Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket

The basic issue, for me, is the jacket’s active exertion comfort range, by itself, occurs at colder temperatures than I normally encounter. On many occasions, especially sunny, calm, cool (25-35F) conditions, the jacket simply got too hot so I had to take it off.

By Will Rietveld

The concept started with the introduction of Polartec Alpha – breathable insulation claimed to maintain warmth and comfort while actively exercising. Soon after the introduction many manufacturers offered breathable insulated jackets. Although Patagonia uses their proprietary FullRange Insulation rather than Polartec Alpha in the Nano-Air Jacket, the functionality is basically the same, and Patagonia does a great job with the implementation.

Patagonia men’s Nano-Air Jacket in “Underwater Blue”.

The Nano-Air, and other jackets of this type, are claimed to be a jacket that you never have to repeatedly put on and take off to stay comfortable in varying conditions, and one that permits the user to stay comfortable no matter what level of activity. That’s a “lofty” claim, so I decided to try one out to see how it actually performs. Actually, if the claims are even somewhat real, that would be a good improvement.

Specifications and Features

Patagonia (www.patagonia.com)
Men’s Nano-Air Jacket
Shell and Lining
Shell is 1.3 oz/sq yd 20-denier nylon ripstop with DWR, lining is 2 oz/sq yd 50-denier plain weave nylon with DWR; both have 2-way stretch
60-gram FullRange polyester, 40 CFM
Measured weight men’s Large 13.2 oz; mfr specification 12.5 oz for size Medium
Full-height front zipper with storm flap behind, 2 zippered handwarmer pockets, 1 zippered chest pocket, elastic cuffs, hem drawcord with 2 adjustors
Athletic fit with set-in sleeves, “unlimited range of motion”


Front View. The Nano-Air has an athletic fit, meaning close to body. The sleeves are extra long and trim, and the body extends below the waist. The full-height zipper is not the water-resistant type.

Back View: The jacket is sized so it can be worn over a heavier baselayer or fleece pullover.

Hand Pockets. Two “handwarmer” pockets are actually lined with the shell and lining fabrics. Both are very soft so they feel warm. The pockets are large enough to store gloves.

Chest Pocket and Shell Fabric. The chest pocket is large enough to store a compact camera or cell phone. There is no port to route ear buds. This photo also give a good closeup of the shell fabric, which has a very soft/pleasant feel. It’s ripstop nylon for durability that has been brushed for softness and has a DWR treatment.

Hem Drawcord and Lining Fabric. The hem drawcord has two adjustors (one shown) for sealing the bottom of the jacket. The lining is brushed plain weave nylon with a DRW treatment. Both shell and lining fabrics have two-way stretch.

Underarm. Brick quilting in the side panels, plus articulated patterning and other quilting details improve the jacket’s shape and durability.



I tested the Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket on a total of 11 trips that included backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snow walking, and two multi-day ski-in trips to a mountain cabin.

Here are my fit/feel/ergonomic observations from testing:
  • The jacket is incredibly soft and supple, and has a stretchy feel.
  • The fit is excellent and true to size.
  • The back covers my butt.
  • There is room inside for some layering if desired.
  • The fit around my neck is loose (see the first photo under Description).
  • It has wonderful articulation and is very comfortable to wear.
  • The hand pockets are located high, above a backpack hipbelt.
  • Love the longer sleeves. 

Both the shell and lining have a good DWR treatment, which causes water to bead up and roll off, and prevent snow from sticking.

The brushed nylon fabric is easy to stain around the collar, but it’s easy to clean just that area.

My observations on temperature regulation and comfort in high-exertion activities are a mixed bag:
  • For me, the jacket performed best over a thin baselayer to get maximum benefit from its breathability.
  • Adjusting ventilation by opening/closing the front zipper, or tightening/loosening the hem drawcord are more effective for temperature regulation than jacket breathable insulation and fabrics.
  • The aforementioned combination of ventilation and breathability factors are sufficiently effective during active exertion only in cold or very cool conditions, specifically below 25F, overcast, and breezy/windy. Some combination of those factors is required for comfort, otherwise the jacket is too hot to wear comfortably.
  • On several cold days (below 15F) the jacket performed wonderfully with the front zipper closed.
  • However, on many occasions (not cool, overcast, or breezy enough), the jacket simply got too hot, even with the front zipper open, and I had to take it off.
  • As claimed, donning a shell over the jacket in really cold/windy conditions adds a lot of warmth.
  • When I stop to rest, the jacket dries out quickly, and I get chilly if I don’t donn a shell over it.



The basic issue, for me, is the jacket’s active exertion comfort range, by itself, occurs at colder temperatures than I normally encounter. On many occasions, especially sunny, calm, cool (25-35F) conditions, the jacket simply got too hot so I had to take it off.

I do agree that the jacket’s fabrics and insulation help to extend the comfort period, but a larger amount of temperature regulation is accomplished by simply opening or closing the front zipper.  I find the same to be true when I test waterproof/breathable rain shells – fabric breathability helps, but ventilation is the main contributor to comfort.

It appears, for me, that a lighter weight breathable jacket is needed, such as the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket, to accomplish the “keep it on” goal for high exertion sports in cool and cold weather. I can always don a shell over the lighter insulation layer if I get too chilly.

For light or moderate exertion in cool temperatures, like a walking pace on flatter ground, the Nano-Air performs well; it’s a matter of consistent weather conditions and activity level. However, how often does that happen? If the sun comes out, or a hill comes up, or the wind stops, its time to open the front zipper to regulate temperature, the same as any other jacket.

The bottom line from my testing is the Nano-Air Jacket effectively regulates temperature in cold weather active endeavors, but its too much insulation (for me) to wear continuously in active cool weather sports. The latter is more common in my situation, so the Nano-Air Jacket is too much insulation if the goal is to “keep it on”. I believe a more functional and versatile option would be to go with a lighter breathable insulation garment, like the new Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket and don a highly breathable shell over it (such as the new Patagonia Airshed Pullover), as needed to maintain comfort. A combination of those layers, plus the huge ventilation benefits from simply adjusting the zipper(s) should perform well.

Monday, February 27, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: 2017 Gossamer Gear Silverback 50 Backpack

The new Silverback incorporates all of the improvements introduced in the 2016 upgrade of the Gorilla pack. In my review of the 2016 Gorilla I stated “The Gorilla is now a very refined backpack, and still retains Gossamer Gear’s DNA for lightweight and functionality.” The new Silverback gets all of that, so it’s a very refined backpack from the get-go.

By Will Rietveld

The Silverback is new for 2017, and a brand new model for Gossamer Gear. With 50 liters of volume, it fits squarely between the Gorilla (40 liters) and Mariposa (60 liters).

The brand-new Gossamer Gear Silverback 50 Backpack for 2017 (Gossamer Gear photo).

 In the past, many pack buyers had a hard time deciding which Gossamer Gear pack to get: they worried that the Gorilla is too small, so they opted to get the larger Mariposa, which weighs only a few ounces more and is has a similar price tag. The trouble with that rationale is the Mariposa is a big jump in volume and the buyer may not actually need all that volume.

Enter the midsized Silverback 50; how does the Silverback fit in, perform, and compare with its siblings?

Specifications and Features

Gossamer Gear (www.gossamergear.com)
Silverback 50
50 Liters
Mfr spec size Medium complete pack 37.4 ounces, measured weight size Large with Medium hipbelt 38.25 oz for the complete pack
Contoured aluminum frame, 210D Robic Nylon body, 210D Robic/Extreema Grid reinforcements and high wear areas, air mesh harness lining, power mesh pad holder
Large fabric front pocket, 2 durable fabric side pockets, fitted floating detachable top pocket, 2 zippered hipbelt pockets, 4 side compression straps, hydration sleeve with 1 center hose port, 9-inch extension collar, drawcord top closure, trekking pole holders, removable corrugated Sitlight pad backpanel, sternum strap, ice axe loop, haul loop.
$260 with hipbelt


The short answer, if you are already familiar with the new 2016 Gorilla pack, is the Silverback is a larger volume version of the Gorilla – the design and feature set are the same, and the two packs differ only in their dimensions and materials used.

The longer version, with a focus on important upgrades and specific differences, is presented below.

There are six main changes in the 2016 Gorilla transferred to the new 2017 Silverback, and all of them are significant:
  1. The contoured tubular aluminum frame connects to the hipbelt
  2. A stiffened hipbelt is more supportive
  3. A fitted, floating, and removable top pocket
  4. Large gusseted hipbelt pockets
  5. New Robic fabrics in the packs’ body and reinforcements; lighter fabrics in the Gorilla and heavier fabrics in the Silverback.
  6. One center hydration tube port
In previous Gossamer Gear packs, the one-piece U-shaped contoured tubular aluminum stay merely resided in sleeves on the backpanel. It served as a pack stiffener, but it was not an integrated internal frame. With the new 2016 Gorilla (and existing Mariposa), the ends of the stay anchored in sleeves on the back of the hipbelt, making it a true internal frame backpack. The same design is used in the new Silverback.

A layer of semi-stiff plastic has been added to the hipbelt to make it stiffer, so it now works in concert with the connected stays to improve weight transfer and carry comfort. Note the stay pockets on the back of the hipbelt. The combination is a very significant upgrade, which I will explain later. (Gossamer Gear photo)

Frontpanel View. With its 9-inch extension collar filled, the Silverback is a tall, voluminous pack. The large gusseted front pocket is durable 210D Robic fabric, while the Gorilla’s is mesh. The bottom of the front pocket, side pockets, and lid are even more durable 210D Robic/Extreema Grid fabric (the Gorilla’s fabrics are 70D and 100D Robic).

What are Robic fabrics, now used in most of Gossamer Gear’s backpacks? Robic, made by Korea’s Hyosung Corporation, is a high-tenacity nylon fabric designed for applications where very high resilience and durability are needed. It surpasses ordinary Nylon 6 in tensile strength, tear strength, puncture resistance, and abrasion resistance. It has physical properties similar to Nylon 66 fabrics used for industrial purposes, at a lower cost. According to the manufacturer, this fabric can easily retain its original exterior even after long periods of use. In comparison, the familiar 210D Dyneema Gridstop contains super strong Spectra fibers in a grid pattern, but the rest of the fabric is ordinary Nylon.

Backpanel View. Again, the extension collar is completely filled in this photo. The new fitted floating top cap has a full width zipper and is removable, reducing the pack’s weight by 3.5 ounces. The pack does not have load levelers or hipbelt stabilizer straps.

Side View: Each side has two compression straps. Because the pack body depth is larger, the side pockets are also larger, wide enough to hold two 1-liter bottles or all of your rain gear in one pocket. The extension collar is full in this photo.

A closer look at the new top cap. It has a full-width zipper on the opposite side. The photo also gives a closer look at Gossamer Gear’s 210D Robic/Extreema Grid fabric that is used in high stress and high abrasion areas. The extension collar is not filled in this photo.

Shoulder Harness. The Silverback has Gossamer Gear’s new narrower, thicker, contoured shoulder straps, which are more female friendly. They are 2.75 inches wide and 5/8-inch thick. The hipbelt is 4.5 inches wide and is interchangeable with the Gorilla and Mariposa. Note the depth of the filled right pocket.

Gossamer Gear’s traditional mesh pad sleeve is a foundation feature; it holds a lightweight corrugated foam pad that serves as a backpanel and is removable for use as a sit pad. A ThinLight Pad or inflatable sleeping pad can be substituted if desired. 

A closer look at the air mesh lining on the shoulder straps and hipbelt.
The hipbelt pockets are significantly larger and deeper than previous ones, expanding out as much as 2.5 inches. The same hipbelt (available in three sizes) is used on the Gorilla, Silverback, and Mariposa.

Side pocket closer look. Because they are wider on the Silverback, the side pockets will hold a lot, like two water bottles, or a 2-liter flask, or a rainsuit. With heavier weight they hang down below the bottom of the pack.

With the top lid removed the pack's extension collar becomes a drawcord/rolltop closure at shoulder strap height with two cross straps. The straps are not long enough to cross over a filled extension collar. This mode reduces the pack's volume, cuts 3.5 ounces of weight, and lowers pack height for ducking under branches.


During late fall and winter months I was able to test the Silverback on one 4-day southern Utah canyon country backpacking trip (left), one 6-day ski-in hut trip (right), and four day hikes carrying different loads. In the left photo I am carrying 2 gallons of water, so the pack is very heavy. On the right I carried about 25 pounds on an 11-mile ski trip to the cabin.

As with the updated Gorilla, the frame anchored to the back of a stiffened hipbelt effectively transfers weight to the hips and comfortably carries a heavier load. On my Utah backpacking trip I carried 2 gallons of water at times for trail use and dry camping, which bumped pack weight up to 30 pounds or more. The pack handled the weight well, although (for me) it was still a lot of weight.

My pack load testing on dayhikes corroborated my backpacking experience. With loads under 25 pounds, the pack will transfer all of the weight to my hips and carry it very comfortably. At 30 pounds the pack puts about one-fourth of the weight on my shoulders, which is still comfortable, but I can feel the weight more. The sweet spot is 20 to 25 pounds.

The larger hipbelt pockets are wonderful compared to the old ones. I could barely get my compact camera in the old ones, but the new pockets have loads of room.

The top pocket fits well and is a very functional component of the pack. The net weight increase is small compared to the Over the Top Flap previously used on Gossamer Gear backpacks, but it provides a lot more useful volume in the right place. The top pocket is perfect for stowing a jacket or rainwear. If it’s not needed it can easily be removed to save weight, or it can be used as a daypack, using a light cord or strap around the waist to carry it.

When the extension collar is filled, the Silverback gains a lot more volume and it is a tall pack, as shown in the Description section, about level with the top of my head. That results in frequent brushes when ducking under tree branches. It's much less of an issue when the pack is filled to the bottom of the extension collar, which is shoulder height.


With the addition of a floating top pocket, the Gorilla and Silverback move one step closer to a “conventional” top-loader backpack. That’s not a bad thing; that feature set is hard to improve on. However, Gossamer Gear’s DNA is still intact with its signature large front pocket and backpanel pad sleeve containing a removable sit pad. The very lightweight U-shaped contoured aluminum frame is another mainstay, so to speak.

The new Silverback incorporates all of the improvements introduced in the 2016 upgrade of the Gorilla pack. In my review of the 2016 Gorilla I stated “The Gorilla is now a very refined backpack, and still retains Gossamer Gear’s DNA for lightweight and functionality.” The new Silverback gets all of that, so it’s a very refined backpack from the get-go.

Very few manufactures have successfully incorporated so many lightweight functional features into a fully-featured workhorse backpack that weighs less then 2.5 pounds, and Gossamer Gear arguably does it the best. The Silverback is durable, full-featured, very functional, adjustable in volume, and comfortably carries a reasonable load.

Another way of saying this is that Gossamer Gear’s packs are targeted to those people who have successfully reduced the weight and volume of their gear kit, and can now reduce the weight and volume of their backpack as well. And their packs are also a good choice for anyone who intends to reduce the weight of their gear kit. Although the packs will handle a load of 30 pounds or more, they are at their best with 20-25 pounds of weight, which is where any enlightened backpacker will be.

The Silverback has a ton of volume. I had a hard time utilizing all the space. However the pack’s four side compression straps allow easy volume adjustment for smaller loads, or to use it as a daypack from camp. This is much more than I can say for Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa 60 backpack, which does not have any side compression straps.

This brings up the FAQ of which pack to get. Previously many buyers opted for the larger Mariposa pack because they feared the Gorilla was too small. However the Mariposa has the aforementioned drawback, so it is not a perfect solution. The Mariposa works best when it is fully expanded, and doesn’t have any volume reduction capability.

Even though the Silverback is 10 liters larger than the Gorilla, and utilizes heavier fabrics, the weight is just 2.65 ounces more (38.25 ounces versus 35.6 ounces, respectively, based on a size Large pack and size Medium hipbelt for both packs). Thus, for a person who carries a widely varying gear kit for different trips, or simply wants to make sure the pack is big enough, the Silverback is the perfect choice; it will easily adjust to the load size. It should meet the needs of any lightweight backpacker, or carry any higher volume/lighter weight load.

However, if you have a fairly standard gear kit that you consistently use, I recommend that you  measure the actual volume of your gear kit, add about 25% for consumables (food, water, and fuel), and match your pack choice to that volume. No sense carrying any more pack weight than you really need.

Overall, the Silverback fills the gap between the Gorilla and Mariposa, and is every bit as capable as the Gorilla while providing more volume. It handily answers the question of which pack to get because it has plenty of volume at the top end, and easily adjusts for smaller loads.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Columbia/Montrail Caldorado II Trail Shoe

By Will Rietveld

As an ultralight backpacker, I wear trail running shoes to lighten my feet for backpacking and day hiking, and I do a lot of off-trail hiking. I do some trail running to condition for backpacking. It is in this context that I review the Caldorado II shoe – fastpacking on rough trails and rugged off-trail terrain.

Columbia/Montrail Caldorado II shoe (manufacturer photo).
For that purpose I don’t go with the lightest shoe I can find, rather I look for a stable, supportive, cushioned, rock-protected shoe with a good traction outsole, which weighs a bit more. This type of shoe performs the best for me over steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

I was a fan of Montrail shoes years ago before it was acquired by Columbia, and loved models like the Hurricane Ridge and Hardrock. Their IntegralFit had a wider toebox which suited my wide feet just fine.  But around 2009 Montrail changed their last and my feet rebelled against them; I couldn’t wear Montrails anymore.

With the Columbia influence, Montrail shoes are looking more attractive to me for hiking and backpacking, so I gave the Caldorado II a test. The basic question addressed in this review is: how well does the Caldorado II perform for hiking and backpacking in rugged trail and off-trail conditions?

Specifications and Features

Caldorado II (men’s version)
Manufacturer specification 10.4 oz (men’s 9); size 12 tested (12.8 oz/shoe)
“Seamless upper, coupled with enhanced collar foam, fully integrated gusset, and reinforced toe cap provide comfort and protection”
“FluidFoam midsole for exceptional cushioning, flexibility and support. Patented FluidGuide technology for enhanced midfoot stability and a smooth ride on the trail. Ride heights: 19mm heel/11mm forefoot” 8 mm drop
“Full length rubber outsole. TrailShield protection plate integrated with forefoot flex grooves. Multi-directional OmniGrip lug patterns provide traction on varied surfaces. 4mm outsole lug height”

Key information in the specifications is that Columbia/Montrail combines all of their latest technologies -- a seamless upper, FluidFoam cushioning, FluidGuide stability control, TrailShield protection plate, and OmniGrip traction – in this latest version, the Caldorado II. Columbia claims this shoe has the “ideal balance of support, traction, cushioning, and light weight”.


I put Columbia’s claim to the test in 10 rugged day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips in southern Colorado and Utah. On this day hike the shoes are brand new. I wore thinner socks in them to get as much toebox width as possible for my wide (E width) feet. The shoes have a snug heelcup.

The insole in the Caldorado II wraps around the bottom of the foot and is well cushioned. It’s much nicer than the average manufacturer insole, so tested the Caldorado II with its original insoles. Photo taken after 6 months of use.

I typically wear short ultralight gaiters over trail running shoes for hiking.

The outsole has great traction on a variety of surfaces, and cleans out well. I wore the shoes crossing a lot of sliderock and scree on steep slopes in the mountains, and on slickrock and sand in Utah

Besides typical backpacking, I wore the shoes on a wading hike on the Muddy River in southern Utah, which lived up to its name. On that hike the shoes got very muddy and washed off many times.

After seven trips, the weak spot in the Caldorado became evident – heavy wear in the lateral fifth metatarsal head area. On other shoes I have worn the stitching in this zone, allowing the seam to open. I really like welded construction of the Caldorado, but this area needs more durable materials if the shoes are to withstand off-trail backpacking and hiking. I patched the wear area on both shoes with Type A Tear-Aid Repair Patches after cleaning the shoes, but neglected to take a photo. No matter, the patches came right off. I patched them again with the same material and got the same result.

This photo shows more advanced wear after 10 trips; the upper fabric is worn completely through. I will next try patching with McNett’s Tenacious tape on the inside of the shoes.


For comfort, the Caldorado II performed really well for me. I have wide feet with a high arch and high instep. My only issue is the wear problem in one vulnerable area, as shown in the photos.

Although I have wide feet I found the Caldorado II to be adequately wide for my feet, wearing thinner socks.

The midsole cushioning in these shoes is superb. I noticed it immediately on my first trip, and grew to love the extra cushioning while traversing rugged terrain. Cushioning on the tongue and ankle are also very good. My feet thanked me at the end of the day.

Likewise, the shoes are very supportive in off-camber terrain. Of course they can’t match the support of a regular hiking boot, but, for me, their support is certainly adequate. I have strong ankles and no particular need for extra support, so trail runners work great for me.

Finally, their traction also met my expectations.


Overall, my testing confirmed that the Caldorado II does have an ideal balance of support, cushioning, traction, and light weight.

However, Columbia doesn’t mention durability. To be fair, my application is “off label” for a trail running shoe; the upper is probably more than durable enough for typical trail running. But for off-trail hiking and backpacking, I discovered a significant weak spot that deserves more protection in the next version.

Aside from the localized wear issue, I am very impressed with the overall performance of the Columbia/Montrail Caldorado II shoe, and it ranks among my favorite shoes for off-trail hiking and backpacking.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Kahtoola NanoSpikes and MicroSpikes for Hiking on Snowpacked and Icy Trails

By Will Rietveld

When I’m not in the mountains skiing or snowshoeing, I like to go on a daily snow hike for exercise. The trails get snowpacked and eventually icy. I don’t want to bust my butt, so I often wear a slip-on traction device. In this review I report on the Kahtoola NamoSpikes and MicroSpikes, two of many options available.
The NanoSpikes are meant for running and walking on hard, icy surfaces, and have 10 tungsten carbide studs for traction. The studs are secured in pads over the boot’s outsole. The boot’s tread is mostly covered by the pads.
The NanoSpike have an elaborate elastomer harness, that stays flexible in cold temperatures. In size XL they weigh 9.05 ounces per pair. Cost is $50

The NanoSpikes are fussy to put on; I found it easier to attach the NanoSpikes to my boots, and then put the boots on. The harness securely attaches to a hiking boot or running shoe; no problem with them coming off.  It works well to leave the Spikes on the boots I commonly hike in. No problem driving a car with them on.

The NanoSpikes make individual impressions in the snow (to the right of the boot). I noticed that the two spikes at the toe end don’t contact much on flat trail, but do help for pushing off on each stride.

How well do the NanoSpikes perform? After several day hikes on snowpacked undulating icy trails, I found they generally provide good traction, but I did not develop complete confidence in them. There was an occasionally short slip on snowpacked and icy trails on level sections and uphills. However, downhill icy trail sections required caution to avoid a slide.

Next I tested the Kahtoola MicroSpikes. This traction device has a similar elastomer harness, but the Spikes are more serious – 12 hardened 3/8-inch stainless steel spikes per foot, connected by stainless steel chain. The design leaves most of the boot’s tread exposed. In size XL the weight is 13.55 ounces per pair. Cost is $70.

One trip is all it took to evaluate the MicroSpikes. For hiking, they are the way to go; da bomb as they say. They never slipped and I had complete confidence on any surface or slope.

My pick is clearly the MicroSpikes for hiking on snowpacked and icy trails. The traction is so good I can walk normally and forget about sliding or falling. The MicroSpikes are easier to put on than the NanoSpikes, but I still like to slip them on my empty boots and then put the boots on. The elastomer harness is well designed and stays flexible down to minus 22F. There is little chance of them coming off, unless they get hooked on something.

Being a weight conscious hiker, I note that both traction devices are on the heavy side. That’s less of an issue for day hiking, and the harness is bombproof, so the extra weight is justified. However, for backpacking where icy trails could be an issue, I would be looking for something lighter.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Simple, Minimalist, and Ultralight Approach to Catching, Cleaning, and Cooking a Backcountry Fish Dinner

By Will Rietveld


I don’t always fish on wilderness trips in the mountains, partly because my “ultralight” fishing gear, consisting of a lightweight and compact spinning rod and reel and 2-3 lures, weighs 10 ounces, which is significant. It really works well to catch and release trout in alpine lakes. However, for me, fishing is optional, and fishing gear adds weight to my pack.

Fly fishing with my 1.6 ounce handline system at an alpine lake.

Enter the handline. I didn’t invent it; Rik Christensen did that (read his article “Ultralight Tic Tac Fishing Kit” on the Gossamer Gear Blog). His kit consists of a plastic Tic Tac mint container with fishing line wrapped around it and a few spinning lures inside. He doesn’t give the weight, but it’s obviously very light.

I first met the Tic Tac handline when Glen Van Peski (Gossamer Gear founder and Master of UL backpacking) joined me on three backpacking trips in my backyard, the Weminuche Wilderness in southern Colorado. On the first trip I caught lots of fish with my spinning outfit, but Glen had little success with his handline, so we took turns catching fish with the spinning rod. However, on our most recent trip Glen was catching fish with the handline; he had mastered the technique. That opened my eyes, and my mind.

I reasoned that it is difficult to retrieve fast enough with a handline to keep the lure from snagging the bottom, so using a handline with a spinning lure is challenging. My aha! moment was when I realized that the handline might work much better with a fly and bubble, because the bubble and fly float on the surface.

Success; I found a bubble and a fly works better on a handline (for trout at least) than a spinning lure. The bubble and fly float on the surface while being retrieved, while a spinning lure sinks to the bottom where it can easily become snagged.

In this article I describe my own version of an ultralight handline for fishing on wilderness backpacking trips, and how to clean and cook fish without the need for any special cutlery or cookware.

The Handline System

This is my version of an ultralight handline. It consists of a round plastic 50 milliliter mini liquor bottle, 50-75 feet of 6 pound fishing line wrapped around it, a mini fly fishing bubble, and a few dry flies with leaders. The bubble and flies are stored inside the bottle.
The complete system weighs 1.6 ounces, including the stuff sack. A small plastic bag would work just as well as a storage bag.

Finding a mini liquor bottle is easy; empty ones are usually readily available along the roadside, or purchase a full one at any liquor store.

Making the handline is easy:
  1. Remove the bottom from the plastic bottle, and discard the cap.
  2. Tie the fishing line around the neck of the bottle and tape it down.
  3. Wrap 50-75 feet of fishing line (I use 6# line) around the outside of the bottle, and hold it in place with a strip of painter’s (blue or green) masking tape.
  4. Thread the other end of the fishing line through the bubble and then tie on a mini swivel.
  5. Select 2-3 popular artificial fishing flies for your locale and tie a 4-foot long leader on each one, then tie a loop at the other end. It helps to wind the fly and line on a small piece of lightweight foam as shown.
  6. Store the bubble and flies inside the plastic bottle.
  7. A tiny stuff sack is handy to contain the handline, but a small plastic bag will work just as well.

The fishing technique is also easy:
  1. Attach a fly to the swivel.
  2. Fill the bubble about 2/3 full of water to provide weight for casting.
  3. Remove the painter’s tape holding the line in place and pull off about 2-3 feet of line above the bubble.
  4. Holding the bottle in one hand, fling the bubble and fly out with the other hand (this takes a little practice).
  5. Slowly retrieve the line by wrapping it around the bottle while carefully watching the fly beyond the bubble.
  6. When you see a swirl at the fly, pull on the line to hook the fish.
  7. Pull in the fish. It’s hard to maintain tension on the fish by winding the line around the bottle, so you may need to put the bottle in a pocket and pull the line in hand over hand.

Cleaning Fish

Most backpackers carry some kind of folding knife or multi-tool for whatever need that comes up, including cleaning fish. However, from an ultralight backpacker’s viewpoint, a conventional knife is overkill and extra weight. I use a simple single-edged razor blade. That’s all I need; it’s cheap and ultralight (0.1 ounce).
To prepare fish for cooking I gut the fish, cut off the head and tail, and then cut up the fish into pieces about 3 inches long. Another type of lightweight knife is shown in the photo.

Cooking Fish on an Alcohol Stove (or any cooking system)

I avoid starting a fire to cook fish or bringing a frying pan to cook fish because I don’t want the extra weight or environmental impacts.

My method is to simply poach the fish in my cook pot. In my case that’s a Trail Designs Caldera Keg-F cooking system (which uses a 25.4 ounce Foster’s beer can for the cook pot), or more recently a Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System (shown, which uses a shortened version of the same pot).

Again, the method is very simple:
  1. Put sections of fish in the pot, leaving at least 2 inches at the top.
  2. Fill the pot with water to cover the fish about 1 inch. Put the lid on the pot.
  3. Fill the stove’s burner with enough alcohol to heat the fish plus water to boiling.
  4. Start the stove and bring the water to boiling.
  5. Leave the fish in the hot water about 10 minutes (this is the “boil and set” method I use for all of my camp cooking).
  6. Drain the water and take the fish to a nice clean rock to serve as a plate.
  7. Eat and enjoy the scenery.
Another view of the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System, which is about 3 ounces lighter than the Trail Designs Caldera Keg-F system. It uses a smaller more fuel-efficient burner, shorter cone, and shortened cook pot. The minimum weight of the Gossamer Gear cooking system, including an insulated cozy/carry bag is just 2.9 ounces. I will publish a review on the Gossamer Gear system in the near future.


Catching a fish for dinner is a fun activity at a wilderness camp, and it doesn’t need to add weight to your pack and complexity to your trip.  This overall technique makes catching fish and eating them as simple and lightweight as possible.

Taking fishing gear on a backpacking trip is no longer a decision involving a weight penalty; now I include the handline as part of my basic kit, and it only adds 1.6 ounces.

Overall my new fish catching, cleaning, and cooking gear, as described (a handline for catching fish, a single-edged razor blade for cleaning fish, and the new Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System for cooking fish), has reduced my base weight by 11 ounces compared to my previous system. That’s a lot.

Handline fishing works well for catching dinner, but it is a bit tedious for sport fishing.

I’m looking forward to getting out a lot more this coming summer, developing my skill with the handline, and eating more fat trout to supplement my dinners.