Backpacking weight mania!

Lightweight backpacking is a good thing. Getting obsessed over the labels? Not so much.


At one point, it was standard practice to pack a lot of gear for a backpacking trip.

The old Boy Scout model of “Be Prepared” was  taken to mean “Take everything you could possibly need for every possible backcountry emergency”.

Baden Powell, who  I suspect meant this motto more for mental preparation,would have been amused to see the legions of backpackers who took a first aid kit large enough to run a small  backcountry-MASH style unit.  Or  hiked in heavy-duty mountaineering boots for well-maintained trails. And took enough extra clothing for not only a change of socks, but also enough clothing to equip other hikers on the fly it seemed. (Perhaps hikers  who had the misfortune of only having one pair of backpacking shorts for a weekend’s outing? 😉 )

But sometime in the 1990s, something changed.  More people realized that running shoes work just fine for a well maintained trail.  Perhaps a tarp can be used in lieu of a burly mountaineering tent if going to a gentle forest environment.  And that a full complement of cooking pots, pans and utensils is not needed to make a bowl of glop de jour.

Amicalola Falls state park at the start of the approach  trail

Part of the reason for the  change was Ray Jardine and his seminal Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook.  Though stating ideas and concepts  other peoplehave also done independently over the years,  this book definitely helped popularize and helped to make more mainstream these ideas that seemed radical to many traditional backpackers.    The Internet was also starting to take off among the general public as well at this time. Ideas could be shared, DIY designs discussed and new concepts could be put forth with both   e-mail discussion  and some simple web pages.  Pepsi can stoves were made. Some cottage gear makers sprung up to sell some lighter packs and shelters. And the base pack weight (your equipment weight minus food, water and fuel; also known as BPW) for many people started getting lower.  Hiking was not a chore but fun!


Historic photo of Grandma Gatewood on the Appalachian Trail

This newly popular movement in the backpacking world was called “lightweight backpacking” and it was good. Pare down your gear to what you need for your own personal safety, comfort and fun levels. No more. No less.  A minimalist approach to going into the backcountry.

Simple. Straight forward. Easily understood.

Along the way, new categories started forming. Useful for general guidelines, but these categories soon took on a life of their own. For those who became even lower in their base pack weight, a new category cropped up: ultra-lightweight (ULW): Sub-10lbs!   And shortly there-after , yet another category was formed : Super Ultra Light (SUL)..five pounds or less!

With a lot of gear now readily available from both cottage gear and more mainstream gear manufacturers, a person could get very light with their base pack weight.  A person no longer had to think of their gear choices and how it worked as a system. A few credit card transactions and a person was magically transformed into to the coveted title of SUL backpacker! 🙂

Cha-Ching!   (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Being “just”  a lightweight backpacker was not enough.  It started becoming  a badge of honor to get below ten pounds.   And if you backpacked with a BPW at or below five pounds? You were a rock star!

david-lee-rothDavid Lee Roth. Not backpacking, but climbing. Seriously.

Packs were tweaked. Excel spreadsheets were drawn up.  Gear was not just left behind  to merely achieve a level of safety, comfort and fun while going as light as possible. Rather, gear was excluded to achieve what started as a set of guidelines and somehow became absolutes. It was no longer about getting into the backcountry with minimal gear. It was about acquiring the minimal gear that a person just happened to use in the backcountry once in a while.

Ross Gilmore has a thoughtful and amusing post that describes this thought process well.  I do not agree with some of the finer points, but the overall arc is something I believe to be true: If you leave behind crucial gear just to achieve an arbitrary weight goal..ain’t that fudging the numbers a bit? And perhaps missing the point of backpacking a smidge? 🙂  I think a lot of this obsession with gear labels may also be related to the overall infatuation with gear as well.

The LW/UL/SUL labels are good as guidelines. Something to use as a base line to help get your own gear weight down and for comparison purposes.

But, it really  is just a guideline.  If it is 35F, cold and rainy, perhaps you should really consider taking some appropriate gear rather than worry about meeting the weight for a label.

Still insist on the SUL label???? 🙂

And that is why I just say “lightweight backpacking” in general.  It is more of a philosophy than a set criteria.

Take what you need to be safe, comfortable and to have fun.  During the summer  on the Appalachian Trail in the mid-Atlantic, that gear could very well be a sub-5 lb  pack.  October in the  Colorado high country? It is going to be and should be, a bit different. You may “tip the scales” at a weight 11 or even 12 lbs BPW!  : )

In both cases, the gear is simply lighter weight.  No more. No less.  The labels may be good for your own weight goals, online discussions, and the Excel Spreadsheet Brigade.

Go light as possible for the conditions. Be safe. Be comfortable. Have fun.

And ultimately we go lighter, evaluate our gear and take the appropriate gear for one reason: To get outside.

Let’s not lose sight of that goal in the pursuit of labels.

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Philip Werner
10 years ago

When people tell me they hike with under 5 pounds of gear I know they’ve gone off the deep end on the weight “game.”

John Davis
John Davis
10 years ago

Before Gore-Tex, we needed more clothing because we were guaranteed to get wet if it rained. My G&H GagJac was a one man sweat lodge. Conscription in the UK had only just ended and I was very poor so most of my gear was ex-MoD and not light. Not even a little bit. But we did have hefty squares of fabric which could be used as a cape, as a groundsheet or fastened to another to make pup tents. With modern materials – umm, titanium! – getting ultralight doesn’t seem to be about the gear. It’s about getting on top… Read more »

Mike Unger
Mike Unger
10 years ago

To paraphrase Lint, a fellow thru hiker I know, “we tend to pack for our fears.”

John Davis
John Davis
10 years ago
Reply to  Mike Unger

For example, midge spray and midge cream containing DEET as well as Skin So Soft for lighter midge conditions.