Ultralight Backpacking: The "Why" and the "How"
By JackStraw in Meta
Sat Aug 23, 2008 at 05:37:25 PM EST
Tags: backpacking, ultralight, hiking, nature, howto (all tags)
Are you out-of-shape? Neurotic? Feel like society has cornered you into a prescribed job where you cannot express your creativity? Welcome to K5.
Do you desire to rid yourself of it all, move back to a more simple, pure existence, at least for a few days?
Do you want a vacation that you can't find on TripAdvisor?
Do you know that the answer is wilderness backpacking, but don't want the pain and expense that comes along with it? Or, do you love efficiency and the idea of streamlining your material existence? Then, I give here the experience of 6+ years of painful experimentation, hoping that you can build upon my learnings.
This story is about ultralight backpacking: exploring the wilderness with an extreme minimum of equipment.
The Status Quo
What is backpacking? I'm not talking here about traveling Europe, taking busses from hostel to hostel (although, I'm sure that's a fun thing to do). I refer to wilderness backpacking... finding a way to condense all of your material necessities into one bag, strap it to your back, and head out self-sustained into the wilderness. Typically, you'll spend between several days to a couple of weeks walking a trail, sleeping in a tent, and every few days you would resupply at a town along the trail (which might be the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail , or any number of others). Along the way, you'll sleep in the woods; you'll drink water from natural springs; you'll exist in the moment and experience a primordial, ascetic, wholly simple and uncompromising lifestyle.
Sound good? Here's the catch, and here's the problem that this article purports to solve: You'll walk 15 miles per day. The pack on your back will weigh 50, 60, even 70 pounds. Worse yet, it is strapped to your hips so that you walk like a drunk arthritic gorilla. Your joints hurt, your shoulders burn from the pressure of the straps... you stare at the ground as you labor under the weight of your belongings. Plus, you spent two weeks salary on the damned equipment. I will resist drawing parallels to our contemporary lifestyles, and tell you:
There's a better way.
Ultralight Wilderness Backpacking
You saunter along wilderness trails; head-up, light of breath and foot, humming sweet melodies. Life is good. Occasionally, a sparrow chirps, and you smile. Aaah. You're not sweating; you feel no pain. You walk 25-30 miles each day, but what of it? The human body was designed for traveling the wilderness, and you've harnessed its power. Your backpack weighs just 15 pounds. Your movements are unhindered by straps or heavy boots. You wake by the sun and you sleep by the stars.
Occasionally, strange frantic people pass you on the trail, laboring under Herculean loads and chanting obscenities--you smile knowingly. These are the well-meaning but misguided "traditional" backpackers, shouldering the weight of the preposterous equipment that "experts" (high schoolers) advised them to buy (on commission) at the local Sports Authority. Several minutes later, you tend to pass these misguided souls; they are usually panting, sweating, frowning, leaning against stumps.
You know better than them. If they'd ask how you do so well with so little (they rarely do), you would tell them:
"The Answer Begs the Question."
Your zen cannot be accomplished by piecemeal changes--it requires holistic, all-encompassing change.
If those sorry souls wore your running shoes, their ankles would snap under the pressure. If they loosened their hip-belts, their shoulders would ache with contempt. No, the change must be holistic; it must be a philosophy of existence, not a bag of tricks from which to pick and choose.
This is the essence of ultralight backpacking. How can an ultralight backpacker trek 30 miles per day with 15 pounds of equipment (costing perhaps $200 in all), while a highly trained traditional backpacker, having spent thousands of dollars, barely manage with 70 pounds, and thousands of dollars, of gear, to go 15 miles?
Here's the key: Assume your pack is only 15 pounds. Assume that you will walk 30 miles per day. Assume that your backpacking life will be simple, optimized, and elegant. If this was so, how little could you make due with? Will it all work out?
Below is what I've found to be the answer. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Ray Jardine and his book, Beyond Backpacking
The Ultralight Toolbox
This is an illustration comparing a typical, traditional solution, with my favorite ultralight solutions; you can and should take the surprisingly fulfilling journey of finding what works for you.
- The Status Quo 6 lbs
A fully enclosed tent with frame, medium-duty, and optimized for backpacking. Still, these tents are surrounded by zippers and multi-layer windows. On hot nights, these tents are stifling; on cold ones, they become damp with condensed moisture.
- Ultralight 2 lbs
Usually, a simple tarp suspended between two trees with no frame, and made of rip-stop silicon-impregnated nylon. A ground-cover protects from dirt and moisture from below. The tarp exists only to block rain, so that air flow freely. On clear nights, it is not even erected. Backpacking Hammocks are similar in weight, obviate the need for soft flat ground, and are my personal favorite shelter solution.
- The Status Quo 8-12 pounds
These expensive monstrosities have hip-belts, adjustment straps, numerous pockets (with zippers), padding along the hiker's back, and are constructed of heavy-weight fabrics.
- Ultralight 12 ounces
With 15 pounds of weight, who needs a hip belt? The hiker's hips can swivel unhindered. Because of the small packweight, no frame is needed, and the fabric can be of lightweight ripstop nylon. Padding is provided by a curled-up sleeping pad (below). The importance of un-hindered hip movement cannot be understated--it is essential to efficient walking, and one of the reasons that ultralight packers can walk so far, so comfortably.
- Sleeping Bag
- The Status Quo 6 pounds
A traditional sleeping bag, 2-3 inches thick, and even surrounding the hiker's head. Usually accompanied by a 2 pound full-length inflatable sleeping pad.
- Ultralight 2 pounds
These bags employ an important realization: the bottom of a sleeping bag is worthless. The thickness of a sleeping bag is what inhibits heat conduction, and the bottom of a sleeping bag is squished into nothing by our body weight. Ultralight bags are just quilts (i.e., they only cover the top half of the hiker), with thin "skirts" to inhibit convection.
Further, they're thinner (1/2 the thickness, since the user wears all of their clothing while sleeping, and has natural body-heat from walking such a distance), and do not cover the head (that's what hats are for).
Finally, the sleeping pad is a lightweight closed-cell foam pad, trimmed to fit the bodyshape of the hiker, and cut to 2/3 length. (Spare equipment is placed under the feet to provide insulation for the lower 1/3.)
- The Status Quo 4 lbs
Most hikers wear "heavy-weight, waterproof hiking boots". Heavy-weight is bad enough, but the "water-proofing" is just self-defeating; because these shoes have so little ventilation, perspiration produces enough moisture to cause foot blisters even in dry weather.
- Ultralight 1 lb, very lightweight tennis shoes
The human foot was designed to travel cross-country--so, why handicap it with heavy boots? Ultralight hikers wear extremely light running shoes which provide excellent ventilation. In wet weather, tennis shoes get wet (as do "waterproof boots", after an hour or so")... however, tennis shoes dry out quickly. Without a 70 pound backpack, hikers don't have to worry about having strong, restrictive boots to protect their ankles.
Furthermore, an army study (not cited, unless someone cares) found that 1 pound of footwear causes as much fatigue as 5 pounds on the back--this is one of the biggest reasons to go ultralight.
- The Status Quo 10 pounds
Typically, backpackers carry enough food for about 5 days.
- Ultralight 7 pounds,
When traveling twice as far per day, ultralighters can carry half the food as traditional backpackers. This weight savings is somewhat offset by carrying better food, since food plays such an important part in a hiker's psychological well-being.
- The Status Quo 13 pounds
4 Liters/day, with a lightweight camelback and nalgene containers, plus a filtration system, comes out to about 13 pounds on their back.
- Ultralight 5 pounds
Ultralighters often drink no caffeine. Without its diuretic effects, they can store huge quantities of water in their bodies. Further, because of their speed they encounter water sources more often. Finally, they tend to use iodine tablets in clean water sources, instead of filters, further eliminating weight.
- The Status Quo 4 lbs
Most backpackers bring an extra change of clothes, including a lightweight jacket for cold nights.
- Ultralight 2 lbs
Ultralighters wear an "aviator hat" with compressible insulation that covers their head, neck, and cheeks. Their vest, likewise, is filled with lightweight compressible insulation (down or, better, synthetic insulation), and their single set of clothes are thin, synthetic, and easy to clean.
- Rain Gear
- The Status Quo 4 lbs
A full "waterproof-breathable" rainsuit, which tends to be stuffy and humid in wet weather.
- Ultralight 2 lbs
Rain is miserable; ultralighters tend to use umbrellas and baseball caps to combat it, and to remain in their quick-drying hiking clothes (which get effectively washed with every rain). This solution is lighter than a raincoat--it is also far more pleasant. In cold weather, lightweight waterproof-breathable Frogg Toggs to keep the moisture out, and double as insulation on cold nights.
- The Status Quo 4 lbs
A $100 Whisperlite stove, three pans, and a suite of metal utenstils: that's the norm. Much weight, expense, and effort goes into cooking. It's not needed.
- Ultralight 2 lb
Some ultralighters use Whisperlite stoves. But, most use either homemade alcohol stoves (cheap) or solid fuel Esbit stoves (the lightest and most reliable). And, come on, you only need one (very lightweight) pot, with Lexan (strong plastic) utensils. Interestingly, although cooking is a heavy and time-consuming endeavor, most ultralighters agree: it's very necessary for motivation and happiness on the trail. We go out of our way to make delicious, nutritive meals, even if it adds a few ounces.
- The Status Quo 3 lbs
Cameras, medical supplies, writing tools, toenail clippers, the list goes on and on. It's especially easy to get caught in this trap.
- Ultralight 1 lb, cleanly organized
Ultralighters might carry a simple camera, maybe a 2 oz radio, and 3 ft of duct tape wrapped on a BIC pen. Generally, journals are kept on back of maps (which, besides, carries much more nostalgic value than a notebook!).Also, a 1 oz ultralight headlamp with lithium ion batteries, which are rarely replaced (since we live by the sun).
- Best Practices
Just as ultralight hikers limit our weight to leverage our in-born ability to travel, we also design our daily routines to fit with what is natural.
An ultralight backpacker wakes to the chirp of his (lightweight) wristwatch several minutes before dawn. He takes down camp and packs his bags in anticipation of the order in which he'll need each item.
Morning is cold and bitter, but we immediately start walking. After perhaps 3 miles, we sit down for breakfast. After breakfast, we walk around 10 miles, and eat lunch. Of course, we stop whenever the spirit moves us; walking is easy, but the journey is the key, not the destination. It is common to rest for five minutes for each mile traveled. After lunch, another 10 miles, and then dinner. Leaving the smells of our cooking behind, we walk another three miles before sleeping (then, the bears and rodents will not smell our food, and we needn't hoist it to the trees).
By the time we reach camp, 25 to 30 miles from our start, we're ready for bed as the sun goes down. We scarcely need our flashlights, and wake ready for another day of trekking.
Well, that was a long explanation--but I feel it's an important subject. Backpacking is a way to revert to our simple, primordial existence--if only for days or weeks. The ultralight philosophy draws on the innate abilities of our bodies, instead of inhibiting them with unnecessary equipment. And, god damn, it's fun, motivating, and exhilarating. I encourage anybody on this site, who's interested in ultralight backpacking, to contact me.
I want to say this in no uncertain terms: I have put unbelievable amounts of thought and effort into many aspects of ultralight backpacking, and if anyone is interested, I would love to write stories detailing each of them.