Recent posts by Martin Rye, Dave Chenault, Mike Clelland, and Jaakko Heikka on the state and future of “lightweight” and “ultralight” backpacking have given me the motivation — and a good opportunity — to dust off two related posts that I first drafted six months ago but that never went live. This is the first.
When I wrote the text for The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide in Spring/Summer 2011, I very intentionally refrained from describing it as a “lightweight backpacking” book and describing myself as a “lightweight backpacker.” I wiped these labels — along with their “ultralight” (UL), “super ultralight” (SUL) and “extreme-ultralight” (XUL) variations — from my guided trips and slideshows & clinics as well.
Why? Quite simply, they are ineffective and off-putting labels, due to their semantics and history:
1. I’m defined by why I “go,” not by my “lite” pack.
The LW/UL/SUL/XUL labels exclusively reference gear and supplies, as if they are the only things that matter. This focus is misguided: gear and supplies are means, not ends. As Ray Jardine wrote in Beyond Backpacking, “More important is our presence in the wilds: how we carry ourselves, how softly we move upon the landscape, how aware we are of the patterns of life around us and how we interact with them. I and many others both present and past refer to it as the Connection.”
I first realized the value of a lightweight load — and the liability of a heavy one — as I was plodding towards the summit of Georgia’s Springer Mountain to begin my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2002. My motivation to shed ballast was completely unrelated to the arbitrary 15-, 10-, 5-, and 3-pound thresholds that have come to define LW, UL, SUL, and XUL. Rather, I was motivated to experience the Connection that this hiking-inspired undertaking would afford.
2. My success is more dependent on what I carry between my ears than what I carry on my back.
Again, the LW/UL/SUL/XUL labels give undue attention to gear and supplies, since in practice my skills are much more critical to my success or failure. This is especially true when carrying a stripped-down kit, which leaves me little room for human error.
Some skills are general, e.g. how to navigate, how to care for feet, how to plan a food menu, etc. Other skills relate to specific products: how to pitch a tarp, how to cook with an alcohol stove, how to purify water, etc. Without these and other skills, I couldn’t even safely depart from the trailhead, even with the perfect LW/UL/SUL/XUL kit. So why are we using labels that patronize a relatively unimportant component in backpacking mastery?
3. If the goal is to be “lightweight,” isn’t UL, SUL, or XUL even better?
Sometimes, perhaps, but usually not, which is a counter-intuitive lesson for backpackers who get caught up in weight-driven pissing matches, online and/or on the trail. As I and many others have discovered, there is such thing as “stupid light,” whereby one’s safety, comfort, and trip objectives can be compromised by:
- Not carrying gear and supplies that are necessary given the conditions, and/or
- Carrying gear and supplies that are too light, i.e. insufficient functionality, durability, reliability, ease of use, versatility, or time efficiency.
4. “Lightweight” versus “heavy” is a false choice.
Backpackers should not be categorized by their pack weight, but by their objectives. Some backpackers are hiking-inspired (e.g. thru-hikers) and others are camping-inspired (e.g. NOLS groups); most backpackers are in between these two extremes. Every backpacker should have gear, supplies, and skills that are appropriate for their objectives, as well as for the conditions they will likely encounter. Loads should not be based on arbitrary base-weight thresholds and/or gear lists that do not account for local conditions.
Hiking-inspired backpackers must pack light (up to the boundary of “stupid light”) and travel efficiently, period, assuming they actually hope to enjoy their trip. Camping-inspired backpackers are free to carry the proverbial kitchen sink without consequence — they have no intention of hiking far with it, or of necessarily enjoying the hiking they do. Hiking-inspired backpackers cannot expect good results with camping-centric kits, and vice-versa — the tradeoffs of these differing styles is irrefutable.
5. To a first-time or beginner backpacker, or even to an intermediate, “lightweight” is intimidating.
Backpackers pack their fears. If they fear being hungry or thirsty, they pack extra food and water. If they fear being cold, they pack extra clothes and an overkill sleeping bag. If they fear being stuck at 14,000 feet in a blizzard, they pack a 4-season shelter, even if they are backpacking in Florida in July.
First-time and beginner backpackers, and even many intermediate backpackers, lack the personal experience to dismiss unfounded “what if” and “just in case” scenarios such as these. And therefore advice to adopt a “lightweight” approach is typically greeted with a resounding, “No way.” The LW/UL/SUL/XUL labels are too easily interpreted as: “not enough,” “not safe,” “not comfortable,” and “not fun.” It’s time for a re-brand.
6. Really? The marketing department thinks that [pack, sleeping bag, rain jacket, etc.] is “lightweight”?
Every backpacking product nowadays seems to be “lightweight” or lighter. The looseness with which these labels are applied reminds me of “breathability,” another term that was bastardized by marketing departments that didn’t know any better, or that didn’t care. In both cases, consumers lose: manufacturers and retailers fail to properly educate them on the optimal applications and important limitations of their gear and supplies. In the long term, that’s bad for the industry and for backpacking.