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:
- 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,
- 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:
- Not taking gear and supplies that were necessary given the conditions, and
- 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.
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”
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”
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.
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.