Lightweight camping

The cycle-tourist I met at Coalmine Beach Holiday Park in Walpole, Western Australia, had ridden more than 500km from Perth with her camping gear.

The cycle-tourist I met at Coalmine Beach Holiday Park in Walpole, Western Australia, had ridden more than 500km from Perth with her camping gear

I’m obsessed with my weight.

No, not in the way you think. I’m talking about the weight of my camping gear, and the magic number on the scales is 23kg. That’s the luggage limit on Qantas and Virgin flights. It has ruled my life – culled my wardrobe, limited my diet and defined my very existence – for the past two months.

For two months I’ve been flying around Australia researching remote parts of the country for Australia’s Best Campsites, a travel guide which will be published in October 2014 by Explore Australia.

My routine is this: fly to capital city, rent car at airport, dash to supermarket to buy food and stove fuel, drive as far I can before nightfall, set up camp, rinse and repeat. So far I’ve taken 10 flights, rented six cars, and eaten 47 heat-in-the-bag instant Indian dinners (hey, they’re delicious).

Camping without an esky or a fridge means a lot of lentils and beans.

Camping without an esky or a fridge means a lot of lentils and beans

So how easy is it to fit all the gear you need to be totally self-sufficient into one bag weighing no more than 23kg? Tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, stove, pots, eating utensils, clothes, toiletries, waterproof gear, torch, spare batteries, first-aid kit, maps … these things add up.

It’s do-able, if you plan carefully.

My top tip for camping by plane: make some friends. Travel with one or two other people. A group of three is the most efficient number in terms of weight. Three people can share a lot of the same gear that otherwise one person would use alone – tent, stove, pots and first-aid kit, for example. A lightweight three-person tent divided by three is still lighter than a one-person tent divided by one.

Mind you, I’m not following my own advice. I’m camping solo. So that person you saw at Darwin airport last week wearing a Goretex jacket and hiking boots in 36-degree heat? That was me with all my pockets bulging full of socks, undies and everything else that wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

Which brings me to my second tip: practise lightweight camping by going hiking (or bike-touring) for a couple of days. There’s nothing like carrying everything on your back for 25km to change your idea of what’s essential and what can stay at home. That’s how I learnt that no, I can’t enjoy a camping trip without real coffee, even if it means lugging a plunger over the top of the Andes.

For this hiking trip in Chile, my ratio of pack-weight to body-weight was about 1:3. My shoulders would have been much happier with a ratio of 1:5.

For this hiking trip in Chile, my ratio of pack-weight to body-weight was about 1:3. My shoulders would have been much happier with a ratio of 1:5.

My third tip: you don’t need as many clothes as you think you do. On my latest trip I knew I wouldn’t see a laundry more than once a week and I packed accordingly. That meant 14 socks. Don’t tell anyone, but it turns out I’m usually wearing the same socks three days in a row. (You were wondering why I’m camping solo? Now you know.) So I’m travelling with a whole lot of excess socks, which explains the Michelin Man look at Darwin airport. Don’t even get me started on the undies situation.

For me, gear is a means to enjoying a camping trip. For some, gear is virtually an end in its own right. And if you’re a gear freak with cash to spare, lightweight camping is easy – just keep spending money on smaller and lighter stuff until you’ve got almost nothing to show for it. I’ve known hikers who love heading into the mountains for three nights with less than 10kg of ‘food’ and equipment. ‘Food’ means protein bars, soaked cold noodles and peanut butter. No cooking, no stove weight, no worries.

I’m mocking them, yet really we share the same philosophy – that reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ we have frees us up to enjoy the natural environment. Which is the whole reason I love camping in the first place.

I haven’t seen many other lightweight campers during my trip, although I’ve seen plenty of travellers who look equipped to launch the next expedition into space.

T-9 minutes and counting: set for launch from Wilpena Pound campground, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. The ute travels on the trailer behind the bus under the boat.

T-9 minutes and counting: set for launch from Wilpena Pound campground, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. The ute travels on the trailer behind the bus under the boat

Less stuff means less time earning money to buy the stuff, less time setting up camp, less time packing up, less stuff cluttering up the view of the bush, and more time sitting around the campsite drinking tea. Or fishing. Or building sandcastles. More time birdwatching, or bushwalking.

Less gear, more time: Lake Catani, Mt Buffalo National Park, Victoria.

Less gear, more time: Lake Catani, Mt Buffalo National Park, Victoria

That said, my philosophy (and the airline luggage limit) means I’m camping without a chair, and right now I’d give anything for a chair. I guess everyone has to figure out their own camping comfort zone. I’m still figuring out mine.

Chairs: the keys to camping comfort.

Chairs: the keys to camping comfort

Kerryn Burgess is the author of Cool Camping Australia: East Coast, and is currently on the road researching campsites for her new book, Australia’s Best Camping, which will be published in October 2014 by Explore Australia.