Intro to Ultralight Series – Part 4
Few hikers truly understand what ultralight is all about. Many of them think ultralight is unsafe and means leaving essential gear behind. They don’t see how it’s possible to get your pack so light, so they assume you’ve cheated the numbers or wipe with “Cowboy TP”.
The real problem is the “ultralighters” who don’t really understand what ultralight is. They take shortcuts and unnecessary risks. I’ve seen many people leave out gear for weight savings. This seems fine when conditions are optimal. However, when something goes wrong, you need a system in place to address any type of problem. Leaving gear out and being unprepared is irresponsible and sets a bad example. So don’t be an “ultralight jerk”. Let’s take a look at what ultralight is not.
What ultralight isn’t about:
Cutting your toothbrush in half
There’s an ongoing joke that ultralighters will cut their toothbrush in half to save weight. And some do! Backpackers are right to think this is crazy. I’ve cut one in half to weigh it and I can tell you, it saves a few grams. Guess what it doesn’t do well anymore? Brush teeth. What good is gear that doesn’t do its job? If you don’t draw a line, you’ll end up in your underwear, lost in the woods. It can be fun cutting the tags off gear and weighing them, or joking about how much it weighs to write your name on a piece of gear, but never lose sight of what ultralight is. It’s a tool to aid you in your hike and improve your level of enjoyment. So enjoy testing different things out, and then throw in some items you love. You can afford to as an ultralighter.
Leaving things behind
Even worse than rendering gear worthless is ditching gear needed for your safety or comfort. I’ve seen many “ultralighters” do this. I consider a backpacker as a hiker who is self-sustainable in the backcountry. If you aren’t carrying enough food, or a guidebook, or (God forbid) a shelter, you aren’t a backpacker. You’re a hiker who has a gambling problem. I’ve personally seen hikers leave each of these items at home. Ultralight is too easy to skip out on essentials or even comfort.
Relying on others
It is absolutely fine to receive help from other hikers. But a backpacker should be self sufficient for when they are alone. Even better, is a backpacker who is so put together they are able to help others. Backpacking isn’t just a sport; it’s a very real community. If you enjoy being a part of that community, then you should help make it a great one. Many hikers see an ultralighter and assume they might need to borrow gear. I’ve never had to borrow gear, and I often lend out gear that other backpackers didn’t think of. The best way for other backpackers to see that what you do is important is to set a great example, and to always be around to help others out.
Believing you are better than others
You want others to see what you do as worthwhile. At the same time, you don’t want to give off the vibe that you’re better than them (or worse) believe it yourself. Your gear might be a representation of your taste, but it isn’t who you are. So don’t be a dick. Gear is a tool to help you accomplish a task. The task itself is up for some interpretation. I love backpacking because it allows me to be outdoors more, to challenge myself, and most importantly to meet (and learn about) like-minded people. If someone is curious about your style of backpacking, share it with them. You may even learn something yourself.
Pushing yourself physically
Pushing yourself physically is a valuable thing, but that’s not our goal with ultralight. Our goal with ultralight is to create efficient systems of gear, and your gear is there to keep you safe and happy. So, when you create your gear list, make it as useful as possible. Make it sustainable. Design it to complete any task. Then, when you have a task, push yourself to do it as best as you can with your awesome tool kit. If you want to hike far, now you can hike even farther. If you want to hike fast, you’ll have sparks flying off your trail runners. Go nuts! Just don’t let your gear ever be your limiting factor.
On the other side of things, you should push yourself mentally as far as you’d like. When you are creating your gear list, reach as far as you can with your imagination. Push yourself to make tough decisions. Push yourself to try new things and consider new possibilities. Then, when you are in the backcountry, try to push your mental limits. You’ll always have your gear to fall back on. This is where you will grow as an ultralighter. And you may find your philosophies change too.
Hiking as fast as possible
Ultralight isn’t about being any one thing. It’s not about hiking faster or farther. It allows you to do those things. It also allows you to have the most slow and relaxing hike you’ve ever experienced. It’s not about racing others or showing off, and it’s not about leaving experiences in the dust without ever taking a glance at what you might be leaving in your wake.
I mentioned earlier that I saw a hiker without a shelter. He was also in the smokies, in a blizzard, with 15 degree temps that night. Guess who showed up late to the shelter and didn’t have a spot? He slept underneath the shelter and woke up covered in about 2 feet of snow. We heard him hike out early that morning to warm up. Many thru hikers ended up as popsicles that night. They’d hiked in all their warm clothes, sweating through them. Many of them had the gear they needed, but they didn’t know how to use it well. They didn’t have systems in place to remind them that while it felt cold, they were generating tons of heat to keep their bodies warm while they hiked. It’s better to save warm clothes for camp.
Bring the right gear and learn how to use it. Never let yourself freeze because you didn’t have the gear or the knowledge to stay warm.
Spending all your money
A lot of ultralight gear is expensive. Many ultralight manufacturers just make traditional gear with top-quality materials to make it lighter. This is an inefficient approach. It lacks imagination. It’s also just a band-aid for a bigger problem. Let me explain.
Have you ever seen a backpack with straps on the bottom of it, and on the sides, and the top, and the other sides? Do you have any idea what they are all for? Neither do I. We have pieces of gear with features we’d never think to use. Making the fabric lighter isn’t doing us many favors.
Instead, focus on minimalism, and you’ll end up with gear that requires less maintenance and fewer steps. To pack, I literally shove my gear—one piece on top of the other—in a certain order. No need for special compartments. My pack is still made out of the highest quality fabric (Dyneema Composite Fabric), but it cost me a whopping $100. That’s half the price of most internal frame packs.
I also carry 25-30 fewer pieces of gear than the typical backpacker. Even if a few of my items are more expensive, my overall setup is cheaper than most. And even with fewer pieces of gear, I can perform more tasks than with a traditional setup. Lighter gear should be lighter on the wallet. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need tons of features in your gear. It’s all about how you use it. You can do many things with few pieces of gear.