New Fangled Ultralight Backpacking

A video was recently re-released about lightweight backpacking by Oregon Public Television. It featured well-known backpacker Clint “Lint” Bunting.

Lint’s typical laid-back, funny, and informative presentation.  (Though, my favorite line from the video may just be a woman they interviewed that  stated  she carried “the three main food groups which are chocolate, Jack Daniels, and ibuprofen.”  🙂  )

Though the video is almost five years old, the information is presented in such a way that the concepts will not be outdated.

And upon this recent re-release on the NPR and OPB social media pages? Ah, the comments are wonders to behold!

Among some more interesting comments:

I have found that ultralight equipment tends to be very fragile and will fail in a catastrophic way when you absolutely need it. The subculture of ultralight backpacking really is a fad that should fade out before too much longer people will realized that you over pay for equipment that will not stand up to the rough terrain or environment..

I feel suspicious of the claim that this guy does 26 miles per day with only an 8lb ruck, for weeks at a time.  Bet he mails gear to waystations so that he’s got food, water, clothes and sleeping gear.
Calling bullshit on this dude doing any overnights without a fart-sack, much less inclement weather gear.

Can’t be warm or comfortable in bad weather traveling that light! No water filter is just idiotic! I’ve had giardia and I’m never doing that again!! Day hike ok go super light but serious 2 weeks or more backpacking come on now😳

And so on…

To summarize a bulk of the comments:  This way is different and unknown to me. Therefore this way is wrong and dangerous.

I won’t argue the points. Some of which are just blatantly wrong. People who associate total weight carried with safety aren’t going to be convinced by a blog post written by some short, bald guy who lives in Colorado.

I just continue to be dumb founded that people see this type of backpacking as new or radical.

Mainstream gear is getting lighter. You have to go out of your way to buy the circa mid-1990s pack I schlepped when I started backpacking.

In North Carolina on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

But despite the astonishments indicated in the comments, going light is nothing new.

Ray Jardine synthesized and made popular many of these concepts in the 1990s.

But people have been going light far, far, far longer than that time.

When people want to cover longer distances over a day, a weekend, or more, they went light.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, they went minimalist: Taking no more than they needed to be warm, comfortable, and safe in outdoor conditions when traveling all day.

Grandma Gatewood is a well-known example with her Ked sneakers, shower curtain, and denim duffle bag.   But there are some examples than Grandma Gatewood that are less extreme regarding the gear.

Consider a 1930s ski tour of the Sierra.  To quote an article: “Otto Steiner made a two-week solo tour there and back with only a 20-pound pack in the 1930s.”      That is a winter pack weight most people would have trouble duplicating today!

Then there are the stories, again from the 1930s, in Maine where members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) did twelve-day excursions on the Appalachian Trail. Their base weight was not to exceed 12 pounds! 

Kathryn Fulkerson’s journal details a 1939 jaunt done with her wearing 11 oz tennis shoes, using a 3lb frame pack, packing 11 oz golf suits for rain protection,  and describes the weighing of all the socks, clothing, cook sets, etc. to find the lightest gear available. A routine that sounds familiar to many. 🙂  Fulkerson also refers to an “invaluable List of Minimum Equipment for light traveling” indicating that the PATC had an established practice and way of going light on a regular basis.

My favorite example is perhaps from  Andrew J. Giger’s account of his 1969 Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

As I wrote earlier:

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 !

And, yes. You are reading correctly. In 1969, Andrew Giger had 14 lbs of gear and did the trail in 98 days! Even at the shorter trail length of the time, that’s still a steady 21 MPD.

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 gear 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.

Imagine what the Social Media vox populi would say today? 😉

Saying all of today’s lightweight gear is not durable, is dangerous, and is foolish to take? Well, that makes as much sense to make that statement as it did in the 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, or today.

Or, to use a phrase from  my ever wise and colorful mother: “They are so full of shit their mouth is full.”

Today’s lighter gear is even more comfortable and efficient than the lighter weight gear of even fifteen years ago. Gear that admittedly required more of a knowledge base to use efficiently.  Today’s equipment? Even the off-the-shelf  REI gear is lighter than what was available in a similar store in the Dark Ages of the 1990s.

It is easy to go light, be comfortable, and be safe. People have been using this method for eighty years.  If not longer.

Go out, have fun, and realize that to indeed go with a heavy gear load takes a lot more work than going lighter, comfortable, and safe in 2017.

Despite what people online may state. 🙂

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40 Replies to “New Fangled Ultralight Backpacking”

  1. Yet again, with the proper skills to use your gear, lightweight gear is the more logical choice. Less weight means less energy exerted while hiking. This means you could either hike faster or for a longer period. Either way resulting in the ability to hike more miles. Not to mention, with less energy used, a hiker is less likely to get fatigued and make mistakes. Furthering the safety of the trip.

    Thanks for a good read.

  2. 6 years ago I started backpacking more than I had since I was a kid. In that time I have cut my base weight by at least 12.5 lbs. last trip I was at 22.5 lbs total weight……with 2 days food and 1.2 liters of water. If I can do it, anyone can! I teach backpacking in the Colorado Mountain Club. What I see are people that are just too risk averse, so they feel they need an extra of EVERYTHING and/or they bring too many luxury items that they never end up using. If you are disciplined about NOT bringing the stuff you never use AND you learn to just live without some things……all at the same time realizing it isn’t sacrificing the experience or even enhancing the full experience……you can go light and be comfortable and safe.

    Great read PMags…..

  3. Thanks, Paul. I enjoyed the video a lot!

    I started backing in the 60’s. It really became super popular in the 70’s and contrary to common perceptions a lot of people went light and “ultra light.”

    • I think many people equate backpacking with camping as opposed to hiking. And have the corresponding gear loads go with the activity. As many historical documents and accounts show, people who were out hiking all day went lighter. Oh, there are exceptions of course. But it seems that the idea of taking a lot of “doo dads” for the hiking oriented trips is relatively new versus pre-1960s perception. About the time backpacking exploded and there was a lot more gear to buy. No coincidence I am sure. 🙂

  4. I’ve been into ultralight for years, courtesy of Ray Jardine. My Golite Breeze backpack and Cave 1 tarp are still both going strong in their 17th year and they have been used a heck of a lot and in all conditions. The tarp sheltered me hiking from Lands End to John o’Groats in the UK, 1080 miles.

  5. Great read. It was very interesting to learn that packing light has been a school-of-thought for so long. It just took awhile for it to catch on by the masses. I can’t help but wonder how much lighter equipment will get in the future??? Maybe like Star Trek, we’ll be able to beam in both equipment and food as we need it. Who knows!!! No one could have ever imagined, 50 years ago, that we would be able to have access to so much information in the palm of our hands via a smartphone.

  6. I learned about backpacking in the early 1970’s in a course taught by a pretty traditional type. He was large and strong, and didn’t worry much about weight. So I bought into the traditional strategy.

    To the instructor’s credit he brought in an UL guy (for the time), and to my discredit I thought the guy was nuts (I was young, alas). The UL guy talked about multi-purpose items, and didn’t worry about long-term durability. Too bad I didn’t take him seriously, he was way ahead of his time (although not as far ahead as I previously imagined, based on the article and posts).

    For decades I carried heavy packs. It wasn’t until I discovered Jardine’s books that I became an UL convert. I’ll admit, it was hard to jettison all that I believed, but Jardine’s arguments were persuasive, and the fact that he lived them all gave them total credence.

    The hardest thing was to realize I was never going to carry my wonderful Gregory Snow Creek pack ever again. It was a marvel of the time (around 1980), and I took it up Mt. Rainier and many other peaks and on countless backpacking trips. My wife plans to bury me with it.

  7. …well this article seems as if we’re all “preaching to the choir” about this topic.
    What seems like a placement for this topic is on something like “Outdoors” or an REI site that will reach a more mainstream reader.

  8. Going lighter is essential for people who, like me, have had half our knee cartilage removed, and can’t always time our trips to include a partner to help carry mutual items. I’m 68 now and have been backpacking for 47 years – “ever since I have known about it.”

    However, I find that my 1974 Kelty external frame pack is much lighter than an internal frame pack I got when I concluded that airline employees would only destroy my external framer on a flight to the Alps 12 years ago.

    Other than that, I have gotten a lighter tent, use a pot lid for frying trout (and keeping my old thin steel fry pan at home) , and have relegated my own First Need cartridge filter for a featherweight Sawyer.

    The only thing I have not gotten a lighter version of is my hiking boots. I still use a sturdy pair of Lowas I bought in Switzerland. My knees don’t have to bear their weight, and the ankle support, water resistance, and toe protection are critical.

  9. I met a girl with a huge pack on the trail near Mono Pass in California. After I spent some time telling here about my revelation about UL backpacking, she said, “but I want my comfort”. Well OK, but I want my comfort on the trail — but maybe this is the hiker versus camper thing. Anyway, UL backpacking is all about comfort, all day long, for me. As for safety, that lies mostly between the ears.

  10. Well, it seems that the “choir” has chimed in here, all in unison, so I’ll put forth my experience, to inject a little variety.

    In the 1980s, my pack weighed 50+ pounds (pretty good for a guy who weighed 150). After back surgery and the march of time, I went in search of lighter alternatives.

    Backpacker Mag was no help there (they’re getting better but refuse to highlight cottage industries). Philip Werner’s http://www.sectionhiker.com contained invaluable reviews of lightweight gear, leading me to buy a Granite Gear Crown pack, ZPacks bag, Double Rainbow Tarptent (with room for two dogs), Thermarest Neoair, and INOV-8 Roclite shoes.

    I don’t actually know my “base weight” but I just did the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, and my pack weighed 30 pounds (for 4 days) including 1.5 liters of water.

    My mileage here in Colorado’s high country is usually limited to less than 10 miles per day because A) there’s no oxygen up there! and B) I hike in order to enjoy the destination. I’m not interested in hurrying as fast and far as I can go when I’m in the most beautiful scenery on earth.

    And yes, I bring my Alite chair and never fail to enjoy it. I carry nothing that I “never use” except, thankfully, my emergency gear.

    No one plans to get lost or fall off a mountain or be attacked by a bear or get hit by lightning. Yes, there is much “between the ears” that can help allieviate those risks. (I’ve never done any of those things. Yet.) But I find nothing noble about putting lives at risk in order to save a few ounces by eschewing some essential emergency items.

  11. I think his philosophy is right.
    Ultralight backpacking is not for everyone. But he does give you things to think about. Overnight hiking, for me, is about the whole experience, so the hike and the camping are equally important to me. My journey at the moment is to go lighter, and I’m working on that. I know that I won’t be an Ultralight backpacker, but I will achieve the ‘lightweight’ backpacking category. That is less than 30lbs or approx. 13.5kg.
    I’m getting there…

  12. I love my comfort and I’ve UL’ing it since the 90’s. The keyword is hiking, not camping. To me, comfort is layering. When it’s very, very cold I wear all my clothes, all my socks, my hooded sweatshirt and crawl into my silk liner and 50-degree 12 oz Marmot sleeping bag. If it’s really really hot I zip off the hiking pants, wear just a tank top and sleep in only the silk liner. Tents are for sissies. A rain poncho that doubles as a tarp and an $6 emergency bivvy sack is enough for a good day or night’s sleep in a rainstorm–on a pile of pine needles. I don’t even use a backpack because they weigh too much. Nowadays I carry a Grayl for water purification, a few collapsible water bottles, and a squeezable water bottle for hygiene. If my stuff weighs more than 8 lbs I’ll drop it somewhere.

  13. Seems like many of these comments are written to justify their way of backpacking. Go heavy, go light, go in between. Most people don’t give a shit. Do what is best for your style of backpacking as long as it does not impact up in others. 🙂

  14. During backpack training in the scouts in the early 70’s, my scoutmaster stated, “If your pack doesn’t weigh at least 50 lbs, you’ve probably forgotten something”. My backpacking friends and I took that to heart and it caused us no end of grief for years. Most gave up backpacking and I would have too had I not come across Ray Jardine’s book back in the 90’s. Thanks for another good article Pmags.

  15. The gear failure thing is overstated and emotionalized. In virtually all situations any gear failure will simply result in some level of discomfort and inconvenience. We aren’t talking about Himalayan mountaineering here. People who obsess about gear failure aren’t really comfortable in the wilderness

  16. I have to agree that this is nothing new, it’s more learning to pack than the gear per se. My 30-yr-old gear wasn’t all that heavy (just tired or broken), the main thing that lightened my load was carrying less stuff that I didn’t need and the biggest change in comfort was getting rid of the dang heavy boots! There’s always been light equipment available, you just had to look for it, even my old external-frame pack (made of canvas!) was 32 oz, not too bad! Sure, you can be a “gram-weenie” (guilty), but even casual newbies can go light if they realize they don’t need the kitchen sink.

  17. This from a certified geezer. I started backpacking in the 50’s with a wood and canvas pack, bag with some indeterminate fill but suspect it had ice packs buried in it someplace, a sort of canvas tent, and a Coleman single burner gas stove. Yep, pretty much everything has improved by orders of magnitude.

    I’m one of those in-between backpackers these days. My wife and I try to keep them in the 20 something pound range. That said, after being trapped in a tent on more than a single occasion for a whole day in the Beartooth’s, I’m not really a subscriber to the ultralight. It can get you into trouble or make you really miserable in the right circumstances.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t see whether losing 5 lbs from above my belt buckle or from my pack makes any difference to my knees or feet and one of those is a LOT cheaper than the other.

  18. I’m not “ultralight,” and since I’m now in my 80s and need my creature comforts, especially lots of insulation and a thick comfy insulated air pad, I never will be. On the other hand, I take everything I currently need for my comfort and safety. My base weight hovers between 12 and 13 lbs, which includes fishing gear and camera. (Why is the camera missing from almost all gear lists?) I definitely would no longer be backpacking if I had heavier gear. As it is, my trips are becoming more and more limited, both as to distance and duration (no more carrying 10 days of food), but I plan to keep going as long as I can put one foot in front of the other.

    I didn’t really discover this lightweight stuff until about 15 years ago–I had thought my backpacking days were over after major knee surgery in 1988. Why did it take me so long? That’s a question I still ask myself!

  19. Great video and great read here. What strikes me as odd is that everything I have watched and read leads me to believe that most of the people doing the writing and in the video’s are quite “normal”, with a great sense of humor.
    Who would have thought you could just as easily chew your food up before cooking in order to save cutting it up with a knife. Genius!!!
    I learn something new every day.

  20. I modify my weight and gear based on the terrain and weather. I have been in thunderstorms and hail in the Sierras where an UL umbrella “rain gear” system could have gotten me killed. I have used that system in the Grand Canyon. I have woken up in low 20s at 10K feet with ice everywhere in late August – a heavier down sleeping bag at these altitudes was necessary. I’ve been in several successive days of rain in the Sierras (monsoons) where a single-wall UL tent didn’t cut it. I’ve also been in mosquitos so thick, that they would land on my spoon before I could get it into my mouth – mosquito netting required. However, the UL concept is great – I do carry less (BA Flycreek tent, 800 fill down bags, etc.). But I need an inflatable mattress to sleep! I often have to carry a bear canister in Cal., so my heavier version pack feels better than my “ultralight” pack with the added/overloaded weight. However, I removed the top from the pack – I don’t need the extra storage/weight. If it’s a two-nighter, and no rain in the forecast, I’ll take a disposable poncho (few ounces) instead of my frog togs. Rather than just racing to the bottom in grams, match gear to your environment and know your gear’s limitations, and try to err on the lighter side.

    • I have been in thunderstorms and hail in the Sierras where an UL umbrella “rain gear” system could have gotten me killed. I have used that system in the Grand Canyon. I have woken up in low 20s at 10K feet with ice everywhere in late August – a heavier down sleeping bag at these altitudes was necessary. I’ve been in several successive days of rain in the Sierras (monsoons) where a single-wall UL tent didn’t cut it. I’ve also been in mosquitos so thick, that they would land on my spoon before I could get it into my mouth – mosquito netting required.

      Are you trying out for the “most interesting man in the world” commercial? 🙂

  21. For me, gear can be ultralight, but not always and not always in the same way. Knowing just how harsh the first snow can be at the higher elevations, I carry a high quality and warm bag. Sure it is insurance and probably not necessary, but it has been absolutely necessary often enough to warrant carrying the extra pound. I have similar thoughts about tents where they are pretty important under some circumstances, generally unnecessary, and sometimes worthless where they produce more condensation than the cold rain they keep out. I’m also a firm believer in firm footwear (yeah, heavy too), partly because I’m a big guy where my base weight needs tough materials that aren’t found in trail runners, and partly because I travel solo and don’t like the idea of crawling out for miles with a sprain or broken bone. I don’t think ultralight is wrong, but is not always applicable. I hate to say it, but the old-timers (me included) might have a slightly different perspective than some younger stags and does, not because we don’t embrace the new gear, but rather because our experience and judgment dictate otherwise.

    • I hate to say it, but the old-timers (me included) might have a slightly different perspective than some younger stags and does, not because we don’t embrace the new gear, but rather because our experience and judgment dictate otherwise.

      One of my hiking partners is 60, and takes light gear.
      A person who regularly posts on this website takes a sub-10 lb gear list and is over 60.

      I am now middle-aged and would like to think I have a good amount of experience. More so than most.

      Cheers.

      • Yeah Paul, you guys have great experience and good judgment, so going light is done with knowledge of exactly how. That’s great.

        My biggest issue is when a rookie takes off and is ill-prepared with light gear that doesn’t make sense. Maybe not enough clothing, not realizing they need to deal with 12 inches of snow in July, not knowing about fording streams safely, not knowing the effects of high altitudes, not understanding that the downclimb from a class 3 peak can easily become life threatening without a mountaineers rack of a couple or three pounds. Although this isn’t the fault of the gear, it may be tangentially related where the pack capacity limits what can be carried, or perhaps a fitness issue where heavier loads aren’t possible due to a lack of proper training.

        Light gear can be a way for people to think they can go where they really shouldn’t. I don’t think this is an issue of fear, but instead is an issue of ignorance.

        Although enthusiastic about the light gear, I spend a lot more time and energy as an advocate for fitness and knowledge.

        • I doubt most beginner’s know what a class three scramble is, much less going there.etc. etc. Etc.

          Most beginner cooks know not to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner as their first meal, too

          Beginner does not mean stupid.

          What you wrote is mainly tangential. There are always exceptions. But that does not really apply for most situations.

          Although enthusiastic about the light gear, I spend a lot more time and energy as an advocate for fitness and knowledge.

          Two very long posts about gear seem odd, then. 😉

  22. I enjoyed this article and have read about some the early light hikers, who encouraged me by there actions.
    When I told fellow hikers I was going lighter. Their comments were “will see you being rescued on the evening news”
    This made made me think never indanger my life by not have the nessry gear.
    I realized I (we) take stuff out of fear.
    I have been light hiking for years. I have been cought in blizzards, rain, heat, cold, injurys, and have had the right stuff to handle the situation.
    Hiking light requires that you be experienced, understand the elements, dangers involved. It’s something we work tords, you don’t start light.
    My base is 11.5 to 12 pounds (+ food and water) not ultra lite but confey.

  23. This has been quite a discussion. I find all this drama and fear over going ultralight to be amusing and quite absurd. On the other hand I am not sure I have ever been truly ultralight (sub 10 pound baseweight?). But I now head out for a week in the Sierra with a 30 pound total pack weight and have been out in daily rain and sub-freezing and been happy and comfortable. And I am 65 years old. The older I get, the lighter I go — the only way to take good care of my back and knees. And us old hands have the experience to be comfortable in the wilds.

    • Not ignorant at all! Base weight basically means your packed gear minus food, fuel, water, and similar that typically changes from trip to trip or day to day. Base pack weight is a useful benchmark as the amount of food you carry, for example, can vary. Hope that makes sense?

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