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Simplicity, Harmony, and Opportunity: Freedom Born From an Ultralight Ethic


by Carol "Brawny" Wellman | 2003-10-24 03:00:00-06

"Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies Opportunity" – Albert Einstein's Three Rules of Work

This short quote summarizes my philosophy for both life and ultralight backpacking. I take only what I need in order to enjoy the journey. Each piece of gear is simple and light, and is integrated as a component of a harmonious system. Over many years and thousands of trail miles, my needs and wants have been redefined (or eliminated), resulting in a decreasing pack weight. In this constantly evolving process, any difficulty in the journey brings both opportunity and confidence born of hardship.

My ultralight attitude, developed over time, can be further illustrated by another quote:

“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.” – Henry David Thoreau

The idea Thoreau presents is not to carry anything too big: it just drags us down. Yes, we want “enough” – but it should be just enough. Fewer material goods do not necessarily indicate poverty but rather, a power of personal restraint, which is both a lifestyle and backpacking ethic that leads to freedom. Embracing this philosophy may require an adjustment of attitude for most Americans – who are typically raised to believe that two chickens are needed in every pot, that two cars belong in every garage, and that a home with only one bathroom is substandard.

My ultralight philosophy demands that I exercise personal power over my choices in the interest of self-sufficiency. I do not borrow gear, food, water, fuel, or guide pages from others. I will not advocate that anyone go to a trail ill-equipped or unprepared because they want to eliminate extra pack weight and figuring that they will come across a good Samaritan or trail magic to bail them out. My goal as an ultralighter is to carry all of my essentials, or learn how to improvise without them. It would not be fair for me to put others at risk or as an object of dependence, obligation or inconvenience, because of my lack of planning! Ultralighters have sometimes been disparaged as ‘moochers’ as evidenced by commentary from some outdoor writers. I feel duty bound to shake that image by never borrowing or accepting anything, except for rare trail magic. On a more practical note, a hiker may not meet another for days – or even weeks, and self-sufficiency is mandatory.

As a petite woman, I carry clothes that fit me. Nothing is baggy, too large or too long. All can be layered harmoniously for maximum warmth with minimum bulk. It means keeping my body weight down, which has two practical effects: (1) by staying lean, I feel better and can climb hills more easily, and (2) the volume and weight of my pack is reduced because of smaller clothes and sleep systems.

My shelter is a minimalist, single-wall silnylon structure, just large enough to sit up in, and sleep. I critically analyze each gear item, both for weight and volume, replacing them with substitutes that are smaller and lighter. As an example, my only knife is a five gram cutting tool found at office supply stores, and it has performed admirably for over 5,000 miles.

My food is adequate and simple, requiring minimal cooking time with less fuel on an ultralight alcohol stove. I utilize town stops by eating a lot of extra calories, and carry about a pound of food per day on the trail. I take advantage of natural daylight, to cook, clean, write or read, and avoid doing anything that requires batteries. The two exceptions are a waterproof watch, and photon light, both still have the same battery after 5,500 miles. I use well-made gear that can be repaired with superglue, electrical tape, or needle and dental floss.

"...conceding the failures and enjoying the margins of success contribute equally satisfying results in the long run."
Ultralight living and backpacking are natural for me. Curiosity and love of personal challenges inspire me to try new ideas. And so, instead of collecting material goods, I collect experiences. Sometimes there is significant discomfort in these new adventures – and conceding the failures and enjoying the margins of success contribute equally satisfying results in the long run.

The most important piece of gear a backpacker carries is his or her brain. The knowledge you carry in your head can save you many pounds of pack weight, prevent miles of missed trail and wrong turns, give you options and back up plans, and the confidence to press beyond your preconceived emotional, physical, and spiritual limits.

About the Author

Carol “Brawny” Wellman is the proprietor of Dancing Light Gear (, a manufacturer of ultralight backpacking equipment. She is also the author of My Journey to Freedom and Ultralight Backpacking (ISBN 0-9728154-0-6, Fire Creek Pass Publications, March 2003), a personal account of her journeys on the Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, and Appalachian Trail. It details her practical journey from car camper to ultralight backpacker, and a more spiritual journey to personal freedom. Originally from the midwest, Brawny now lives in the Georgia mountains. She spends her non-hiking time designing and sewing ultralight gear, writing, and performing trail maintenance on a section of the AT south of Bly Gap in GA.


"Simplicity, Harmony, and Opportunity: Freedom Born From an Ultralight Ethic," by Carol "Brawny" Wellman. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-10-24 03:00:00-06.