily weight corresponding to 4,500 Calories. In this case it’s somewhere between 36.8 and 38.4 oz. You could, of course, divide 4,500 by 120 to get an exact number (37.5).

Now we know we need to shoot for an average meal density of 140-145 Cal/oz in order to reach our 4,500 Cal/day at a total daily food weight of 2 pounds (32 oz).

Planning Resupplies

Now let’s use all these numbers to help plan my Appalachian Trail thru hike.

Without ever having to travel more than .6 miles from the trail head (only in two locations do I actually have to leave the trail to resupply) my second longest stretch between resupplies is 132 miles (followed closely by 136 miles for the longest). Resupplying as close as possible to the trail allows me to continue moving and avoid expensive trips in to town.

For this section I’ll need 4 full days of food, plus one dinner the night I pick up resupply, and breakfast + lunch the day of my next resupply. Using our 4,500 Calories per day as a baseline at 145 Cal/oz average meal density I need 31 oz of food each full day. Plus the individual breakfast, lunch, and dinner on resupply days which conveniently works out to an extra full day of food.

31 oz per day X 5 full days = 155 oz

For this section I’ll need to plan 9.7 pounds of food (155 oz).

Using Percentages to Plan Backwards

So how do we know exactly how much of each meal to pack?

Let’s go back to our GORP recipe.


One possible GORP recipe.

Let’s say I know my breakfast and dinners together give me 2,000 Calories, and I have a power bar that will supply 400 Calories around lunch time. The rest of the day I’d like to fill in with my mixed GORP recipe. That’s 2,400 Calories of my daily 4,500.

4,500 Cal – 2,400 Cal = 2,100 Cal

I’m left with 2,100 Calories to supplement with my GORP mix. Let’s figure out how much of each ingredient we need to mix up in order to make ends meet on this day. Remember our GORP has a caloric density of 162.98 (we’ll use 163 here for sake of argument).

2,100 Cal / 163 Cal per oz = 12.9 oz

We need 12.9 oz of GORP to make up the difference in our daily meal plan.

For the final step, we need to determine the ratios of our GORP ingredients. We can do this by dividing each ingredient’s individual weight by the combined meal total weight.

Macadamia Nuts: 1 / 7 = 14.3%

Pecans: 1 / 7 = 14.3%

Chocolate Chips: 1 / 7 = 14.3%

Sun Chips: 2 / 7 = 28.6%

Fritos: 2 / 7 = 28.6%

Now we can take the 12.9 oz total we came up with earlier and multiply it by these percentages. Remember 14.3% is (.143) and 28.6% is (.286).

Macadamia Nuts: 12.9 oz X .143 = 1.84 oz

Pecans: 12.9 oz X .143 = 1.84 oz

Chocolate Chips: 12.9 oz X .143 = 1.84 oz

Sun Chips: 12.9 oz X .286 = 3.69 oz

Fritos: 12.9 oz X .286 = 3.69 oz

The obvious, and much simpler solution to this problem, would be to mix up a huge batch of GORP to the ratio you need and then just weigh out 12.9 oz. There will be times, however, when you need to plan backward like this to fill in the gaps.

In Conclusion

I’d like to point out that the math in this article contains a LOT of rounding, while I did round correctly there may still be some finite slippage. For your own calculations remember that .5 and up rounds up, .4 and below rounds down.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read to this point and I sincerely hope this helps you plan whatever trip you’re about to set out on.

List of Caloric Density for Ultralight Backpacking

I present to you my list of caloric density, food items and their corresponding Calories/ounce of mass. This is in Kcal (1,000 calories per Calorie). If I just lost you, it’s okay. The nutritional label on every food item in the USA is written in Kcal or Calories. So if a serving of Sun Chips says 140 Calories per serving, it’s saying 140,000 calories per serving, or 140 Kcal per serving. It’s all the same.

If you’re looking for my tutorial on how to use caloric density to calculate your daily meal plan, just click here.

Keep in mind that these numbers represent a ratio and ounces (oz) as I use it here is a measure of mass in the Imperial measurement system. Olive Oil, for instance, is listed per serving in fluid ounces which is not at all the same as ounces of mass. This could be a potential source of confusion but I have done the conversion for you here.

As I prepare for my 2014 thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, it occurs to me that much of the data and planning I am doing will be useful to others.

I’ve spent time searching places like google,, and many other various forums and personal pages. The information I’ve found is sometimes useful but very often speculative and contradictory. One commonly sought piece of data is caloric densities of various foods.

This is a measurement I have used in the past but never recorded in a comprehensive list. I am not aiming to create an ongoing list of various foods and their calories per ounce. Some of these foods I picked up at random from the store or cupboard shelf. Some, however, have been staples in my pack for years.

Below you’ll find that I have color coded the list. Green corresponds to foods with a density of greater than (>) 150 Calories per ounce. Gold (true yellow was too hard to read in contrast to white) corresponds to foods with a density greater than (>) 120 Calories per ounce. Orange corresponds to foods with a density greater than (>) 100 Calories per ounce. Red corresponds to foods with a density of less than (<) 100 Calories per ounce.

Food Calories/oz
Great Value Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Grape Seed Oil


Macadamia Nuts






Jif Chocolate Hazlenut Spread


Salted Almonds


Jif Peanut Butter




Dry Roasted Sunflower Seeds


Andes Crème de Menthe Baking Chips




Almond M&M’s


Nestle Nido




Peanutbutter M&M’s


Nestle Toll House Semi Sweet Morsel (Choc Chip)


Classic M&M’s


Sun Chips All Varieties


Tostitos Original Tortilla Chips


Great Value “Sun Chips” Harvest Cheddar


Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing


Snickers Bar


Great Value Sweetened Coconut Flakes


ProBar Meal Superfood Slam


Wheat Thins


Three Musketeers Bar


Cinnamon Toast Crunch


Pop Tarts Brown Sugar


Great Value No Bake Cheese Cake Mix


Cheddar Cheese


Grated Parmesan Cheese


Great Value Strawberry Toaster Pastry


Knorr Parmesan Pasta Sides


Basic American Foods Vegeterian Refried Beans


Quaker Quick Oats


Great Value Whole Wheat Rotini


Swiss Cheese


Instant Cream of Wheat


Minute Instant White Rice


Great Value Instant Mashed Potato Flakes




Great Value Angel Hair Pasta


Great Value Nonfat Instant Dry Milk


Meijer Long Grain Instant Brown Rice




Fantastic World Foods Tabouli Salad






Gu Energy Shot


Knorr Pesto Mix


Tortilla Shell Large


Great Value Light Brown Sugar


Welch’s Grape Jelly


Great Value Classic Alfredo Pasta Sauce



Everything with an asterisk (*) has been confirmed by hand. In other words I physically picked up the item, read the label, and did the math. Some items I didn’t have on hand and substituted from sources I deem fairly reputable. At least reputable enough to consider marginally accurate and include on the list. I’ll check them later.

Most third party data came from I really enjoy this site for getting rough estimates of caloric density because you can choose the serving size and it does the math for you. Just select “ounce” as your serving size and it will tell you the number of corresponding Calories. It also has a huge database of foods to search through and will break down the foods by their composition of fats/carbs/proteins as well as amino acid composition.

Fats represent the greatest caloric density among all food types therefore oils and nuts reign supreme on this list. Carbohydrates come in a swift second place in overall calories per ounce followed by protein.

For thru hiking and ultralight backpacking it is ideal to maximize caloric density. The reason for this is simple: the higher the caloric density, the less weight you’ll need to carry to per given caloric intake.

Don’t forget to learn how to calculate your daily meal rations using caloric density with my tutorial here.

How Ultralight Can Become “UltraDumb”

It’s so easy to get swept up in the ultralight game when it comes to backpacking. I am a huge proponent of ultralight backpacking and love watching and learning from those on the cutting edge of this endeavor (Andrew Skurka has been one of my favorites for a while). There is a problem arising in ultralight backpacking, however.


An example of titanium alcohol stove vs. canister style stove.

We can reduce the weight of a tent by making it a tarp. We can then reduce the weight of the tarp by making it from Cuben Fiber. At this point, we can reduce the weight of the shelter by trimming it down, making it tapered, adding spectra guylines, etc. There is a point of no return, however, where functionality is compromised in the noble charge to shave weight.

The Problem:

At some point, our efforts to minimize weight eventually compromise the effectiveness and useful value of what we set out to improve. The really sad thing is, people get so lost in the numbers game (reducing weight) that they don’t even realize they are forfeiting the usefulness of the item.

Here’s an example:

Start by looking at’s “Ultralight Cuben Fiber Stuff Sacks”.

You may be thinking “.05 oz for a wallet!” that is incredibly lightweight compared to carrying my leather wallet in the backcountry. At first this little cuben fiber creation seems like a miracle, the final answer to every ultralight hiker’s wallet problem.

The real confusion, however, is in the way that we are viewing the problem.

Ultralight backpacking does not mean finding the absolute lightest possible piece of equipment out there. Our mindset needs to change, we need to use our brains to find simpler alternatives. Luckily for us, simple often means lighter.

For the price you pay to get an “ultralight” wallet, you could buy several boxes of rubber bands. They are lighter, smaller, and simpler than any cuben fiber creation out there. Rubber bands can be replaced indefinitely, are easy to find, and quite frankly are the most intelligent answer to the ultralight wallet problem. Just wrap a rubber band around your plastic cards and cash: problem solved.

There are many examples out there of unnecessarily complicated, expensive, and poorly thought out ultralight items. Just because cuben fiber is the lightest fully waterproof “fabric” on the market, does not make it the answer to every ultralight problem.

You wouldn’t make an ultralight pot out of cuben fiber, the stove would melt it instantly. We don’t make shoes out of carbon fiber, it simply isn’t the right tool for the job even though it’s incredibly lightweight. If we’re smart, we also dont make the bottoms of backpacks out of 10D ripstop, it’s simply too fragile to hold up in the backcountry. It’s time to recognize when ultralight becomes “ultra dumb”.

The Solution:

Part of being a responsible ultralight hiker is understanding where weight savings begin to impair function.

Here’s my plead to the ultralight backpacking community:

Next time you ask yourself “How can I reduce weight” please ask instead “How can I make my gear simpler and more useful to me?” Think light, think simple, and please use the right tool for the job. Remember that ultralight does not only mean lightweight, it means simple and, most importantly, effective.

This article is a call to action or, more appropriately, a call to attention. It is not an attack on the XUL style, on any one person, or any company.

Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Let me know what you think about the “ultra dumb” trend by leaving a comment below.

5 Pieces of Backpacking Gear You Can’t Live Without

#1. Tarp

Make your own silnylon tarp for a fraction of the price of a double wall tent and a fraction of the weight. Plus the weight per square foot of tarp versus tent is much lower. What that means is, more room under your tarp than in your tent, for less weight on your back.

Set up time of a tarp can be less than the simplest tent.

With no rigid poles, a tarp is just a big piece of fabric that can fill void spaces in your pack.

Start with Mountain Laurel Designs if you’re looking to buy a tarp.

#2. Dr. Bronners Castile Soap

Use it to sanitize your hands, brush your teeth, or check your air mattress for holes.

Dilute in a 1oz dropper bottle 1/3 Dr. Bronners and 2/3 water (by volume).

  • 5 drops on a dry toothbrush for toothpaste (don’t swallow it, and rinse mouth well)
  • 4 drops on wet hands before eating to keep yourself healthy (don’t forget to rinse your hands)
  • 6 drops in your pot or bowl to kill germs every few days, rinse well

#3. Hiking (Trekking) Poles

You’re hurting yourself (literally) by not using poles. While the exact number remains disputed, it is universally agreed upon that hiking poles do reduce stress on the body while hiking. Some speculate upwards of 25% stress reduction on the knees.

I recommend the Black Diamond Z Pole series. They pack down nicely to strap to the outside of my Gossamer Gear Gorilla (or Osprey Aether) when not in use I.E. boulder fields. The carbon versions weigh as little as 5oz per pole, which is important considering the energy expense of swinging any extra weight on your arms all day.

I bent my Black Diamond Distance poles (I didn’t have enough money for the carbon poles) by stupidly using them while glissading. Take my advice, pack these poles away when it would be wiser to use your hands. You and your poles will be the better for it. Going ultralight means knowing when (and when not) to use your gear.

Hiking poles are often a vital component of a good tarp pitch for me as well.

NOTE (12/4/14): I now highly recommend Gossamer Gear’s LT3C fixed length trekking pole for those with the budget and skill level to use them effectively.

#4. AquaMira

Forget pumps (heavy and bulky), gravity filters (unnecessarily complex and slow), or fancy UV light pens (unreliable and often ineffective).

AquaMira drops weigh 3oz (when full), never run out of batteries, take up less space than a headlamp, and will purify your water while you walk.

A single package of AquaMira drops will treat enough water to hike for “15-60 days“. In my experience, a new package of AquaMira will be used up in about 30-40 days on the trail.

Check out their site here.

NOTE (12/4/14): I now recommend bleach as a chemical purifier for backcountry travel. See my write up on my experience with bleach for water purification.

#5. Trail Runners

Forget hiking boots. With very few exceptions, they’re obsolete and ineffective in 3-season conditions.

Waterproof boots never keep the water out, the waterproofing wears out before the boot, and they invariably trap too much moisture inside the boot (from sweat). Also, THEY WEIGH A TON!

Weight on the feet is disproportionately more exhausting than weight carried on the torso.

Trail runners dry faster once wet, allow a much greater rate of transpiration, are more comfortable, cheaper, and (most importantly) can weigh 1/5 what a full boot does.

Once your pack weight is under 20lbs (hopefully closer to 10lbs), you won’t need the extra ankle support of a full boot.

Hit the trail with a pair of light runners, and you’ll never want to wear a boot again.