Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun
By Michael Lanza
If you could do one thing to make every backcountry trip more enjoyable, would you? If you’re one of the many backpackers who finish every day on the trail sore from neck to toes, the answer may be simpler than you think.
After two decades of backcountry trips as a field editor and correspondent for Backpacker Magazine, experience has convinced me to keep my pack as light as possible—every unnecessary ounce removed from it makes my trip happier. My evolution was partly about comfort, but also emerged from a slow rethinking about why I’m out there—which is not to have a lot of stuff with me, but to experience a place.
I don’t embrace extreme measures. I don’t sleep on a bed leaves, harvest wild edibles or starve, live in one pair of socks, or make my own gear. I won’t use a wafer-thin foam pad or sleeping bag, because the energy saved through reducing my pack’s weight by ounces would be eclipsed by the energy sacrificed to sleep loss.
My approach to ultralight backpacking does not compromise safety or comfort—the point is to increase comfort and safety. If you’re not accomplishing both objectives, you need a new strategy. Going ultralight should not entail a fixed gear list or weight limit, but rather a flexible and customizable set of guidelines. My pack’s weight varies from trip to trip—in one place I may use a tarp and a 30° F. bag, in another a tent and a three-season bag—but I scrutinize everything, trying to make my load as light as possible. That guiding principal has completely changed my on-trail experience and how I go about planning a hike.
If you’ve never thought much about paring down pack weight, the tips that follow will help you realize significant weight savings—and maybe revolutionize your backpacking experience. If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your load, my advice may still help guide you toward incremental weight reductions or help clarify decisions about what to bring or not bring.
Why Lighten Up?
I started out backpacking with the conviction that more stuff made you safer and more comfortable. Carrying 50 pounds or more enough times prompted me to question that notion—but gradually seeing that I didn’t really need all that stuff convinced me that assumption was wrong. I now believe a heavy pack is often a major factor in backcountry injuries and accidents, particularly common ones like blisters, sprains, strains, and falls.
There are many reasons for lightening your load. Maybe you want to hike farther each day. Maybe your knees or back have begun bothering you and you want to continue backpacking without suffering. Maybe you’re already saddled with a lot of gear and food for your young kids who can’t carry much weight yet, or with climbing gear for a multi-day trip, and you want to avoid having a ridiculously oversized pack. Certainly, if you plan to attempt a major thru-hike on any long trail, your chances of success will hinge more on your pack weight than on weather or your fitness level on day one.
Ultralight backpacking is not necessarily synonymous with ultra-long days (sometimes called “fastpacking”). However far you want to hike each day, or your body is capable of going, your enjoyment of every step along the way will correlate directly with how many pounds are on your back.
That said, though, hiking with a lighter pack lets most people walk a little faster and farther. I like seeing as much of a place as I can within the time I have. Ultralight backpacking enables me to walk farther, in the same amount of time, without using more energy than when I carried a heavier pack. I’ve done for myself what the auto industry did by making cars more fuel-efficient: I’ve increased my miles per gallon.
The Big Picture
Making decisions that determine your pack weight begins with knowing what your destination may throw at you. Know the climate for that time of year and the weather forecast. Know how much water will be available. Find out what you can about the difficulty of the trails you’ll hike, the number and difficulty of any river fords, or anything else that can slow you down.
Then digest this information with a chaser of perspective. In many mountain ranges, you’ll be told that snow can fall even in August. But in reality, if you’re heading into New Hampshire’s White Mountains for four days with a forecast of 75° F. highs and lows around 50, you’d roast in a 15° F. bag. On the other hand, if I’m heading out for a week in Glacier National Park in late August or September—knowing that the weather forecast loses reliability over that length of time and across such a large area of high mountains—I’ll carry a three-season puffy jacket (as opposed to lighter summer insulation) and long underwear. That buffer of insulation also enables me to still use a light, summer-rated bag.
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Trimming pack weight smartly has to be part of a complete strategy for a trip. If I’m planning to hike 15 or 20 miles a day and want to plan food for, say, five days, I need a high degree of confidence that every one of my companions and I are capable of walking that far in the terrain we’ll encounter. We have to be sure that factors like fatigue, weather, route-finding complications, or injury aren’t likely to drastically reduce our daily mileage. If one person slows us down; or heavy rains turn the trail to knee-deep mud; or a storm confines us to our tents for a day or more; or trails haven’t been maintained in years and are choked with downed trees; or someone who’s inexperienced at walking on rugged trails sprains an ankle, then there’s a risk that we’ll run low on food or someone could suffer an injury.
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So going ultralight does narrow your margin of error. But that doesn’t make the strategy inherently dangerous. The question is: how much of a margin of error do you need? Are you hiking with kids or newbie adults—or a small group of fit, experienced people who you know are capable of walking even farther than you’ve planned? Although some of the variables I mention above are not predictable, you can usually know in advance whether, for instance, recent rains have made the trail boggy or impending weather could do so while you’re out there. And hiking injuries aren’t entirely random; they often occur when someone is pushed beyond his or her fitness or experience level.
Ultralight hiking demands that you consider how “ultralight” your party can afford to go. It also often places the most-experienced person, or the trip organizer, in a position of responsibility for leading the conversation about what to bring and who to invite.
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this post, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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