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Ultralight Is Not Dead

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ultralight has died with all the talk about it. But like a cat, this philosophy has many lives; and ideas, well, they don’t die. And so I feel a bit like Carrie Bradshaw, as I couldn’t help but wonder: Have some people just not understood what ultralight means?

Spiderweb

This is a very long post, and includes contributions from Glen Van Peski, Colin Ibbotson, Ron Bell, Andrew Skurka and Chris Townsend. Fetch a cup of tea or coffee and then read more!

Ultralight?

What is ultralight? What does it stand for? That should be the first question, I reckon. Lets start off by highlighting what UL does not mean: Lightweight gear, exclusively. Lightweight gear is one part of what makes an Ultralighter, the other ingredients are attitude, knowledge & skills.

UL is not buying the lightest available gear in the next shop to land under five kilogram, but the idea to analyse the trip you’re going on - climate, trail & camping conditions, natural environment - and make the decisions on gear, attitude, skills and knowledge you need to bring along (skills: If you’re intended trip is off-trail and you don’t know how to use map & compass, you’ll first need to learn that skill; knowledge: If you’re hiking through a desert you’ll need to know how to get water and what kind of dangers lay ahead; attitude: Leaving preconceived fears at the trail head). Without the skills, knowledge & attitude you still are able to carry a light backpack, but your experience might be bad if you not posses the other ingredients to make the gear work.

Because ultralight gear - it often plays together, it’s a system, and not just individual items in your backpack. Your mattress also functions as your frame for your frameless backpack, your thin insulation jacket and pants compliments your sleeping system, your pegs are holding your pot up in your stove, and your trekking poles are used to pitch your tarp.

Skills & knowledge are also in the Bushcraft scene the driving force. Learning how to build a shelter from natural materials with only your knife, gather the food you need, how to start a fire and much more. I always have said that Ultralight backpackers and Bushcrafters have a lot in common, and I think both groups can learn a lot from each other. Where Bushcrafters and ULers deviate is that ULers often focus more on the hiking part, hence we carry our shelter and gear to minimise the time we need to spend building a camp and getting food. If you want to lighten up your load, I highly recommend picking up a few Bushcraft books to learn valuable skills for your journey.

Mostly though, and this seems to be forgotten to a large extent, to go ultralight also the right attitude is needed. UL is an idea, a way of thinking, in which you leave behind the tangible and intanglible ballast so that you can open yourself up to get a deeper experience of the outdoors. A good example: I chose a tarp for backpacking not only because of the reduced weight, but also because it allows me to be a lot closer to nature. I don’t close nature out like I would with a tent on my backpacking trips, but make it part of the experience.

Furthermore, many Ultralighters also apply UL (or Minimalism) principles to their regular life, reducing the things they own, life in smaller homes, get rid of their cars and cycle more, and value a less cluttered life. This often is a direct influence from their UL backpacking experience. I certainly am that way, as I value the freedom of my own business over working for someone else, living in a 34 m² flat (while renovating my own house, admittedly), don’t own a car, PlayStation or TV (but a lot of books and hiking gear =) and I also travel light when I’m going to places.

Baseweights

Some criticise the goal of Ultralighters aiming for a certain baseweight - usually under five kilogram. If you go back to the beginning of the lightweight backpacking movement you will find Ray Jardine. He set out to hike the AT, and after he put all his gear together - much of it he made himself - his baseweight was 5 kg. Ray didn’t set himself a target, but after carefully evaluating what he needs to hike the AT he ended up with that weight. This was for one trip, under specific environmental expectations. Later others aimed for similar weights on other trails and saw that it worked, and so slowly a common “UL baseweight” of 5 kilogram was established - less because people where thinking about the idea and concept of how Ray arrived there, but more because it was easier to just copy the 5 kg approach for other trips.

And so the rather arbitrary five kilogramm baseweight category for UL was born, and probably further promoted by other ultralight evangelists. While I find it questionable to not think about what is needed for a trip and aim for the lightest pack, I do see and understand how a simple sub five kilogramm goal is attractive. And while there will be those that just aim for the 5 kg baseweight without making many of the considerations outlined above, the vast majority of Ultralighters has or will reach at some point the understanding that just aiming for five kilogramm can’t be it, but that one needs to think and plan to ensure that the trip with such a baseweight is successful.

Futhermore, there’s certainly a place for XUL and SUL enthusiasts, because they are the ones that push the boundaries that we all benefit from in the end. Those hikers inspire MYOGers as well as Cottage Manufacturers to produce new, innovative products which the lightweight, UL and eventually Traditionalist camp will benefit from. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sportsmanlike ambition in lightening up - they won’t hurt others, after all!

Labels

Another critiscm is how we have created labels to categorize certain styles of backpacking. We have XUL, SUL, UL, lightweight and traditional.

When I use the term Ultralight, then what I talk about is “lightweight travel through the outdoors”. If that’s an overnighter, a week long trip or a month-long expedition doesn’t matter really, because UL is adaptable: You adapt your equipment for the trip ahead. On the Ultralight Summit I had a baseweight of a shocking 6275 gram. If I go on an overnighter I seldom have more than five kilogram with me, and even in winter I don’t get higher than eight. I adapt the gear for the trip ahead and don’t think closely about reaching a certain baseweight or fit within a category, unless that’s the aim of the trip (like trying to go on a SUL trip in summer).

But back to the SUL, XUL, UL et al. labels: Labels are here to stay, like it or not. They’re not great, but they allow those who hike to more easily to compare things to each other - it helps people to sort, file and choose information. And while a UL baseweight of sub 5 kg is perfect for the PCT, if you plan to hike in the Arctic that might quickly be a couple kilograms more (due to environmental differences) - though it is often still lighter what a traditionalist will carry around. I agree they’re not perfect, but neither are labels like “Ultimate Hiker” and “Camping-Oriented backpackers”.

Follow the red white markings

Elitism

We Ultralighters hear a lot of critiscm about our purported elitism - certainly I have been accused of displaying this. We’re accused of looking down on people with heavy backpacks. This accusation can be seen both ways, more ‘traditional’ backpackers looking down on us, with our inadequate footwear for mountain use, tarps in alpine environments, and just a cooking pot and woodburner as our kitchen. Or is it that we often use minimally branded ‘cottage’ manufactured and MYOG gear instead of Jack Wolfskin and The North Face gear from the big outdoor chains?

Do we appear elitist because we are more critical of the gear we use? Where others are happy with their latest Mammut jacket and Meindl boots, we realize that it is very often over-built for what it is used for. And if we say this - for us ULers this is how we try to help people to lighten up, make smarter purchasing decisions and have a better outdoor experience - then we might appear like a know-it-all. Being passionate and evangelical about something I believe in - that carrying lighter, simpler packs increase ones enjoyment of the wilderness - does not make me ‘elitist’.

Personally, if I encounter a traditionalist on the trail, I greet them just like everyone else I meet on the trail, maybe have a short chat with them, and then hike on. I don’t start to preach about how they carry a too big backpack and boots and that they do it wrong - that’d be rude and not useful for the cause. If there are questions about gear - usually at a camping ground, if someone sees that I use a woodburning stove and sleep under a tarp, I answer their questions and explain my choices, in a simple and friendly way.

It is easy to accuse someone of elitism on the internet, often because the important factors of gesture & facial expressions are missing in a conversation, or that 140 characters don’t allow for much room in expressing oneself. As with everything I say or write, I expect from people to think for themselves about what I say, and not put a statement right away on a negative scale but take it with a pinch of salt and a sense of humour.

Finally, I agree there’s no need for elitism - if there is any. But saying that only ultralighters are being elitist is not being honest or fair. Go to any non-UL specific backpacking forum & ask about UL or lightweight backpacking and you could find behaviour that may be deemed as ‘elitist’, that the use of lightweight or UL gear is ‘irresponsible’ in the wilderness or for the weak of body. In the UL ‘community’ I haven’t witnessed such behaviour, merely some light-hearted teasing and in-jokes. Most people seem reasonable, helpful and blessed with good sense of humour.

Gear

Gear: Simplicity, multi-use, durable. That were the characteristics Ray Jardine set for the gear when he set out on his AT hike. That is still what many ultralighters want and expect from their gear today, with the addition of it being lightweight. If you need a framed pack with 50 litres of volume, do you take the one which weighs 800 gram or two kilogram if everything else is the same?

If you read closely above, you know that you always should chose the appropriate gear for the trip ahead. You shouldn’t go Stupid Light to use the term, which simply means there are possibilities for wrong gear choices, favouring something that is lighter over something that would more efficient. An example would be if two people on a winter trip would be sharing a one litre pot if you have to melt snow and cook with it. That’s stupid light because melting snow takes time and then one is watching the other one eat. Not fun. Stupid light. Simple.

HMG Porter

Why Ultralight?

Another joke seems to be that we Ultralighters go light because we’re not able to carry heavy loads. That’s narrow-minded and shows that the person talking hasn’t thought much about their comment. Because very often the decision to go UL has other reasons - many who have back or knee problems or are getting older simply can’t carry heavy backpacks anymore, and see the benefit that to continue to enjoy the outdoors they need a lighter backpack. Others, like me, have hiked with 25+ kg packs and simply didn’t find it enjoyable, and after some research and studying saw that with a lighter backpack the outdoors can be fun and exhilarating again. Others again lighten up so that they can take a good camera, tripod and tele-lens with them, or other small luxuries.

Fact: Many people can benefit from going lighter, because the lighter the pack, the more fun the hiking is, to paraphrase Mike C!

Others have went full circle - they hit the UL target, found their sweet spot after a lot of testing, and now no longer aim to go lighter. That’s splendid, because they have simplified their gear choices, have found out through trial & error (and reading BackpackingLight, Ultraleicht Trekking and blogs) their gear choices and now can just grab their pack, add food and water, and head out. But if you have come full-circle, don’t make the mistake to assume that everyone else has. The vast majority of backpackers still carry heavy backpacks and can benefit from lightening up.

Also BackpackingLight still has its place. It is the single greatest place for people looking to lighten up, and also has plenty of useful information for those who already hike light. There is no blog or forum out there which can compete with BackpackingLight on the level of information available, especially the articles are unrivalled. Again, if one has found his sweet spot and perfect load, there seems little need for a BPL subscription, but for many one year reading BPL articles can be a huge education.

So much from me for the moment. Here’s what some others from the UL scene have to say on the topic:

Glen Van Peski, Founder of Gossamer Gear

Keeping SUL from becoming SOL

Is Ultralight Backpacking dead? I’m somewhat mystified by the current hubbub and animated discussion around ‘stupid light’ and the death of ultralight backpacking. Admittedly, I don’t spend much time online perusing backpacking-related blogs and articles. My buddy Hendrik Morkel had to direct me to some of the current blog posts on the subject. There is just way too much information out there to keep up on. A lot of it is quality content from people who are actually backpacking, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from. But for me, the end goal is to spend time backpacking. My preference, and usual trip, is mountains in the western United States, above tree line as much as possible. For this, although I’m always making minor adjustments, I’m pretty happy with my current kit, which has served me well.

I admit, as an engineer, I do enjoy to a certain extent, the challenge of a certain weight ‘target’, although it varies depending on the trip. If I’m too light one trip, I adjust accordingly on the subsequent trip. If I find I’m carrying things that never get used, or learn a different way of doing things from somebody else, I again adjust my kit accordingly. But the end goal is to get outside. Before I recently started running, lighter packs allowed me to keep up with people who spent time in the gym. As I get older, lighter packs allow me to keep hiking on strenuous trips, to get further in the backcountry that I love.

Before people comment on super low pack weights, they should try it themselves.

It is interesting that in Skurka’s original ‘stupid light’ post, his main points for taking heavier gear seems to be increased efficiency. That’s a value judgment, wholly appropriate for the types of trips that Andrew takes. In the comments to his article, I saw other values expressed. People take extra weight in the forms of books, tea, cameras, because that adds to their enjoyment of the trip. I eschew what I consider unnecessary weight (for me), for the same reason, because a light pack adds to my enjoyment of the trip. I never try to tell someone they should have a lighter pack. If someone decides on their own that a lighter pack would add to the enjoyment of their trip, I am happy to share what I have learned along the way. When I publish a gear list with a trip report, the purpose is not to flaunt my gear choices, but to provide details for the few people that may be interested.

It seems like the point is, and has always been, to have the most enjoyable trip possible. What this means depends on the individual’s goals, as well as the planned trip, and the person’s experience level. It is possible to make bad choices, both by taking too little gear, or by taking too much gear. Everyone has to find their happy medium that allows them to achieve their personal backpacking goals. Just as I do not judge someone’s decision to carry a 50-lb. pack, nobody should comment on my decision to go out with a 5-lb. base weight. I suspect that many of the people making disparaging comments about SUL may not have experienced it themselves. I’m reminded of a past Brain Trust hike, the annual get together with Brian Frankle, Ron Moak, Henry Shires and myself. There was some good-natured trash talking about base weight going on before the trip, and for some reason Brian Frankle decided to take a hard look at what he carried, and lightened it significantly. Obviously Brian is a super-fit and very accomplished hiker, and could carry any load he chose. He had never been sucked into the obsessive weighing of gear, due in part I suspect to the types of adventures he planned. I found his comments after the trip interesting. Brian said that he had never given much credence to the effects of lightening pack weight, but he was surprised at how it changed the trip for him. So before people comment on super low pack weights, they should try it themselves.

With ANY trip, the goal should be to take enough gear to be safe and comfortable for the planned trip and reasonably foreseeable contingencies, based on the person’s experience level. The trick is to keep SUL (Super Ultra Light) from becoming SOL (Sorry Out of Luck). On a seminar I did many years ago with Ryan Jordan for the Inyo-Kern SAR, it was interesting to me to note that during dinner afterwards, the rescue stories involved people who got into situations that they didn’t have the experience for, not scenarios where people didn’t have enough gear. So, let’s just everyone concentrate our energy on getting outside more, and making it easier for others to get outside and enjoy the backcountry.

Colin Ibbotson, Full-time Hiker

From the day we are born we are set targets. A baby, if not of a certain weight, is classed as at-risk and nurtured until it reaches its target weight. Throughout school, and beyond, we are set targets through tests and exams. Athletes aspire to reach a certain target and when they do that target is moved that bit further away. As an engineer I’m often given a specification, or target, for my designs. Targets are what drives us to innovate, learn and progress. Without targets laziness and stagnation takes hold. Ultralight hiking is no different and if we don’t set ourself goals, or targets, then little progress will be made. Even worse it’s all too easy to take small backward steps that, over time, become giant leaps.

The problem with ultralight hiking as it stands today is the under 10lbs label, or target that has to be reached. This weight and classification as ultralight is meaningless to many because we all hike under different conditions and have different needs. Many trips carried-out in more demanding environments could easily be classed as ultralight that involve carrying more than a 10lbs weight. I’ve never been happy with this label and have always said that we should hike with the gear, and weight, that works for us. Yet, we should not sit back and be lazy about this. Set your own realistic target, if that’s under 10lbs then fine but equally 15lbs or 20lbs could be just as right for you and the conditions. The important part is to have a target and keep moving it lighter until you reach that personal sweet-spot. That way progress will be made. You will know when your sweet- spot has been reached after you go past it and that will mean making some mistakes, or traveling “stupidly light” as it is now know. That’s what quick overnight test hikes are for. Every ultralight hiker has done this and that’s how we learn. You go back, adjust and try again.

We should hike with the gear, and weight, that works for us; yet we should not sit back and be lazy about this.

For many years my target weight for long hikes has been under 4kg (8.8lbs). I didn’t choose that weight to be labelled an ultralight hiker, it chose me. Over 7 long years of testing I found that to be my sweet-spot that gave me the protection and comfort that I needed without carrying useless additional or over engineered gear. I’ve tried lighter weights but always come back. At 4kg I find few compromises have to be made on most Europe and USA 3 season hikes. Now that I’m hiking full-time my kit choices have changed and I’m likely to carry something more substantial than a flat tarp, often a gas stove over esbit, an airbed over foam and even a pillow has been seen recently in my gear list! My target weight hasn’t shifted though. To keep within my sweet-spot I’ve had to think more and be creative. That’s why I make more and more of my own gear. Without a target I would be carrying an additional 1-2 kg or more by now. Is that weight important? I would argue it is. Target weights are relevant and important.

Ultralight hiking may no longer be fashionable, which is a good thing, and hiker categories with set weights aren’t helpful and have little relevance in the real world. However, the principle of minimalist hiking using the lightest and simplest kit for the conditions, comfort level and experience of the hiker have been here since the earliest days and will live on long after we’ve all hung-up our trail shoes. Don’t be afraid of targets, used properly they can only be helpful.

Andrew Skurka, Adventurer

The terms “lightweight” and “ultralight” and “super ultralight” backpacking were always a liability. I won’t be disappointed if people stop using them. I have.

It’s never been about the gear – it’s always been about what you can do with the gear.

It’s never been entirely about the gear – equally important are the required skills.

It’s never been an alternative approach to backpacking (light vs. heavy) – it’s been a required approach if you intend to optimize the hiking component of a backpacking trip.

It’s never been an inviting term to beginner backpackers, who look to their gear for safety and comfort. It essentially says, “We know you’re scared of going backpacking for the first time. But ‘go light’ and you’ll actually be better off.” To them, “light” means cheap, not durable, not comfortable, and unsafe. If the movement was presented originally as necessary to enjoy a hiking-inspired trip, the movement would have made much more progress by now.

Chris Townsend, Author

I’ve noticed the discussion about the death of ultralight. I’ve never taken the divisions into ultralight, lightweight, traditional backpacking very seriously anyway. It’s all a continuum. I do think there are far more people who would enjoy backpacking more if they lightened their loads than there are people carrying too little. Ultralight is a small niche. I don’t think it’ll “die” though. Interest in it will wax and wane, as it has done for decades.

Ron Bell, Founder of Mountain Laurel Designs

Most people have very busy lives and any vacation time on the trail is highly valued. When I get the chance I usually want to see as much as possible so I pack lightweight and move fast and efficiently. Feeling sore, worn out and stressed at the end of the day on the trail is completely avoidable and carrying lighter loads and basic education in it’s use is key to not feeling like a mule on your short vacation or trip of a lifetime thru-hike. At any age this is true but never more so as you get older. 30 years ago I saw far fewer women, kids and those over 40 backpacking. Now it is common and many are using lightweight gear to make it possible.

30 years ago I saw far fewer women, kids and those over 40 backpacking. Now it is common, and many are using lightweight gear to make it possible.

It’s abundantly clear that more and more backpackers and outdoor adventurists are choosing to carry gear that is light weight. In this decade, a growing number of small and cottage companies are joining the original half dozen or so lightweight gear innovators from the start of the last decade building light gear - and many mainstream companies also continue in that direction. That would not be true without the huge increase in demand created by successful use of lightweight gear.

The same reasons that started and propelled the lightweight revolution continue. Hikers want to do more, see more and experience the sense of one-with-nature that comes from moving through the landscape as freely as possible. Lightweight backpackers choose self reliance, knowledge of the environment and their own capabilities in the selection of appropriate gear to help them reach their individual trip goals at far higher safety levels than ever before.

Hikers will be at difference points along the lightweight curve. Some push the edge of lightweight as part of their education and sense of adventure. I pick my gear for the specific goals of each trip. Will I want move very fast to test my endurance, do I want to do more photography or culinary testing on this trip, will I see snow and cold temps, who’s hiking with me, how remote it the trail, etc. Using the same lightweight efficiency principals as part of any decision matrix I can select different lightweight gear for each trip.

It’s pretty simple math: If one piece of gear that weighs 1lbs does the exact same job at the same level of dependability and functionality as another that weights 3lbs - which one will you pick to improve your overall outdoor experience?

Bottomline

Jörgen Johansson from Fjäderlätt was the first person to tell the Fellowship of the death of Ultralight. It was on a windy evening around a fire in the Swedish fjells, a wild river roaring next to us, as Jörgen opened up to us and told us about Smarter Backpacking. That’s the term Jörgen uses when he refers to ultralight & lightweight backpacking. Ultralight just sounds to extreme, Jörgen said. He’s right to some extent. But I for one am fine with the term, because in the end it is just a name, a label, a means to an end, that allows me to go out and enjoy the outdoors in a (for me) better way.

Many thanks to Basti and Joe for proof-reading and helping me make things sensible.

UL Summit Attendants

Further Reading

Want to read what triggered this post? Then head over to Dave’s Ultralight Is Dead post. On that followed Jaakko’s The Death of UL and Feeble Assumptions, Martin’s We are all backpackers in the end, Chris’ Ultralight, Lightweight, Traditional… Or Maybe Just Backpacking? and Marius’ superb Ultralight is Dead - Long Live Ultralight post, Zed’s Are the great men wrong?, and Andrew’s Is the “lightweight backpacking” label dead, along with its UL, SUL, and XUL derivatives?. That should be a productive week then, I reckon!

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