The SUL Mindset, Part 1: Redefining SUL

The SUL Mindset may be more than gear weights, and performance standards.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2013-05-08 00:00:00-06

Introduction

Backpacking Light is embarking on a new series about “SuperUltraLight” (SUL) backpacking, an affectionate term that has become one descriptor for carrying a base weight of less than five pounds (other descriptors that I’ve heard include “arrogant”, “pointless”, and “stupid”). The purpose of this commentary is to expand the definition of SUL that considers a bit less rigidity, a bit more principle, and a bit more opportunity for the backpacker who chooses to study this subject intentionally.

SUL Mindset - 1
That I can take a 1600 cubic inch volume pack into the mountain backcountry for an overnighter, without sacrificing comfort or safety, continues to make me smile and reflect in wonderment about this recreational niche we call lightweight backpacking.

When the concept of SUL was first introduced here in 2003 {http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00138.html}, I mistakenly offered as its basis a metric (one’s base weight) and a performance standard (a base weight of less than five pounds). This sparked (sometimes pharisaical) competitiveness in our community that led to new standards (e.g., “eXtreme UltraLight - XUL”) because too many people were adopting SUL style (and early converts were no longer uniquely identifiable by their five pound base weights). In our effort to meet these new standards, we discovered that pants with bellowed cargo pockets could hold a lot of gear that didn’t count against our base weight.

In reviewing the progress of “SUL style” over the past 10 years, I had to ask myself what SUL has evolved into, and I’ve come to the conclusion that SUL hasn’t really changed much.

I know, I know. This makes it tough to sell subscriptions. But it’s true! The gear really hasn’t changed that much. Down sleeping quilts are still down sleeping quilts, and they’re still light. Backpacks made with whisper thin fabrics that tear to shreds in brambles and can’t hold sewn seams when they’re loaded with food are still around. “SUL” tents still don’t hold up to mountain storms very well. There’s been no drama in materials engineering for titanium, carbon fiber, or fabrics that weigh less than 0.5 oz per square yard.

I could end this article here and you’d know most of the story, probably.

Except that SUL has evolved into something much more than just the gear. In fact, where SUL in 2003 was all about the gear (and the weight of that gear), I think SUL today is independent of the gear. It’s all about you, and your mindset.

SUL Mindset - 2
Logical cases can be made that most backpackers hiking only a few miles on the weekends aren’t going to enjoy the benefits of “SUL” style as much as, say, a thru-hiker. Nothing could be further from the truth. SUL enables and empowers casual recreational backpackers by motivating them to get out more often, going places they may not have had the confidence to go with a heavier pack, and giving them the confidence needed to engage more deeply with wild places.

If you’ve been around this community for the past 10 years, and have tried and practiced SUL style, then you’ve probably gone through some evolution in developing that style.

Here’s a few highlights that I’ve learned along the way.

1. By the time my pack weight gets this light, I no longer care about the weight.

It no longer matters to me whether my base weight is six, four point five, or three pounds. Being entertained by carrying an SUL pack on a high mountain trail is entertainment enough without having to know the exact weight of every item to the nearest tenth of ounce. I rarely, if ever, weigh gear if I’m practicing SUL, although I will weigh my pack, fully loaded, with food and water, before I hit the trail. That exercise still makes me smile.

2. I value durability, function, and compact size more than light weight.

Even in SUL gear, yes. I don’t save weight on an SUL trip by selecting the absolute lightest item possible. I save weight by taking fewer items (see #3 below). The biggest change I’ve made over the years is in my selection of a pack. Having shredded my fair share of sub-half-pound packs through the years while bushwhacking or scrambling, I’m over it. The monetary cost of a failed pack is always painful and I could never get over the feeling that backpacking gear shouldn’t be disposable.

SUL Mindset - 3
Even in a tiny pack and under the constraint of the arbitrary “five pound base weight standard”, I can pack a full set of raingear, a full set of down insulating clothes, and a full-perimeter tent, and be prepared - and comfortable - in the event of hostile weather.

3. I take fewer things.

This is the part about SUL I appreciate the most. I’ve learned to hike with fewer items through the years, and I’ve learned to care a lot about the items that I do carry. SUL takes “The Essentials” to a much higher level and mandates that your skills be exceptionally high when practicing this style of backpacking in inclement conditions. I get far more personal satisfaction about practicing skills when faced with a challenge, than when relying on an advanced piece of gear to meet that challenge.

4. Even when my pack weighs 40 pounds, I may still be practicing SUL.

This is the part that confuses people. But if I’m carrying an expedition pack capable of swallowing 70 liters and carrying 40 pounds, and 50 liters of the pack is occupied by 35 pounds of food, guess what? Yep, it’s SUL.

Living an SUL Mindset

In closing, it’s very hard for me today to uphold some sort of performance metric that identifies SUL, or for that matter, UL (“Ultralight”) or LW (“Lightweight”) backpacking. I recognize the value in these metrics in terms of educating newcomers, but beyond that, I see little value in them.

The real value of the “SUL concept” is its ability to identify an extreme implementation of this incredibly interesting hobby (lightweight backpacking), and then to practice and execute it on a real trail in real wilderness where previously, you carried more.

In conclusion, I see SUL as a manifestation of something far more important than your ability to comparison shop for the lightest gear or to show the world how light your pack really is. That “something” may be different for you, than for me.

For me, SUL as a mindset has motivated me not only to be very intentional about what I take on the trail, but also to be very intentional about how I count the costs of all sacrifices that I make with time, finances, material possessions, and relationships. To that end, the practice of SUL has not just made backpacking more interesting and rewarding for me. As a life strategy, the practice of SUL has made every day of my existence more interesting and rewarding, whether on the trail or not.


Citation

"The SUL Mindset, Part 1: Redefining SUL," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/sul-mindset-jordan.html, 2013-05-08 00:00:00-06.

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The SUL Mindset
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Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: stupid light on 05/10/2013 09:44:25 MDT Print View

Honing the edge of understanding exactly what you need, being ruthless about holding to that, and using skills to push that edge is SUL.

Hold on everyone. It seems that now that UL has become mainstream, it no longer deserves to be considered worthy of discussion. This description above is exactly what described UL when the movement started. SUL was carrying that description to the point of weight being the ultimate determining factor in what you carry. Let's not start twisting the original meaning around and pulling the rug out from under UL. ULTRA-light used to actually have a meaning. Let's not forget that.

Edited by butuki on 05/10/2013 09:45:50 MDT.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
The SUL Mindset on 05/10/2013 10:40:35 MDT Print View

+1 Miguel.

That's the first thing I thought when I read this article.

So if this game is no longer about pack weight, but instead about "honing the edge", then why even differentiate between SUL/UL?

In which case it seems all these silly labels have outlived their usefulness.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
labels on 05/10/2013 10:42:58 MDT Print View

"In which case it seems all these silly labels have outlived their usefulness."

In a large part, yes.

At least IMO.

Gear is just the the tool. Don't get too wrapped up in the tools themselves. Concentrate on how you use the tools instead.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: labels on 05/10/2013 10:47:21 MDT Print View

Exactly Paul.

Jeffs Eleven
(WoodenWizard) - F

Locale: Greater Mt Tabor
Re: Re: labels on 05/10/2013 11:07:37 MDT Print View

But then how do I quantify how cool I am?


Thats what I hate about when an adjective becomes a label. UL usta mean "I carry light gear" Now it seems to be a goal of BPers, cause plain ol hikin isnt edgy enough.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
The Process/Journey Is Important, Not the Label on 05/10/2013 12:25:42 MDT Print View

Lightweight, UL, SUL....labels are goals to strive for have their place in conjunction to a goal of enjoying the outdoor experience.

Any assigned value of the label associated with inflating someone's ego is indicative of that person's short comings.

Going lighter is merely means to an end, not an end all to itself unless gear is your porn....gear masturbationf for gear's fetish sake.

However, discussions about labels gets away from the point of it all.

What does the SUL backpacker have to offer the rest of us?

What skills, knowledge, or wisdom have they learned that they care share with the rest of us to help us evolve on our own lightweight evolution?

The fringe always influences the center.

UL was the crazy fringe at one point, which influenced the mainstream, which has seen a light weight revolution of its own.

Perhaps the bar has been moved and SUL is now the new fringe, which can teach us some new tricks?

I will likely never become SUL, but my mind is always open to new ideas to consider and to see what works for ME. HYOH.

I am excited to learn more and here more about SUL backpacking.

Maybe I will think that 98% of it is crazy for ME, but if I can learn one useful thing that helps me on my our lightweight journey, then it is all good!

-Tony

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Re: labels on 05/10/2013 15:36:24 MDT Print View

> But then how do I quantify how cool I am?
The way any other spin doctor does: you make up meaningless statistics and quote them confidently.
:-)

Cheers

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: labels on 05/10/2013 17:06:49 MDT Print View

"But then how do I quantify how cool I am?"

By publishing a gear list with the price of every item beside it. Add it all up and, VOILA, instant coolness. Sort of like the rich kid in high school that drove a rag top BMW to school every day.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: The SUL Mindset on 05/10/2013 17:13:44 MDT Print View

"So if this game is no longer about pack weight, but instead about "honing the edge", then why even differentiate between SUL/UL?"

Probably to get folks' attention, which he clearly has, and to establish a frame of reference using terms with which everyone is familiar. I, for one, look forward to seeing what he comes up with, particularly in regards to technique. He pretty clearly states that the development of Cuben has finally made the exerise feasible, so in that regard, it is a technical update of UL for application to high altitude mountain travel. Will's a very savvy guy, and I say let's hear him out. He's the last person I'd expect to make a fetish out of labels like SUL, M-SUL, whatever.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
The SUL Mindset on 05/10/2013 18:14:17 MDT Print View

While my pack is now at the weight and comfort level with which I'm quite happy, and I have no real desire to work harder or spend more $$$ on reducing it further, there's always something more to learn, and I'm hoping to pick up some ideas from these articles. If I can get rid of another pound or two of pack weight without reducing my comfort or going broke, fine. If not, that's fine, too! I've looked at the "SUL" stuff for ideas but rejected much of it as too spartan for my old bones and joints (which require increasing warmth and cushioning as they get older). However, I figure that if I ever stop looking at things "outside the box," it's time to curl up my toes and die. Lord willing, I'm not there yet!

Even if I don't change a single thing, these articles will still be interesting, and I look forward to reading them.

John Hendriks
(Twither) - MLife
SUL and Old Bones on 05/11/2013 00:06:07 MDT Print View

I would have to agree with Mary D. Always look at the new frontiers and at the moment that might be SUL. It provides and opportunity to consider and review what one can add or replace in the pack. Anything that will allow those old bones to do just one more trip to some out of the way place. It is always a compromise and there is always room for improvement.

I note that there was one mention of "dispense with the GPS + Spot + PLB" after all why not use compass and map. Maybe I got this wrong. Even UL I would never go without a PLB. Too many times, in remote areas, I have nearly placed a foot on a snake: brown, tiger, taipan, and I imagine the US would have similar surprises. And it is not just for me but for others I walk with to ensure some piece of mind.

I look forward to the next installment.

Serge G.
(sgiachetti) - M

Locale: Boulder, CO
mindset on 05/11/2013 00:57:33 MDT Print View

I'm surprised this has been so provocative for people. I don't think that it was Will or Ryan's intention to re-assert SUL as an important social category, but rather, as the article says, as a mindset. If you fixate on the concept as a public form of distinction, then it quickly becomes a petty way to differentiate yourself by the gear you carry.

When I come back from a trip, I just say I went backpacking. Its not important for me to differentiate in most situations. However, when I'm packing and planning for a trip, the mindset is everything. Similarly, if I'm planning a big trip with a friend, and I have a 6 lb base weight and they have a 10lb base weight, you can bet that I'll be doing what I can to balance that out or take more of the load depending on their fitness. Its not because I care if my partner is 'UL' or 'SUL', its because depending on the terrain and the mileage, it might be the difference between finishing the trip or bailing, or at least the difference between pleasure and suffering. I'm skiing a peak in RMNP tomorrow with a forecast of T-storms in the early afternoon. Its a good day to leave behind the thermos.

So, yeah, the attitude between UL and SUL is of the same category, but there is a difference in degree thats makes a practical and experiential difference in the mountains. Knowing the types of trips that Will does, and having traveled the same terrain, I've got no doubt that the difference between a 6 and 9 lb base weight is an important one, not for blabbing about here in the forums, but to carry on your back along with 4 days of food while you scramble up a remote pass in the Weminuche. It might literally be the difference between fun and suffering.

Its likely that I'll never use the word M-SUL again in my life (unless I hike with one of ya'll!), but for sure its a poignant concept that I already use. For me its just about being as light and mobile as possible while maintaing a healthy degree of safety and protection in the mountains. With modern lightweight equipment, I can carry a kindle, a fry pan, an SLR and a spacious tent and still be under a UL 10lb base weight (which is awesome!), but for the majority of the trips I've been looking at for this year, I will definitely leave that stuff behind in favor of a faster and simpler setup. For me, 6ish lbs is a good target weight.

Edited by sgiachetti on 05/11/2013 00:59:39 MDT.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: mindset on 05/11/2013 02:24:23 MDT Print View

As I stated earlier in the comments, I loved this (and Will's) article. I loved the playfulness and the sheer pleasure in practicing something we all love doing. The sense of looking forward seems markedly different from so many of the articles over the last two years.

My only beef with the focus on SUL and seemingly tossing aside of the word "ultralight", was that people who still "only" practice their weight carrying at the UL level are still being conscientious about their weights and still being ruthless in what they choose to carry. It is still going light. I think SUL is great, but going UL is no slouching matter either. And I think it is still something to be proud of when you reach those weights and that kind of simplicity. In an aside to Ryan's generous philosophy about SUL, I'd like to say that there is no need to flaunt any of the weights you carry. As long as there is a big smile on your face, and you're walking where you want to walk, and you wake up the next morning ready for more, UL is something just as impressive as SUL. Maybe it's the implied sense of smugness that makes me raise my eyebrow, the people who seem to need to set themselves up as "experts" because they carry SUL or lighter weights. As an exercise and a way to challenge yourself, wonderful! I, too, want to reach SUL loads, for my personal growth over all these years with lightweight backpacking. But "expertise" in backpacking has so many different ways of being interpreted. A heavy backpacker might have skills an SUList doesn't, and vice versa. The rivalry here is wonderful, too. It helps us all go beyond what limits we set for ourselves. But to me it is more discomfiting, and discouraging, to focus on who are the "elites" (thereby setting up a hierarchy), than to argue the (petty) differences between the terms SUL and UL. The second is harmless. The first often makes people who can't reach those weights feel like they are doing something wrong, when actually they aren't.

Does that mean I feel that talk about SUL should stop? No, of course not. It is a worthy, and exciting, goal. And if you can reach it and do it with safety, then you will have taken a step beyond your old paradigm. I love learning like this. That's why UL attracted me in the first place. The sense of accomplishment shines out more than only having bagged a particularly grueling peak.

I do have one gripe that has been eating at me for a long time... why do SULists (and ULists) often insist that the clothing they wear is not to be counted as part of the weight they are carrying? It's still weight, no matter where it is. You still have to carry it. A completely honest gear list and weight check would necessarily include everything you are wearing and carrying, whether in your pack or on your body, no?

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: mindset on 05/11/2013 02:43:17 MDT Print View

Miguel, I think there is very little true honesty in gearlists. People hide weights so they can appear SUL or lighter. The easiest category to hide items is the worn/carried weight where items are stuffed into pockets so they won't show up in a packed base weight. Also, journaling items (cameras, etc) may not be included in weights. So, take most posted gearlists with a "gram" of salt ; ).

Below are the only items that I think should be included in a worn/carried weight, and sometimes I wonder whether trekking poles really should be there.

Hat
Eyewear
Baselayer/Shirt
Gloves
Wristwatch
Underwear
Pants
Socks
Shoes
Trekking poles

Edited by jshann on 05/11/2013 02:53:09 MDT.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: mindset on 05/11/2013 02:53:01 MDT Print View

LOL! Oh I do, John! But if people are not going to be 100% honest about their gear lists then any talk about "expertise" or reaching some storied goal is just that, "talk". And it defeats the purpose of a gear list.

Jennifer Mitol
(Jenmitol) - M

Locale: In my dreams....
Skin out on 05/11/2013 07:36:48 MDT Print View

Yeah, I also wonder about the worn weights...it does matter how much you have to hoist up the side of a mountain no matter where it is on your person.

But then, looking forward, at what point do we start paying attention to, say, "spine-out" weights? Sure it's easy to drop some serious coin on lots of fancy cuben gear (mmmm....cuben.......), but if you are carrying 20 extra pounds around your middle, talk about some serious weight savings! So at what point, if we wish to include EVERYTHING you are carrying, do we need to consider BMI??

I'm so completely with Mary's point: I have done such a good job thanks to all of you guys trimming my pack weights, even though I am currently in the absolute worst shape of my life I can hike hikes twice as far as I could with my 40 pound pack and my marathon-running legs, still leaving my more fit friends panting in the dust. I make some amends to my aging and a bit arthritic bones (yeah downmat!!) but that makes me happy. If I learn new ways to trim a bit more, then great! If not, that's great too.

Now if I could just manage to drop those 20 pounds.....

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
oy vey on 05/11/2013 10:29:25 MDT Print View

"Similarly, if I'm planning a big trip with a friend, and I have a 6 lb base weight and they have a 10lb base weight, you can bet that I'll be doing what I can to balance that out or take more of the load depending on their fitness."


Seriously?

I don't even known (or care!) what the weight my friends carry in their pack.

I do know they are all competent outdoors people who carry light loads and have what they need dialed in. If they are four pounds more than me, I ain't exactly gonna shift gear around to balance things out. Then again, I wouldn't know that either. :) Now, if I take a group of different people (Mrs Mags for example) I'll pay more attention. But on a big trip where people are expected to be a little more self sufficient and (the very important part) the are people I've know for a long time? Not-so-much.

Look, SUL, UL, BINGO, ABC-123, are just labels that are guidelines and not the goals themselves. At least IMO.

I think the goal is to get out there and use the gear that meets your own personal definition of safety, comfort and desired trip goals while going as light as possible.



When you start obsessing if the Chap Stick in someone'e pocket should count towards their BPW or if your backpacking partner has two more pounds then you in his pack, then perhaps you are losing site of the goal. OTOH if you omit the Chap Stick just to get to some weight, that is just as kooky aw well. :)

Suspect the tile of the article is SUL *MINDSET* and not SUL *EXCEL SPREAD SHEET* for a reason. ;)


PS.I do spring skiing in the Rockies as well (Example: Mt. Toll, which is reasonably big day IMO). Don't take a thermos..but I did pack two cans of Fat Tire. :) On a 25 mile day with 10k gain I did pack a thermos AND fried chicken. See photo to the left. ;)

Edited by PaulMags on 05/11/2013 10:42:21 MDT.

Jeffs Eleven
(WoodenWizard) - F

Locale: Greater Mt Tabor
Re: oy vey on 05/11/2013 12:08:58 MDT Print View

Mags, I've aways wondered what was up with your avatar.

That's hilarious! We took a few Eastside Deli (mmmmmm!) sandwiches on the Wonderland with us. Two days in to the hike having a deli sammich?!? Yessss!


Here's my buddy with the watermelon he hiked up Mt Defiance in the Gorge. Did it with a cantaloupe last time. Fresh melon is the best! Kinda sugary for just two people though.

///melon

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Oy vey on 05/11/2013 12:16:53 MDT Print View

"Seriously?

I don't even known (or care!) what the weight my friends carry in their pack."


Unless it comes down to beer. Then I worry about what my friends are carrying.
When everyone else has a six pack and I have a twelve pack, I get nervous because I know the sorry b@stards will run out and be eying my stash before long...

Michael Gillenwater
(mwgillenwater) - M

Locale: Seattle area
Re: Oy vey on 05/11/2013 12:47:05 MDT Print View

or unless after 3 miles they are exhausted and whining about how they need a break and not sure they can make it as far as you planned.