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Horizon reached?
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Russell Swanson
(rswanson) - F

Locale: Midatlantic
Horizon reached? on 11/13/2006 14:03:29 MST Print View

In a post made a few weeks ago, a fellow lightweight backpacker (whose advice I have always trusted and respected) made a comment that he hasn't been very active in the online community as of late, mainly due to the fact that he is finally happy with his gear and doesn't see the reason to make changes to his kit. That declaration really got me thinking about the state of our community. Over the last decade, UL and SUL backpacking trends, philosophy, and gear has made tremendous leaps forward. Plenty of people head out into the backcountry carrying sub-10 pound gear loads; some are carrying half that or less. Even long, unsupplied wilderness treks are undertaken with gear weights that rival a day hiker’s pack. Due to the slow but steady adoption of the 'lightweight mentality' by larger manufacturers, I'd wager to say that even the neophyte backpacker is hauling an average of 25% less weight than he or she would have just 10 years ago. All good stuff.

This brings me to my question. Has most of the progress already been made? Have we reached the limits of the innovations that have so drastically reduced pack weights being hauled down trails, the world over? Surely we are rapidly approaching the pinnacle of SUL accomplishment. Perhaps we have he already reached it.

Now I’m sure there is plenty of room for brilliant products and some new technology. A three ounce, windproof, waterproof, super breathable jacket is out there somewhere, just waiting to be invented, etcetera. But aside from fine tuning our existing equipment and ideas, where can we really go from here? Sure, most hikers are still carrying weights that many here at backpackinglight would find unacceptable (at best) and in response we will all continue to be advocates for a lighter-weight approach. But as for the bleeding edge of the SUL community, what is left to be done?

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
horizons on 11/13/2006 14:44:09 MST Print View

When one of us reaches a horizon, we have to turn around and look back at the masses who don't even have it in their sights yet.

And, are we really to believe that "we" are at the horizon?

Finally, adoption of gear, and to some extent, techniques, is a means to "do".

So, let's now "do"!

Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Re: Horizon reached? on 11/13/2006 15:16:44 MST Print View


I think it's a great question, and an essential one. In past threads on this site, posters have pointed out that while the difference between a 25 pound base weight and a 10 pound baseweight is huge, and the difference between 15 and 10 meaningful, the difference between 5 and 4 pounds is almost negligible - save for the challenge, of course.

The nature of a paradigm shift is that it is unforseen - many of the paradigm shifts in the "ultralight revolution" have been, as your post suggests, related to gear design and materials technology. I'm with you in asking "what's next," but I'd hate to think that the climax of this adventure is a light pack. I think that some of the treks embarked upon in the past few years (Skurka's, Squeaky's, Artic 1000, etc) lead the way in showing the extent to which the gear is only the means to an end. What is the end? Now THERE'S a question to stump the philosopher and scientist alike :D

Russell Swanson
(rswanson) - F

Locale: Midatlantic
Clarification on 11/13/2006 16:17:40 MST Print View

You're both right, of course. Ultralight backpacking is more than just a pile of gram-weight gear. It is the very definition of 'a means to an end'. The possibilities of what we can do with a lighter load are now only limited by our will and conditioning.

I probably didn't make it too clear in my original post but my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of 'What will we do for innovation now that these huge strides forward have been made?'. Specifically, I was thinking soley about gear design and selection. Perhaps this thread should have gone in the G-Spot forum.

What will happen to gear design and innovation in the future? Will it suffer? Five pound pack weights developed over time, out of a desire or neccessity to travel lighter, faster, farther, and safer. But have we reached a point where the call for new ideas and technology will diminsh because we've already pushed the envelope so far?

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Clarification on 11/13/2006 16:42:34 MST Print View

Russell, there are a LOT of gains to be made.

Not in reducing the weight of our kit for summer hiking (I mean, you're right - the difference between 3 and 5 points is pretty small).

But, in reducing the weight of, say, a full on winter kit from 20 lb to 5 lb. There are insulation technologies currently in outer space that offer potential for this to happen.

Also, fabrics that are as light as spinnaker but as breathable as event.

There are gains to be made in the durability of fibers and fabrics.

Titanium may become cheaper and technologies to do more with it will become available.

Customers will continue to be willing to accept less durable gear which will drive innovation of lighter products (?) which means there are gains to be made with better designs using existing SUL/UL materials.

And yes, people are going to be willing to try to do more with all this gear. Normal people even! The ones the newspapers don't report about. Kids. Scouts. Older folks. The disabled. Women. These demographics will do amazing things that will give them personal rewards that go wayyy beyond any PR stunt.

larry savage
(pyeyo) - F

Locale: pacific northwest
Re: Re: Clarification on 11/13/2006 18:10:04 MST Print View

If you look at the past history of the racing bicycle, you'll find that in the 70's you could get a steel road bike under 19# but it started lacking stiffness at the lowest limit. Then there was a change a change to aluminum and now you got a lighter bike but it was too stiff, then titanium was introduced and you got a cushy ride with light weight, maybe a little too cushy. Along comes carbon fiber, too soft, too stiff, pretty good. Manufacturers are mixing materials, carbon fiber, aluminum, titanium, new steel alloys. Component groups go through the same upgrades, 10 speed, then 12, 14, 16, 18, now 20 [on 2 chainrings]. Training has gotten very scientific. In the 60's and 70's only elite racers rode much over 100 miles in a day, now thousands of people of all caliber ride the 236 mile Seattle to Portland ride in a day. Light weight,intial durability issues, new engineering, new training.
I could not have guessed in 1972 that there would be 14#, 20 speed bikes that could hold up to day to day training of a 200 # me now.
With backpacking there will very expensive ounce cutting followed by affordability, new techniques, new materials. And I'm excited by the possibilities.

Edited by pyeyo on 11/13/2006 18:11:19 MST.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
other metrics than weight on 11/13/2006 19:56:30 MST Print View

I look forward to durability increasing. A 0.1 ounce tent is no good to me if I have to treat it like it's sewn from cobwebs. (And some of the stuff I've tried practically is.)

I think that the *concept* of UL is maturing, but the *equipment* is very nascent. There are incredible innovations on the market using currently available materials -- but where are the UL materials that offer comparable durability to their heavier counterparts?

Also, much UL gear is by nature quite (mild-)climate-specific. The movement has come from the US, meaning that a lot of the equipment is quite tightly focused on your climate. However, the conditions that drive US ultralighters off the trail in November are what many must be prepared for in any month of the year. Any clothing+shelter+sleep system that can't weather 24 hours of blizzard cannot go in my pack if I want to be over 5000 feet. Not even in July.

I'm excited for the transition of equipment that's reliable and safe in more hostile conditions to the Light and Ultralight realm.

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
ULs future: lower cost on 11/13/2006 20:47:11 MST Print View

This is an interesting thread, regarding what aspects of UL gear still have room for improvement. Posters have mentioned weight and durability, but I really want to see improvement in the cost dimension. Still today I can not find a UL tent like the puppy pile for less than $400. Why; its just sil-nylon and carbon poles? I hope market forces such as demand will result in more mass production of UL gear. My FSO three season gear list totals about 9kg, and cost me about $1,500, most of it bought at deep discount. Id like to see a newbie hiker get a kit with identical performance criteria at 5kg and $1,000.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: ULs future: lower cost on 11/13/2006 21:33:02 MST Print View

VERY interesting comments, Brett B.


>> I hope market forces such as demand will result in more mass production of UL gear.

This hits the nail on the head.

Fabric costs are huge here. In order for UL gear to come down in cost dramatically, it MUST be produced in China at factories that have ready access to CHEAP fabrics, and the CHEAP fabric mills over there are a ways away from having the technologies to produce the UL fabrics, yet...

Plus, labor rates in Asia are increasing, so...if you want Wal-Mart cheap, you may have to settle for 2 oz polys instead of 0.9 oz nylons...

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Re: Horizon reached? on 11/13/2006 22:28:19 MST Print View

As is often the case here at BPL this conversation has tended toward gear. I like the sway the thread took early on considering the notion of UL being a means to an end. I'm just as much a gearhead as the next and find myself thinking in terms of it all the time but when it comes down to it, the reason we do any of it is so that we can feel the thrill of walking through the woods, mountains, plains and deserts.

I do of course have an opinion on technology which I may as well espouse here as it does seem to be the flavor of the discussion. I will simply comment with a question. When has technology ever stopped evolving?

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Horizon reached? on 11/13/2006 22:38:10 MST Print View

>> When has technology ever stopped evolving?

Let's delineate design vs. technology.

I don't think technology does stop evolving. There's always some mad guy in a cave dreaming up new ideas.

Design however seems to stop evolving when somebody gets tempted to appeal to the mass market.

Randy Brissey
(rbrissey) - M

Locale: Redondo Beach, CA
Desire vs Dollars on 11/13/2006 23:28:39 MST Print View

I like the bicycle and backpacking parallel. We are now with bicycle frames (carbon fiber) below 830 grams but from what I have read by some Trek designers it is possible to build a sub 454 gram (16 ounce) frame with the carbon fiber used in aerospace apps. The problem that faces the companies is the investment in new molds for lay-up and the cost of the fabric.

The next step for the ultralight realm is the use of computers (like used to design sails) to design tent flys using Cuben-type fabrics and then the ultralight netting to produce a TartTent Contrail at sub 16 ounces. The greatest problem still surrounds the floor durability. I can forsee CAD/CAM for manufacturing.

Now who wants to invest the capital like the sailmakers?

What I would like to see is an article about what the possibilities are with the new fabrics just tricking down.


Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Desire vs Dollars on 11/14/2006 00:10:11 MST Print View

I also think context is critical when considering innovation. Let's compare road to mountain bikes.

Road bikes have certainly evolved as discussed earlier. Lighter weights, improved shifting systems, stiffer frames. That's certainly true. However, when folks decided to take their bikes off road, innovations absolutely exploded.

If you look at mountain biking now, you see completely new contexts that grew simultaneously with the technology. As suspension, braking systems, and geometry evolved, mountain bikes moved off trails, to downhill runs, and now to massive jump parks and elevated mega-drops in the freeride realm. The techology and the riding evolved hand in hand in much the same way that bees and flowering plants evolved together in the Cretaceous.

I believe this is also happening in backpacking. As gear improves and gets lighter, folks are doing different things on the trail- the context is changing. As 10 mile days became 30 or even 50 mile days, the scope of what's possible has become very different. From my experience, my SUL kit only matters because I now put together weekend trips that before would only be idiotic pipe dreams. And with the lighter gear and more dynamic, expansive trips, I look further into what's next. Of course, the what is different for each of us, but as the technology comes into place (and of course this is driven by the desire to take actual backpacking to a new level), our sport will take its course, whatever that is.

As the technology and innovations come into play, so will the winter, canyoneering, UL mountaineering, family SUL trips, and alpine-style through-hikes.

ian wright
(ianwright) - F

Locale: Photo - Mt Everest - 1980
light enough on 11/14/2006 05:23:03 MST Print View

Good thread !

Just a minor point, using my GPS as an example. My first GPS weighed two hundred and something grams and I have since replaced it with a Garmin Geko at 88 grams including batteries.

My attitude is . . . "good enough".
I don't want to upgrade to a lighter GPS for a few reasons:
the Geko is plenty light enough,
I like it,
I don't want to spend more money.

So now I can focus on improving other items of gear and not worry about the latest GPS doodaas. One less thing to get anxious about.

Why do we love gear ?

For me, it's good design, weight saving, compactness, efficency, needing less items and those items do their job better. AND the 'boys and their toys' factor !

But . . .

obsessing about gear and buying that gear is something we do to fill in the time until, and to equip ourselves for . . .

the journey.

Thankyou and goodnight.

Edited by ianwright on 11/14/2006 05:24:10 MST.

Scott Peterson
(scottalanp) - F

Locale: Northern California
The very introspective thread on 11/14/2006 10:45:49 MST Print View

This seems to be an often visited topic here in UL gear land. We step back for a second and scratch our heads and question things like "diminishing returns" (the topic of a previous thread) and how much further can we go? And then, to what purpose? Does a fraction of an ounce make a huge difference when your pack weight is under 10 pounds to begin with?

The honest answer is that a good deal of us here spend more time researching/building and evaluating equipment than actually using it....myself included. I am not disparaging the practice, but certain life situations might remove the option to venture out into the wild on a whim. So, it is fun to focus that energy towards the next best thing...getting ready for when we can.

So the sentiment that started this thread is shared by me. I have been spending a fair amount of enthusiastic energy (and money) over the last 2 years or so, fine tuning my own gear. I have made incredible personal strides in that regard. I owe most of my new knowledge to both the paid and free content of this great site. But I did not feel terribly interested in spending more money to be a paid "member" of this website ongoing.

For me, after putting in all that time researching, it only took a very few trips to figure out what would work for me and what would not. I am down to a few more tweaks, but by in large I am happy with my pack weight and how it all works.

I kind of wish the content of the book and on-line were in one location and cost one price. I also feel that most of the more hardcore gear heads who frequent this site would be open to a little broader content related to backpacking (trip reports, interviews with cool folks, op/ed pieces, etc.) with a creative edge, but there is a limit to a narrow focus for some folks like me. Not to say I will not hit this board on a regular basis...but it is ironic that I will still pay to get Backpacker for the pictures and trip reports, knowing that half the content is rather naif compared to what I have learned here.

john flanagan
(jackfl) - F

Locale: New England
Re: The very introspective thread on 11/14/2006 12:10:05 MST Print View

I share this view and could not have articulated it as well. Doug Frick used a term in another thread a few weeks ago that captured my attention -"hypermaterialism" At the risk of misquoting (forgive me if I do) I recall that he used it to describe the habit of seeking the PERFECT, OPTIMAL blend of function at the minimum possible weight. At some point you have to think that the tail is wagging the dog.

I still love gear and will undoubtedly continue to shell out more money than I comfortably disclose to my lovely spouse. But I too feel like I've reached a point where I am more interested in "broader content...with a creative edge." Membership in BackpackingLight has ceased to have pull on the basis of content. I do feel that the forum community adds serious value to wilderness travel and "owe" membership dues just to support its continued existance. I'd love to see some fresh, less gear centric content.

On another note, I just ran across an interesting economic concept of the Patterson Equilibrium - this is quoted from Wikipedia - "Efficiency is increased by maintaining less margin (for error) in a system. However, when there is less margin for error in a given system, and a disruption occurs, it is of greater duration and magnitude than a disruption which occurs in a similar system operating with more margin. In other words, a more efficient system has a harder time absorbing ... disruptions than a less efficient one."

Whether it's well-vetted economics or not, I can't judge. I find it interesting in the ultralight context. An example that comes to mind is a recent explanation of the potential downside of using spinnaker fabrics for shelters rather than silnylon - Ryan's input was that when they fail, they do so catastophically. So they're more vulnerable (have less margin) in extreme environments. Another example is creating superultralight systems that rely on (1) at least reasonable weather and (2) exercise for warmth. Ultra-efficient, but little or no margin. So one design criteria for innovating both new gear and new gear systems is becoming more articulate about whatever tension exists between "efficiency / ultralight weight" and "margin"

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: The very introspective thread on 11/14/2006 12:17:27 MST Print View

I think you're right Scott. There's almost two hobbies that I'm involved in- backpacking and gear research/collection. They are certainly interrelated but naturally, there will be more of one or the other at different times.

For instance I have a newborn at home right now and I spend more time with the gear and less with the experience. Other times I've been on the trail exclusively and rarely considered the gear I was using or researched alternatives.

I think this is a natrual ebb and flow, even for gear freaks such as myself. For me the radical changes are done and I'm on too fine-tuning. I'm also spreading my wings into different areas such as hammock backpacking. But for others, the gear list gets cemented and the experience comes to the forefront and that's cool too. Of course we enjoy the gear because we enjoy the activity.

The truth is that I enjoy both. Imagining what could be used in the field and actually putting it to use.

Thanks for the great conversation! (Most of my friends and family can't fully relate :-)

Russell Swanson
(rswanson) - F

Locale: Midatlantic
Re: The very introspective thread on 11/14/2006 12:30:46 MST Print View


I'm other the other side of the equation. I too gathered at least three quarters of my gear knowledge from this site, but only from the forums. Only recently, after maybe two years as a forum lurker, did I elect to subscribe to backpackinglight. And, the primary reason was just to see what else is on the site. I was already fairly satisfied with my gear so I don't think the access to additional content is going to change my rack that much.

But some good points have been made here. I agree with much of the sentiment made about costs associated with our pursuits. When I started the thread I was thinking a lot about the economics of lightweight backpacking. Personally, I feel UL and SUL hiking requires too great of an investment. Not neccessarily for me or many others on these boards but rather for the public at large. Friends who I've introduced to backpacking always balk at the cost of even the bargain gear I recommend. Lets face it: their interpretation of acceptable costs is based off of WalMart and Coleman, maybe the occasional trip to REI. These companies are not going to produce lighter equipment unless the market demands it. The market demand will not arise unless the consumer becomes more educated as to the benefits of carrying lighter gear. Maybe the future of ultralight hiking should lie more in the direction of education than in 0.5 ounce fabrics. When I'm out with the less intiated I know I always try to espouse why I carry the gear I do, as opposed to just quoting specs.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Re: The very introspective thread on 11/14/2006 12:37:24 MST Print View

Hi Russell-

I agree that UL and SUL gear is more expensive than Wal-Mart and Coleman, but isn't it more experienced backpackers that tend to be drawn to lightweight backpacking?

When compared to my trad gear, my UL and SUL gear tends to be cheaper (even much cheaper). Compare a tarp to a Mountain Hardware tent, a Gossamer Gear pack to a Mountainsmith, running shoes to full-grain leather boots, or a popcan stove to a Whisperlite and you'll see what I mean. Insulation is definitely more expensive as is the cutting edge of Spinnaker, ti, and CF elements. But for the basic kit, I always love pointing out how much cheaper it is (or how much cheaper it can be).

But I agree- it's always about the experience first- and carrying a lighter pack is just WAY more fun!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Horizon reached? on 11/14/2006 13:15:38 MST Print View

Ryan wrote:
>I don't think technology does stop evolving. There's always some mad guy in a cave dreaming up new ideas.
> Design however seems to stop evolving when somebody gets tempted to appeal to the mass market.

I agree with BOTH points. Technology does keep going, although the incremental improbement may not be as significant (4 lb vs 5 lb).

However, I don't think Ryan got it even half right with his second comment. Design does not stop evolving when the vendor switches to the mass market: it goes massively into REVERSE!
You might want to argue the point as a matter of philosophy, but I can't think of a single practical case where 'design for cheap' has done anything other then degrade a design concept. And the mass-market outdoors stuff being peddled right now demonstrates this only too well.