Outdoors Information

Ultralight Backpacking Skills - A Three Day Test

On Lake Michigan, at the end of the Stonington Peninsula, there's a stretch of empty beach. Part of the Hiawatha National Forest, it's framed on either side by private property, with no easy access. To walk on the beach, however, is legal. Past the last cabin, the public land starts, and goes for six or seven miles. This is where I would test my ultralight backpacking skills and gear.

I hiked a few miles the first day and explored the woods, where I ate wild blueberries for an hour. Then I set up camp behind a small ridge on the beach. I collected dry grass along the edge of the forest, which made a nice mattress. I pitched my backpacking tarp fairly high, so the breeze would keep out the mosquitos. When camp was set, I went for a swim.

This area has many crayfish, which look and taste just like miniature lobsters. After swimming I caught a dozen under the rocks in shallow water, and carried them back to camp in a whipped-cream container I found. You never know what will wash up on a beach.

I boiled them with some cattail hearts and evening primrose roots, in my cheap three ounce pan. It made a good meal with the crackers I brought. (You remove the meat from the tail of the crayfish, after cooking.)

It was summer, so I hadn't brought a sleeping bag. At seventeen ounces, my bag wouldn't have added much to my packweight of eight pounds. I just wanted to try using a nylon sleeping bag liner I had recently sewn (5 ounces). I wore my clothes to bed, including a hat I made from the sleeve of an old thermal shirt (1 ounce). I slept well, and ate granola bars for breakfast.

Water was all around, so I only had a 16-ounce plastic pop bottle (1 ounce) and a few iodine tablets for purification. I took a good drink before I packed up.

I found fresh bear tracks on the beach. The bear had walked within 60 yards of where I slept. I had a freon horn (2 ounces) that I'd bought after reading that people have used it's high-decible shriek to scare off bears. I pulled it out. I followed the tracks for an hour, but only because I was going in that direction.

I had two old cabins to explore, another patch of berries I knew about, and a beach full things to check out. The strangest item that regularly washes up is light bulbs. I take them home to use them. After years of finding these, a sailor finally told me that they throw them off the ships to shoot at them in the water. I was finding the ones they missed.

The next day I headed back. The rain I expected never came, so I didn't get to test my garbage bag rainsuit (2 ounces), but I had used a similar one with success before. Overall, I was happy with my ultralight backpacking "test." Of course, you can get by with fragile clothing and gear when you're hiking an open beach. Oh, and I never did see the bear.

Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate of lightweight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at http://www.TheUltralightBackpackingSite.com

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