Portage II: The Ultralight Way

“Portage” is Sonic Terrain editor Nathan Moody’s occasional series about the trials and tribulations of carrying audio equipment into the field. Keep an eye open for future installments featuring different styles and techniques of safely getting your gear into the great outdoors.

The author rockin' a 10-pound base packweight in New Zealand. It's just for more room for AV gear!

Recordist-Go-Lightly

I’ve been an ultralight backpacker for a number of years. This involves applying rigid science, equipment choice, and backcountry skill development in order to pare down one’s pack weight without sacrificing safety or capability. Some folks do it so that they can brag about being out for a week with only a 12-pound pack. Some do it because of medical conditions. Some do it to trail run great distances.

Me? I do it so that I have excess capacity to carry audio equipment!

Turns out, though, that a lot of the principles and equipment that is useful for ultralight backpacking are thoroughly appropriate for schlepping audio equipment into the field.

Principle: Repackaging

An ultralight backpacker will not take a whole tube of sunscreen. Instead, they will weigh a container of sunscreen before and after their trip, estimate how many grams of it they use a day, and on future trips they’ll pour the sunscreen into some other (smaller) container so they only take exactly what they need. They do this with medicine, insect repellent, toothpaste, and food, and they call this practicerepackaging.

The same goes with field recording expeditions.

Uh...no. Just don't.

Take power, for example. How many batteries do you need, really? Test how long all your gear will run recording at the sample rate you prefer, remembering that higher sample rate recordings do consume more power than lower ones, and only take the batteries you need. The likelihood a fully-charged battery will fail in an urban or nearby setting these days is almost nil.

One thing I always find a need for in the field is tape. Tape can be used to secure lavalieres on-set, contact microphones to objects, and even to repair cables. Who’s going to take a whole two-pound roll of gaffer tape on a trip, really? If you’re a burly, mustachioed film grip, maybe we’d allow that, but not for the field recordist with miles to go. Find something lightweight, like 1/4″ (60mm) plastic piping or other small-diameter tube, cut it to the width of the tape, and then just bring a small supply with you. You can also just wrap old credit cards (or the heavyweight cardboard proxies they often send with new-credit-card offers in the mail) in tape if you want something with a flatter profile.

If you’re outdoors, never forget sunscreen…but remember that you only need a few milliliters for an afternoon!

Principle: Materials

One of the silent revolutions of the last twenty years has been a stunning revolution in materials science. Just look at your local outdoor store: Waterproof-breathable membranes, windproof fleece formulations, stretch-weave dynamic fabrics, affordable titanium cookware. This is one of the factors that have made  ultralight backpacking possible.

Why should this matter to field recordists? The first installment of the Portage series covered bags that are intended for military use. Each bag is nearly indestructible, but they’re all heavy. If you have four small pouches and one large pouch inside one larger bag, that weight really adds up, especially if you have a ways to go with your gear. If you’re willing to treat your gear more carefully, you can still stay nicely organized and keep it all safe by intelligently using bags, pouches, and case that use some of the most cutting-edge fabrics around. And they won’t break the bank.

First, lightweight backpacks are great for carrying audio equipment as well as other personal items you’ll need in the field. If you don’t have that much gear, or you want to carry a jacket or food with you, one bag that holds everything makes a lot of sense. Look for bags without internal frames if you want the lightest weight; some may have vertical bars called stays in order to transfer loads to your hips, where the weight really belongs. These bags don’t have a lot of structure, but put a jacket or fleece in there with your food and audio gear and it’ll be fine.

In backpacks, hardiness isn't always a virtue, and lightness is not a drawback. L to R: a 3lb./1.36kg 6-cubic-liter bag, a 1lb./2.2kg 46-cubic-liter bag, and a 3lb./1.36kg 50-cubic-liter bag.

When it comes to small organizer bags, silicone-impregnated nylon – or silnylon – is quickly becoming a standard in the stuffsacks you can get at major outdoor retailers. They’re not great for organizing things like cables, cable testers, barrel adapters, and the like, because they’re shaped like tubes…but get the right size, and you’ve found a reasonably water-resistant sleeve for your microphone windscreen.

The most cutting-edge outdoor fabric right now is called cuben fiber. It feels and looks like tissue paper, but it’s nearly impossible to rip. Originally made for sail material, cuben fiber doesn’t do well with abrasion, or lateral tearing forces. Dragging a cuben fiber bag along the ground or concrete will probably shred it. But as long as you don’t do that, the stuff is simply amazing. Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs makes cuben fiber dry bags, a truly unique product that no one else carries. They are long and thin, actually making it hard to even pack clothes in them, which is their original purpose. But, wrap a microphone in a towel, wool sock, or protective wrap, and they are amazing and perfectly waterproof bags for sensitive mics. Throw in a dessicant pack just in case and you’re good to go.

A chunky Sennheiser MD421 in a gear wrap fits in a cuben fiber stuffsack...padded and totally waterproof!

Principle: Multiple Use

One of the most critical principles of ultralight backpacking is to try to only carry items that have multiple purposes. A great example is the humble cotton bandana: It won’t streak your sunglasses like synthetics when you wipe water off, it holds water and can be put over your neck to cool you off, it can be tied to be worn as a mask or a hat or a neck gaiter, it can be safety-pinned to clothes if you need to improvise a sling for a broken arm…the list goes on and on. Mixing multiple use gear with an ounce of ingenuity yields improvisation, which itself is a pretty fun way to solve problems while using minimal gear.

Audio equipment can be so specialized that this might at first seem infeasible. But examples may still be found. For example, if you have any room at all in your recorder or mixer bag, do you really need to bring that extra pouch or waist pack? If it doesn’t create too much sound, is the messenger bag you used to get your gear out here good enough to use instead of a mixer bag entirely? If you have a small multi-tool, do you really need actual screwdrivers or wire strippers? If you bring a Gorillapod and some gaffer’s tape, do you really even need to bring a mic stand? Do you need an extra bag or pouch if, while transporting your gear, you can just stuff something inside your mic windshield until you get to your location, like a jacket?

Ultralight’s Not for Everyone

For all its merits, going ultralight would be insanity in some cases. If you’re bushwhacking (traveling off-trail) and there are tons of trees and undergrowth to get snagged on, some of these materials will tear pretty easily. If you’re traveling anywhere that someone else is handling your gear, they will most certainly not know how to treat such materials appropriately. If you’ll be on the road for a while or have a support vehicle, repackaging may be extra prep time that will only reduce your supply of expendables.

In sketchy situations, burlier can be better. But, if you’re moving fast and light towards your location and sunlight’s waning, sometimes the least can benefit you the most.