Intro to Ultralight Series – Part 2
Backpacking is my favorite sport. I even loved it when I was carrying half my body weight, but that was miserable. In search of a better way to backpack, I found ultralight.
When you hear the term “ultralight”, words may pop into your head like, “risky” or “uncomfortable”. I’m here to show you that this is not how ultralight should be, and carrying a 60 pound backpack when you weigh 120 pounds isn’t how things should be either.
Here’s what ultralight can do for you:
- Hike farther
- Hike safer
- Stay dry
- Prevent back pain, blisters, injuries and fatigue
- Stay in the backcountry for more days, and cut down on resupplies
- Pack and break camp in minutes (so you don’t freeze your tushy off in the mornings)
- Get out of bad situations quickly
- Save money (Yes, really!)
- Bring the gear you really want
Backpacking is a way to stay in the backcountry for extended periods of time. This allows you to go deeper into the woods and explore places you couldn’t during a day hike. The problem is, carrying a bunch of gear slows you down and gets in the way of exploring far-off places. On the surface, backpacking can be downright painful; but it doesn’t have to be. This is where ultralight comes in.
Ultralight allows you to hike deeper into the woods without burning out. Backpacking shouldn’t look like someone dragging a bunch of equipment up a mountain; it should be like regular hiking, with extra tools to help a hiker accomplish more. Ultralight can make a backpacking trip feel like a day hike, while allowing you to stay in the backcountry for an extended period of time. It’s also much easier on your body. Think of it like this: backpacking gear is there to support you, not the other way around.
An ultralight gear setup isn’t a list of items you need to accomplish specific tasks, it’s a system of gear, where all your gear items work together to accomplish tasks. It takes thought to build these systems and, in doing so, it helps you to truly understand your gear and what it’s can do for you.
For example, a bandana isn’t just a piece of trendy headwear, it can be used for many things: staying dry, staying cool, first-aid and so much more. Check out the multiuse page for bandanas to see just how many things we can do with one piece of gear. By knowing your gear, you can make sure you have more than one piece of gear to perform any task or solve any problem.
Ultimately, knowing your gear this well puts you in a much safer place than a backpacker who just puts things in their pack based off of some gear list. This is where the true power of ultralight comes from.
If anything is miserable, being wet is. I see many hikers who are soaking wet (even in their rain gear), which can ruin a trip or end it early. This is where those systems come into play. You have to know not only which piece of gear to use for each task, but when to use it. A hiker’s first instinct in the rain is to throw on warm clothes and rain gear. This is usually the wrong course of action, ending in wet clothes when it comes time to crawl into bed (as night-time temperatures start to drop). That doesn’t mean you need to suffer during your hike either.
When you think of rain, you probably think of being cold. But hiking generates a lot of body heat, burning anywhere from 3,000-6,000 calories per day (depending on who you ask). You can usually get away with just your rain gear over your hiking shirt. Even better, try just getting wet if it will be nice out later. Usually, even with rain gear, you’ll end up wet by sweating through your clothes. This all comes down to preference and experience, but it is important to have a strategy when it comes to using your gear. This way, you’ll always know you have something dry and warm if conditions get worse.
Ultralight gear, also tends to be made of waterproof material. While ultralight gear often seems expensive, carrying fewer gear pieces means you can afford to make the gear you do have top quality.
Between great gear and knowing when to use it, you can quit peeling off wet clothes in cold weather and start putting on dry clothes before bed.
Prevent back pain, blisters, injuries and fatigue
When hikers think of backpacking, their mind almost immediately connects it with the pain of carrying a pack. You imagine this big bulky mass weighing you down as your legs strain to propel you up a large hill. Instead, think about flying up a hill and the great views you’ll see at the top. Don’t let gear ruin your fun.
With an ultralight setup you will eliminate most back pain, blisters, injuries and fatigue. In fact, I didn’t get one single blister on my entire 2,185 mile Appalachian Trail thru hike. Hiking is just walking, so ditch your boots. You don’t wear boots to school when you carry a backpack. People run on trails every day wearing tennis shoes. All boots do are trap water on your feet, chafe, make you tired, make your ankles weak and cause gnarly blisters.
Stay in the backcountry for more days, and cut down on resupplies
With a lighter setup, you are able to carry more food and and fuel, allowing yourself to stay in the backcountry longer. When you carry less than 10 pounds of gear, it’s no problem to carry more food or other gear depending on the needs of your trip.
Pack and break camp in minutes (so you don’t freeze your tushy off in the mornings)
One of my least favorite parts of shoulder season backpacking is getting up in the morning when it is freezing cold. Many hikers get out of their sleeping bag and make a hot breakfast to feel better. But it’s still cold! I prefer to break camp quickly, and hike out fast to generate body heat. I’ll throw a few snacks somewhere accessible to eat while I hike, and get moving. After a few minutes, I’ve broken a good sweat and can slow down to enjoy a better breakfast.
Not only is my gear light, it’s compact. I can break camp, and be fully packed and moving, in less than 3 minutes. Everything goes straight into my pack, one by one (in a certain order), keeping dry gear separate from wet gear, and gear I use often, right at the top. No need to search for a space to put everything. I also don’t use stuff sacks, so there’s no rolling or folding gear to get it all to fit. It’s amazing how some hikers with huge packs struggle to fit everything in their pack. This is almost more important to me than pack weight.
Get out of bad situations quickly
Sometimes you hit bad weather, get hurt or meet undesirable people. In these situations you want to be able to get out of the backcountry, or somewhere safer, as quickly as possible. Ultralight allows you to do this. Also, if another hiker is injured, you can hike out to get help, or help them with their gear if they are able to hike out on their own. I’ve had to hike to town when another hiker was incapacitated. I ended up running 18 miles (taking all of my gear with me), to receive help.
Save money (Yes, really!)
Some ultralight gear is expensive, but you don’t need specialized gear to go ultralight. Ultralight is mainly a philosophy. It’s about minimalism and strategy. The more gear you cut out, the cheaper your setup. Then, when you want your gear to be made of all the finest ultralight materials, your setup will be so minimalist that you will only need to replace a few items, making it much cheaper. My pack was only $100. It’s made out of really expensive Dyneema Composite Fabric, but it’s just a bag with straps, so it was still half the price of most packs. Also, compare the price of an ultralight setup to the price of knee surgery and it’s a no-brainer. If you’re going to push your body to hike loads of miles, take care of it while you can.
Bring the gear you really want
Many people go on thru hikes to let go of their baggage, not to carry more (backpacking can be cheesy too).
Many thru hikers would say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done; for me, it was the easiest. My Appalachian Trail thru hike was the first time in my life I wasn’t in school or work. There was never a day that I considered quitting. So, every day I’d throw my gear in my pack and get going. If I needed a hotel room and a large pizza, or to catch up to my friends, I could head out in no time, and hike as fast as I needed to. When I didn’t want to hike fast, I was in no rush to get my pack off. And when I wanted to carry a 4-foot, puppy coloring book, I did that too.
Let me be clear: ultralight is not about carrying less gear. It’s about carrying what you need to have the best hike possible. If you like to stay warmer, you can do that. If you hate the sun, you can carry more sun protection. Oh, you’re a photographer? Now you can carry your camera equipment. Back problems? How about a nice 4-inch thick sleeping pad?