Bugging-out: Ultra-light

The Ultimate Escape Pod

I obsessed over “escape pods” as a kid.

Inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek and Batman, every Lego spaceship required a mini craft that could detach and sail away when the main craft, inevitably, faced destruction.

Not that prepping for a bug-out is anything like a childhood Lego project. (Well. Okay. It’s a little like that.)

I think of bugging-out or bugging-home in two layers: my automobile and my escape pod. The escape pod, I believe, cannot be overlooked — there are too many scenarios where my primary vehicle might be rendered inoperable (EMP, traffic jams, or gas issues.) In a nutshell, it’s paramount to perfect your plan to bug-out on foot.

Being a Gear Head, and being surrounded by the Gear Heads of ReadyMan and Black Rifle Coffee Company, I live in an eternal milieu of gear ideas that deliver on bolstering survival. Figuring out the ideal backpacking “escape pod” has become a team obsession, especially snaring Evan Hafer and I.

A year ago, I challenged three of our special forces veterans, Jeff Kirkham (Green Beret), Evan Hafer (Green Beret) and Chad Wade (Navy SEAL), to bug-out from Salt Lake to our bug-out farm sixty-five miles away — in the dead of night, in the middle of winter and without motorized vehicles. We’ve yet to edit the footage — but I’ll tell you that it’s revolutionary.

Their gear selection broke all of my pre-conceived notions about bugging out on foot. Evan and Jeff both selected kit that weighed in under twenty pounds each, and Jeff’s came in under ten pounds, not counting his handgun. (Chad, in typical SEAL fashion, packed a big pack, then stole a skateboard he found at a park. He skateboarded almost all the way to the farm, only crashing, spectacularly, about a dozen times.)

Since then, by picking Evan and Jeff’s brain and doing tons of online research, I’ve discovered the world of ultra-light backpacking. I spent this entire season backpacking, with ever-decreasing weight and ever-increasing duration, testing the limits of ultra-light bugging out. I finished the season bush-whacking thirty-nine miles in three days, with less than twenty pounds on my back and zero blisters.

The conclusion, between Evan and myself: the ONLY way to bug-out or bug-home on foot is ultra-light. Nothing else makes sense. Even a bicycle or motorcycle bug-out should be ultra-light. There simply is no good reason to overlook the massive advantage of a ten to twenty pound pack.

Cost. Most ultra-light equipment is either cheap, free or costs the same as “regular” equipment. The best stove we’ve ever seen (after testing dozens) costs $40. (Evernew Titanium Alcohol Stove). There are several “systems” that can be somewhat more expensive. An ultra-light backpack, if you go best-of-the-best, will run $350 (ZPacks, Arc Zip). And, you can always spend a mint on a high-end sleeping bag if you really want to shave ounces (Western Mountaineering.) However, most of the best ultra-light stuff can be made at home with a regular sewing machine and patterns pulled off the internet or purchased at do-it-yourself providers like RipStop By the Roll. If cost is your major reason for not going ultra-light, then you’re not being creative enough.

Durability. I don’t think I know anyone who backpacks more than Evan and I. Yet, our ultra-light tarps, bivy sacks, backpacks and kit hold up just fine. The durability issues you should be fretting over are the durability issues of your body, especially if you’re over forty. Every ounce hammers the hell out of your knees, feet, hips and back. A little tear in your backpack isn’t going to leave you dead on the side of the road. Huge holes in your feet, from carrying too much gear, just might.

Two is One. One is None. Bullshit. Sorry, not when backpacking. I know it’s part of the prepper religion, but it’s still bullshit. Here’s why: you only have one foot on each side, one knee, one hip and a single back. If doubling up on gear wears down your feet, knees, hips or back, you are screwed. Better to take just one small knife than to have three knives — and blistered feet. Again, after backpacking right up to the edge of divorce over the last several years, I know what I need and I know what I don’t need in my pack. I need two Bic lighters. I need both an alcohol stove and a (two ounce) wood burning stove. Other than that, I don’t need two of anything. Use your gear many times a season and know it like you know your wife’s hot-button issues (“NO. You do NOT look fat in that dress.”)

“This Piece of Gear Hardly Weighs Anything.” You can’t say that if you’re going to make it under twenty pounds. If you say that, even once, you’ll go over thirty pounds. Ultra-light favors the compulsive personality. You need to find your OCD self if you’re going to achieve ultra-light. Achieve a weight UNDER twenty pounds, then carefully add back conveniences. In short, here’s how it has to work:

  • Connector.

    Base Weight

    (Everything in your backpack NOT including consumables: food, water, & fuel.) Should be UNDER 10 pounds. Includes pack, shelter system, cooking system and small stuff.)

  • Connector.

    Consumable Weight

    (Everything in your backpack that’s consumable: food, water & fuel.) Should be UNDER 10 pounds up to ten days on the trail.

  • Connector.

    Skin-out Weight

    (Stuff you’re wearing or holding: clothes, trekking poles, hat.) You need to be disciplined about this because it jacks your body just like any other weight, even though it doesn’t “count” toward your base weight.

Total weight in your pack: LESS than 20 pounds.

Sitting in the back of my SUV, I keep my heavy-duty stuff alongside my ultra-light stuff. I still have my heavy stove, my heavy tent, my big-ass knife, and my rifle, stored in a big-ole heavy-duty bag right there in my trunk — and I even have duplicates. Beside it, I keep my escape pod — an ultra-light backpack that’ll allow me to scream my way to my bug-out location on foot. It’s so light, I can almost trot twenty miles a day.

It’s not an easy transition, from heavy-duty backpacking to ultra-light backpacking. It requires a different way of thinking about moving through the outdoors. It requires letting go of many pieces of beloved gear.

But if you’re a Gear Head, that also means spending blissful hours tinkering, shopping and crafting Christmas lists. The only thing better than loving your current gear is falling in love anew.

May you enjoy ultra-light as much as Evan and I have enjoyed it.

DIY Resources for Ultra-Light:

DIY Bivy Sack: DIYGearSupply

DIY Sleeping Bag/Quilt: Backpacking.net


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