Hiking is one of my greatest passions. Combine that with painting and I’m a happy girl. The biggest lesson I’ve learned after hiking hundreds of miles with heavy packs is that if I don’t make sketching as easy as possible on the trail, I just won’t do it.
If my sketch kit is buried in my bag, or takes ages to setup and breakdown, I convince myself not to start. I psych myself out and think ‘I have 10 more miles to go…I should really just have a quick snack and keep going.’ Then later I’m disappointed that I don’t have a sketch from that section.
Sure, I can paint at home afterwards, but there’s nothing like painting on the trail in the elements! My sketches always look more fresh and lively when painted on location. It also helps me connect with my surroundings on a deeper level, something I cherish.
The Challenges of Ultralight Backpacking (even just day trips)
When hiking, the saying goes, “every ounce is a pound.” It’s a reminder that after 5…10…20 miles, you feel everything you’re carrying.
Over the years I’ve slimmed down my gear list to the bare minimum (especially recently after 55 miles on Scotland’s coast). I suffer from chronic back pain and more recently a knee injury that threatens my whole body. So in my case, every ounce I put in my bag makes a massive difference. After over 10 miles, a couple pounds can mean the difference between a great hike and spending two weeks recovering.
But as many artists know, art supplies tend to accumulate faster than you can use them. The temptation is to bring more than you need, just in case. I’ve done it more often than I care to admit. But as my hikes get longer, the consequences of overpacking become much worse.
The world of ultralight backpacking appeals to my minimalist side, and the gram-counting challenge is addictive. You’re always wondering how many grams you can shave off by making small changes. Ultralight backpackers are notorious for cutting their toothbrushes in half to save a couple ounces. Have you ever tried brushing your teeth with half a toothbrush? It’s not enjoyable.
While I don’t plan on going that extreme, I did give myself the challenge of ‘trimming the fat’ off my pack to make it lighter than ever. And that included my sketch kit.
My Ultralight Compact Watercolor Travel Sketch Kit
Not only is it ultralight, but it’s really compact. It easily fits into any of my pockets. It’s easy to hold while painting. It’s quick to setup and breakdown.
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- Sketchbook: Stillman & Birn Beta (14x9cm)
- Pencil: Pentel Energize Mechanical Pencil (with blue lead)
- Pen: Sailor Fude Fountain Pen (waterproof, see ink below)
- Brush: Escoda Travel Brush (#10)
- Paint Palette: Portable Painter Micro (modified)
- Clip on back: Drawing board clip
- Velcro strips: 3M Command Picture Hanging Strips
Total weight: 6.24oz (176.9 grams)
Held together with rubber bands or inside plastic bag.
Sometimes I’ll trade out the brush/pen for one of these:
- For a 100% cotton sketchbook option, go for the A6 Hahnemühle Watercolour Book
- Rosemary & Co Travel Brush Rigger #6
- Caran D’Ache Waterbrush
- Pentel Waterbrush (medium tip)
- Uni Signo DX (not fully waterproof)
- Uni Jetstream Edge (fadeproof/waterproof)
Technically I don’t even need a pencil or pen…I could just paint! Why not? I’ve done that plenty of times and it’s a fun challenge. But if it’s very misty out, paint takes too long to dry and sometimes drawing is the only option.
Colors I’ve included:
How I Modified my Portable Painter Micro (and why)
I added a clip to the back so I can attach it to the sketchbook while painting if I want to. I used 3M velcro strips for easy removal.
Another great thing about the clip I added to the back of the palette is that I can easily slide it over my finger and get a tight grip on the palette.
Normal Portable Painter Micro (opened):
I removed the water dish (left) and lid tray (right). I also removed the top row of color, and use that space as a mini water dish.
It might not seem like much, but here’s why I did it. It removes almost an ounce of weight but more importantly, there’s absolutely nothing to ‘setup.’ Just flip up the lid and start painting in a matter of seconds (another reason to use a water brush).
This setup also forces me to be an economical painter. I use less water overall, I am forced to mix my colors, and the very small mixing space forces me to plan ahead. It’s a little tricky to explain, but for instance, if I know I’ll need warm tones, I’ll start with those. Then I’ll naturally shift into greens, then blues, then finally any really dark mixes. This is an intuitive way of mixing.
Which leads me to my main point.
Simplify, improve, get loose, and have FUN
Is this tiny kit really enough to properly sketch and to enjoy myself?
I’m an abstract minimalist at heart. I’m always thinking “how few brush strokes do I need to convey my idea?”
One thing I love about a supremely simplified kit is that it forces me to simplify my process. There’s no second-guessing my choice of supplies. I can focus on values, proper color mixing, and most importantly: design. That leaves a lot of room for creativity.
Often times I’m completely overwhelmed by the beauty in front of me, and have to remind myself I’m not there to copy what I see. I’m there to interpret it through my unique vision and give it new life on paper. That’s the fun of it! If I have one pencil, pen, brush, and only a couple of colors, I’m forced to dive right in. No hesitation trying to decide what to use.
It’s very freeing.
How does this ultralight kit compare to my “normal” outdoor painting kit?
I guess we’d have to define normal. Normal means packing to have creative options vs. counting ounces. If you missed it, I made a whole video about my favorite outdoor painting gear. This ‘go bag’ concept is conducive to frequent painting sessions. It’s not meant for long distance hiking, because the bag is full of painting stuff that weighs 6.5 lbs. And that doesn’t even include camera gear, food, extra water or clothing.
In a perfect world, yes I’d have this kit (< blog post) wherever I go.
Purpose dictates gear. If I’m going out to paint rather than hike many miles, this bag is perfect. But I’m currently working on hiking around the entire coast of Scotland with my sketchbook. So priorities have shifted.
It doesn’t mean I never go out with other supplies. It just means I’m very thoughtful about my choices.
Weight Comparison – My Normal Trail Gear vs. Ultralight Option
(Notice the ‘base weight’ differences)
My Normal Hiking Kit (Winter 2023) – Updated Regularly Here
My Ultralight Hiking Kit (Winter 2023) – Updated Regularly Here
Do you need to go this minimal? Of course not. As I said, this is an extreme version for the days where I need to walk big miles. But even if you aren’t hiking far, I recommend trying something similar at least once to see the difference it makes to your process and experience on the trail. You might be surprised how freeing and fun it is to go minimal!