Maximizing the bare minimum
Farther, Faster: A Primer on Ultralight Backpacking
Editor’s Note: This primer is the first in a series profiling the best backpacking gear and training for your summer and fall adventures. Stay tuned for more on backpacking food (it’s not all just MREs), training for the long haul and the best in ultralight packs and shelters.
Every year, the next generation of outdoor gear hits shelves with reimagined designs and reinvented fabrics, each lighter and more streamlined than yesteryear’s. For most (provided they have the funds), less pack weight means one more step towards the dream of an epic ramble down the Appalachian or John Muir Trail (as well as back relief). But there are also the obsessives, the hikers who view ultralight as a philosophy, a way of life. What other hikers consider ultralight gear, they consider a collection of unnecessary straps, mesh and liners that need to be cut.
In the spirit of facing nature in a more primitive and connected fashion, these weight watchers have deconstructed hiking down to its key components in order to bring only what they need. They count every calorie. Every ounce of gear must have a purpose. This is calculated hiking, and it helps push ultralight hikers farther down the trail and farther away from the crutch of modern conveniences. It isn’t just about hiking farther — it’s about hiking exposed to the elements, sleeping under a flimsy tarp tent and brushing with a sawed-off toothbrush.
But for the average hiker or backpacker, new ultralight gear also brings an abundance of new jargon. Terms like “ultralight” and the even lighter “minimalist” are thrown around by nearly every major manufacturer (not to mention the legions of upstart, niche brands); it’s hard to discern the truly lightweight, comfortable gear from the imitators, and all too easy to set out underprepared and underfed. Below we attempt to make sense of the confusing concept of going out into nature as minimally prepared as possible, or completely prepared, depending on your brand of insanity. Take some tips here and there, use this as a jumping-off point, and hopefully you’ll be able to shave a few pounds off your back and hit the trails faster and freer.
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The most important thing to be aware of is what your environment demands. If you’re crazy enough to set out on a circuit of the Pacific Crest Trail, your loadout will be much different from that of a long weekend of lake hopping in upstate New York. Naturally, the big three — shelter, water, and food — will consume the lion’s share of the weight you carry and dictate how far you can go. There are tradeoffs to keep in mind: are you willing to carry an extra bulky pad to avoid sleeping on jagged rocks? Maybe you’re a backcountry culinary expert and require a portable spice rack (yes, they exist). Whatever your particular trail quirk, it’ll require a little extra weight and cash.
Depending on where you go, the size of your group and what time of year you’re out, you can get away with much less than the typical four-man dome tent. For East Coast forests in the summer, a simple hammock can get the job done on solo adventures. If you’re planning on high altitudes or bringing along a friend or two, a more sturdy backpacking tent is probably in order. But for the serious ultralights out there, combining a simple, lightweight tarp with a bivy is the best way to reduce the weight of your shelter to less than a pound. Split up rain flies and poles with your partners to distribute the load a little bit. Or as an alternative, use your hiking poles as a substitute for stakes. Hell, a large enough rock and some twine will get the job done sometimes. But be cautious; the more weight you drop, the more exposed you become.
Training and Safety
Take it slow on your body. Even with the most comfortable pack and minimal gear you won’t be pushing thirty mile days right out of the gate. Like any other endurance event, ramp up your mileage slowly. And never skimp on the first aid. You never need anything in a first aid kit until you really, really need something in a first aid kit.
Be meticulous when recording hiking data. If unforeseen circumstances arise in which a particular absent item would be useful, note this for next time. This will also help you cut down on excess weight from gear that you never ended up using. For future food packing, a journal will help you know when to eat, how much to eat and how many calories you are burning each day. Plus, knowing how far you can hike will help you plan which campsites are reachable and when to call it a day.
The more you spend, the less your gear will weigh. So if you’re paying another $200 to shave six ounces off your sleeping bag, don’t neglect to shave off the cheaper ounces. Get a reliable scale, start weighing your gear and get creative. Some serious thru-hikers will cut off the handles of their toothbrushes, dry out single servings of toothpaste and cut unnecessary straps, laces and netting from their gear. A simple fix is to look at your list of clothes and start trimming. Three pairs of socks can get you through a couple of weeks if you wash and rotate them. Likewise, a good merino or Polygiene-treated shirt can last for days before your funk builds up. When you use your gear, ask yourself if any of it is overkill. Do you really need that Gerber Tactical Tanto Blade, or would a simple penknife suffice?
Experiment with your setup. On some trips you may be able to get by with a few Pro Bars; other weekends a decent stove for some campfire coffee and a hot meal will be indispensable. Above all, select food that you’ll eat, and that won’t cause you any digestion problems when you’re miles from the car. A safe bet is the freeze dried meals from our friends at Good-To-Go.
Caloric density is the most important aspect of the food you pack. Crush potato chips so they don’t take up more space than they need. Bring coconut or olive oil to add to a dish for added fat content. And most importantly, know what you are taking. Lay it all out on a table and divide it by day. Make sure you stick to your diet, and bring a little extra just in case you get lost, your food gets wet or you encounter an unprepared and slowly starving hiker in the course of your trip.
To be sure, anything you bring on the trail that depends on electricity is by definition adding unnecessary weight, barring your headlamp and maybe an emergency phone or GPS device. But if you’re bringing along a camera or need your set of speakers, don’t depend on bad batteries or saddle yourself with a weighty spare pack. A decent solar kit can keep your headlamp and GoPro juiced up with a few hours of sunlight. And for more advanced photography, Gitzo offers tripods weighing less than two pounds.