Is the “lightweight backpacking” label dead, along with its UL, SUL, and XUL derivatives? I hope so.

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.

Gear and supplies are means to an end, like reaching the remote south summit of Whorl Mountain in Yosemite National Park.

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:

  1. Not carrying gear and supplies that are necessary given the conditions, and/or
  2. 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.

I was in the midst of my hiking-inspired Great Western Loop trip when I met these two camping-inspired backpackers in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Each group had the gear, supplies and skills that were appropriate for their trip objective — and we were both having fun.

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.

Screenshot from’s product page for the Osprey Aether 85 backpack. Describing a 5-lb 1-oz backpack (when it’s empty) as “lightweight” seems very generous to me. I hope that consumers know what they are actually buying.

Posted in on October 23, 2012


  1. Basti on October 23, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Interesting read considering the actual discussion about the term “ultralight” and “ultralight is death”. I agree, that calling something “ultralight” is mostly a marketing trick. When Ray Jardine wrote his books he neither called himself an ultralight hiker nor a minimalist. He called his style the “RayWay”.
    I don’t know who first came up with the term ultralight and invented weight related categories. ( ? Or one from the cottage industry? Who knows…)
    One thing people use to forget is that when Ray presented his baseweight in his books he was referring to a single 3-season trip (PCT) and that his kit selection was focused on his needs. (That’s why he’s called it the RayWay and not StevesWay, AndrewsWay, BastisWay or EveryonesWay)
    Cosidering this it should be clear that other trips (e.g. four seasons mountaineering) need different gear (and probaply won’t fit into the sub 10oz zone). But the thinking behind the selection of the gear can be the same. (Focusing on ‘needs’ not on ‘wants’).
    I personally don’t have anything against the term ‘ultralight’ as for me it’s referring to a weight consious hiker who takes kit selection (in relation to a planned trip with requiremts due to environment, lenght, etc.) seriously. Thinking this way makes it similar to your ‘ultimate hiker’.
    Reffering to ‘ultralight’ as a max. 10oz baseweight always seemed a little bit strange to me. (In the beginning the 10oz referred just to a quite easy 3-season-trip with no requiremts for special gear!)
    Guess this is all arguing about a specific term or another. Ultralight is probaply not perfec (as it just focuses on the weight and not the trip), nor is ‘ultimate hiker’ (as history tells us there is no ‘ultimate’ as people will always find ways of getting better in what they do and ultimate just means that there will never be something better), nor is ‘RayWay’.
    I wonder if anyone will ever find a term that could 100% accurately describe what we do? Probaply Martin Rye is right when he states “we’re all backpackers in the end”.
    But then there are people who like categories and names to describe what differs them from others…

    • Korpijaakko on October 24, 2012 at 9:33 am

      “But the thinking behind the selection of the gear can be the same. (Focusing on ‘needs’ not on ‘wants’).”

      I’ve said that there is something bugging me in the UL ideaology/scene/what-ever. I don’t still know what it really is but the “needs vs. wants” is probably one thing.

      In reality it’s almost always about wants. Even for the most UL/SUL/XUL backpackers. We want to be comfortable, we want to feel self-confident, we want to go light. We want many things, and try to gear up accordingly. But in reality we need very little. One should be able to do a general weekend trip without any food, real shelter,cook kit or too much extra insulation. One can do even a week-long hike executing uncomfortable or hard tasks on the way without much kit and of course without any food. This is well proven on many survival courses. And if you practise you become betetr in it. Just like for example traveling with a tarp.

      But then we, as backpackers, say that that is wilderness survival, not backpacking and it’s a completely different thing! Well, I don’t really think so.

      To be honest with ourselves we should admit that it’s almot always about the wants. We want to do stuff and we choose kit accordingly, be it light or heavy.

    • P. M. Demas on February 19, 2018 at 3:44 pm

      Cool post. I was always a gadget man. I started to hike the AT at 15. While I had fun, it was a real pain hauling my pack. I got used to it. I have (I think via advertising) the biggest CI capacity ever – the mammoth Jan-sport beast. Winter hiking… it was needed with a girl friend or somebody who has never been back country, the big pack was necessary to make people comfortable.

      I didn’t know anything about UL/SU/ etc. but knew I could forgo the crazy weight I was carrying (by the way, my legs are tree trunks thanks to the big packs.) I used to do some day hikes the lasted into the next morning, and I knew I could tough it out better. Yea, granola, oatmeal, snacks, maybe even a couple sandwiches or two.

      So, first foray…No sleeping bag, cold food….I gave the up the MSR (my baby) and made this alcohol stove out of a soda can that burned alcohol. Boiled water for coffee, tea. I did 35 to 40 miles a day for seven days. Not sure how far I was going to go as there many bus lines and train depots along the way. It was awesome! Got up up at sunrise and just hiked till dusk.

      So, food, poncho, rain jacket, sweat pants. I was able to sleep pretty comfortable in the Appalachians in late spring. A whole new world this light weight thing.

      I took one quart water bottle, but I think more would have been in order. If you have ran out of water before you know what I mean. For me, I think two quarts capacity would be nice, with one quart standard.

  2. Justin Mc on October 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks for reminding us all what matters most Andrew, setting objectives, enjoying nature, and packing accordingly!

  3. Hikin' Jim on October 24, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Hi, Andrew,

    I like the way that you put weight into perspective. This may sound odd, but the reason I bought your recent book is because I saw you used a liquid fueled stove for your Alaska – Yukon trip. I said to myself, now there’s a man who’s a pragmatist not a zealot. I therefore felt I could trust your judgement more and purchased your book.

    Alas, I fear that if we do away with labels like UL, SUL, etc, people will get into pissing contests about other things. But in the mean time, I continue to enjoy your more balanced approach to weight.


    P.S. If you want a real hoot, I’ll send you a photo of me with an enormous pack from a weekend backpack in 2007 and a photo of me with my pack from this past weekend. I’ve shed about 15 pounds of gear. Weight, properly considered, isn’t an end unto itself, but it is still really important.

    • P. M. Demas on February 19, 2018 at 3:54 pm

      Yes, I’d like to see a huge pack. No more. I’ll send you pic too!

      [email protected]


  4. Derek Hansen on October 24, 2012 at 12:50 am


    Very salient and intriguing points. I must say that I feel a weight has been lifted that needed to be. Why does all this focus on lightweight for lightweight’s sake matter?

    I suppose that “going lightweight” could be termed a reason too. Surely, there are folks who aren’t really “hiking” or “camping” minded, but are gear junkies who enjoy the pissing match as the end goal. Suffering through a miserable trip has become the badge or proof of their success in being “stupid light.”

    But I shouldn’t be judgmental. I think that is one point you’re trying to make: to each his/her own. Hike your own hike!

    I’ve come to appreciate your very balanced and refreshing point of view. Like HJ, I continue to follow you because you strike a balance.

  5. Jorgen Johansson on October 24, 2012 at 1:32 am

    Completerly agree. I have always felt that grouping people according to the number of pounds they carry is both unnecessary and in fact counter-productive. It simply establishes a foundation for ‘us’ and ‘them’ among people who are fond of those kinds of divisions. Something the world could do with a lot less of.

    Of course what should guide your choice of gear is the purpose of your trip and the demands that the country you intend travelling puts on this. However, the main problem for many hikers IMHO is that they are hiker centric but carry camper centric equipment. This is not because of stupidity but because of lack of knowledge. So an important mission for lightpackers that are so inclined is simply to show that lightpacking works. Without pointing your finger and grinning in an ‘us-and-them’ manner of course 😉

  6. Zach T on October 24, 2012 at 3:09 am

    I think you nailed it. “…not be categorized by their pack weight, but by their objectives.” Its all about the adventure, not what you carry on your back. What you carry with you should be whatever makes you safe and comfortable and successful for your trip. More often than not, less works best. Ironically, it works the same in life.

    so whats the next big trip going to be? (and no, im not really expecting you to let the cat out of the bag just yet)

  7. Allison Nadler on October 24, 2012 at 3:58 am

    As I gain experience, I find I have a need to upgrade some of my gear to help me reach my goals. When you begin with day hikes, but then start spending a night or two on the trail or winter hiking, lighter gear is essential, but it first must be able to do what you need in order for you to be successful.

    I have found your advice regarding “stupid light” gear really helpful and your packing lists have helped to steer me into the right direction when looking for quality items. Many retail stores use certain terms as a means to sell their product, but when you need to be comfortable on the trail, it ends up taking a lot of research to find gear that is the most useful. Thanks a lot for all your advice and dedication to this field!

  8. Michael French on October 24, 2012 at 4:19 am

    When I started reading your Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, I thought it could be considered a book about “lightweight” hiking, but your approach is so balanced and reasonable that it made sense not to pigeon-hole it that way. What you are doing is shift the conversation, and that is good. I totally agree with with what you say in this post about “lightweight” being intimidating to new hikers and also its relative meaninglessness now that it has been co-opted by marketers. Hikers should have what they need, feel comfortable and prepared for what they can reasonably expect on the trail, that’s it. No more, no less. That’s a bit more nuanced and harder to attach a label to, but keep up the fight.

  9. Philip Werner on October 24, 2012 at 7:18 am

    I dropped lightweight backpacking from my blog title about a year ago because I became a lot more interested in the skills required to become a good hiker or backpacker rather than counting ounces or grams of gear weight. I’ve also been doing a *lot* of trips over the past 2 years that don’t fit into the AT/PCT mold where you can get by with lightweight kit. Bushwhacking, peakbagging, and winter mountaineering trips can benefit from lighter gear, but what matters most are the skills, judgement, and physical conditioning you need to develop to pull them off.

    Labels come and go. What matters is the hike and having fun. Let’s all focus on that and use trips as the context in which we talk about our skills, judgements, and gear choices. As Martin Rye has so clearly stated – most of the people who blab incessantly about UL or Lightweight Backpacking never go hiking or backpacking or very rarely.

    It starts with hiking trips – day hikes or overnights – lets bring that back as our main focus – and the rest follows as a discussion about why we brought what we did, based on the goals and conditions or our journeys. I know I’m preaching to the choir.

    • Timo on March 17, 2017 at 2:00 am

      @Philip Werner you’re just going with he trends and trying to stay relevant. You need to get out more and do more serious gar tests instead of the Mailbox to Weekend gear reviews you’re known for. Your opinion isn’t valuable, but discussing gear in-depth, over time, through varying conditions is.

      • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2017 at 8:30 am

        I think you’re making an unfair judgement about what Philip tries to do, and does not try to do. It’s a quantity/quality decision. Philip has decided to write reviews based mostly on short-term use, with an occasional long-term review of his favorite products.

        This style allows him to use first-hand a lot of gear, compare and contrast products currently on the market, and write reviews that are consistent in their scope. Indeed, long-term reviews are great, but they are not necessarily the ultimate: due to the time involved in field-testing, they cannot be written nearly as often; they lack the comparative analysis, because the reviewer hasn’t used any competing products; and by the time the review is posted, often the product is old-news or discontinued.

  10. Tommy on October 24, 2012 at 8:23 am

    This is your best blog post to date. Couldn’t agree more.

  11. Ryan on October 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

    I’ve always kind of been a little put off by the UL-term (even from before I started going lighter), even though my backpacking group uses UL in it’s title and I also characterize myself as an UL backpacker. I think the term serves a purpose though, in the case of our backpacking group it is to distinguish us as “Ultimate Hikers” rather than “Ultimate Campers”, and that being conscious of weight, gear, and maximizing our time spent hiking as at least one of the primary focuses of our trips. You needn’t be an UL hiker or even lightweight hiker to join… Frequently I am not UL on the trail by the accepted weight-limit definition, which is fine by me, but I still concern myself with trying to keep my pack as light as I can for the trip, weather, etc that is expected.

    One thing I don’t frequently hear about within the community (not that I’m that attuned), is the law of diminishing returns with respect to pack load. I mean, going from a baseweight of 30lbs for a weekend trip to 15lbs is absolutely huge, and is easily achievable with some thought and without being a zealot. However, going from 15lbs to 10lbs probably isn’t going to make a significant difference in your performance/mileage/comfort on the trail, and is most likely negligible going from 10lbs to 8lbs. In the beginning the principles of lightweight and UL backpacking are game changers (IMO), but in the end, chasing weight for weight’s sake is really pretty pointless.

  12. Stephen on October 24, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Doesn’t it all just boil down to being “efficient” for your situation…..

    Take Care Everyone

  13. terry tiedeman on October 25, 2012 at 12:59 am

    I’ve been backpacking since I was 5 and now I’m 36. For the majority of that time I carried lots of heavy stuff and never even noticed the weight. I was just having tons of fun enjoying nature. About when I hit 30 I started having less fun because the weight was straining me. I looked into mainstream gear to try to help myself but it was very challenging trying to figure out what my options were for carrying less weight. I needed a tutorial. Slowly I talked with people and looked at websites and read books and it helped me so much. I am happy to have the term lightweight or ultralight because when I saw those words it was a signal that I had found some information about how to carry less weight. Now I’m back to having tons of fun again and I am much less likely to injure myself because my body is under much less strain. Thanks, Andrew and all the others who share their advise.

  14. Kuulumisia | on October 25, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    […] blogikirjoituksia, jotka kehoitan lukemaan. En kertaa koko historiaa vaan alkuun pääsee lukemalla Andrew Skurkan ja Jaakko Heikan postaukset sekä seuraamaan noista linkkejä muihin teksteihin. Vähä-Kausjärven […]

  15. Mike Clelland on October 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    I absolutely get what you are saying. That said, I have a book with ULTRALIGHT in all capital letters on the cover.

    I personally enjoy the nerdy aspects of ounce counting. That said, I feel that I also connect with the natural world in a very real way. I think it can be fun.

    I also have a lot of NOLS work under my belt, and I have carried a huge pack just because “that’s how it’s always done”

    Having done the two extremes, Lightweight camping is more wonderful and allows me to really and truly drink in nature. I am trying to redefine “traditional” camping.

    For instance, one of the most valuable things I have done with students (and other NOLS instructors) is to have them weigh each and every item they plan on taking into the mountains, and then put those numbers on a chart. This simple act can change a LOT in their mindset. It’s important to be able to look at those numbers.

    You are doing your trip prepping in an instinctual way. And I know you well enough o know you are focused on the numbers. You have enough experience that this happens unconsciously.

    When I say *It’s important to be able to look at those numbers* I mean to be aware, not to stress over them.

    peace from Driggs,
    Mike C!

    • Andrew Skurka on October 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

      Mike – We’re in more agreement than you think:

      1- NOLS groups are crossover backpackers, with a slant towards camping-inspired. They do quite a bit of hiking on their trips, and I suspect that their instructors and students would like to enjoy it. Unlike camping-inspired backpackers, who have a license to pack the kitchen sink and to completely disregard efficiency, crossover backpackers must still pack light and travel efficiently.

      2. NOLS groups are classic campers-by-default. There is very little institutional know-how about packing light or traveling efficiently. Hiking is therefore less enjoyable and more difficult than it needs to be, and their groups camp more than they might aspire to in order to avoid a suffer-fest. If I didn’t get so much business from NOLS (i.e. clients on my guided trips and readers of my book who were turned off by the NOLS way), I’d be more infuriated by their outdated and inferior instruction — it is an injustice to their students and the outdoor community.

  16. Martin Rye on October 26, 2012 at 10:53 am

    When I read some tips in Mikes book on BPL I dialled out of any interest in it. But then I watched his videos and warmed to his approach and how he was not putting others down but as I saw it just sharing his way. I warmed to that and got his book. I told people on twitter recently it’s a good book (he is an easy to read author and its enjoyable). Some tips wont appeal to me but its helpful. That is what we don’t want to lose in this discussion. The “UL” message might be unhelpful to many and me, but it has lead to some helpful insights into backpacking skill and I acknowledge that.

    I liked Mikes comment, I liked your post Andrew. I will admit my tone has been more harsh about the UL identity and aims at what I see as a dividing and not helping view now. Your point that all labels don’t help is even more to the point. I do like the discussion on camp focus kit selection and walking focus. Its very thought provoking and has me reflecting on it.

    I wrote about lighting up pack weight recently. Not about kit to get, nor weight limits. I also mentioned the very sensible approach by Jorgen in his excellent book (still reading yours btw) and there is a good focus happening for me on skills, fitness, self assessment of what we are seeking in the outdoors going on from here. Hopefully this will help people to develop: skills, fitness, and select kit they need for the aims of their trips to come and not go down the route of chasing a false outcome of a defined by someone else pack weight limit.

  17. David LaRue on October 26, 2012 at 9:54 pm


    I have been putting together a presentation for our Boy Scout troop I am giving this coming Monday to a group which traditionally has been a heavyweight-backpacking group. When I started backpacking in the 80’s I carried a rucksack, a one-person pup tent with no floor, and was able to hike very comfortably. I too went though the gadget phase, and my pack weight went up, and my comfort went down. With the help of folks like you and Mike, and BPL, I now have what I refer in my presentation as “appropriate backpack weight.” I have spent a lot of time creating spreadsheets, weighing gear, agonizing over what should be in the most optimized gear list. While I don’t have the experience you have, I think we are coming to similar conclusions, especially when you are considering Scout safety, comfort and the hopefully favorable experience of getting outside on a trail to explore and enjoy nature (verses playing a video game for example). With Scouts we have the additional variable of the age, size, weight, and physical ability and maturity. When I put together the spreadsheets with Scout weight, shared crew gear, food, water, plus Philmont specific requirements, etc., against the industry definitions you speak of, they do not work. In addition, I need to factor in economics, safety, comfort, animal safe (from mini-bears & smellables), plus be durable, it is quiet a task. After taking in to account all of these factors on spreadsheets, I came to the conclusion that I was trying to solve the equation from the wrong direction. Rather than trying to solve for certain weight, I needed a checklist of the items a Scout has to have (varies by season and destination) with recommended target weights for each item, plus an overall maximum target weight regardless of the hiker’s weight. Then you go to a spreadsheet with a graduated table that compares Scout weight and total carry weight in percentages from
    10% to 23% (Philmont recommends a maximum of about 25-30%). The table is color coded with four colors: green – total target weight, blue is acceptable, yellow – caution, and red. The target is not a straight percentage, it is reduced for Scouts under 100 pounds. In addition, I created a shared trek spreadsheet that distributes this weight to larger more capable Scouts so that younger smaller Scouts are not disproportionally carrying a higher body weight percentage, or would have to purchase high-tech lightweight gear to compensate for the shared trek gear weight. This analysis really shows how the Troops have to be dedicated to weighing every shared crew item, and to invest in lightweight stoves, and especially lightweight tents. We just weighed my son’s pack for the upcoming backpacking trip, and it is 10 lbs, plus shared troop, and food, it will be about 15 lbs. which is about 18% and just in the green zone for his weight. Going a step further, I plan on teaching our Scouts LNT, and outdoor skills, which in turn they will be teaching to each other. I believe, in the end, regardless of the approach one takes, the final goal is to get to the “appropriate backpack weight” that is both safe and fun. Wish me luck with the presentation.

    • Liz Fallin on December 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      Hi David,
      Are these spreadsheets available to share? I’m taking our Venturing Crew to Philmont in August, and we have a few first-timers (including one adult). Thanks!

  18. Are the great men wrong? | Blogger Zed on November 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    […] a piece I wrote a few years ago for the Backpackers Club.  In view of posts by Andrew Skurka and Chris Townsend, along with their referencing other posts by well known bloggers, it seems […]

  19. matthew on November 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    i am sixty five and have spent more time under the stars than some of these silly kids have been alive. chauvinist comment over. the bio lite stove is very good. quit whinning and use one… you might like it…darn good rig. matt

  20. Dave on November 21, 2012 at 12:18 am

    Great article. Shed the labels and do what feels safe and right for yourself.

  21. Joshua Stacy on December 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm


    Thank you for pointing out some of the absurdity and unfounded elitism that occurs as a result of these categories. This discussion is very reminiscent of an article I read by the famous ornithologist Kenn Kaufman. In this essay, Kaufman describes his developing relationship with “listing.” He went through stages of competition and a total obsession with the number of birds he saw. This obsession was later realized to be a stage in his growth. It was important piece of inspiration that drove him to intense study and to embark on great adventures. Later on, Kaufman realized that the number of species observed was not the end goal and began to look deeper into the behavior of these amazing creatures as well as his own quality of experience. I see great parallels to our current backpacking labeling system.

    When a beginning backpacker realizes that people can carry far less weight and have an even better quality of experience, that can be a huge inspiration. And having benchmarks can instill a sense of accomplishment. But of course, as the hiker gains more experience, they will better be able to assess the weight/quality of experience quotient with greater accuracy. With further maturity and experience, the value of the categories will be lost.

    Like you, I enjoy the challenge of seeing how far and fast I can travel, I love seeing how little I can live with and I believe that through these practices I can achieve a greater connection to myself, to others and to the land. I like to run experiments (in safe environments of course) to see how little I actually need to have a “good” experience. I have to admit that I have been inspired by SUL folk. They have made me curious to see what that experience is like. We could do away with the labels totally, but it would seem to make for more complicated discourse.

    I totally understand your discontent with the current system. I share much of your perspective. At your level of experience and proficiency I agree, there is no need for these categories. I also agree that the categories should be taken with a huge grain of salt. However, there does still seem to be some value in their use; as goals and as vague tools for comparison. Not competitive comparison but inspirational and thought-provoking comparison.

    Thank you for starting this discussion and I hope that it continues.

    -Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy

  22. […] in part because he deliberately avoids using the term “ultralight” (more on this here).  In this section he also goes over some key questions whose answers will differ for each trip: […]

  23. Dan Kesterson on July 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

    I like to be lightweight but I don’t consider myself extreme. When I did my first backpacking trip 3 years ago, my pack was 35 lbs. Now, I take mostly the same gear and it’s much closer to 20 lbs fully loaded. I appreciate a lighter load being easier on my back and shoulders. It gives me more time and energy to enjoy hiking outside.

    My latest “trick” is the GoLite Jam 35, which is big enough for an overnight trip but small enough to use on summit day as well. Without skurka, I’d probably still be using my old system.

    • Jeff on August 3, 2013 at 8:16 pm

      What’s in a name? Ultralight, Extreme, Ultimate etc etc ad nauseum. So much of this is common sense and is not only trip specific but should be left entirely up to the individual what they want to subscribe to. I’m older so I carry lighter gear. Is lighter gear the end all-be all? No, of course not. It’s the journey! Both on the trail and everything you did to get there in whatever manner you choose. IMHO there’s validity in EVERY post w/o being judgmental. Just my thoughts for whatever they’re worth. Hope everyone’s journey is satisfying and enlightening. Thanks

  24. Jake Hutchins on January 15, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I recently saw this video and thought of your blog post. The video may be flagged, but its definitely not inappropriate. As a backpacker, I know you’ll get a kick out of it. Enjoy!

  25. Lighten Up! | Squawesomeness on June 29, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    […] agree with Andrew Skurka about labels: Does the actual weight on your back really matter? Carry the minimum amount of gear […]

  26. Jordan Sherbet on February 16, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Great article Andrew!
    I work at a small family owned outdoor gear store near Tampa, FL. Although I’m a hiking-inspired backpacker most of our customers in FL are camping inspired backpackers since backpacking isn’t the most popular thing down here, and day hiking/car camping prevail. I recognize this with each customer and help them pick out gear based on their style of backpacking, I have always seen it this way and am really happy to see this article by you helping show that backpacking is a tailored fit to each person. I agree that gear companies use the buzz words of “Ultra-light” and “lightweight”. My goal in life is to one day own my own gear company or outdoor store and I can tell you wherever/whenever that is I will not be selling buzz words to a consumer, but rather a product that I know and trust and know will work for their type of backpacking.

    PS- Another great buzz word (and probably my most hated) “Tactical”

    Thanks for posting great stuff Andrew.

  27. Kat on March 31, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Good thoughts! I think my main problem with the ultralight label is that it becomes so much an avenue for us to judge the status of others. Some people get so invested in their enjoyment of UL/LW gear and practices that they start to see anything that is not UL as being inferior.

    I work clearing trails, and hike/backpack about 500 miles a summer. I’ve got my gear dialed in to exactly what I’ll use.So, my personal gear and food weighs 20-25 pounds, plus an extra 10 for the the tools and emergency equipment I’m required to carry. By UL standards it’s huge, and I have been lectured by well meaning people who see the comfy wool throw blanket rolled up on top of my pack and are aghast… wool blankets aren’t light, you carry that and a sleeping bag?! You’re doing it WRONG.

    I get it. Heavy packs suck, but even with my wool blanket, my book and notebooks, the massive brick of a radio and it’s two sets of spare batteries, the heavy leather boots, the gazillion calories of food, my zero degree bag, two person tent, and the various other tools of my trade, my pack is the perfect weight for me. I move comfortably, efficiently, and far. I love my job and the outdoors. So it sucks when I see someone with a cool homemade UL pack, and I want to say “neat pack” but dread the stink-eye that might come when they see mine. I think the label leads to a divided community.

  28. LightDan on January 16, 2016 at 5:29 am

    Since my first trip in the mountains when I was in my teens, I’ve aimed to lower my packweight. My total packweight was very close to 60 pounds then for a weeks outing.
    I gradually worked my way down to about 35 pounds for a trip in the exact same circumstances. All this before I ever read a single line about lightweight backpacking.
    When I started to read and study about LW/UL/SUL/XUL backpacking it was (and still is) fun and challenging, and gave me a lot of tools to be able to carry a light, yet safe pack.

    I now usually has a BPW in the mid to high UL range (BPW, total weight for a week usually under 20 pounds), although I have been on several SUL and an occasional XUL trip.
    This is simply because the things I want on those trips, to meet my personal requirements of safety and comfort in hiking and camp add up to that weight.
    I really don’t care if my BPW would go up over 10 pounds on a specific trip (and it sometimes does) or even up to 20 pounds on my winter trips, but I would probably still have a BPW at around 20 pounds if it’s wasn’t for the LW/UL/SUL/XUL-labels and the challenge they presented.

    The labels were good for me, as they presented challenges that helped me move my limits. Now, they are no longer very important for me, because I know where those limits are for a wide range of circumstances.
    My personal thought about these labels are that they work best if one consider them a milestone on a way of progression.
    If they are considered the end goal, they will, in the end be a hindrance in the personal progress they try to promote.

    My bottom line is, use these labels until they loose their meaning. Although they no longer mean anything for one person, they might be spot on for another person for a period of time.

  29. Graham on March 2, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    My base weight for three season is usually 15-18 lbs , I could shave a few pounds but refuse to get rid of my old Kelty External thats 4lbs. This just sort of happened over the years. I remember when my packs would weigh 30 40 lbs. Then I realized that I probably wont need 2 knives, three flashlights, a chair or an entire 12 pack of soda. Plus nowadays the higher end stuff is geared more towards the lightweight crowd. Back then no one was going to spend $100 to shave a few ounces, now they will so when I go buy a new whatever its incredibly light (Im not one to spend insane money to get insane weights but I will spend good money on good products) I also stopped carrying a filtration system because I find them a hassle.

    Also as far as the REI pack being lightweight at 5lbs, for 85 liters thats not bad at all. You always have to look at the volume, bigger will be heavier so thatll change the definition

  30. Nikolay Stoyanov on December 12, 2016 at 2:24 am

    Thanks for the article Andrew! Can I ask you something given that you are already talking about it? How can a newbie hiker find a perfect middle ground so he has enough supplies and still hikes light?

    • Andrew Skurka on December 12, 2016 at 8:57 am

      First question: Is it actually important that you hike light? For some, it’s not.

      To answer your question more directly:
      1 – Start with this gear list template.
      2 – Get educated on what you need for different locations and conditions.
      3 – Based on first-hand field experience, tweak your gear to best suit your needs.

      • Bruce Johnson on December 6, 2020 at 5:42 am

        That is deeply sensible, well considered advice.

  31. David Poston on April 27, 2017 at 10:22 am

    I agree with Andrew that labels such as <10 lb = UL, <5 lb = SUL, etc. are somewhat arbitrary (by the way, I always thought that UL was <20 lb, not <15 lb as Andrew states); however, I think there can be a lot of fun had in counting grams. Certainly one can waste much time and effort on counting grams, but people waste on time on much more frivolous things in life that have no pay off. For those who are concerned about efficiency, a lighter pack (ceteris paribus, i.e., given a stated goal), is always better. As others mentioned, a lighter pack means that you have less strain on your body, burn less calories meaning you require less food and are less exhausted, are less likely to get injuries, and are more likely to be attuned to your environment and enjoy your natural surroundings. I personally subscribe to Mike Clelland's view that you should not let a single gram hitch a ride on your back unnecessarily. Where I perhaps depart from some of the labels is the baseweight debate: what is frequently not discussed when people claim that they are UL, SUL, etc. is the TOTAL weight on one's back. The baseweight metric is used because baseweight is constant. What's more meaningful is how much your pack ways while it is on your back. Even using the baseweight metric, most cheat and don't include the weight of items such as an empty plastic bags, empty contact lens bottles, etc. I propose a new metric: average TOTAL PACK WEIGHT over the course of one's trip. Ideally, one would measure one's total pack weight at infinitely small increments of time and then average those pack weights. But this would entail bringing a scale with you and not enjoying the hike. Perhaps take starting pack weights on each day of the trip up until the end and average those pack weights?

    To summarize: We SHOULD count grams if we want to maximize efficiency since greater efficiency is, ceteris paribus, better. But the traditional way of counting them is a bit arbitrary and doesn't take into account the total pack weight on one's back. One can have a SUL baseweight and then drop 30 lbs of food and water into one's pack. A UL or LW baseweight might provide more comfort if one, say, thinks carefully about food. I find it incredible that people spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours on shaving off 1 or 2 oz (I myself am guilty of this), and then think nothing about filling up a 2.5 L water bladder, which weighs 5.5 lb! So…in conclusion, we need better metrics for measuring pack weight, which unfortunately complicates things even more than previously thought. But if we care about such things, we will expend the effort. After all, what else would we do off-trail with our spare time?

  32. Glenn Roberts on July 25, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Congratulations. You’ve all just discovered what Colin Fletcher first stated in The New Complete Walker (or was it Complete Walker III? I forget): the first rule of gear is “if you need it, take it.” The second is “Try to reduce the weight of everything you take as much as possible.” He elaborated on the Connection in the Why Walk and Learn of the Green World chapters (first and last chapter) of each edition of the Complete Walker series: “…connect, just connect…and that is a lot to get from such a simple thing as walking…”

    I try to re-read his book (now The Complete Walker IV) at least annually. Still the best exposition of why and how we go out there.

  33. James Badham on November 29, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    I’m 66 now. My knees like it lighter, but I’m not going to eat cold food or exist on bars. I like coffee in the morning. I like having a pillow. I like a piece of dry salami with cheese and a squeeze of mustard midday. Some people like a chair; I’m fine with a sit pad against a rock. I like wearing silk long johns and shirt at night to keep my sleeping bag clean. I like feeling light for no other reason than that everything works better and I roll into camp feeling good and power up hills. I also know what my needs/wants are. Got my base weight to about 13, and I’m good with that. There are a couple of things I could get that would drop another couple of pounds. Might get there. The point is, I guess, that only experience and what it teaches us, which results in what we have (and don’t) in our packs, defines what kind of hiker/backpacker we are. Each to their own. Enjoy the trail!

  34. Rich Russo on March 4, 2022 at 11:33 am

    I have to laugh at this discussion about weight. Mountain and road bikers do the same thing, endlessly shelling out more money for lighter stuff. My base weight is 26lbs. But I have to admit, I’m probably 26lbs overweight. So rather than spend another $100 on something 3oz lighter, this season I’m on a quest to lose 26lbs of fat, and then my pack will essentially be ZERO lbs. Beat that weight weenies!

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