“Stupid light”: Why light is not necessarily right, and why lighter is not necessarily better

On most trips, my primary objective is to enjoy my hiking experience. Camping, from my perspective, is simply an 8-hour opportunity to recharge before another rewarding day of constant forward progress (CFP). To be this “ultimate hiker,” my gear, supplies and skills must be optimized with regards to:

  1. Weight, because carrying less allows me to hike the same distance with less effort, or to hike a greater distance with the same effort; and,
  2. Efficiency, because if I’m not hiking, then I’m not doing what I love to do most (and usually what I need to do most) on a backpacking trip — to hike!

Ten- or fifteen-thousand miles ago I believed fervently that “light is right” and “lighter is better.” I proudly considered myself a “lightweight,” “ultralight” or “super ultralight” backpacker, and I believed that the weight of my pack was linearly correlated with the quality of my experience — the lighter my pack got, the better the hiking became.

But in my blind pursuit to shed weight, I made decisions that compromised my efficiency, thus negatively impacting my trips. In other words, in an effort to “go light” I ended up going “stupid light.” (Special thanks to Phil Barton and Pat Starich for sharing this expression with me.)

I went “stupid light” by:

  1. Not taking gear and supplies that were necessary given the conditions, and
  2. Taking gear and supplies that were too light.

“Stupid light” decisions undermined my efficiency by compromising my comfort or safety. For example, I intentionally left behind rain pants during a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, which resulted in uncomfortable soakings by afternoon thunderstorms. To avoid becoming hypothermic — a serious safety concern — my hiking partner and I had to pitch our shelter mid-day to escape the storms and warm up. Rain pants would have allowed me to hike in the rain — and, at 6 oz, I barely would have noticed them in my pack.

Stuck in a monsoon storm at 11,000 feet in Colorado's San Juan's, late-June

My efficiency was also undermined by “stupid light” gear and supplies that lacked adequate:

  • Functionality, e.g. when I used titanium skewer stakes I lost time looking for campsites with firm ground because they don’t hold well in soft ground;
  • Reliability, e.g. when I used goose down insulation in wet climates, I lost time drying my sleeping bag and parka in the sunshine or at the laundromat to restore its loft and warmth;
  • Durability, e.g. when I used a backpack made of delicate material, I lost time stitching tears and holes, and was forced to take circuitous routes to avoid bushwhacking;
  • Ease of use, e.g. when I used thin, knot-prone, and slippery guyline cord I lost time fiddling with rat nests and retying knots that had slipped;
  • Versatility, e.g. when I used a fully-enclosed tarptent, I sometimes lost time carrying bug netting and a floor that wasn’t warranted by seasonal conditions; and,
  • Time-effectiveness, e.g. when Roman Dial and I shared one 900ml pot on a trip in Alaska, each meal took twice as long as it should have. Afterwards, Roman called the pot, “gram wise and hour foolish.”

Not carrying what I needed = “stupid light”

I left my fleece mid-layers at home during my Alaska-Yukon Expedition, thinking their warmth didn't justify their weight. Bad move. Fleece would have extended my comfort range during wet stretches even after my rain shells failed. Out of desperation, I began wearing a trash compactor bag over my rain jacket.

Fleece clothing is often poo-poo’d because “puffy” clothing (insulated with goose down or synthetic fill) is much warmer for the weight. But in prolonged wet environments, I will inevitably get wet. And a wet puffy is cold and uncomfortable, regardless of the insulation type. The warmth of fleece is less effected: it retains less moisture and its loft is less effected. I longed for a fleece mid-layer to sandwich between my active layer and rain shell during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, during which numerous storms overwhelmed my rain gear.

Gaiters add 1 oz to each foot but their weight is entirely offset by added comfort and time-effectiveness. My feet stay cleaner, reducing blister-causing abrasion. And I stop less often to rid my shoes of debris. I have used gaiters on every trip since 2006, when Glen van Peski let me “borrow” his after watching me spend an hour at Hiker Heaven picking grass quivers out of my shoes, a shared annoyance among Pacific Crest Trail hikers.

Bug headnets like those by Peter Vacco weigh less than an ounce and they will preserve my sanity if I encounter a bad stretch of bugs. Buzz Burrell and I would have paid megabucks during our Sierra High Route trip, which we unfortunately did during the High Sierra’s first mosquito hatch of the season. We had DEET but it was not enough: in bad bugs, full body armor (woven pants, woven shirt, and headnet) is the only solution.

Trekking poles might be considered 6-oz arm weights, but in fact they make me a more powerful hiker by allowing my arms to assist with forward and upward propulsion, and with braking on descents. With them, I feel fresher at the end of the day, I can hiker further, and I help avoid overuse injuries. I did not start the Appalachian Trail with trekking poles but within a few days I was envious hikers who had them. When I reached the Nantahala Outdoor Center, I promptly bought a pair — and have never gone on a serious hike without them since.

A one-liter Platypus Soft Bottle bottle weighs just .9 oz, yet I left it behind on an October trip in Montana’s Absoroka Mountains because I was encouraged to “simplify” my kit by taking more multi-use items. “A quart-sized freezer bag from the first morning’s granola should work, right?” Wrong! The bag was difficult to fill and to drink from, and would not reliably hold water.

Taking items that are too light = “stupid light”

If I expect to camp on hard surfaces -- such as this designated campsite in Glacier National Park -- it's worth bringing a plush (but heavy) air mattress to ensure a good night's sleep.

Closed cell foam sleeping pads like the Therm-A-Rest RidgeRest SoLite are more reliable than air mattresses, and usually warmer for their weight too. But they offer inadequate nighttime comfort if I have to sleep on a hard surface, like the wooden floor of a lean-to or heavily-used/designated campsites. A plush air mattress is a smarter choice.

A poncho/tarp like the GoLite Poncho Tarp a classic “ultralight” item because it is multi-functional: shelter, rain gear, and pack cover. The truth, however, is that poncho/tarps offer sub-par performance in each regard, as I discovered during the wetter stretches of the Sea-to-Sea Route. Ever try to transform your raingear into your shelter during a downpour? For dry trips, poncho/tarps may be practical if you don’t expect any windy storms or bushwhacking.

Ultralight headlamps and flashlights like the Photon Freedom Micro are usually also ultra-dim. During extensive night-hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and in Colorado I learned that these “just-in-case” lights are inadequate for regular use — it took me longer to complete camp chores because I couldn’t see well, and my nightime hiking speed was a fraction (probably 66-75%) of my daytime speed because I kept “out-walking” my vision.

Grosgrain ribbon might seem to be an ultralight alternative to conventional nylon webbing for hip belts and shoulder straps. But after I replaced the hipbelt on a backpack I immediately regretted it: I saved a half-ounce, but the grosgrain was too thin and too slippery for the buckle, and the pack’s waist belt has never been cinched securely tight again.

Experiment gone wrong. By replacing this pack's standard hipbelt webbing with grosgrain (.5-oz savings) , I basically ruined the pack. The grosgrain is too slick and too thin for the buckle to tighten securely.

Your turn: When did you go “stupid light”?

Have you ever reduced your pack weight at the expense of your efficiency? How did it impact your comfort or safety? Or why was the item too light, lacking adequate functionality, durability, reliability, ease of use, or time-effectiveness?

Tell me your story by making a comment below. Based on the responses on Facebook and Twitter last week, I know that others have made the similar “stupid light” mistakes.

84 Responses to “Stupid light”: Why light is not necessarily right, and why lighter is not necessarily better

  1. Sebastian Bönner July 16, 2012 at 2:58 am #

    As I already mentioned on twitter I do regularely shorter hikes with very low weight to test if new items are just stupid light or if it’s just because I miss certain skills. (E.g. is the tarp too small or do I just need more practice pitching it?)
    This prevents me from ruining longer trips!
    One important thing with “stupid light” is that it’s not universally valid! Some techniques may work for some trips and hikers. For others it’s disastrous.
    E.g. I spend a lot of time hiking in Scandinavia and Scotland. Both wet and windy climates. Never really needed a fleece as two base layers, a windshirt and a rainshell was more than enough when moving. (got a insulated jacket for reststops and for the night, too.)
    When I spend four weeks of hiking in Iceland I really missed a fleece! Wind and rain became so severe that my layers were simply swamped. Even a thin fleece would have made a huge difference.
    A serious planning can avoid both, going stupid light as well as packing too much.
    As I like to say:
    Ultralight is not about a single products weight! It’s about the interaction of all parts: The gear, the trail conditions and the person!

  2. John B. Abela July 16, 2012 at 4:31 am #

    Another excellent and well written article Andrew!

  3. Bruce Watts July 16, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    Great post…I’ve been there and done that. However it is definitely easier and less painful learning from others…your points are great and right-on!

  4. Brian Green July 16, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    Perfect timing! This very topic and some of your recent comments about “stupid light” were the focus of many miles of conversation along the AT this past weekend. I think the pursuit of UL or SUL backpacking is so alluring that we lose sight of what it’s all about, enjoying the hiking. I guess I’ve settled on a comfort weight that is light and effective for my needs, but I had to go to extremes to realize that – hopefully this post will help others avoid that.

    My two examples of stupid light fall into your category of getting a good nights sleep/rest. I’ve sacrificed a lightweight inflatable mattress for closed cell UL option and have regretted it every morning I’ve woken up with back ache. I also chose to use my head net for a “pillow” stuffed with my unworn layers instead of a more sensible and comfortable option – stupid light. I’ve since learned that my comfort when sleeping is probably one of the most important factors for me on longer hikes, so now I carry a little extra weight but sleep much better for it :)

    Great catch on the grosgrain ribbon fix – another one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” type of modifications. I appreciate your honesty in sharing this with us, it’s great to see that even someone as accomplished as you can make stupid mistakes. There’s hope for me yet…

    • Andrew Skurka July 16, 2012 at 6:10 am #

      Wow, a headnet used as a pillowcase…haven’t tried that one before. Seems like a great way to destroy your headnet.

      I’d mostly agree with your statement that sleeping comfort might be the most important type of comfort. I think the other is hiking comfort — if you want to hike all day regardless of the weather, an extra layer or two can really extend your comfort zone in inclement weather and avoid a mid-day or early camp.

      • Thomas W. Gauperaa July 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

        I use my headnet as a pillowcase too, works great :). http://goinglighter.blogspot.no/2011/09/headnet-as-multi-use-item.html?m=1

        • Andrew Skurka July 16, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

          If your headnet is made of the same material as mine is, there’s no way that I’d want to use it as a stuff sack or pillow, especially when I always have a sil-nylon stuff sack available (the one I use for my sleeping bag).

          • Brian Green July 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

            Ha! You can definitely blame your good buddy Mike Clelland and his Ultralight Backpacking Tips for suggesting the use of a head net as a stuff sack :) I’ve never personally had an issue with it getting damaged that way and using it for a pillow was the obvious (stupid) progression. Luckily I have seen the error of my ways. +1 on the minimal extra layer for weather protection.

          • Brian Green July 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

            Andrew, I am curious to know what you typically use for your sleeping pad and pillow, if you’re willing to share?

          • Andrew Skurka July 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

            Sleeping pad: depends on conditions. When I’ll no choice but to camp on a hard-packed surface and/or if the trip is casual, it’s hard to justify anything but a NeoAir. If I’ll be able to find soft campsites and if I’m weight-conscious, the Therm-A-Rest RidgeRest SoLite gets the nod. For winter use, the RidgeRest Solar is my pick — it’s the only *reliable* pad that’s warm enough for winter use.

            Pillow: usually a sil-nylon stuff (used during the day for my sleeping bag/quilt) filled with Platypus bottles, unused clothing, and/or my tarp (if I’m cowboy camping). I also “landscape” the ground to build up a natural pillow, or look for ground with a natural incline where my head will be.

          • Thomas W. Gauperaa July 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

            Mine is made of nanoseeum and seems durable enough for my trips (1-2 weeks long at the most). It’s probably not a good option for longer expeditions though.

  5. Damien July 16, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    Great post. Sharing past mistakes is probably the most interesting kind of advice you could have shared.

  6. jon Pierson July 16, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    Great article Andrew. Can’t say I’ve done enough backpacking to venture into the SUL category. Just wanted to say thanks for the humility and thoughtful article.

    I think my bigger risk is being SUL on long dayhikes. I have a bad ankle, so I really do take the bare minimum. The point is self reliance, and that was broken in 2003 when I became subject to a SAR. I lacked raingear for a dayhike at 9000 in May in CO. It was a short morning jaunt assessing trail burnt in the Hayman Fire. The trail disappeared and so did we. Totally lost, no compass, no topo. Not so much SUL, as S!

  7. Philip Werner July 16, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Too numerous to list, which is why I now focus on my needs more than pack and skin out weight. Here are a couple of salient examples, though.

    Not carrying a fleece and a thermal jacket in summer to prevent getting chilled from rain jacket wet out. I carry both now.

    Trying to sleep on a GG nightlight pad on wooden platforms under a tarp, just so I could say I had a sub-10 pound load. Carry a neoair xlite and a sit light pad now.

    Taking Northern Lite snowshoes instead of MSR Lightning ascents because they’re lighter weight, when what I needed was a televator and more robust crampon traction for mountain climbing in winter.

    and many more.

  8. david hine July 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    I know this isn’t really what you are talking about and most people don’t carry them (but individual needs vary, right?). Stupid light for me has sometimes been to not take any kind of book. They can be worth the weight, for me (generally on longer trips when the weight factor is more critical anyway!). For some that weight would be better used for an ipod or some such, which I also usually carry but never listen to when actually walking (nano). But sometimes (when pinned down by the weather, for example) I REALLY miss having something decent to read. For a long trip I generally plan in advance what book I’m going to take and save it just for that trip.

    • Andrew Skurka July 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

      This is a great point, and I was hoping that someone would say something like it. For me, my trips are almost entirely motivated by a love of hiking — and therefore it’s critical that I minimize weight and maximize efficiency. But other backpackers have different motivations, and it sounds like you at at least some strain of “ultimate camper” in you (defined as a backpacker whose primary objective is camping and extra-curricular activities, e.g. hunting, birding, and reading). For you, then, a “stupid light” decision could interfere with your enjoyment of that activity. It would be the same if a hardcore angler only took one fly to “go light,” then lost it with his first catch. For me, leaving behind a camera would be “stupid light” too since I really enjoy documenting my trips. (I think we all have a little bit of “ultimate camper” in us — frankly I don’t think a pure “ultimate hiker” would actually be fun to hike with.)

      • Andrew Mazibrada August 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

        Why do we hike? The answer to that question is fundamental to the answer to the stupid-light question. As Carol Crooker, one of Ryan Jordan’s BPL colleagues, summarises in her article “Can A Sane Person Truly Enjoy SuperUltralight Backpacking?”:

        “Let me be the first to say that I am happy that Ryan and Alan have the requirement of “without dying,” when they throw physical comfort out the window. What I’m driven to understand is, in what conditions, if any, can SuperUltralight backpacking – pack base weight under 5 pounds – be enjoyed by the sane among us?”

        I don’t fancy that sort of hiking experience, although I am sure I could deal with it if absolutely necessary, and I think you balance your kit against your desired experience as much as anything else. I agree with David’s point about a book for example and, as a photographer as well, I take a DSLR into the hills now which weighs around 2kg for body, lens, pouch, cloth and filters. Also, I get paid to take photographs so I need to take that much into the hills – again it comes down to why you are there, doesn’t it?

        I also like your point on fleeces. I think we have moved away from simplicity in our kit selection, seduced by wily marketing. Sometimes, simple is better and fleeces are still popular today because they do a great job.

        Great article and thought provoking.

    • bonnie howell January 4, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      I am a reader and wrestled with the book question. I have friends who carry hardcover books! And after I am done ridiculing them, I often want to beg to borrow them when the are not being read. It just recently occurred to me to download an audiobook onto my ipod nano, and while not a perfect solution, it is quite nice to listen to a book in the evening. I’m just amazed it took me so long to think of it.

  9. david hine July 16, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    My prime objectives are hiking, summits and packrafting. I don’t choose my routes on the basis of what seem like good places to camp, don’t generally stop early and try and get off as early as possible in the morning. But I sometimes really miss a book. It does seem to be a luxury I don’t afford myself in other gear areas. I am more likely to leave my ipod at home. But never my rain pants! :)

  10. Johan Hoogendijk July 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    Brilliant article! Thanks for sharing!

    I spent years packing light (due to our survival and bushcraftbackground and military experience) but like you said… It’s also about responsibility, comfort and conditions!
    We’ll organise a ultralight Challenge in March, 2013 and people are only allowed to carry 5 items… Really interesting and around this time I’ll contact you with more details, discussions and gearlists! I posted your article on our FB. Grtz, Johan

  11. Andy July 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Great article. Cutting the weight is only effective if you still have the gear you need. So many people forget this. Thanks for some great examples.

    -Andy

  12. Phil Barton July 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    Oh, stupid light! Been there done that.

    A few examples —
    - Carbon fiber trekking poles that are really ultralight but not able to take the load when I slipped on a creek crossing. Snap!
    - I am a significant pronator, just born that way. Trendy ultralight shoes with a natural fit were a bad idea for me. I hiked a week on a high route that way but with sore feet.
    - I tried one of those ultralight single LED squeeze lights. Wow it was dim on a dark night. Worse, when the switch was flipped in my pack the battery faded. It became ultra dim too.
    - Carrying too few calories saved ounces but didn’t make for a fun hike. At least I learned that lesson on a short trip.
    - Just like Andrew described, carrying inadequate rain gear brings your hike to a stop while you fight hypothermia.
    - In an effort to try out a quilt, I cut down an old sleeping bag. I knew it had lost loft. But it didn’t’ quite reach around me either. It made for a couple of cold nights.

    On balance most of my stupid light gear resulted in lessons learned and type 2 fun. I have had plenty of stupid heavy gear experiences too — water filters, 8 pound backpacks, heavy stove/fuel systems, and unnecessary clothing.

    Some of my best fun in backpacking has been working with Boy Scouts. No matter how closely we adults try to coach wise choices there is always a young guy that leaves his sleeping bag at home or has his patrol carry an entire case of Dr. Pepper. There is the one guy that brought a pair of insulated coveralls in place of a sleeping bag. On a relatively warm night he didn’t seem to suffer. But it was an odd piece of gear in the backcountry.

  13. Dana July 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    A recent trip comes to mind- a 2 day winter wkend trip to the Porkies. A good route planned, thorough packlist, my typical winter gear, and a last-minute choice to save about 8 oz taking my Therma rest Z rest instead of my 1″ self-inflating pad (the latter which I had used in winter almost exclusively). thinking, “people use foam pads in the winter, right?” Despite a hefty -15 down bag in temps barely in the 20′s, I could not sleep and was cold all night. I put every bit of clothing, gear etc between me and the pad, boiled water in a platy, telling myself I had the skills to figure this out. At about 6 am I called it a failure and rose to pack. Decision time to push deeper into the woods, or abort the trip-perhaps I could scrape away snow cover to find a good pile of leaf litter somewhere? Ultimately morale was lost and I headed out defeated. Reassured myself I was still a savvy backpacker, and that I could return to the Porkies next time a smarter man. Next time a total packweight of 22# ain’t gonna be all that bad for a wkend in the winter!

  14. Brett Peugh July 16, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    I am finding that I would like to use an inflatable mat more often but being 6’5″, 230#s and a side sleeper it is hard to find an affordable one with the Thermarest starting at $180 for the lighter ones. I have an old pair of Leki Makalu Tour poles and that are from about 10 years ago. I went into a store and what I paid for these higher end ones is now the price for the low end ones. Are there any good suggestions for items that have a good mix of durability and lightness while still being affordable?

    • Andrew Skurka July 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Fixed-length alpine ski poles will be substantially less than “trekking” poles, especially if you buy the ski poles in the Spring. And they’ll be much lighter and stiffer than the low-end trekking poles. Two problems: the grips are usually rubber or plastic (rather than cork or foam) and they don’t have carbide tips.

      That said, I’m okay with spending good money on trekking poles. They are in my hands all day and their performance is really important to my hiking experience. I see a lot of people who go “stupid cheap” on poles and find that they’re too heavy and too rough on the hands.

    • John July 18, 2012 at 8:59 am #

      I can’t count how many times I’ve purchased gear because it was cheaper than the item I really wanted and/or than “the good stuff”. In EVERY case, I was unhappy with some (or every) aspect of the cheap gear and either sold it at a loss or gave it away and bought the good stuff anyway.

      Net result: I spent MORE money, and enjoyed my hiking less, while “stuck” with the cheap gear.

      Now, I find a way to afford quality equipment and figure, if I can’t afford it then maybe I shouldn’t be doing that :)

      PS: “Stupid Cheap”. I love (and finally live) that term as much as “Stupid Light”.

      • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 9:27 am #

        “Stupid cheap” is a good principal to live by, beyond your backpacking purchases too. In the long term it’s better to buy quality — it’s more cost-effective and you’ll be happier — hence, for example, my saving up to recently buy Wusthof Classic Ikon knives and Cuisinart cookware — I won’t have to buy new knives or new pots until I’m almost dead!

        • Rich Perlman November 13, 2012 at 11:39 am #

          LOL. I can attest to that. I still use the Wusthof knives and Farberwear Advantage cookwear received as wedding gifts almost 29 years ago.

  15. Sebastian Bönner July 16, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Almost forgot to tell you about two major incidents where I was going stupid light.
    Well, on the first occasion I wasn’t light at all. I carried around 25kg while hiking in Norway up on my way to the North Cape. (those were the days).
    To save at least a minimum of weight I decided to leave my rainpants at home… (During earlier trips in Norway I mosty encountered good weather). BAD idea. 5 weeks of hiking. 4 1/2 weeks of pouring rain. Temperatures around 5-10 Celsius…. Guess this falls into your fun2 categorie. No fun to do but fun to talk about later…. ;-)

    The second incident just happened this spring while doing a rather short hike in Ireland. A really gooood advice: Bring some chocolate, a small cake or a tiny candle with you when you know your wife (my hiking buddy) is going to have birthday along the trip. If you forget it. Well, it’s much worser than having no rainpants…

  16. Rebecca July 17, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Stupid light/stupid heavy…it seems the the contents of my pack are in a constant state of evolution based on weather, season, terrain, duration of adventure and so on. I think the biggest mistake I’ve ever made is packing my pack with a generic packing list and not taking into account all the other variables out there.

    • Andrew Skurka July 17, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      Great point. I laugh at those generic gear lists — by trying to be relevant to every trip they end up being relevant to none. Too bad that a lot of outdoor institutions use such lists to prepare their students/clients/Scouts. Their thinking apparently goes, “If we tell them to take all of this stuff with them, they’ll be prepared for any trip we schedule in any location at any time of year.” Unfortunately, having a mobile home on your back is simply not compatible with joyful hiking.

  17. Mary Ann July 17, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Loved the article…and very timely! Leaving in a few days for a 4 day backpacking trip in the High Uintas in northern Utah, and your article helped me to stop second-guessing my decision to bring the needed supplies for my daily morning cup of hot tea. Those few ounces will go a long ways towards my ultimate enjoyment of the back country.

  18. Tim Nielsen July 17, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    Very effective piece of writing. Besides being informative, it demostrates that you are not a machine afterall :) I like the part about documenting your trips with a camera. That seems to be my primary reason to hike. I have one question. Is there such a thing as stupid heavy? For example, I have tried to sell the idea to fellow hikers of bringing beer along on a two day one night trip into the backcountry. Is that stupid heavy or just stupid?

    • Andrew Skurka July 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      The logistical structure for the “stupid light” concept could easily be rearranged to explain other stupidity:

      • “Stupid heavy”: taking something you don’t need given the conditions, or taking an item that does the job it needs to do but at a much greater weight than other options.
      • “Stupid cheap” or “stupid expensive”: buying a cheap item that doesn’t perform nearly as well as a more expensive one, or buying a really expensive item that doesn’t perform that much better (or any better) than a less expensive one.
    • John July 18, 2012 at 9:06 am #

      On a 3 night trip in SNP with 2 friends, two of us decided to surprise the 3rd with 3 cans of Guinness hidden away in our packs. The look on his face when we busted those out on night one was priceless.

      So…packing beer = stupid awesome!

  19. Liz in Seattle July 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Awesome perspective! I started researching UL gear when I injured my foot, six months before our two-week Scout backpack, and I managed to drop maybe seven pounds. But given where I hike, and my somewhat cranky back, I chose to keep the internal frame pack, the NeoAir, and the heavier-than-DriDucks raingear.

    I’m tired of feeling like “less than a real backpacker” because I use tools to keep me healthy and happy on the trail.

    Oh, and I took a book on my last trip…on the smartphone that I couldn’t safely stash in the car.

  20. Brett Peugh July 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    For me it was a lot of the little consumables like toothpaste and extra alcohol for the stove in addition to having some items in their original form like having a full handle on my spoon and toothbrush.

    For me it was more of an environmental concern also where I was trying to use a Light My Fire to start an alcohol stove instead of a Bic. Very hard to do without the Bic.

  21. Andy Amick July 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    I think a lot of us fall into stupid light territory with #2 on your list – “taking gear and supplies that were too light.”. I know that I’ve reduced and reduced some items until you get to a point where it becomes stupid light and non-functional.

    It’s ok to fail and go stupid light as long as you learn from it. Ideally you test out a new idea on a very short trip and also only test out one or two potentially too-light options per trip. There is no way to know until you try something.

  22. david longley July 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    Realized my old-school external frame Jansport wasn’t going travel well even as checked baggage on our trip of a lifetime to Montana a few weeks back. I had an excuse to buy that ULA pack I’ve had my eye on for nearly 5 years. A 2 hour drive to Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hotsprings and we (my wife, Dana, and I) were ready for our fittings. Hours later I realized this pack was just not going to work for me. The amazing and oh so patient staff at BMO convinced me to try several different packs with different hip-belt and shoulder strap configurations. Finally, after an entire afternoon, we both ended up in heavier packs than we wanted but they carry like a dream. In my case I think it’s due to my 6′ 3 1/2″ frame. I still recommend ULA to pack shoppers but more than anything I recommend a fitting. Light isn’t always better and a good fit is most definitely the way to go. Great article, Andrew! Thanks!

  23. Wilderness Escapades July 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    I too made the mistake of taking a foam sleeping pad because it was light. I spent a very uncomfortable night in Hurdbrook Lean-to trying fall asleep on this pad.

  24. Courtney July 18, 2012 at 5:45 am #

    Nice article. Thanks for being real;)

  25. Jess July 18, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    I’m surprised to hear you use a ridge rest. In my experience the GG pads are a lot warmer for the bulk/weight, though the ridge rest is certainly squishier. I haven’t tried the solar though.

    • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      I have used the GG pads and like them. But they are not reliable because they are occasionally out of stock, whereas I can always get RidgeRest pads.

  26. Sieto July 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    Being smart about the weight of gear and efficiency of gear off course doesn’t disqualify the concept ‘light is right’. It’s all about finding the ‘light’ that is ‘right’ for you.

  27. Craig Gulley July 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    The only time a mistake becomes “stupid” is when it is repeated more than once, otherwise it is experience, which becomes wisdom. I have tried many suggestions from Andrew and BPL and others over the years, because they were experts and I follow what they do and say and because they have more experience, only to discover that the way I was doing it was, infact, best for me. This has included trying lots of different products; sleeping pads, stoves, headlamps, water filtration technics, etc. Some of course have been very good ideas; going to softsided water bottle instead of Nalgene bottle, Going with not only a lighter pack but smaller pack, etc. But in the end my advise is stick to your convictions. It does however give one pause to realize the influence those we admire and follow have over our decison making power.

  28. Clayton Mauritzen July 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    On a trip last week, I brought some very thin and light but tangle prone bear-bagging line. In trying to toss it over the bear hang, I was in a rush. It got tangled, and neither I nor my wife standing on my shoulders could get it down. Thankfully, we could cut enough off to still hang our food that night (just barely).

    Andrew, what do you carry for bear-bagging line? Is this stupid-light or just user error?

    • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Unless you are really good at it (read the tutorial on BPL by Kevin Sawchuk — he is one of the best at it) hanging your food is not so much stupid light as just stupid. Either the bear will get the food because it’s a crappy hang-job, or the person hanging the food wasted their time hanging food for a bear that will never come.

      • Clayton Mauritzen July 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

        I’ll check that article out. However, bear hangs are required in GNP.

        • Andrew Skurka July 19, 2012 at 8:22 am #

          The Park Service is probably aware that food hanging is an ineffective method at protecting food. If there were a serious bear problem, they’d require bear canisters, like Yosemite and other “Jellystone”-type areas do.

      • Jeff July 20, 2012 at 9:25 am #

        Andrew, are you saying that you don’t hang your food unless required? I really struggle with what is the proper way to handle food. There are so many different opinions out there. How would you store your food in some place like the Uintas where there are only black bears and they don’t seem to a problem vs maybe the Winds/Tetons where there are some grizzlies? Other places like GNP or YNP are pretty straight forward because there are regulations in place you have to follow. Maybe there are no good answers.

  29. Mark Stone July 20, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I prefer trees and rocks, if available, to stakes for pitching my tarp. When I need stakes, I prefer y-stakes: they hold better and they usually blunt rather than bending when they hit a rock going in. Skewers are lighter, but they definitely need firm ground as you pointed out. And ground can lose its firmness quickly under a good rain.

    I once had a couple of skewer stakes come up causing my tarp to lose its pitch under a rain. I was sound asleep at the time. The tarp sagged enough for water to collect and partially freeze. The weight eventually pulled another skewer up and, through a wonderfully lucky chance supported by a couple of poor choices, I woke up to a torrent of water, ice, twigs and dirt rushing into my bag. :D

  30. Jeff Smith July 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    About getting a good nights sleep…I’ve tried several types of pads. Looking for something lightweight (I am an ounce counter) but at the same time comfortable. I use a small NeoAir for my hips to my head. For my legs and feet I use 1/2 of a full Z-rest. Together they weigh 16ozs. With this setup I then can use the Z-rest at meal times and for taking a break at a nice overlook. I keep the Z-rest on the outside of my pack so that I can have ready to use within seconds. I have just added a Exped Air Pillow. I haven’t got to use it yet, but I have heard positive comments about it from backpacking friends. At 3ozs I felt it might be superior to clothing in a stuff sack. Getting a good nights sleep, and not waking up with a sore back or neck, is priceless.

    • Jim Davey July 24, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

      I found my perfect pillow as being an 2″x8″x10″ piece of cheap memory foam in a sil-nylon stuff sack, weighing about 2 oz., costing almost nothing, and on our recent trip ended up being cut in two and doubling as padding for a back pack hip belt that was just too thin and had no padding of its own. The too thin hip-belt was in the stupid-light category but the little extra weight of the foam worked out to save a lot of discomfort over 4 days.

  31. Ross Ulibarri July 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Stupid light. I once sowed mosquito netting to the bottom of a pyramid tarp. Most of the time I don’t need netting, but I was stuck carrying it all the time. It took forever to deploy. Grass, bushes, flowers, keep it from lying on the ground. It takes forever to seal the bottom edge with gear and gathered rocks. The worst part is that mosquito netting sticks to everything–it’s not meant to go in the weeds. Lots of holes to repair. Much better for my use to have a proper (heavier) inner net with floor and carry it only when I need it–not even 10 percent of the time.

  32. Chase Peeler July 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Great article. It’s all too easy to get carried away with the urge to go UL or SUL regardless of the cost, but in the end it’s worth keeping in mind that the ultimate goal of going lighter is to make your trip more enjoyable. With this in mind, I like to think of “stupid light” as the point at which a person’s experience begins to be compromised rather than enhanced. If you think about it in this way, the stupid light threshold will vary from person to person and even from trip to trip. For example, if I camp next to a lake to fish but carry a tarp w/ no bug protection, I would be making a stupid light decision because I wouldn’t enjoy my experience as much. However, the same tarp might be the ideal choice on a quick trip with only dry camps.

    Another thing worth considering is that the sight of someone going stupid light can be a turn-off to hikers who have not yet experienced the joys of lightweight hiking. They see a person with insufficient gear suffering through discomfort in the backcountry and it only strengthens their conviction that gear must be heavy to be worth carrying. Instead of realizing that a lighter pack can make hiking more fun, they think, “This lightweight thing looks miserable and I’m not a masochist”.

  33. Duncan July 24, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Much has been said about the pitfalls of optimizing solely for weight. I think Andrew’s point is about optimizing for more variables (e.g. cost, comfort, conditions), and making smarter decisions based on them.

    That led me to think that the whole movement toward “ultralight” may have started off on the wrong foot. It may be stupid to label/brand oneself as “an ultralight backpacker”; it is an over-simplified shorthand that masks so much of the thoughtfulness that has gone into “packing more in your brain and less on your back”, to borrow Andrew’s words.

    So, perhaps the hiking community can consider re-branding this movement to something like “Smart and light hiking”. It might just inspire better decisions.

    • Andrew Skurka July 24, 2012 at 9:56 am #

      > “it is an over-simplified shorthand that masks so much of the thoughtfulness”

      Yes, it absolutely is. Hence why I explicitly state in the introduction of my book that it’s not “another lightweight backpacking book.”

      > “perhaps the hiking community can consider re-branding this movement”

      I’d like to see this happen. Unfortunately it has been branded for a decade as “lightweight backpacking” so it will be hard to overcome. An REI-like company could re-brand it through pure marketing muscle; it would be more difficult to happen as a grassroots thing.

  34. Martin July 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Aahh stupid light… Leaving inflatable pad at home, and trying to find comfort on hard wood shelters… Spending too much time looking for campsite, because I brought a smalle NATO poncho tarp, above treeline… Made a stupid light ( I my case ) alcohol stove, that didn’t heat my water and burnt way too much fuel…
    Lessons learned,I guess… Now i’m more aware that too light makes for a uncomfortable time, so I think I’m rebranding me as a ” comfort light” backpacker…

    Oh and thanks for sharing Your experiences, even the “type 2″ ones. (love that expression, will use more often in conversations)

  35. Illimani94 July 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Hiking the Wonderland Trail in August, 2001 I thought I had it dialed: 2 light base layer tops, a light fleece (R1) vest, Dryclime Windshirt, Puffball pullover, shell jacket on top; softshell pants and shell pants for bottoms; low gaiters and hiking boots. Actually not bad layering system, but stupid-light in two aspects. First, low gaiters were great for keeping debris out of my boots, but my shell pants had elasticated bottoms, so a gap regularly developed between low gaiters and bottom of pant legs. Wet feet – no fun. Second, the layering worked well for hiking, but during the several rainy, damp days I would get chilled at rest stops and night camp. Could have used long underwear bottoms and a fleece pullover instead of the vest.

  36. wayne September 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    i took a softshell and didnt take a raincoat so i didnt have to take two jackets
    it was a north face Kishtwar jacket on the routeburn in new zealand, had a membrane, but still not waterproof or seam sealed. although the marketing hype said it was pretty waterproof.
    300mm of rain in 30 hours …… cool temps….. i was lucky it wasnt colder, i was wet through.
    usually i’m more stupid heavy, taking gear thats way to heavy for whats needed,
    like full grain leather gore tex boots on a summer trip that involved constant river crossing… the boots held the water in and soaked up more, weighed a tonne, expedition weight pack for a half week trip, winter sleeping bag and clothes on a summer trip. i was struggling to lift my feet at all at the end of four days…

  37. Willem Vandoorne October 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    I missed this whole discussion last summer, but spot on post Andrew! I also made some mistakes here; sent my headnet home in early august as I thought the bug season was ending at it 2 more weeks before I passed another post office – had a warm and calm spell during these two weeks in which the mosquitos were just horrendous. Sent my sunglasses home when summer was fading, but very early fresh snowfall forced me to make a detour through the valley to prevent beginning snow-blindness. And a final bad one: I made prints of maps from my computer for some sections in order not to have to carry regular maps. It seriously limitted my possibilities to change my route on the terrain according to the conditions, and made me loose time on one occasion when I was stuck in low clouds and had insufficient map coverage to take an alternative route through the valley. That is a lot of discomfort for only a few oz.

    Besides, as long my pack weighs less then say 15kg (33lb), the exact weight seems to have no or only very little influence on my hiking comfort, speed and stamina – so those few grams only really start to matter when I’m in carrying food for over a week. But my daily mileage on nordic terrain is 15-20 rather than 30 ;-)

    Cheers,
    Willem

  38. Steve Murray March 5, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Here’s what I think:

    I suspect some OCD temptations with the ultralite crowd.

    I’m old now (65yo) but when I was younger and actively backpacking, I found that on a trip of over 3 days, I immediately got so strong and in shape in all the parts of my body used for hiking, that weight of gear became completely irrelevant. It is only an ordeal when you go for a short overnighter when out of shape at the beginning of the season.

    Just sayin’.

    Steve

    • Andrew Skurka March 5, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      There definitely is some OCD. There also is a pissing match, and pack weight is an easily quantifiable yardstick.

      I would disagree that pack weight becomes irrelevant on longer trips. And so too would the laws of physics — more energy/work is required to move a heavier object than a lighter one against a given force, e.g. gravity. The weight difference is particularly noticeable when I have a low base weight and heavy food loads, as my pack might be 3x or even 4x heavier when I leave town than when I arrived.

  39. Call Me Ishmael July 13, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    It does all come down to woodscraft (the skill set that allows you to be safe and comfortable with less gear). So you can’t label someone “stupid light” just because their pack is lighter than yours.

    • Dave September 4, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

      I tried some bushcraft before.

      Lots of the skills are useful, but they consume a lot of time.

      Try setting up a leanto out of spruce in twilight. You’re not going to get it done within 20 minutes. Oftentimes flashlight are insufficient and campfires don’t give off enough light.

      So, I never really understood the obsession with being the next Davey Crockett in the eastern States. That way of life doesn’t really jive with the concept of the modern woodsmen in western North America, especially up in the taiga. The Russian commercial hunter fantasy fits better….

  40. squidy August 29, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    This is a fantastic article, thank you! The trash bag over raingear does look rather miserable, but at least you’re smiling.
    I’ve always been very intrigued by SUL, but always chicken out when a trip comes around.
    But I guess I’ve done it too, taken less than I need.. I was doing the barefoot thing for a while. Scree slopes with no shoes is just unpleasant. I started always bringing my Tevas on my day hikes after that, but still didn’t quite learn my lesson. It took about 3 times encountering unexpected snow on the trail and freezing my pinky toes nearly off before I started taking a backup pair of thick synthetic socks as well! (And sometimes waterproof socks..)
    I still hike in sandals unless it’s the dead of winter, I always have, (I’ve never had ankle or blister problems, even with a heavy pack) and sometimes I still go barefoot too, (not with a heavy pack… that’s one thing I never did) but you can’t know what you’ll encounter, so now I’m never without a sole and a sock of some kind.

  41. sums September 9, 2013 at 2:10 am #

    creds: PCT: Mexico > yosemite 2003

    Stupid light 101:

    cutting handle off toothbrush and using tooth powder

    using super feet with nylon webbing as an “in camp sandal”

    those are pretty common but how about this:

    Foregoing a tent, sleeping bag, ground pad and backpack !…Try hiking in a down puffy Mt. Everest exploration full suit, with a fishing vest over that, ……(yes i actually saw this system on PCT 03)

    Ok lets think back a minute when men were men, and hiked the whole damn trail in the 70′s with external frame packs, 4 lb sleeping bags and heavy stoves.. base pack weight…20-30 back then? of course no need to do that now, but c’mon people, most of you need to stop debating your gear selections, do some homework, commit to what you bought and GET OUT THERE frickin GRAM WEENIES

    umfghh

    • Dave September 4, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

      Actually, if you compare the rucksacks of the woodsmen in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of their packs are lighter than today “ultimate campers”. It was the era where people weren’t bond to horses or canoes like in the 18th century and earlier.

      Mind you, they still had to deal with heavy blankets and heavier sleeping-bags (8lbs) in the winter; but their base-pack is not that much more than “ultralight” or “lightweight”.

      It’s only after the Second World War, when people started purchasing military surplus and had the money to do extensive recreational hiking and camping, the pack-weight increased significantly.

      Although, to be fair, today’s lightweight hikers can go further and faster than the old-timers because of better technology– with moisture-wicking fabric, cheaper wool and so on instead of always seeking shelter when it rains or setting up fire to dry out cotton.

  42. Geoff Caplan September 12, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    My thinking on this has changed since I got hold of an Aarn Mountain Magic 50 pack. It weighs 1500 gms but the carry is so good that I find I’m much less paranoid about the weight of a few extra luxuries and a buffer of fuel and food.

    I find that the superior balance and stability of this carrying system significantly reduces fatigue, and I’ve never experienced the shoulder and back pain I have with conventional packs when I’m having to carry 7 days of food.

    Custom pack maker McHale says “People that go out regularly year after year know that pack performance trumps pack weight”, and I think there’s wisdom in this.

    After experiencing the advantages of the Aarn I now regard minimalist packs as stupid-light once loads exceed 15 lbs or so.

    Ditto with poles. I’ve fallen in love with the Pacers, and find that the superior eronomics easily compensate for the extra weight.

    Finally, I like to camp high with my TrailStar, and have found that carrying a full complement of Ground Hogs is well worth an extra few ounces compared with ti crooks. For Alpine camping there is often a very limited choice of pitches, and the versatility and security of the Ground Hogs has come in more than handy on many occasions.

    • Anthony Tovar March 18, 2014 at 8:45 am #

      To me there is no such thing as a “finished” backpacking trip – every one is an experiment where you are trying to dial in and adapt your gear.

      I think you need to give foam pads a week to decide that they’re not for you. Likewise, if you have used one for a week and still don’t like it, then taking it on your next trip is definitely “stupid light”. Personally, I love my z-lite, but am going to try out the gg nightlight on my next outing.

  43. Ned Tibbits March 27, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Andrew and I have been polar opposites since we had the chance one year to meet and talk at length on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store on the Pacific Crest Trail.

    Since I founded the wilderness skills school, Mountain Education, 32 years ago, we have always encouraged hikers to pack as light as is practical, functional, and durable to maintain personal safety and maximize personal enjoyment and comfort. We have always said, “Don’t be so Ultra-light that you discover you’ve become ultra-stupid (just when you suddenly need something you left behind)!”

    Great advice, Andrew! I hope everyone hears what you’re saying!

  44. Jamie August 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Friends suggested leaving my camp pad at home since I could sleep in my dog sled on 750 mile trip with my dog team. This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. There were multiple times I had the opportunity to stay indoors at a stop and ended up sleeping on a very hard floor or worse sleeping on the floor of someone’s heated tent. Which is worse? Sleeping in my dog sled bag or on snow in a heated tent without a pad when it’s -30F.? I really can’t tell you because I really didn’t sleep!

  45. Giampiero.com August 18, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    Real simple. Not using trekking poles – because when I was younger using them was a sign of lame ‘oldness’. Now that I’m towards the other end of the spectrum, I don’t like doing any significant backpacking without them.

  46. Dave September 12, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    I think this article is miss leading people, and give a lot of people that pack heavy gear an excuses to feel good about packing all that gear, or having a heavy pack.

    Note: not that I care, do as you want. But, I believe some of you are misguiding Mr. Skurka’s words.

    For example, someone commented on his foam mat not being comfortable thus he said that it was a “stupid light” decision because he slept better with an inflatable… It’s not “stupid light”, he failed to know camp site selection.

    “Stupid Light” would be: You are travelling through the Smoky Mnts; know you need to sleep in the shelters; and choose the foam vs inflatable because it’s lighter thus getting a bad nights rest. thus you now have met Andrew Skurka’s guidelines as “stupid light”

    Or even better… You decide to bring a tarp instead of a fully enclosed tent through the Highlands of Iceland because a tarp is lighter, but you KNOW there are dust storms. That would be “stupid light”.

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