Primitive and modern outdoor skills

thoughts on ultralight backpacking


So, there seems to be a lot of confusion and FUD about ultralight backpacking. So, here, I'd like to talk about why from my perspective.

What is ultralight?

This is one of the most often misunderstood things about ultralight, especially by those who don't do it. Maybe the real confusion is definitions, so let my define what I mean by ultralight. Ultralight backpacking is about understanding what you "need", and what you don't, paring down what you need, and then getting the lightest thing you can to fill that need. Most people define ultralight as below some weight range, but really... it depends on what you're doing. The numbers get picked more by where you end up with a certain mindset, then by any absolute scale. If you carry 15 lbs of gear, safely, in northern Alaska... go you! 12 lbs of gear in the whites is hot shit. 8 lbs of gear in the mid-west is quite impressive... whatever. So lets not go into any specific weight numbers, and consider the mindset instead. Unfortunately, there's no good term for the mindset :), so we'll stick with ultralight.

What do you gain?

So now the real point. Ultralight isn't so much about going without, but about knowing what you are giving up. If my base pack weight is 8 lbs, then what am I doing with the rest of my pack weight? Here are some examples.

1) On the AT, you can think of every pound as half a days food... For an AT through-hiker that is a VERY interesting thought ;-). When you consider "I could have tent... or I could eat more nutella" it really puts things in perspective.

2) Once I'm good at keeping my weight down, say I want to go on a weekend trip. That guitar will cost me 2 lbs. Well, I can still keep up with my friends and do an strenuous hike with that 2 lbs!

3) Now I'm going on a kayak trip. I've thought through what gear I need. Maybe I trade some heavier things for bulkier things, but I've already done most of the work. 10 lbs of pack weight can't take that much space. Suddenly you find your gear fits anywhere!

4) My friend gets injured while we're out, she can walk, but only with no weight. Well, her pack currently weighs 20 lbs, mine weighs 20 lbs. I can haul 40 easy. So, I combine the two and walk out.

If, on the other hand, you start dropping important gear. That is, things that will keep you warm and dry and safe in case of exceptional circumstances you haven't gotten many of the gains I discussed above. And besides nearly killing yourself, you're a drain on resources like other people's good will, and Search and Rescue. Don't simply go without something that you think you need, that won't help anyone. It's people like that that've given Ultralight the somewhat dubious reputation it has now. Practiced carefully ultralight can be SAFER than heavyweight backpacking. It's about carrying what you need - not more, and not less.


So, as mentioned elsewhere, Jess and I really like being outdoors. We backpack for 2 reasons, because we love being in the wilderness, and we love to walk. Walking until you're ready to sleep, and then simply laying down your bag at the first flat spot, and sleeping under the stars (likely having eaten an hour ago), is a very different experience than hauling into a preset camping spot, pitching a tarp, setting up the kitchen, pumping a couple gallons of water, pitching your tent, and crawling into it to not see the outdoors until your 4 hours of walking the next day. I'm sometimes really taken aback when I backpack with other people, I forget that not everyone wants to spend all their time wandering and playing before laying down.

Now we're actually trying to move away from "ultralight", and towards "less stuff" mindset. My goal is to not be a visitor in the woods. I want to go out without caring how long I'll be out, such that whether I'm there for 3 days, or 2 months doesn't matter. The idea is to carry even less. To become more of an animal. As jess likes to put it, we want to be ferrel humans.

It's all about what you are there to do.