New Fangled Ultralight Backpacking

Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.” – Earl Shaffer.

Oregon Public Television recently re-released a video discussing lightweight backpacking. The video featured well-known backpacker Clint “Lint” Bunting.

The video featured 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the video is almost five years old, the video presents the information in such a way that the concepts will not be outdated.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 continue to be dumbfounded 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 regularly.  In fact, you can review an earlier book from the Appalachian Mountain Club online titled Going Light published in 1924.

From the AMC’s 1924 edition of “Going Light.”. Yes, 1.5 lb shelters almost 100 years ago!

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 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.

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. Equipment 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 cumbersome gear load takes a lot more work than going lighter, comfortable, and safe in 2017.

Despite what people online may state. 🙂

Update: And a newer article on the modern history of what we know as ultralight gear systems

Share
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
45 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jeramie Nielsen
Jeramie Nielsen
2 years ago

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.

Sean O'Connell
Sean O'Connell
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Sean Price
Sean Price
2 years ago

Just look at the “Trips Afoot” chapter (especially the “Featherweight Kits” section) in Horace Kephart’s “Camping and Woodcraft,” first published in 1906(!) and later expanded 1916. He’s talking about kits starting at 6lbs. The notion of going light is nothing new.

Here’s a link to the book at archive.org:
https://archive.org/details/campingwoodcraft00kephrich

Sean Price
Sean Price
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Price

It’s split into two books, which makes it a little confusing. Here’s a link to the page the chapter starts on:

https://archive.org/stream/campingwoodcraft00kephrich#page/96/mode/2up

Nick Gatel
2 years ago

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.”

Geoff Gafford
2 years ago

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.

Roger
Roger
2 years ago

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.

Elliott Wolin
Elliott Wolin
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Dr. Stuart Wright
Dr. Stuart Wright
2 years ago

…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.

Jeff Schimpff
Jeff Schimpff
2 years ago

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… Read more »

CanadianHiker
CanadianHiker
2 years ago

Amen.

Tom in Tucson
Tom in Tucson
2 years ago

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.

Kurt in Colorado
Kurt in Colorado
2 years ago

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,… Read more »

ShazBoo BookOwl
2 years ago

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…

GeckoHiker
GeckoHiker
2 years ago

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… Read more »

CM
CM
2 years ago

His point about potential gear failures is on point … which is why we buy Gossamer Gear to mitigate that quibble 🙂

PaulW
PaulW
2 years ago

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.

Tucson Tom
Tucson Tom
2 years ago

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

Arla Hile
Arla Hile
2 years ago

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… Read more »

John Goering
John Goering
2 years ago

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… Read more »

grannyhiker
grannyhiker
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Tom
Tom
2 years ago

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.

Rocky
2 years ago

In the early 1980s the backpacking industry went through a short-lived, light weight revolution, which I wrote about here:
https://rockssandwater.blogspot.com/2010/11/lightweight-backpacking-in-early-1980s.html
What goes around – and gets forgotten – comes around again and again.

Charles
Charles
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Bryant
Bryant
2 years ago

“Fear” and ignorance is the main reason to carry too much.

Roy Leggitt
Roy Leggitt
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Roy Leggitt
Roy Leggitt
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

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… Read more »

Angela Kemp
Angela Kemp
2 years ago

The SVEA 123 brings back memories. I still have mine but can’t get it to work properly

Rick Thomas
Rick Thomas
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Tucson Tom
Tucson Tom
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Angela Kemp
Angela Kemp
2 years ago

I hope this isn’t too ignorant a question, but what is included in “base weight”?

Angela Kemp
Angela Kemp
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

It does. Thanks.

Randy
Randy
1 year ago

Consider this quote from 1920: “The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong, and we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how to do it. Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.” This is from the book “Woodcraft and Camping” by a gentleman nicknamed Nessmuk. The book is a classic of outdoor literature in the same genre as Kephart’s book mentioned in another comment. There are a few interesting things in… Read more »

Randy
Randy
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Nice. Liked that 1877 post as well.

Dan
Dan
4 months ago

There’s a difference between “no heavier than NECESSARY” and “ultralight,” you knucklehead. You’re confounding the two ideas, either out of foggy thinking or guile. Nobody has ever championed the idea that a hiker should lump cans of soup and a ten pound Coleman stove up a mountain; it’s not like everybody was doing that until “Ultralightness” came along and liberated us. Weight has always been ONE consideration out of many. But the ultralight FAD or religion is something else. It’s been exposed as moronic on the PCT. “Zpacks” is a name that will live in infamy. People buy ultralight gear… Read more »