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Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking?
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Michael Neal
(michaelneal) - F
Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/20/2006 10:20:11 MDT Print View

Expert Answers
How Safe is Ultralight Hiking?

I found this article amusing and can not figure out how she came to the conclusion that you are not safe if you go ultralight. She stated "So I prefer to err on the side of that extra fleece jacket. And rain pants." as if the rain pants and fleece are what separates the 50lb+ hikers from the ulralight crowd.

And we all know here that we carry extra layers that provide the same if not more warmth while being much lighter.

The issue with the light pack giving her problems, maybe she needed a better ultralight pack that fit her better. Or maybe she was trying to carry too much weight in the particular pack. I have a Mountainsmith Ghost pack that is lightweight but still has a decent suspension and is extrememly comfortable, I barely notice I have it on. Her solution of carrying a heavier pack for more comfort just defies sanity.

Edited by michaelneal on 07/20/2006 10:21:53 MDT.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/20/2006 11:16:29 MDT Print View

My answers to Duffy's quorstions would have been.

HYOH and No.

Now you see why Gorp won't hire me...

Edited by jshann on 07/20/2006 21:26:21 MDT.

Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/20/2006 11:40:12 MDT Print View

Anyone else very skeptical about her phantom rotator cuff injury "caused" by her internal frame pack?


Antonio Abad
(tonyabad) - F
RE: Expert Answers how safe... on 07/20/2006 13:24:12 MDT Print View

Um, I had the same problem with my shoulder when using the GoLite Breeze. 4 or 5 miles into a hike usually had my left shoulder aching horribly and a weekend trip would usually leave it sore for the better part of a week afterwards. And that was even with an SUL load at times. I used to chalk it up to an old rock climbing injury until I suffered the same kind of issues with my other shoulder. I think the shoulder strap design (or lack of one...) was a HUGE issue with that pack. I also think that Ray Jardine is plain wrong assuming that everyone would be comfortable sans hipbelt with a light enough load. In short, no hipbelt = shoulder pain for me.

I've since moved to a GoLite Jam after much deliberation. While I would prefer a little more padding, the shoulder strap designs are a heck of a lot more contoured and comfortable and some genuine weight transfer can still be achieved with the proper packing and base weight. I suspect my next pack will be more along the lines of a GG Vapor Trail or something similar.

I think dismissing her concerns about the glorified rucksacks in the UL world is a bit premature.

Summit CO
(Summit) - F

Locale: 9300ft
Well.... on 07/20/2006 13:51:38 MDT Print View

I agreed with everything you said except:
"I have a Mountainsmith Ghost pack that is lightweight but still has a decent suspension and is extrememly comfortable, I barely notice I have it on. Her solution of carrying a heavier pack for more comfort just defies sanity."

I disagree with this... I have a Ghost and love it. However, slightly heavier packs may offer increased comfort and equal performance, even with light loads, IF THE EXTRA WEIGHT IS GOING INTO THE SUSPENSION. (This is to an extent, obviously).


The author does make a few valid points in the article. Mainly:

1. Adopting certain aspects of UL philosophy necessitate adopting other aspects of UL philiosophy.

Certainly so.. that is the way things work, not necessarily a bad thing. If you want a 1lb rucksak instead of a 7lbs expedition pack, you'd better change your loadout. For starters so that it will fit... DUH!

2. "the average person I see out on the trail doesn't have the judgment or experience to be out there with minimal gear."

I think that this is partially true because while she makes a good point, she mistakenly groups all lightweigt backpacking techniques in with extreme ultralight minimalism. There are many ways to be lightweight. Some are more ligthweight than others.

3. UL Packs

I think it is a mental game many people play... "I'm carrying 15-20lbs total... I don't need a waist belt!" Because they are no longer hefting 50lbs, people rationalize away proper load transfer systems to carry the weight on their hips... well guess what? You may not be carrying 50lbs, but you are also hiking more than 8mi a day now! Instead of 50lbs for 8 mi, you have 20lbs for 20 mi... great range/speed improvement, but guess what? Your back still gets great amounts of wear and tear. Instead of carrying 35lbs on your hips and 15lbs on your back for 8mi of stepping, you just carried 15-20lbs on your back for 20mi of more rapid stepping. THIS IS OK FOR SOME PEOPLE! NOT FOR OTHERS! Do not poo-poo those whose physiology does not tolerate such wear in the same way as you.

Edited by Summit on 07/20/2006 13:52:51 MDT.

Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Well.... on 07/20/2006 13:59:22 MDT Print View


Sorry, but she reported an injury caused by an internal frame pack, not a glorified rucksack. She also claimed that the pack was comfortable while worn - "didn't hurt" - and that her doctor later told her she was crazy for using a "minimalist" pack, however that is defined.

I certainly understand your situation, but your example bears out the point - if it hurts, change something. I have this funny feeling that years and years of too-heavy packs probably did more damage to the author's joints than a short time with a light pack.


David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/20/2006 14:04:42 MDT Print View

One of the problems with both the gorp article and a lot of the replies here is that opinions and personal experiences are extrapolated as facts.

I know of no studies that show that people carrying light are more or less prone to injury than people carrying heavy. I know of no studies that being a lightweight hiker decreases your chances of finishing a long-distance hike, or increases those chances for that matter. What I do hear is a whole lot of subjective opinions masquerading as objective truth.

Steven Hanlon
(asciibaron) - F

Locale: Mid Atlantic
safety and UL on 07/20/2006 14:19:04 MDT Print View

for a recent 3 days of solid backpacking, my pack weighed in at (drum roll please) 24lbs total - food, water, shelter, jet pack, and laser gun.

i had some things i never needed but lugged around just in case. won't be making that mistake again.

it's funny how some believe that reducing weight and adopting an UL approach is all or nothing. i have phased in my reductions over the course of this season and without spending a ton of cash have been able to drop 10 pounds.

the biggest leap is going to be a new pack, but that can wait until my current pack is old and moldy. sure it's on the heavy side, but it fits and does what i need it to.

it's funny where i found the biggest savings - a new tent and a new stove. could i reduce those more, sure, but i'll make those choices when i feel comfortable. i still carry a tent, it's just 2.5 pounds lighter than my old one.


Glenn Roberts
(garkjr) - F

Locale: Southwestern Ohio
Antonio - "something similar" on 07/20/2006 14:38:02 MDT Print View

Antonio: I can, from personal experience, highly recommend the Vapor Trail. However, if you like frameless packs, have a load that won't exceed 25 pounds, and want to save a pound, take a look at the Granite Gear Virga while you're deciding about the Vapor Trail. It's a frameless clone of the Vapor Trail, and a Prolite 3 in a chair kit gives a very good "virtual" frame, complete with stays. The hipbelt isn't padded, but also doesn't constrict the hips as much while still providing decent load transfer with ultralight loads. (The difference in hipbelt comfort is most noticeable to those afflicted with "princess and the pea" syndrome; both belts are very comfortable.)

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: RE: Expert Answers how safe... on 07/20/2006 15:06:26 MDT Print View

"I also think that Ray Jardine is plain wrong assuming that everyone would be comfortable sans hipbelt...."
I agree - up to a point. Ray's shoulder straps have always been marginal - even to the point of failure, at least until the Breeze was redesigned with a different attachment strategy.

Skepticism about shoulder straps is sort of understandable. There are lots of really poor shoulder straps out there -- more so now that folks rely on hip belts. Shoulder strap design has atrophied. However, saying that hiking without a hipbelt is impractical is sort of like saying it is impractical to hike in sandals when you have only seen flipflops.

I don't use a hip belt, and haven't for some time now. But I design my own shoulder straps: wide, contoured, shoulder-wrapping, not very thick,lightly padded straps. They work for me up to the 35 pound range without shoulder pain or damage. I will admit that a period of conditioning is necessary as with many backpacking related things - such as boots or (dare I say it?) hip belts. I also believe that the adjustment period is not unreasonable or burdensome.

A lot has been lost by over-reliance on hipbelts. For example, it might seem reasonable to assume that the hip belt is needed to keep the pack from sliding off your back when climbing with your body horizontal and sideways. With most packs that may be true, but with well designed shoulder straps, the straps will keep the pack on you back. For more extreme climbing, a simple waist strap is sufficient to stabilize the load.

Also lost is freedom from the constraint of the hip belt... natural hip movement and natural stride.

Finally, the belt restricts movement of the satorius and quadracep muscles which are fully flexed when climbing and get a serious workout when ascending. In severe cases, the belt can cause tendonitis where these muscles attach to the pelvis. It is not unusual for regular hikers to complain of pain in that location. It's the belt, but you can't do much about it since the pack won't usually work without it.

The problem is, it's not usually practical just to unbuckle your hip belt to test whether you would be comfortable without it. What you get is an unfair test because the belt is part of a system on most packs (any pack that is any good, at least), and the shoulder straps are not usually designed to work alone. Several problems may arise. Often the belt places the pack at an angle to the back that makes the straps uncomfortable or unstable. In some cases, you can remove the belt entirely and have a useful pack, but not in every case. Often an attached lumbar pad makes the pack seem unstable. And the pad may rub uncomfortably when not held to the back by the belt. Worse, you may find that the shoulder straps are simply uncomfortable when carrying the full burden of the pack. This does not prove that using a pack without a hip belt is inherently uncomfortable; only that a particular pack with a particular load and particular shoulder straps is uncomfortable.

While the lava was still cooling, pack makers asserted that hip belts were useful for loads greater than 35 pounds. Of course, this was in the early days right after they developed the padded hip belt. At the time, I was packing 50-70 pounds with wilderness training programs, and took to hip belts right away. With those weights, they were great. On level ground. For steep ascents, they were worse than useless, and I shed them. To give a modern example you may have noticed, the "croos" at the huts in the White Mountains (at least the several I have seen in action) prefer to pack cases of canned goods on Trapper Nelson frames. No belt. See the comments about leg muscles.

About the rotator cuff. It is almost inconceivable that shoulder straps would initiate a rotator cuff tear. However, it is very likely that poorly designed straps could exacerbate preexisting damage. My significant other, the indominable Phriteaux, has had both rotator cuffs reconstructed - and the damage was due to cycling accidents, not backpacking. The rotator cuff injuries didn't stop her backpacking - before or after surgery. She does not use a hip belt either.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/20/2006 15:19:33 MDT Print View

More on "Ask the Expert"
There is so much faulty logic in that article that it is almost useless to respond to it. Is UL about hiking 30-40 miles per day? Not for me. Is UL erring on the side of irresponsibility? Will nature come git us so we are hauled out on stretchers for lack of an extra fleece jacket? How many extras does she carry? And does she think prudent ULers don't carry clothing suitable for the conditions? I'm chalking that article up to someone who likes to pontificate without engaging the brain and maybe is supporting the commercial goals of the publication.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/22/2006 00:37:13 MDT Print View

I though the article was a fairly reasonable response to the question asked. Ray Jardine writes about carrying a 9-pound single-strap pack and hiking 30-mile days in sneakers, so that's what she's addressing. (She's not implying that UL is always like that). She gives examples where his techniques work for some and not for others. Regarding the shoulder issue, she's quoting her doctor (who sounds like a non-hiker); can't really blame her for the doctor's (mis-?) diagnosis.

I agree that half the people I meet on the trail wouldn't make it if given a RJ-style kit and sneakers and had to hike 30-mile days to get out before they ran out of food, or would survive serious bad weather in the high country with the contents of his backpack. I can't count the number of times I've looked in the paper to see if some random idiot I met on the trail became a statistic with the benefit of his own gear, without even involving Ray Jardine's minimal kit.

Karen Berger wrote The Hiking Light Handbook, which is a good, balanced introduction to lightweight technique (and the transition to it). She isn't advocating heavy-weight packing; she's suggesting HYOH based on experience (and increasing that experience), rather than expecting to be successful by blindly adopting somebody else's UL technique.

I think the biggest problem was introduced by whoever titled the article "How Safe Is Ultralight Hiking?," when her article is not actually addressing UL hiking in general.

Edited by Otter on 07/22/2006 01:25:29 MDT.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/22/2006 08:19:26 MDT Print View

rotator cuff injury casued by a backpack? Ummm that is a more baseball or football related injury, due to stressing, or overusing a certain part of you shoulder? Not from a backpack. weird.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/22/2006 17:30:11 MDT Print View

Yeah, OK, your're right. The article just rubbed me the wrong way. It would have been more balanced to say that Jardine has his own schtick and most ULers ease into it prudently.

David Peterson
(thegeoguy) - F

Locale: Sonoma County, CA
Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/24/2006 21:58:42 MDT Print View

I admit, I am probably taking this whole thread a bit wrong. However, I would rate the general tone of this thread among the most offensive I have seen at this site. "Anyone else very skeptical about her phantom rotator cuff injury "caused" by her internal frame pack?" is pretty nasty stuff. My general take on Karen Berger is that she is a nice person, trying to offer balanced advice. She has hiked the Triple Crown, so she's earned some opinion here. Just for laughs, would only those of you who have competed the Triple Crown like to respond?

Michael Neal
(michaelneal) - F
nasty? on 07/31/2006 07:54:47 MDT Print View

I don't see any nasty comments here at all, I just think people are questioning some of her assertions. I found her article to be quite passive agressive actually.

Jason Shaffer
(PA_Jay) - F

Locale: on the move....
Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/31/2006 08:30:41 MDT Print View

I don't find anything offensive about these criticisms either, nor is anyone trying to say she hasn't 'earned her opinions' (tho the triple crown is hardly the one ultimate path to backpacking expertise). But her article does not demonstrate a realistic understanding of the Ray Way, UL techniques generally, or what it is that really makes the difference between a 25 lb vs. a 50 lb pack.

Recently I re-read Ray's book, just for kicks, and a few things surprised me. In his clothing chapter, he states that he always carries a FULL change of dry clothes (how many of us do that?), and that he never dispenses with complete raingear to save weight. I'm left wondering whether she has read the book at all, or is instead just responding to a very generalized whiff of what crazy ounce-counters can do wrong.

Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/31/2006 09:55:05 MDT Print View


If it helps, I did not intend to be nasty, and feel that you seriously misread my meaning. Ms. Berger seems to have an agenda against UL technique and equipment that, despite her vast hiking resume, is not informed by experience with those techniques or with that equipment.

I remain skeptical that an internal frame pack carrying 15-18 pounds would cause an injury - despite causing no pain at the time! - while decades of 40-60 pound loads could not.


Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/31/2006 10:12:48 MDT Print View

Karen Berger has been slow to adopt ultralight techniques. She appears to be a more conservative and cautious hiker, at least from her writing, it might just be her nature to move slowly towards it, which is fine. The How Safe article is an old one. She probably wouldn't write the same article today. As someone else mentioned she wrote the Hiking Light Handbook published by Backpacker Magazine but it's mostly a consolidation of existing techniques into a mainstream package. The book was a good move for BP mag to add to their arsenal. Karen is a productive writer with the ability to do some cursory research and consolidate ideas into a format that is easily understood by beginners. To that end, the book is a reasonable contribution.

As for shoulder injuries, what she and others may experience with packs having inadequate suspensions for the weight is pain induced by strain on the trapezius muscles. This can light a fire into your entire shoulder and cause secondary pain in other areas. Breeze owners who have carried 20 pounds in their Breeze packs as their first experience with ultralight know this well. It goes away after a week on the trail as the muscles build up and pack weight decreases, but it comes back if your shoulder muscles decondition before your next trip.

Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Re: Expert Answers How Safe is Ultralight Hiking? on 07/31/2006 11:47:02 MDT Print View


Interesting - thanks for the info on the injury. Is her description - a painless trip resulting in a serious injury - consistent with what you describe? It sounds like this trapezius injury would be painful while wearing the pack, a feeling I certainly know.