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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


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 {}, 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.


"The SUL Mindset, Part 1: Redefining SUL," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2013-05-08 00:00:00-06.


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The SUL Mindset
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Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: The SUL Mindset on 04/09/2014 21:14:02 MDT Print View

Almost a year later, I wonder will there be a part 2?

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: The SUL Mindset on 04/09/2014 21:57:02 MDT Print View

"I wonder will there be a part 2?"

I guess that depends on the SUL Mindset.


David W.
(Davidpcvsamoa) - MLife

Locale: East Bay, CA
The SUL Mindset on 04/09/2014 22:02:25 MDT Print View

Less is more?

Mo Rodopsky
(rhodopean) - MLife
part 2 on 04/09/2014 22:09:56 MDT Print View

Here's part 2:

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: part 2 on 04/09/2014 22:14:27 MDT Print View

Ha! I even commented.

How many parts will there be?

I was linking part one in another thread. Noticed there was no link to part two. And here I am.

Edited by kthompson on 04/09/2014 22:15:53 MDT.

Kirk O'Brien
skin-out weight as a percentage of body weight on 06/18/2014 17:16:41 MDT Print View

If people are putting gear in their pockets to avoid counting it, wouldn't it be better to focus on skin-out weight? On trips with my buddies we like to measure skin-out weight as a percentage of body weight to compare efficiency with gear selection, clothing choices, and consumables all normalized with body size.

Virginia Craft
( - F

Locale: Feet dangling from the perimeter
SUL mindset on 03/03/2015 21:19:17 MST Print View

Great article and +1 to Dale for this:
"I think the core concepts here are knowing how your body and clothing systems work, and not fearing nature. IMHO, fear adds weight and knowledge tends to reduce fear."