Ultralight Backpacking

A post from Levi:

Take a moment and envision backpacking. Chances are, the first thing that came to mind was a smelly, dirty hiker with a giant backpack straining their way up the trail. That’s how backpacking was done for generations, and it’s how some still choose to do it today.

I remember taking pride in the fact that I had one of the heaviest backpacks in our Philmont scout ranch crew. At one point, my pack was over 40 pounds! It was definitely something worth bragging about at the time. I was tough – I could brave the outdoors and haul an extra 40 pounds to boot.

Since then, I’ve reevaluated what I want out of the outdoors. It’s no secret that a life without reprieve from natural exposure can be a tough one – but with the hardships come many rewards. It’s easy to hang tight to a ‘woe-is-me’ temperament when the forecast calls for a day of cold rain on an already muddy trail. But when milestone mileage is just around the corner, the brimming sense of accomplishment is enough to outpace the despair. Great hilltop views can remedy burning calves and quads. Unexpected conversations with a stranger can warm the chill of loneliness hanging thick in the vast wilderness. Sometimes a hot meal in the next town is the only thing keeping you going. There is plenty of darkness on the trail, but the light, the ‘trail magic,’ makes it all worth while.

The problem is that sometimes the darkness is too strong, or the light is not frequent enough. This is what is often called a ‘bad time.’ If you are experiencing a bad time, you will want to get off the trail. It can ruin what is supposed to be a life improving experience.

I’ve decided that my objetivo numero uno is to do whatever I can to make my experience a positive one. Four to six months is a long time. I want to amplify the good times, and put a stopper on the bad times. So what can I do about it? Well, I have no control over the trail itself. This means I cannot control whether bad things happen nor can I decide how often they occur. There are, however, many strategies to limiting exposure to suffering. One of these approaches is known as ultralight backpacking.

Ultralight backpacking is the idea that carrying the lightest possible load, while maintaining a focus on safety, will improve a backpacker’s enjoyment by allowing them to travel more comfortably at higher speeds and for a longer duration. It is commonly believed that a base pack weight (weight of a full backpack sans consumable materials) below 10 pounds will yield a more comfortable ride and save a backpacker from intense levels of soreness and fatigue. Dark times will seem less-so when you can press the fast forward button with fewer complications.

You may say to yourself, ‘That sounds great, but I’m smart and I can see what’s coming. This all comes at the expense of comfort.’

You are smart and you are right, but comfort is a spectrum. It is possible to find a Goldilocks range that meets both comfort and weight needs. For some people, that base pack weight can be as low as 3 lb. For others, ultralight is never an option – but they can at least shave a few pounds. These few pounds can make a big impact over 2,000 miles.

The first step on the path to Ultralight is a strategy very similar to minimalism – the identification and elimination of unnecessary clutter in order to lead a simpler and more satisfying life. Think of it as Buddhism Lite. If something does not have a purpose, it is not necessary. If it is not necessary, it will distract from satisfying or enjoyable interactions with the people, places, and things which provide the highest quality of fulfilment.

Handle each item in the kit and ask if it is truly necessary. Do you need a lantern and three flashlights? Do you need a 6″ folding knife and a camp saw? Do you need either? Do you need a fresh pair of clothes every day? These are questions each backpacker must answer themselves, but often times the answer selected is the simplest option.

After eliminating what is not needed, the next step is often evaluating what’s known as the big three: sleep system, shelter, and bag. These are items that everyone needs, and can contribute the most weight to the remaining system. These are also the most expensive items in a given kit. A good combined weight to shoot for is 7 pounds – with today’s technology, this is often achieveable with full comfort.

The final step is never ending. Once you’ve developed a system you are comfortable with, the only thing to do is find lighter versions of what you already have. Dropping pounds becomes shaving ounces becomes squeezing grams.

Kristen and I have our gear setups pretty well dialed in, and over the next couple of months plan to share them with you so you can see examples of ultralight kits. We’ll take you piece by piece, and would love to answer any questions you have along the way.

Stay tuned!

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