Some people say camping is all about getting back to basics: living outdoors with nature, the clothes on your back, tents, sleeping bag, food, and not much else. For others camping is bringing every modern convenience that you have at home - air conditioners, full kitchens, refrigerators, furniture as well as the laptop and smartphones.
A return to roots
A growing number of people have come to love a more minimal or ultralight approach to camping and hiking – or tramping as we call it in New Zealand. They carry just what is needed on their trips – only the bare essentials for resting, eating, hiking, navigating, and focus on the experience with nature.
Far from being a whimsical trend, the minimalist mentality brings recreational camping closer to its historical roots. When Americans popularised recreational camping in the late 1800s, they did so to break away from urban comforts and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors who conquered and survived in the wild with very little equipment. Given that NZ is a country shaped by explorers, it makes sense for Kiwis to enjoy the same challenge and allure.
Why go ultralight in NZ?
The experience of making it through days and nights with only your wits and basic supplies may be minimalist camping’s ultimate reward. You’ll come out of a trip with a better sense of how to make do with the equipment you have, and a renewed awareness of what nature has to offer.
But ultralight camping is not exclusively for adventurers who want to do as the pioneers did. Casual campers and families can also go minimal simply by reducing the gear they pack for hiking and camping trips. Packing lighter means you can travel faster and more comfortably. With less gear weighing you down, you can reduce fatigue and spend more time exploring and enjoying the environment.
This country overflows with majestic natural beauty. You’ll want all your energy to savour every inch of landscape, marvelling at vistas or gazing at the southern hemisphere’s stunning stars.
Caution: Safety first
There is an obvious flipside to minimalist camping - you’ll have limited supplies in the wild. This may not be much of a problem for overnight or car campers, who can easily restock food or medicine if something goes awry. But if you’re heading deep into the bush, you’ll have to think very carefully about what you are and aren’t bringing, as well as understanding the conditions where you’re camping.
Camping with no modern tools like stoves, headlamps, and GPS devices will no longer seem as romantic if conditions catch you off-guard. Safety is the first priority. Minimalist camping will hone your resourcefulness and survival skills – but you’d better make sure you’ve got the know-how to start with.
Easing the load
One of the most important decisions in going ultralight is choosing a lighter shelter – often a camper’s heaviest piece of equipment. New developments in tent materials such as silnylon and cuben fibre, and aluminium and carbon poles have resulted in production of much lighter, stronger tents and shelters. New designs are aimed at hikers and trampers looking to minimise weight without hindering performance and can weigh as little as one to two pounds (500g-1kg). Many ultralight tent and shelter designs incorporate the use of trekking poles to do away with the weight and bulk of traditional pole systems.
Be aware that most ultralight options are probably more suitable for 2-3 season camping and that as priorities are reducing weight and packed size some sacrifices on other comforts are made when compared to bigger, heavier tents.
Depending on your plans and preferences, some of these ultralight options might work for you:
- Double wall ultralight tents – double wall tents have a separate inner tent and outer fly and designed to protect users from condensation. They’re usually less than 3 pounds (1.5kg), are easy to set up, and protect you from bugs and the elements and have a vestibule for your gear but may be a bit heavier and bulkier than some of the other ultralight alternatives below.
- Single wall ultralight tents and hybrids – a range of new pyramid designs and tarp tent hybrids seek to combine the best of a tent and tarp, most often using trekking poles slashing weight and packed size by having a single wall with floor and mesh to improve ventilation. Great for use as a 2 season option but remember with just one wall that any condensation will be directly inside the tent with you so will need to be well ventilated to reduce moisture build up in cool humid conditions.
- Tarps – Tarps best evoke camping like the old pioneers. Modern versions are lighter and waterproof, and require guy lines, stakes and trees or poles to set them up. There are flat tarps, cat cut tarps and tarps that can be configured into basic shelters. They’re light weight and compact, can be pitched in many ways and of course have great ventilation so few condensation problems. On the other hand they are more difficult to set up, and leave you more exposed to the ground, weather and insects than enclosed tents.
- Bivvy bags – These originated as basic sleeping bag covers for hikers and climbers. They have now developed into waterproof mini shelters with better ventilation, mesh, and even hoops in some to make the head area more comfortable and ‘roomier’. They are very light and packed volume is low, very easy to set up and only require ground space the size of your sleeping bag. The main disadvantages of bivvy bags are their very limited internal space and problems they can have with condensation in cool or wet weather.
- Hammocks – backpacking hammocks are enclosed with mesh netting and are light weight. They’re great for use in forests and are hooked up between trees using a nylon sling so there’s no need to worry about poles or damp ground. Not suitable for terrain without trees and are usually used under a tarp.
Of course, there are other ways to lighten the load - using light weight sleeping gear or footwear, taking dehydrated food to avoid extra cookware, planning ahead to pinpoint fresh water sources on your route instead of bringing extra water … on and on the list can go. Ultimately, know that you don’t have to bring everything, just everything you need.
For more info on which ultralight tent or shelter will suit you most on your next adventure email firstname.lastname@example.org for help with any questions you might have.
Minimalist or Not, Camping Light Is Worth the Effort, GearPatrol.com
Ultralight backpacking basics, REI.com
8 tips for stress-free camping, TheArtofSimple.netBivy Sacks: How to Choose, REI.com