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How NOT to Be an Ultralight Backpacker—and What I've Learned Since

After a 30-year hiatus from backpacking, I decided to hike the John Muir Trail at age 50 and fulfill a dream that started when I was 18 years old. My high-school backpacking gear was long gone and by now obsolete, so it was time for me to check out the "new stuff."

I remembered that one of my day hiking friends is a confirmed "ultralight" backpacker, so I decided to ask him about gear. Rather than just telling me about gear he offered to do one better and take me and another friend on an overnight ultralight adventure with his gear so we could try it out.

Ultralight shelterWhen I got to his house he handed me what appeared to be a duffel bag with some shoulder straps and a waistbelt. I'm pretty sure that is was made out of recycled plastic grocery bags. He proudly told me that he had bought a kit and sewn it himself, along with all of the other gear that he had pre-packed for me.

I loaded my bag of personal gear and toiletries, which I'm certain weighed more than his entire pack, into this recycled home economics project that he was calling a backpack, and we set out.

Not far into our hike my back was aching. I did not want to say anything and offend my well-intentioned friend, but this was the most uncomfortable pack I had ever worn. I suffered in silence and slogged the few miles that we had to hike to our campsite.

I was looking forward to unpacking my "shelter" (ultralighters don't call them tents) and sleeping bag so that I could nestle down for some much-needed rest. In my pack I found a thing that looked a lot like a rain poncho made out of what once again appeared to be recycled grocery bags.

It turns out this was my shelter as well, which was pitched using a hiking pole, some dental floss and paper clips that were called tent stakes. Of course it weighed less than the hair brush that I had packed with my personal gear, and that was apparently the point of being an ultralight backpacker.

My sleeping shelterMy imperfect pitch of the poncho flapping in the wind made for a sleepless night. I was rolled up in a down quilt, which is a sleeping bag without the added weight of a zipper, and a pad that I swear was just a piece of corrugated cardboard. It was a new world to me. This was ultralight backpacking at its best?

After that trip I decided that trying to make the transition from traditional 1970s backpacking to ultralight was going to be too much of a stretch for a novice like me. I needed to find the balance between carrying a frying pan and cooking over a tuna can.

Now nearing 50, I knew that my well-worn back couldn't bear the burden of a 60-pound pack, but this ultralight thing didn't seem all that comfortable either.

After doing some research, I discovered that what I really wanted to aspire to was being a lightweight backpacker. I needed to find that sweet spot where my base weight was 20 lbs. or less. With the addition of 5 days of food, water and a bear can, my goal was to not exceed 40 pounds for my JMT backpacking trip. I was going to have to haul this thing over some steep mountain passes and cover 12-14 miles a day, so the less weight the better.

It did not take me long to figure out that the big weight savings was going to come from what is often called The Big 3: backpack, shelter and sleeping system (which for me includes a nice inflatable pad and pillow). After these items, the cooking system that you use is also a consideration for shaving weight.

Our backcountry mealAt first I was not certain that a 20-pound base was an attainable goal, especially after growing up with the Boy Scout motto to "always be prepared."

Now that I help gear people up as an REI employee, I've discovered that the mantra has different meanings. For some it may still mean a frying pan, camp stool and 200 feet of climbing rope, "just in case." For me, it meant paring down to the real essentials. For that I can thank the ultralighters' ethos for pointing me in the right direction.

This following points are just one person's opinions and not official REI doctrine, but here are some suggestions for paring down your pack and becoming a "lightweight" like me:

•    Start by setting a base weight or dry weight goal of 20 pounds and sticking to it. (Base or dry weight is the weight of your fully loaded backpack without food or water).
•    Consider using a 30- to 40-liter daypack as a weekend backpack. You should be able to fit all of your essential gear into a pack this size.
•    For warmer weather trips only bring a tent with some light weight painter's plastic or Tyvek as a footprint and leave the rain fly and footprint at home, or bring only the footprint and fly and set up a minimalist pitch.
•    Layout all of your gear and determine what items are really essential and what you carry that you rarely or never use.  Get rid of the excess.
•    Buy the lightest alternative for the Big 3 items that you can afford. Pick the items that you want and upgrade as your budget allows.
•    Don't get caught up in the "size" myth. The size of your backpack should not be determined by how many days you will be backpacking or how much stuff you think you will have to carry. It should be determined by what is essential and how well you pack it. 
•    Use stuff sacks and compression sacks to better organize and compact your gear so that it can fit into tighter spaces or create more space in your pack.
•    Put clothes in zippered storage bags and compress the air out of them. This will keep them dry and take up less space.

If you take my advice and strive toward becoming a lightweight, your back will thank you for it and you'll be moving up the trail further and faster than you ever imagined!

Curt Cragg is a member of the sales team at REI Santa Barbara.

Posted on at 4:10 PM

Tagged: Shelter, backpacking and ultralight

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Vwatson313 Staff Member

Is your friend serious? Recycled garbage bags for shelters and packs. Maybe you as an REI employee can inspire him with ultra light items, like the pocket rocket, the flash 62, and the REI minimalist bivy. Glad to see that you have found your balance with lightweight, maybe your friend can add some.

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Getting to a 20 pound base weight was difficult for me until I created a spreadsheet, bought a scale and weighed EVERYTHING. The spreadsheet enabled me to really understand what I was carrying and the potential weight impact it made, which made it easier to know where I had room for improvement.

After a few years I grew more comfortable and have settled in a little under 10 pounds for base, which can go up in winter / shoulder seasons. Some guys like your buddy are at 5 or 6 pound base weights .... different strokes for different folks.

My biggest takeaway is that going light(er) is a process .... and isn't all about buying lightweight gear and instantly cutting weight, it's about learning and reassessing your needs, getting comfortable with doing with less, learning that you over pack for what you're afraid of (cold, hunger, etc) and many times realizing that many of the things you think you need to bring, you simply don't.


My biggest takeaway is that going light(er) is a process .... and isn't all about buying lightweight gear and instantly cutting weight, it's about learning and reassessing your needs, getting comfortable with doing with less.

Andrew Skurka

Three comments about this post:

1- There's a distinction between "ultra light" and "stupid light," and the author should not confuse one for the other. It is very possible to be safe and comfortable, and to have fun, while carrying minimal possessions in the backcountry. This is my preferred approach to backpacking and thus far it's worked pretty well for me. It's also possible to pursue weight savings so blindly that you compromise your safety, comfort, and fun. That's stupid light and I avoid it like the plague.

2. One problem with the labels "lightweight" and "ultra light" is their struct focus on the weight of gear. But, really, the concept is broader than this: it entails using less, lighter and simpler gear, complimented by extensive backcountry know-how. To ensure that "ultra light" gear is not judged to be "stupid light," the user must have accompanying skills. For example, you can't use a thin foam pad at a heavily impacted campsite (where the only option is to sleep in hard-packed dirt), sorry. And if you want to use a poncho-tarp, you need to practice pitching it in your backyard first -- otherwise you'll end up with a sub-par night of sleep.

3. Setting a target base weight and then working backwards to that weight is completely backwards, like putting the cart before the horse. Your backpack should weigh what it should weigh. If you understand the likely environmental and route conditions for your trip (e.g. temps, precip, footing, sun exposure, insects, natural hazards, etc.) and you identify the gear, supplies and skills that you **truly need** to keep you safe and comfortable in those conditions, you'll probably be pretty happy with your pack weight.

If youunderstand the environmental and route conditions you'll encounter, and to select the gear and supplies (

peaceful paul

REI had a post in the past about lite packing, but I will respond here. The REI post was more open-minded about this topic than much of what is going around at the moment -- a minimalist fad in my opinion. Of course no one in their right might wants to carry unnecessary weight. At one point in my life, going naked with a knife (rope and blanket if you heavy-up a bit) seemed oh so cool and adventuresome. My wife wants to go lite (well, not necessarily naked), but I will carry a tough backpack (I had one fall partway down the mountain once), a tent that keeps out critters and I can sit up in and is large enough that I can breathe and not be in a condensation trap if holed up on a rainy day, a pad that enables me to sleep, enough food so that I'm comfortable even if I lose some on the trail or get lost overnight (no sweat), more than just enough water (once almost three days on the Tuscarora with just the water on my back -- August drought), and I get cold readily and am absolutely miserable (and in a dangerous condition for hiking) if cold and wet. I've been there a time or two. I won't risk my hike and health to a weather prediction of "dry and mild." So I go out with maybe 40 pounds of quality gear, take my time, eat and sleep relatively well, and no problem. In fact thhis seems like a breeze compared to the old canvas and cotton of my youth (love some of the new tech items). If I felt a need to cut weight, I would cut food (fasting is not a problem, but not a goal) and skip the stove. As my wife says, I'm food challenged. I tend to hike very back woods and not do the steep mountain challenge or the vista hike or worry about mileage. Enjoy nature.

peaceful paul

p.s. by Peaceful Paul. I forgot about footwear. I wear substantial "waterproof" hiking boots. When younger, I was sometimes a barefoot runner. As you age, along with death and taxes and reading glasses, your arch drops and you have less shock absorption, and also any gravel or stone protrusions travel directly to the sole of your foot. Boots become essential in such cases. On the Quehana Trail a couple of weeks ago, my wife wore hiking sandals or flip-flops, in contrast to my boots. At substantial creeks, she could cross readily while I had to take off my boots and switch to crocs. In swampy ground and small creeks, I could cross readily while she had to clear stuff out of her foot and shoe afterwards. Crocs are great at night and substantial enough for me to hike in if necessary because of wet boots ("waterproof" boots can get wet, for various reasons that I assume readers know).

Oh, I also carry a bear bag and a smallish bear spray, for obvious reasons. We've had no serious problems with bears, but they are around and like your food, particularly if you're hiking on popular trails.


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