The case for ultralight

There is a trend among backpackers toward using less and lighter gear which has grown over the past decade and is popularly known as the ultralight or “UL” movement. This shift is part cultural, part technological.

The packs carried in the past were significantly heavier than those we carry today because we have materials that simply did not exist five or ten years ago. Packs in the '70s had external aluminum frames that weighed 3.5 lb minimum. My pack (just the backpack) is 2 lb 2 oz. Apply this same shift to nearly every piece of gear available and it totally changes how people outfit themselves for long distance hikes. This is especially true on long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail. When you hike 20+ miles day in and day out for five months, every ounce matters.

I truly applaud the women and men of older generations who went mountaineering and hiked long-distance. They faced far more challenges than I did, and they did it with base weights far greater than mine. For reference, your base weight is how much your pack weighs with all your gear in it, but without food or water. To really start getting into the realm of lightweight and ultralight backpacking, your base weight will should be around 20 lb and 10 lb respectively. Carrying much below 10 lb is both impressive and crazy. It should be noted that achieving a base weight of 10 lb or less probably involves foregoing any medical kit or creature comforts. It definitely means you aren’t carrying a stove.

While "going UL" is becoming more popular on long distance trails, you should heed a few warnings before buying a bunch of fancy, lightweight gear. A better or more expensive set-up (read: more UL) isn’t going to make you a good hiker. For that matter, what does it even mean to be a good hiker? There's nothing competitive about it, and generally speaking, there is no exact right way to do this hiking thing. All I can do is share my perspective, and in my opinion going UL is a good way to go.  

For many, UL gear is simply not an option. You can pretty much count on the lightest gear being the most expensive gear (with some exceptions, mostly in the homemade category). Many hikers may decide they want to join the UL ranks, the big challenge is balancing cost and weight. Sometime you have to sacrifice dollars for fewer ounces. As you learn about gear you may find it can become an obsession.

If you do decide to join in the UL movement, here are a couple pieces of advice.  First, don't be a dick about it. Just because you might be UL and don't have any single piece of gear weighing more than 2.5 lb doesn't make you better than any other hiker.  Second, there are other things to talk about on the trail than your gear. A little bit of gear talk is great. Most hikers, myself included, love learning about new gear and seeing how it works for different people.I hiked with a couple of UL bros who pretty much never shut up about their base weight. It got really old, really fast.

For those long-distance hikers who are not UL, having a higher base weight does not mean they’re doing it wrong. Some people are perfectly happy carrying extra weight or like the luxury of a few key items. Sometimes these items are about preparedness. This could include a SPOT device, compass, maps, jackets, warm clothing, etc. If you get caught in the wrong weather at the wrong time with the wrong gear, things can get very scary, very quickly. It can be dangerous and potentially lethal. While I don’t like carrying more than I need to, I’m never advocating neglecting gear that very well may save your life if it starts raining and gets cold or windy. A good friend of mine from the trail, Smokes, carried an extra of damn near everything and often that was really handy (not just for him!). Smokes is well-versed in wilderness survival. He was ready for anything both in terms of gear available and mental preparedness. On the luxury side of gear, certain people enjoy their creature comforts. Maybe you want your book, harmonica, wind shirt or town shirt. Dan carried a harmonica for the whole trail. Hike your own hike. (HYOH. It’s a phrase/acronym you hear often around trail. It means do your own thing, and let other people do their own thing.) Those people probably value those comforts over big miles anyway. There is nothing wrong with that.

There are, however, other hikers who are not UL and who may not even have the heaviest of gear but just have way too much gear. These people's gear choices seem to be guided by fear. You should never go into a situation unprepared, but do not underestimate how much you can do with very little. Do a shakedown of your pack sometime and consider how much you truly need each item. There are likely quite a few that will never be used nor missed once you have ditched them. (A shakedown is when you dump everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, out of your pack to re-evaluate exactly what you do and do not use/need.) Do you really need that Tiger Balm? Why on earth do you have a knife that big? How come you always walk into town with at least two days worth of extra food?

Once I lightened my pack I quickly realized a few things. My legs hurt less, especially going down hills. I could go faster and I was more nimble. Heavy, bulky packs can be unruly and make it harder to maintain a brisk pace. It makes climbing over obstacles more cumbersome too. I could go farther each day. Because you burn fewer calories with less weight, you are usually less exhausted. Even if you don't want to do big miles or hike hard, the fact that it reduced leg pain and strain would have been enough to convince me.

Because of the UL trend, at least in part, the outdoor gear industry has been shaken up over the last few years. Smaller cottage companies are springing up all over the place because they came up with new ideas on ways to approach gear. Sure, it’s a cliche word nowadays, but I love seeing this innovation. The proliferation of cuben fiber in the backpacking world is perhaps the best example. Do a search for cuben fiber gear and look in awe at what you can make out of it and how little it weighs. (i.e.: Z-packs and Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

I don’t think the trend will completely take over the backpacking/hiking world. There are still more than enough people who aren’t worried about weight and want to take their time. This trend will, however, continue to grow, just as thru-hiking does.

Take it from me, a guy with absolutely no credentials who has only done one big hike and then made a blog about it, dropping your base weight can make life way easier on trail.