Ultra light 101: It’s All In Your Head
By: Maggie Wallace
My trail crew had hauled in 70-pound packs to this desert 200 miles from the Northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was on this trip, while we worked in a particularly arid day, that I had my first experience with an ultra light hiker. We had noticed a figure moving towards us through the heat. He was wearing tennis shoes and clothing that hung in tatters, and his pack appeared to be a child’s school bag, held together with duct tape. His eyes were wild as he asked us where the next spring was so he could fill the single water bottle he carried. Explaining that he planned to reach Canada within a week, he left us in the rising dust. We thought he was insane.
Like so many others, I was raised to believe ‘preparation’ is tangible. It means durable gear, lots of plan B’s, and extra everything. This definition of preparation is why so many novice backpackers begin a thru-hike with 40 or 50-pound backpacks, and often end those hikes with knee, hip, or back problems.
‘Ultra light’ is loosely defined as carrying a base weight (the weight of your gear, not including the food, water, or the clothes you are wearing) of under 10 pounds (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultralight_backpacking ), and, contrary to its critics, it is based on preparation. The difference is, ultra light hikers focus on being prepared through knowledge.
Ultralight hiking isn’t a diet for your pack; it’s a lifestyle change for you. It means that you’ll be double-checking the map to make sure you know where your water sources and resupply locations are. It means you’ll become attuned to your pacing, your caloric requirements, and the minimum support you actually need to accomplish your goal. Essentially, it’s a matter of thinking and adapting, of learning to compensate for the security blanket you are leaving at home.
As you prepare for your next adventure, seek the right sources. Be wary of advertisements for new gear, and take advantage of all of the free backpacking information that already exists. Ask yourself, ‘will this take my time or my money?’ I tend to trust a source more when it only asks for my time. Research the processes behind gear efficiency, rather than the gear itself. And most importantly:
If you don’t need it, don’t carry it.
This is not where I tell you to saw off your toothbrush handle and the front of your camp shoes, or throw them out of your pack altogether. Ultra light hikers do occasionally get over zealous in their gear purging – but you don’t need to risk gum disease and trench foot to lighten your load. Instead, look at what you have in your pack that can be replaced with knowledge and preparation:
1. Your water: The conservationist Edward Abbey used to say that the best place to carry your water is inside you. Along the water-rich AT, it isn’t often necessary to carry more than two liters of water, especially when you consider that, at 2.2 pounds per liter, your water can quickly become equal to the entire base weight of some minimalist’s backpacks.
Instead: Pay attention to weather patterns (as in, how recently did it rain and how much rainfall has the area seen?), carry a reliable map that lists water source locations, and know your own water needs.
2. A change of clothes: OK, so going ultra light involves some hygienic sacrifices. It may sound gross, but you only need one set of clothes to hike in and one set of clothes to sleep in. The only exceptions are socks and underwear, which you might want an extra pair of to prevent foot issues and chafing.
Instead: By sleeping with your damp clothes in your sleeping bag, you can dry them overnight. If you wear your damp hiking underwear over your sleep clothes, you’ll dry them extra fast (and look like a superhero). Your rain gear can double as cold weather gear while hiking and also Laundromat clothing while you wash your clothes (yes, all of these suggestions will make you look silly).
3. Any container that is not waterproof: While hiking, we have the opportunity to ponder life’s unanswerable questions. Is there a higher power? How can we make love stay? And, why do non-waterproof sacks exist in the backpacking gear world? This includes compression sacks, anything mesh, and the stuff sacks that your tent, camp towel, and sleeping bag came in. If it doesn’t keep out water, it doesn’t go in your bag. That’s not really even ultra light; it’s just common sense.
Instead: Zpacks ( http://www.zpacks.com/accessories/dry_bags.shtml), Hyperlite Mountain Gear (https://www.hyperlitemountaingear.com/sacks.html) , and Sea to Summit ( http://www.seatosummit.com/product/?item=Ultra-Sil%26reg%3B+Dry+Sack&o1=0&o2=0&o3=281-22 )all make light weight dry bags to keep water out of your gear. Then there’s always Ziploc and Hefty.
4. Pack Towels: It’s most useful for drying off after a swim or hostel shower, neither of which is an emergency. You might use one to sop up a leak in your tent that, if you set up correctly, shouldn’t be there. You might also stuff it in your shoes to dry them – but if you’re using lightweight trail runners, those should be able to air out on their own overnight.
Instead: Instead of a pack towel that may weigh anywhere from a quarter to a half pound, you can pack a .25 ounce LightLoad (http://ultralighttowels.com/2-two-pack-4-towels-12x12-lightload-towels/) for emergencies. Pack two if you think you’ll need them to dry out your boots for a particularly wet hitch.
5. Extra material on your backpack – As OCD as it may sound, you can remove half a pound or more with a pair of scissors and a few minutes (without compromising your backpack’s integrity). Inner pockets, cords, and webbing can all hit the chopping block.
Instead: When cutting straps, always leave a little extra room for error and burn the edges so they don’t fray or slip their buckles. And you’ll want to know what features on your pack you actually use.
6. Full Kitchen – The cooking aisle at REI is lying to you. The camp sink, French press, and folding rubber bowls are all luxuries that belong in an RV and not in your pack. As sad as this sounds, your kitchen only needs to consist of one lonely pot and a spork to keep it company.
Instead: Titanium pots are the lightest option, though a bit pricey. Evernew makes great ones. (http://www.evernewamerica.com/ultralight-series/ )
Or, for around ten dollars you can find an old aluminum pot. I’ve used the same aluminum pot for a thru-hike and three bonus years, even though it routinely begs me to put it out of its misery.
7. A heavy backpacking tent – Out of all the new and improved backpacking gear, tents have probably undergone the biggest facelift. But the cheapest, lightest way to go is still a tarp. The idea of tarp camping might summon the image of failed Boy Scout outings or homeless camps, but tarping strategies have improved a lot over the years. Now there are attachable bug nets and ground cloths, not to mention lighter materials.
Instead: Tarps have one of the biggest learning curves in ultra light backpacking. You’ll need to practice your set-up many times before hitting the trail and learn proper site selection (http://sectionhiker.com/campsite-selection-tips/). For ready-made tarp systems, check out Hyperlite Mountain Gear (https://www.hyperlitemountaingear.com/hiking-climbing-shelters/tarps.html), Zpacks (http://www.zpacks.com/shelter/tarps.shtml ), and Mountain Laurel Designs. (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/index.php?cPath=21) Or look into making your own tarp (https://diygearsupply.com/diy-guides/tarps/).
You should make sure you actually like tarp set-ups before you commit. They really aren’t for everyone. There are some great small companies like TarpTents (https://www.tarptent.com ), Zpacks (http://www.zpacks.com/shelters.shtml) , and Six Moon Designs( http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/tents.html) that revolutionized lightweight tenting to the extent that name-brand companies like Sierra Designs (http://sierradesigns.com/tents/backpacking) , Big Agnes (https://www.bigagnes.com/Products/ProductFinder/Tent/filters/20) and Nemo (http://www.nemoequipment.com/shop/tents/)took notice – so check them out.
8. The cushy sleeping pad – Thousands of centuries before ‘camping’ was a recreational hobby, nomadic cultures built sleeping pads from natural materials, raising them off the ground when possible to avoid drafts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bed#Ancient_world ). Our ancestors knew the purpose of a sleeping pad was insulation against the cold ground – not comfort. Inflatable, or open cell, pads tend to be surprisingly heavier than closed cell pads (with the exception of a few top-of-the-line new products like the Neoair http://www.rei.com/product/881574/therm-a-rest-neoair-xlite-sleeping-pad), mainly because they’re often designed for comfort instead of efficiency.
Instead: The traditional Therm-A-Rest ‘egg-crate’ pad weighs 10 to 14 ounces, requires no blowing up, and will not spring a leak. You can also easily cut off excess material to make it lighter. Unfortunately there’s no trick to getting used to the ground underneath you; you just have to wait until you adjust. You might even find after a couple weeks, as I did, that beds begin to feel too soft for comfort.
9. Hiking boots – There’s a backpacker saying, ‘A pound on your feet equals 5 on your back’. For every part of the AT except Pennsylvania, I recommend trail runners instead of heavy boots – they are lighter and will dry much faster than your waterproof boots. They don’t look as ‘cool’ as traditional hiking boots, but hey, neither does trench foot. (http://www.healthworkscollective.com/cwsonline/80076/trench-foot-common-ailment-hikers)
Instead: Immediately remove your wet trail runners when you reach camp and leave them in a dry place. Bring light weight camp shoes so you can air out your feet. And hike mindfully – this means don’t ‘clomp,’ the way that hiking boots teach us to. Walk with purpose, be aware of obstacles, and practice sure footing. This is something that naturally comes over time with wearing lighter shoes.
10. Synthetic sleeping bag: Full disclosure – this is the most expensive upgrade. Synthetic bags are heavier, bulkier, and more waterproof, while down sleeping bags – stuffed with feathers – are lighter, more compressible, and unfortunately, not waterproof. Down filled bags come with a big price tag, but if you are savvy and check gear exchanges, you can find a good deal.
Instead: The downside (pun intended) is that down loses its loft and thus, its warmth, over time. To partially re-loft your bag you can run it through a low cycle on your dryer with a tennis ball, and make sure you patch any tears immediately. Wearing sleeping base layers does more than keep you warm, as well; it shields your down bag from the oils on your body that can cause your down to compress more quickly.
Down shouldn’t get wet (unless you get a bag that uses hydrophobic, or specially treated, down). Always keep the bag in a dry sack until you’re ready to sleep, be aware of weather conditions whenever possible, and make sure you’re very familiar with your tarp or tent set-up. Ultralight sleeping bag manufacturers include Zpacks (http://www.zpacks.com/quilts.shtml) , Katabatic Gear (http://katabaticgear.com/shop/category/sleeping-bags/ ), Feathered Friends (http://featheredfriends.com/down-sleeping-bags.html ), Ultralight Equipment (http://www.enlightenedequipment.com/quilts-1/ ), Western Mountaineering (http://www.westernmountaineering.com/sleeping-bags/) , and Big Agnes (https://www.bigagnes.com/Products/ProductFinder/Bag/filters/5).
When is Ultra light too Light?
· When you leave behind crucial first aid supplies because you probably won’t need them.
· When you try to ‘shelter-hop’ without a backup shelter.
· When you have insufficient layers for likely weather conditions.
· When you choose not to carry a bear canister for a section of trail where it is mandated.
· When you enter a resupply location hungry.
· When you are reliant on other hikers’ gear.
Ultra light doesn’t need to be synonymous with ‘unprepared’ – In fact, in theory it should be the opposite. Ultra light or light-weight should be a label that does not connote risk-taking or money-spending, but rather the time-tested knowledge that comes from studying and experiencing nature. Any time you are insufficiently prepared for a common problem in hiking, you are being irresponsible, not ultra light.
As you spend more time outside and grow more comfortable with living on the trail, packing lighter will come naturally. You will find yourself ‘needing’ less stuff with every outing, and devising smart solutions to lighten your load. Going ultra light ultimately strengthens more than your knees. It builds a confidence in your own abilities that can’t be dropped off a cliff or soaked in a rainstorm.
So lighten up! There’s a lot to gain when you lose.
Prolite Gear http://www.prolitegear.com
– product reviews and buying guides
Backpacking Light http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/index.html - articles, gear reviews, and a gear swap forum (requires you to sign up and log in) http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/display_forum.html?forum=19
Outdoor Gear Lab http://www.outdoorgearlab.com
Backpacker Gear Testing http://www.backpacker.com/gear/
www.lighterpack.com - A great site to keep track of your pack weight.