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What is UltraLight?

What follows are some of my personal thoughts and observations surrounding ultralight backpacking.

Northern Michigan

Shaltowee Trace Daniel Boone National Forest

What is Ultralight Hiking? 
Ultralight hiking is a term used to qualify hiking with a base pack weight of less then 15 lbs. Between 15 and 25lbs is considered "Lightweight" backpacking and 25lbs and above for a base pack weight is considered "Normal" backpacking. For me personally the term "Normal" went through a serious transition several years ago.
I grew up in Norther Michigan and spent 5 years in the Boy Scouts as a teenager. I appreciate my time spent as a part of Troop 206 because it help develop in me a great love for the outdoors in general and backpacking in particular. Unfortunately, ultralight concepts were not a part of most of our adventures. It wasn't until 1998 after having recunstructive knee surgery that I began to experiment with Lightweight ideas in regard to pack weight. I went from a self proclaimed gear junky (My garage was filled with all the latest gear) to experimenting with making my own gear. After much trial and error I finally made the switch to true ultralight hiking. Then in 2000 I was diagnosed with a Rheumatoid arthritis and realized that I had made the switch none to soon. Ultralight hiking allows me to continue to enjoy this pastime that I have come to love.

The modern thought in backpacking today says that we need to fill our pack with all the coolest "essentials" and for most people this means a 40 to 50 pound pack? In today's age of high tech flashy show room equipment this is about what the average hiker carries for a week long backpacking trip. (A 30 pound pack and equipment, plus the standard 2lbs of food per day (plus a little extra) this gives most people 45 pounds.) Actually this is a conservative estimate for many.

When a pack is to heavy it can lead to some real problems:

  • Slow, laborious hiking that is more work than fun
  • Exhaustion, irritability, and lack of fulfilment 
  • Higher risk of injury - sore back, sprained ankles, bad knees, bruised and blistered feet, hips, and shoulders, etc.
  • Tired, wore out people make bad decisions and bad decisions can be very dangerous. Tired people tend to cut corners.
  • Uncomfortable experiences will lead some people to just give up on the idea of backpacking all together and the wilderness loses another frontline friend. 
  • When you get to camp, you're just too tired to do anything anyway. This means less time for the fun stuff like:  fishing, swimming,  relaxing in camp, and side trips.

All of the above can take away from enjoying the outdoors (isn't this the reason you went in the first place)  I've got good news, you can make a change!

How about an 18 lb pack for a weekend trip and a 25 lb pack for a week long trip? Well, not only is it possible, it's practical!  It is a liberating feeling to travel down the trail unencumbered by piles of heavy gear. The trail miles melt away with amazing ease.  Not only do you spend more time hiking  you actually get to enjoy the wilderness that you came to see . You can get into camp early, and have plenty of time and energy to do almost anything.

What would you think if I told you that you could take everything you need to be safe and warm for around 12 pounds. This includes your pack and equipment (I carry just 11lbs.)   Not only can it be done, it can make this incredible pastime even more rewarding.


Where do I start?

First, you need to look at what we will call "THE MAIN BIG ONES!"   Then you will need to look at your "LITTLE BIG ONES". So what are these Big Items?  There are a grand total of seven key pieces of equipment that accounts for at least half of the base load in most folk's pack.

The Three MAIN BIG ONES:  Shelter, Backpack, and Sleeping Bag.

The Four LITTLE BIG ONES: Stove, Fuel Storage , Pot, and Sleeping Pad.

I know that with a careful examination of what gear you are currently using and by researching what is available in the market today, it's easy for most folks to find gear of similar comfort/capacity that weighs pounds less. In fact, many could EASILY drop their pack weight 15 - 20 % by replacing their current "MAIN BIG ONES" alone.

Think about this for just a moment.  Let's say that an individual generally takes along a standard 5500 cubic inch pack  such as a Lowe Alpine Frontier (5.5 lbs), an average two man tent such as the North Face Roadrunner (6.5lbs), and a comfortable 3 season synthetic sleeping bag such as the North Face Trinity  (3.5 lbs) for a grand total of 15.5 lbs.   What if that same person decided to use a more modest 3 person shelter such as the North Face Slickrock (4lbs), a smaller more managable pack such as the 4200 cubic inch Mountainsmith Mountainlight Auspex (3.5lbs) and a just as comfortable Kelty Light Year 25 down filled sleeping bag (2lbs). His total weight would now come to just 9.5lbs. A 6lb savings with no change what so ever in function, comfort or style. Now you could begin to experiment with let's say a frameless pack such as a Golite Trek, 5000 cubic inch (2.5 lbs), a Lafuma 800 down filled bag (1.5 lbs), and a Integral Designs Sil Shelter (a sil-nylon floorless tarp/tent 13 oz). Now you have taken your three BIG ONES from 15.5 lbs to down under 5 lbs. Don't stop there the possiblities go on and on and on..., well I think you are starting to get the idea.

All in all it is quite reasonable to radically change the wieght of your base pack weight without effecting the comfort, performance or style of your backpacking experience. How? By making a few simple equipment changes.


To sum it up

First Rule to Remember - Carry what YOU need to keep you safe and happy.

Second Rule to Remember - Never stop investigating what you can do to lighten your load, without violating Rule #1.

Decide that you will have no sacred cows and be open to experimenting with what may at first seen like radical ideas. Remember, todays radical thought are often tommorows mainstream ideas.

Now go forth, pare down the weight as you see fit, and most of all HAVE FUN!

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