A sorta history of modern ultralight backpacking

The folks over at Reddit /ul posed the following question via the user  Natural_Law  :

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.

 

Professor Jones of archeology. He also takes occasional trips to the desert.

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.

Ray Jardine, however, 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 about 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?

Though the older PCT-L listserv (email list) has some ultralight references, the listserv itself came out after the 1995 examples from Usenet.

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.

Safe to say that the term ultralight backpacking has been around for quite a while now.

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.

Via the Wayback Machine

 

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.

As early as 2001, print resources used the word “ultralight” to refer to a system and a ten-pound general guideline:

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.

Backpacker Magazine, Dec 2002

 

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: 

from Signpost for Northwest Trails, Volume 29

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” articleUnfortunately, 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 for Extreme Ultralight (XUL), that looks to be coined by Glen Van Peski back in 2005 and originally at less than four pounds.  

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 

But don’t get too hung up on labels. It is easy to juice the numbers for bragging rights. 😉

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16 Replies to “A sorta history of modern ultralight backpacking”

  1. How would we survive without the internet? Well, very nicely, thank you.

    Discussions of light pack weights is hardly. Though thruhikers frequently believe, falsely, that somehow they own the topic. Particularly, modern day hikers that have come along in this century.

    However, lightweight packs have been discussed going back to the days of Grandma Gatewood.

    Going back even further in time. Around the turn of the century, the last one that is. A famous North Country back woodsman wrote a tome about extended backcountry travel. In it he published details of his kit, along with weights. Yes, they did have scales in those days. Hard to believe.

    His published kit weighed in at a whooping 8 pounds.

    Now put that in your pipe and smoke it!

    1. Well, I did write this sentence at the very top of the article: “Lightweight backpacking is nothing new, of course. “ And here’s the link to my earlier article:
      https://pmags.com/new-fangled-ultralight-backpacking It is in bold, no less!
      🙂
      Hell, the article has a photo of a sub-2lb shelter from the 1920s!

      However, as defined today (10 lbs or below), that is a more recent phenomenon. Of course, people always carried light loads, but the 10lb benchmark as a definition in of itself is new(ish).

  2. I think I read the book Ron refers to when I was at school in the late 60s. That 8lbs weight was because the author believed in taking a proper axe. One of his accomplices preferred a hatchet, which was lighter. If it’s the same book, it was published in 1919.

    In Britain, when I got started, we called it camping. Backpacking seemed to be a term which came across the Atlantic a few years later, although I’m prepared to be told other Brits were using the term before I knew about it. In the absence of the Internet, the word was slow to spread.

    1. Re: word spreading before the Internet

      Indeed! I think that is why Jardine’s ideas did so well. His ideas were not that radical overall. However his ideas spread easily and (critically) developed more by a wider audience. And many of the early cottage gear makers (one of which is Ron) had a market for people willing to try out the ideas and a way to sell the gear outside of getting an ad in Backpacker Magazine or similar as people did prior to about the mid to late 1990s.

  3. As a.longtime minimalist backpacker, since the 1960’s, I saw the pack weight target goal moving towards 10 lbs as materials and gear design were improved. But the base gear still included an actual pack, shelter, sleep system, water, food, clothing, water treatment, first aid, hygiene items, and cooking gear.

    When I stopped focusing on the gear my pack weight became inconsequential, and I was able to ditch the concept of carrying a modern backpack at all. Just wrap a few items in a tarp & bedroll and sling it along, the way the our traveling predecessors achieved an 8 lb pack. They foraged and hunted their way across the country and cooking gear was a fire and a pot.

    I’m just happy that my smartphone includes a terrific camera, as well as access to Mr. Google, and that my solar charger can be attached to my bedroll to charge it up.

    1. I suspect your typical park ranger might not look too kindly on the idea of foraging,, hunting, and a campfire for cooking in many places today. 😉

  4. Used to do “minimum equipment” overnight bivys back in the late 80s and early 90s. Wore a survival vest and waist pack combo. Wouldn’t want to do this for weeks on end but it’s amazing how little gear you need. Back in the 90s Backpacker magazine wrote many articles about Jardine. Some may say he’s the Slack Packing founder …

    1. Hi James, first thanks for the kind words! My past career was in IT for ~20 years and I majored in history. What does that mean? I am good at Googling to find answers to research questions. Heck, that was at least 75% of my old job. 😉

      I’ve been using my ULA CDT since 2014 as my primary backpack for sub-10lb loads. I used it to walk cross Utah, go down the spine of the Canadian Rockies, and other jaunts. Still going strong.

  5. Nice modern (last 25yrs) UL short summary. Don’t forget Super UltraLight! And XSUL! As a scout, I remember using an 8oz mesh hammock, 1lb army poncho with a 1lb poncho liner all in a butt pack in the 70’s. I think my go to set up is sometimes heavier now…arghhhh.

    1. That’s an addendum in of itself! As with “ultralight”, the concepts have been there for a while as you noted. The coined term seems to go back to about 2003 with a set weight of 5 lbs or less. Again, looks BPL if not the place who originally set the weight, looks like is where it become popularized.

      https://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/635/ Think I’ll add it.. 🙂

      Of course, XSUL is called “trail running” with aid stations at a certain point. 😉

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