Earlier this week I cheered the death of the “lightweight backpacking” label, along with its misguided ultralight (UL), super ultralight (SUL), and extreme ultralight (XUL) derivatives. With this post, I hope to offer a more representative, more useful, and more inclusive framework for thinking about backpacking and backpackers. For those of you who have read my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, this may sound familiar, though my thoughts have been further refined since I completed the text a year ago.
Backpacking is a broad category of outdoor recreation, like, say, skiing. And just like how there are different types skiing objectives — e.g. downhill, cross-country, backcountry, freestyle, among many others — there are different types of backpacking objectives, too. Historically, backpacking may have been — or may have been perceived as — a one-size-fits-all activity, but it no longer is and it no longer should be.
No single backpacking objective is superior to another: it’s simply a preference that varies by person and/or by the trip. But it’s critical to recognize that different objectives demand different gear, supplies, and skills — or, “tools and techniques.” Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn wouldn’t use Bjorn Daehlie‘s cross-country skis, or adopt his training and racing form, right?
Types of backpacking objectives
A backpacking trip is most usefully analyzed by the ratio of time and focus dedicated to hiking versus camping. In practice, I offer “hiking” and “camping” as umbrella terms, not literal, since most backpacking trips consist of more than just these two opposing activities. Scrambling, paddling, pedaling, snowshoeing, skiing, etc. are also common modes of wilderness travel. And extra-curricular activities like birding, journaling, fishing, photography, learning, swimming, and gourmet cooking are favorite in-camp activities.
Under this hiking/camping framework, I propose three distinct types of backpacking objectives:
On a hiking-inspired trip I would hike (or otherwise move) for as many hours per day as my health and fitness will allow, and then camp long enough to recharge for another day of hiking tomorrow.
On a camping-inspired trip I would do the opposite: I would camp (or otherwise do in-camp activities) for most of the day, and only hike long enough to reach another location where I can camp again.
On a crossover trip, I would seek a balance of hiking and camping. I may do relatively more hiking than camping, or vice versa, and therefore my gear, supplies, and skills would be skewed towards one end of the spectrum or the other. But my approach would never be extreme.
In my book, the two extreme types backpacking objectives are identified as “Ultimate Hiking” and “Ultimate Camping.” I thought these labels were unoriginal hyperbole but they were at least consistent with the book’s title, over which I had some influence but not final say; I adopted the text to match it. In lieu of labels that I really loved, I suppose they at least helped to make the point, and to help readers get away from the conventional “light versus heavy” wrong-headedness.
It is important to note that I am not proposing to label backpackers, but merely backpacking objectives. This is intentional: backpackers need not have the same objective on every trip, and I’m therefore reluctant to pigeon-hole anyone, though some obviously will associate very strongly with one identity or another. Plus, I feel like my ideas for specific labels all miss the mark, e.g. “backcountry trekkers” and “backcountry campers,” “multi-day hikers” and “mobile campers,” “hares” and “turtles,” etc.
It is also important to note that I am not arguing that the required gear, supplies, and skills should be the same for trips with the same objective. Environmental and route conditions (e.g. temperatures, precipitation, wildlife, natural hazards, sun exposure, etc.) should inform a backpacker’s needs as well.
My backpacking trips — especially the most well known ones, e.g. Sea-to-Sea Route, Great Western Loop, Alaska-Yukon Expedition — have always been hiking-inspired. Wake, hike, sleep, repeat. I’m unapologetic about my core trip objective: I enjoy passing through extensive landscapes in relatively short periods of time, and enduring the physical and mental challenges that accompany these undertakings. It’s not for everyone, but as an endurance athlete with a passion for wilderness, it’s perfect for me.
To succeed on these types of trips, I have learned that I must do two things:
1. I pack light so that I can hike faster and/or hike with less effort.
- I leave behind unnecessary gear and supplies.
- I carry lightweight versions of necessary gear and supplies
- I developed the skills to use these lightweight items properly, e.g. how to pitch a tarp, how to pack a frameless pack, how to keep down insulation dry, how to cook on an alcohol stove, etc.
2. I travel efficiently so that I can hike more, to make “constant forward progress.”
- I minimize the time I spend on routine tasks: breaking down and setting up camp, eating and cooking, filling water bottles, etc.
- I avoid going “stupid light” by ensuring that I (1) carry what I need for the conditions and (2) shun gear and supplies that are too light. Otherwise, I may have to wait out a storm for which I am unprepared, to repair tears in my backpack after a bushwhack, or to camp early because I’m low on food and energy.
- I developed my trip planning skills and wilderness skills so I could avoid time-consuming mistakes in the field: botching my resupply logistics, backtracking after a navigation error, selecting a poor campsite where I won’t rest and recover well, etc.
The formula, Distance = Rate * Time, offers another way to think about hiking-inspired trips. The goal is to maximize Distance — not for the superficial purpose of just covering miles, but rather for the rich rewards of experiencing landscapes (at a blazing-fast 3 mph, I should add). By packing light, I can increase Rate. By traveling efficiently, I can increase Time. An increase in Rate and/or Time will lead to an increase in Distance.
My trips are rarely (never?) camping-inspired, but I still respect this style — it’s just not for me.
On a camping-inspired trip, packing light (Rate) and traveling efficiently (Time) are unnecessary as there is no concern with Distance. Backpackers with this objective are free to pack the proverbial kitchen sink: they have no intention of hiking far or of necessarily enjoying the hiking they do; and when they arrive in camp they will enjoy having the toys, gadgets, and luxuries that make camping fun.
Most backpacking trips fall within this range, including most of my guided trips and my personal trips with Amanda. The challenge here is how to balance two competing and contradictory approaches: How do you pack light and travel efficiently in order to enjoy the hiking, without compromising the camping experience?
I have had good success by using my hiking-inspired trips as a model, then notching back the intensity:
I/we still pack light, but I make allowances for lightweight comforts and toys, like a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pad, a Micro Four Thirds camera, a Tenkara fishing rod, a canister stove, a tarp for the group cooking area, a Titanium coffee mug, etc. Because my load is heavier and larger, I swap out a frameless GoLite Jam for a ULA suspension pack. Certainly, with this load the hiking is less blissful, but it’s still comfortable — and, more important, our camping experience is fairly robust.
I/we still travel efficiently, but I’m not as vigilant. I make a hot breakfast and morning coffee, instead of leaving camp within 15 minutes of waking up. If it’s raining or really cold, I probably will sleep in. During the day I take more and longer breaks in order to rest, eat, admire the views, or converse with passing hikers. And when I go into town to resupply, I spend the night in a motel, read a book at the library, and write a few pages in my journal over an omelet at the cafe.
Success in camping-inspired trips comes easily: pack the kitchen sink and don’t go far. Success in hiking-inspired trips or crossover trips, both of which entail at least a moderate amount of hiking, is much more difficult to achieve, as a backpacker must first learn the two prerequisites: packing light and traveling efficiently. Until mastery is achieved, the hiking won’t be as good as it can be, and therefore camping becomes the easier and relatively more enjoyable activity — the default choice.
For first-time and beginner backpackers, as well as for intermediate backpackers whose gear and skills have become outdated, personal trial-and-error is a time-tested technique to acquire this know-how. But it’s faster, less expensive, and less miserable to learn from others, via blogs, videos, books, clinics, in-person conversations, and guided trips.
Hopefully, using this hiker/camper framework, backpackers that are still camping-by-default can more easily and more quickly identify the gear, supplies, and skills that they need to achieve their trip objectives. That’d be good for them and for backpacking.