Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.” – Earl Shaffer.
Random question based upon a couple “what is UL” posts lately:
Who’s the first one to coin that term and set the 10lb limit?
Jardine is credited with a lot of UL firsts but has never used that word (and actually quips in his tarp book that the only thing UL is aerogel….in true “it’s all marketing hyperbole” Jardine fashion) nor talked about a 10lb threshold.
So who was the first to “ultralight”? Resident historian /u/pmags know?
I could not resist a question that combined history, backpacking, and my old IT Google-Fu skills. 🙂 What I dug up proved to be popular on that forum. Rather than have the research I did get lost in the Reddit forums, thought I’d share what I found. Here is a cleaned-up, fleshed out, and edited response to the query.
I put on my tweed jacket with DCF patches, trim my beard, and place on glasses.
TL;DR – The information is lost to time. At a best guess, as we use the term now (10 lbs or below), I’d say around the early 2000s. But there is some archival material of interest.
This information is (mainly) lost to time and predates widespread WWW usage.
Lightweight backpacking is nothing new, of course. The Appalachian Mountain Club, for example, published a 1924 gear list that includes a 1 lb 6 oz shelter that would not look out of place today.
And people thru-hiked in the 1960s with a sub-20lb base pack weight.
Giger was a rocket engineer and his attention to detail was phenomenal. What we would call a spreadsheet for resupplies, gear weight , costs and so on are documented. Andrew would have fit right in with Backpackinglight.com !
14 lbs total of gear in 1969! And that equipment includes a white gas stove, a standard backpack for the time, and so on. Hardly equipment that was dangerous or foolish to take for an extended trip in the outdoors. The Appalachian Trail was a bit more remote and underused nearly fifty years ago as well.
But, as the question asked, and the purpose of this stated article – “Who’s the first one to coin that term [in the modern sense] and set the 10lb limit?”
Ray Jardine popularized many of the concepts in his seminal PCT Hikers Handbook that came out in 1992 and further refined in 1995. His ideas came out during the nascent days of the internet independent of academic and government circles. In short, he wrote his book at the time people could easily share, discuss, and further develop his ideas.
But, as noted above, Jardine never used the term “ultralight.” In fact, he derided it.
So, who is the first person to coin the term? There is probably no one person who coined the term. I suspect that quite a few people came up with the idea at the same time independently, wrote about it, shared it online via discussions later, and the concepts became part of the backpacking zeitgeist.
Having said all that, outside of email, I am reasonably sure that the first online use of “ultralight backpacking” ended up being on Usenet; in particular the rec.backcountry group.
The oldest reference I could find on Usenet goes back to 1995 on the rec.backcountry group:
Has anyone had expirience with ultralight backpacking? My partners
and I would like to try it this summer. I would like to fit everything
in a small daypack or my mountainsmith tour pack(fanny pack).
I would be doing this in southern Utah during the summer. Some of
our ideas would be:
Use just a sheet instead of a bag. (I have a 1# microloft bag and
a bivy also)-suggestions
Carry food, knife, purification tablets, maps, bandaids and raingear.
WE might think about a tarp, incase it rains or just find overhangs
to sleep in.
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Note the post is using the term in a way that assumes the idea is a reasonably popular concept already as established in print media for some time.
Of course, people have been talking about ultralight gear (as opposed to a system) for longer. Here’s a post from 1990 talking specifically about ultralight sleep pads.
I keep hearing raves about Thermarest pads. I’ve seen both standard
and ultralight models. Are they worth it?
I do find it amusing that the same criticisms of ultralight backpacking are over twenty years old at this point:
If you can’t afford to bail yourself out of serious injury due to lack of preparation, or stay in the comforts of modern living every three to ten days, then I find it practical and wise to carry those extra five or ten pounds of gear to make your thru-hike a more pleasant and secure experience.
To answer the additional questions, Where did the 10 lb guideline for ultralight backpacking come about?
Well, I find some early guidelines on Backpacking Light (BPL) that stated 12 lbs being the threshold limit.
Many “ultralight” backpackers have a base pack weight (weight of gear not including clothing worn, items carried, food, fuel, and water) of less than 12 pounds. For others that are transitioning to this ultralight range, a base pack weight of 12-20 pounds is considered lightweight.
Note that Ryan Jordan, co-founder of BPL, has this same standard back in 1999 on an older website, too.
When did the guideline of 10 lbs get universally adopted? Again, just a guess, sometime in the early 2000s. And probably on BPL initially.
At that time, BPL set the standard for all things lightweight backpacking more than any other resource. Here’s an article by Glen Van Peski (who founded what later became Gossamer Gear) published in 2005 mentioning the ten-pound base weight guideline. In the space of four years, the generally accepted guideline for three-season ultralight went from 12 lbs to 10 lbs at some point. Again, more of a consensus rather than definitive post or moment.
For example, here’s a 2002 article alluding to a 10 lb standard ultralight weight:
A big jump in the number of AT and PCT thru-hike finishers over the last ten years, some toting as little as ten pounds of gear and clothing, is evidence enough that Jardine has had a positive impact. This revolution isn’t limited to thruhikers (who, after all are a tiny fraction of the backpacking set). All who head out into the wilderness can carry a lightened load, increasing both their enjoyment and their range. Hence, this new book.
And, let’s face it, a 10 lb guideline sounds useful to those using Imperial measurement in the good ole USA. I suspect that is the ultimate reason for the 10lb threshold. Five kilograms, an equally round number, equals eleven pounds. In an alternate universe where America widely adopted the metric system, five kilos might be the baseline guideline for three-season use. 🙂
As an aside, BPL does not have any archives on the Wayback Machine, so there may be other examples not as readily available.
In print, I find the research a little more complicated, of course. Google Books proves to be a useful, but not necessarily definitive, research tool.
All their gear fits into a daypack and can weigh as little as 10 pounds (minus food). While ultralight backpacking may…
The Dec 2002 issue of Backpacker Magazine also portrays similar information.
However, again referring to the Usenet group above and older print sources, the term “ultralight” backpacking system is not that new. I found a reference to a 1994 Ultralight workshop at REI from a newsletter:
And for those link adverse ;), here’s a 1967 reference.
But, to emphasize a point, not with any specific weight threshold:
At the end? As far as I can tell, the term “ultralight backpacking” has been in use for a long time be it referring to gear or as an overall system.
However, the ten-pound guideline for three-season use appears to be a generally accepted guideline sometime around the year 2000 or shortly after that time. And the 10-lb UL benchmark probably originated on BPL or at least gained popularity there.
ADDENDUM: As Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs indicated below (taking a poncho liner, hammock, and a minimal amount of gear for summer backpacking), Super Ultra Light (SUL, base pack weight of 5 lbs or less) is also, functionally, nothing new. In more temperate climates, warm weather, or short trips, taking that low of a pack weight is very feasible.
As with the 10 lb limit, the 5 lb SUL limit fits nicely into our desire for round numbers and seems to been given a more concrete definition on Backpacking Light as well. In this case, in 2003 with Ryan Jordan’s ” SuperUltraLight: Breaking the Five-Pound Barrier” article. Unfortunately, BPL does not seem to have the originally referenced article anymore. And it is not cached on the Wayback Machine. I did find a partial Google Books reference, though.
As of 2019, the more common definition for XUL appears to be three pounds or less. Looks like the current standard kicked in around 2008 as a benchmark. At least it seems based on the Google results in aggregate. And a term also made popular on BPL with Alan Dixon posting some of the earlier sub-3lb XUL lists