Backpacking Light 101

A Lightweight Primer to Backcountry Travel for the Uninitiated

By Ryan Jordan

Ryan Jordan is the co-founder and Publisher of Backpacking Light. He original wrote this article as a celebration of the evolution of lightweight backpacking as part of GoLite's 5th Anniversary catalog.

Ultralight backpacking, contrary to proclamations by Those That Carry Heavy Packs, is not practiced by that crazy fringe segment of wilderness society that derives their calories from obscure edible roots and their shelter from two twigs and a waterproof handkerchief. Well, at least, it’s not practiced only by that crazy fringe. Rather, it’s a way of backcountry travel that has permeated virtually every outdoor sport: day hiking, trail running, horse packing, packrafting, backcountry hunting and fishing, mountaineering, mountain biking, and adventure racing. The Ultralight Ethic no longer stands in the shadow of conventional backcountry theology that proclaims “more is better”. An increasing number of people, including elite Alaskan alpinists, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, parents with children, and even aging baby boomers are entering the wilderness with an astounding level of self-awareness rooted in a simple ethic: Less is better. Lighter is better.

Ultralight backpacking is not hard, nor does it discriminate against those with physical challenges. Anyone with a mind to change, and a desire to cultivate their own ultralight ethic, can do it. Here’s how.

How-To: Seven Steps to Enlightenment

1. Reality check: weigh your stuff.

Don’t have a digital scale yet? Get one. Once you weigh your old gear and add up the pounds and ounces, you’ll either be checking into the cardiac ward or making a beeline to your local outdoor shop for some lighter gear. And, yes, the cliché holds true: ounces add up to pounds, and pounds add up to discomfort on the trail.

2. Trim the fat: leave the kitchen sink at home.

Camp chairs, GPS units, espresso makers, the latest Clancy novel, cellular phones – do you really need all this stuff? Whatever happened to sitting on a stump, navigating with a compass, drinking cowboy coffee, reading the fine print on a map, and enjoying a ring-free wilderness experience? You’re going into the backcountry to get away from it all, so don’t bring it all with you! At the very least, exercise some discipline when choosing your luxuries, and only allow yourself one. For me, it’s often a field guide (my favorite: Lightweight Backpacking 101, ISBN 0-9748188-0-1, 3.7 oz) and a laminated photo of my family (0.2 oz) that I can hang off my tarp in camp.

3. Plan your trip: limit your contingencies.

We have been fed a steady of diet of conservative backcountry theology that has created generations of hikers that prepare for winter but only hike between July Fourth and Labor Day. Do your homework: assess your destination’s terrain, climate, weather patterns, and natural hazards. Then, plan (and pack) accordingly. Do you really need a winter parka and a four-season tent for a three-day summer walk on the Georgia A.T.? How light you should go will depend in part on your experience and skill – and you’re better safe than sorry, so don’t cut it too close. But at least grab a last minute weather report and adjust your equipment list appropriately. And practice! Backyard camping in inclement weather is a great way to fine tune your ultralight gear systems and take risks you normally wouldn’t take in the backcountry.

4. Consider function first: take the lightest possible item to do the job.

Ultralight backpacking requires that you rethink your equipment list. Most backpackers think they need more than they really do. Example #1: “I need a stove”. Reality: you may only need a cup of hot water for a morning drink and evening bowl of soup. Result: a one-ounce titanium alcohol stove and an aluminum foil windscreen can save a half pound or more on a canister or white gas stove kit. Example #2: “I need a tent”. Reality: you may only need an overhead shelter for the remote possibility of a brief rain shower on a summer hike in the desert. Result: an eight ounce silnylon tarp serves this function as well as even the very lightest double-wall tents on the market, and saves you pounds to boot.

5. Simplify: take items that serve multiple functions.

Ultralight backpackers are characterized by their ability to define multiple uses from individual items in their equipment kit. One emotionally robust UK hillwalker I know uses a titanium spoon as an eating utensil, tent stake, signal device (he polished the spoon bowl), and, with the aid of a small bit of duct tape and a strip of Velcro®, a toothbrush. Fortunately, there are less extreme and more practical manifestations of multi-use philosophy. Some more classic examples: using a poncho-tarp as both raingear and shelter, spare socks as emergency mittens, and a small pot for boiling, eating, and drinking. Taking multi-use gear reduces the number of items in your equipment kit and can dramatically simplify your life on the trail.

6. Don’t just take a bunch of stuff: build a system.

Experienced ultralighters consider a systems approach to developing their equipment kit: exploiting the synergistic relationships between items to achieve maximum performance. This is especially true when planning your clothing, sleep, and shelter system. For example, ultralight hikers that wear their sleeping bags around camp as insulating wear (or those that opt for a lighter sleeping bag and combine it with an insulating jacket at night), are able to reap significant weight savings over backpackers that bring a warm jacket for camp and simply use it as a pillow with their too-heavy sleeping bag at night. Combining a torso-length sleeping pad with the padded backpad from your backpack, instead of bringing a full-length mattress, is another great way to cut weight without sacrificing comfort.

7. Get back to the basics: learn to be an outdoorsman.

In a definitive treatise on the ills of modern day society, Waylon Jennings laments, “Maybe it’s time we got back…to the basics of love”. Decades of technological advances in outdoor gear design (including the abilities to withstand worse storms, shoulder heavier loads, and resist more abrasion) has now created generations of outdoorsmen that are more dependent on their gear than their own wilderness savvy. Most of these folks are carrying far too much weight on their back because they have placed their backcountry security in gear that is over-designed, overbuilt, and overweight. Develop a solid foundation in backcountry skills and you will lighten your load. Dealing with inclement weather, injuries, route finding challenges, and natural hazards depends as much on your backcountry skills and ability to improvise, than it does on any assembly of gear you bring with you.

The Ultralight Way of Life

Ultralight backpacking is not just about lightening your load of physical baggage – it is a way of life on the trail embodied by simplicity of action, harmony with the natural world, and the self-realization borne of leaving the mental, emotional, and spiritual baggage of modern civilization at the trailhead. To that end, ultralight backcountry travel is a means (ethic) to an end (refreshment) that is as valuable to a professional Alaskan mountain guide as it is to the weekend warrior.

Ryan’s Ultralight Ethic

What follows is a reflection of my lightweight backpacking journey. It shouldn't necessarily be a reflection of yours. Whatever you do, enjoy your walk in the wilds.

Go Far

“Hiking a twenty- or thirty-mile day in the mountains, or several hundred miles without resupply, is invigorating to me. Ultralight style gives you the ability to let your body perform to its maximum potential – which is amazing.”

Go High

“I love the mountains. Leaving the trees behind and climbing high means you are truly in the face of nature’s fury – which requires that you be more attentive, more in focus, and more respectful of how powerful the wilderness can be.”

Go Fast

“Fastpacking – hiking long distances in short amounts of time – is not fueled merely by a racing mentality, where everything flies by you so fast that you don’t even notice. To the contrary, actually – fastpacking offers more sensory stimulation in the course of a 24 hour day than you are able to digest, leaving your mind and spirit filled with – and fueled by – the wilderness experience long after you get off the trail.”

Go Simple

“Daily life for most of us is complicated enough to require an incredibly complex mental and emotional strategy – relationships, task lists, email communications – these are all challenges that have to be tackled several times a day. So, when I hike, I take as few items as possible – to keep my life on the trail as simple as possible. Sure, there is some culture shock on reentry, but it’s a small price to pay for tuning yourself into the simplicity of trail life.”

Go Remote

“I don’t avoid people. I’ve enjoyed walking the Appalachian Trail in April, at the beginning of the thru-hiking season, as much as I’ve enjoyed walking into the far interior of the Bridger Wilderness in the winter, where one might see nobody for weeks. But traveling to remote places, either far in distance from the trailhead, or off the trail to an obscure place on the map – gives me the opportunity to enjoy a piece of nature that can be all mine, at least for a moment.”

Go Light

“Traveling light is not just the foundation of my hiking style – it’s the core of how I try to live – to remain unburdened by the complexity and business of daily life and simply to enjoy the opportunities that each new day offers.”

Go Often

“None of this would really matter if it was just ink on paper. I get out as much as possible, not only for my own spiritual refreshment, but to help others see the backcountry through enlightened eyes, and hopefully, with a lightened pack!”

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