Sunday, January 10, 2010


Here are some of my thoughts on what it means to be an ultralight backpacker beyond just what we carry in our packs. Warning: talking head video.

What do you think? Have you observed some of these same qualities in yourself or other ultralight backpackers? What would you add?

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Marty said...

30 Year Backpacker here.... 4 year Ultralightenment backpacker... So glad I made the switch... Life is good!!! Especially on the trail... I will be thinking about this the next several days, but I think you have covered it... It is a mindset... but once you convert, you are changed forever....

Heber said...

I would add another quality of ultralighters. I'm not sure how to describe it but it's an attitude toward the outdoors. Heavy backpackers seem to want to reconstruct a modern environment in the outdoors. They carry chairs, big lanterns, and big tents that shield them from experiencing the woods as they really are. Ultralighters go to the backcountry to get away from the modern world. The real reason they like tarps, for instance, is not just because they are lighter but because they offer better views of the woods. I carry a tiny LED light rather than a big coleman lantern mostly because I don't want to chase away the night, I want to experience it. I want to look at the stars and see how the woods look in the moonlight. In general ultralighters want very little between themselves and truly being one with the outdoors.

Am I on to something here?

mtbikernate said...

I see what you're saying, but having those qualities doesn't necessarily put you into ultralighter territory.

My load is not what you'd call ultralight, I'm fairly sure. I am mindful of my gear selection, how much I put in the pack, and the skills I need for that.

But I'm more or less comfortable with where I am. I want some redundancy in my gear in certain areas. I am not willing to use a combo poncho/tarp for example, because I want to be able to maintain protection against the weather in case one does fail on me.

I am mindful that I don't cause damage to my gear from being clumsy or careless, but I realize that accidents do happen and unforseen circumstances do occur on occasion. I try to prepare myself for some level of problems in the backcountry. Preparing for worst-case scenarios is a little nuts, but I can reasonably prepare for some eventualities without carrying too much extra.

I use some ultralight gear that lets me prepare to a level that satisfies my wife and I.

Other things just come down to preference. I will not forego a fully enclosed shelter because I do not like being bitten by bugs (and I live somewhere that that's a problem clear into December). I also like a cushier pad when I sleep on the ground. Those are simply preferences.

I'm probably a light-average backpacker going by the load I carry, but your mental "gear" list is no less important to me. I think that your mental list applies to all backpackers. Not just ultralighters.

Jason Klass said...

Yes, I had the same thought. I think it might fall under the "adaptability" principle. In other words, you can adapt to living without all the creature comforts of home. But maybe it's it's own category in that you not only can adapt to that, but you want to and it's what drives you.

Jason Klass said...

It doesn't apply to the people who tell me I'm going to die when I crush my ultralight gear. They obviously think that our lives depend on gear and if we don't have enough of it, we won't survive. In the back of their minds, they also think nature is out to get us. Ray Jardine outlines this way of thinking in his book.

Brian said...

Ok, so you’ve finally proven to me that we share a considerable amount of the same DNA. Your six tenants are as if you have reached into my mind and written them down – full credit to you – but you absolutely hit the nail on the head. BTW what happened to principle #4? Opps!

There absolutely is a particular type of person that fits the ultralight mentality and I guess I had always know that but never quite put it into terms that were so concise or clear. For example, I am a very creative, analytic person who is used to solving problems big or small and thinking outside the box for ways to fix something. It’s been a guiding principle through my entire career and something others have noticed about me.

Ultralighters are, by nature, very adaptable as you observed and we take nothing for granted, in fact to add to your point #2 we accept nothing and pretty much question everything including typical wisdom. It’s interesting too that we are collaborative in nature and that as you mention it plays a large part in our individual and larger community success. We “want” to share ideas so that we can survey our respected peers and improve our methods, gear, and skills.

If I could be so bold as to suggest one more principle, maybe in place of the elusive #4, which would be this – Meticulous.

True ultralighters are detail-oriented almost to the point of compulsiveness – c’mon you can all admit it. We have set ways of packing our gear, putting away our cooking utensils, cleaning our equipment, and even tying knots. We practice and practice until the things we commonly do are second nature or habit. That’s not to say that we never change, we are always looking for ways to improve or cut time and weight – but we always pay attention.

I would love to see you write this up and have it be the basis for others to learn from, if you haven’t already :)

Great stuff Jason ?

Some old guy said...

Heber, I know what you mean. The reason I don't carry a cartridge stove is less about the weight than about the quiet of an alcohol or Esbit stove. I leave stuff behind when I finally figure out that it's just getting in the way and making my pack weigh more.

Anonymous said...

Well said, nice video!

hank said...

I absolutely agree. An ultralight backpacker relies entirely more on their skills. A traditional backpacker relies more on their gear. It's part of the appeal of UL backpacking.

However I would definitely say that a person should start with conventional backpacking and work their way to UL backpacking. Backpacking is the one activity that can unleash hell on its participants and subjecting a new comer to such an experience would make the person wash their hands of backpacking in general.

Jason Klass said...

That's probably good advice. Thanks for mentioning that.

Marty said...

I agree with you 50%

Conventional Backpacking with its heavy weights can be very discouraging, especially for couples... I have seen it time and time again... I would and do suggest going lightweight to people.. Keeping the packs under 25 lbs.
New comers to the world of backpacking should start during the summer on small trips when it is "relatively" safe. At least that's when I take new comers. Places they can walk to their car in a few hours should the need arise.
The friends I've showed how to lightweight backpack are still enjoying it... The friends I've taken when my pack was over 45 lbs have never gone back...

pemcleod said...

As someone trying to lighten my load I can sum up what you said this way.
"As knowledge grows the pack will shrink."

Lance Milks said...

Hey Jason,

I couldnt agree more. I have always thought of ultralight more as a way of life than a hobby. I can tell you the weight of every piece of gear I carry. Im not sure too many traditional backpackers can do that. I like what was said about being more environmentally consious. I dont mind cargo pockets, it gives me a place to put all the trash I find on the trail. To also add to the "skill" principle, I have always said that gear doesnt make the outdoorsmen, I have seen plenty of "idiots" on the trail and water with all the latest gear, while the guy who looks like he might be homeless lights that guys stove for him.


Pem said...

I would echo a lot of the comments here,we have a similar situation overhere in the UK,ultralight is scorned on by a lot of the backpacking community,with comments like "the stuff is not tough enough,you are going to hurt yourself" etc etc.The weather is very unpredictable here so equipment choice has to be considered but i use tarps and tarptents when the weather allows and switch to a teepee or winter tarptent when the conditions dictate.Stoves are another issue of debate,alcohol stoves are not that widespread (not ultralight ones anyway) but the caldera system is getting popular,i am keen to try the new Evernew system when it becomes available but its caldera,bushbuddy or primus micron ti for now.Anyway once you drop the weight of your pack by three quarters heavy bells and wistles dont seem to have the appeal anymore.

spiritwild said...

After my last full pack trip, I am seriously going to be ditching a whole bunch of stuff. All that stuff I think I may need and never seem to use has got to go !!

knarfster said...

Amen! I think you have hit the nail on the head with your list.

I echo what Marty said, have people start in the summer, and try to keep pack weights under 25lbs. I work with a lot of scouts, and they get discouraged when they have to lug around 35 lbs plus. My gear list for them puts them at 21 lbs, pack, gear and clothes for 30 degree weather for $370. I hope to start all these boys off right.

I have stolen a quote from someone else "being prepared doesn't always mean being equipped"

Kathy Handyside said...

As someone who is close to 60 (I'm 58), I like ultralightweight gear just for my own health reasons. I want my knees and other joints to hold up for many years to come.

I've always been told that I'm "too analytical", that I'm creative, that I'm very detail-oriented. I study and research a lot before deciding on a piece of gear. I weigh stuff in the store before I buy it. (REI has a pan scale for us ultralighters. LOL). Youtube is a fantastic resource for finding out about gear.

Jason, when you spoke of people's fear of the wilderness, it reminded me of something. In my local Borders bookstore, under the hiking and camping section, almost all the books there have titles like "Surviving in the wilderness," "Don't Get Eaten!", "Animal Attacks," which would lead one to think that going out in the wilderness is such a dangerous thing that you should just stay at home where you're "safe." Except, then you read about someone sitting in their living room and getting killed by an errant bullet in a drive-by shooting. I remember some years back Backpacker magazine ran a letter to the editor that said that all wild animals in the wilderness should be killed so that humans could enjoy the outdoors safely! The fear factor is very much emphasized.

I agree with Heber when he mentioned that some people want to transport their home to the outdoors. I, too, go to the backcountry to get away from, as Simon Yates so eloquently put it, "the clutter of everyday life." So I opt for an alcohol stove that takes longer, but hey! I'm here to get away from rushing. I opt for a simple lightweight shelter that will protect me from bugs and bad weather, I opt for a little LED keychain light that I can hang from the ceiling of my tent and that casts enough light. I think it's all about what is really needed and what is desired. What is truly just enough, and no more. Integral versus incidental.

Jason Klass said...

Great comments. I think Michael Moore accurately described this country as a cult of fear and from the titles you pointed out, that seems to carry over into backpacking. Unfortunately, it's not just gear manufacturers but also publishers that want to use fear to sell more. But those who are "ultralightened" see through it. ;)

Kathy Handyside said...

Jason - thanks! So true. Even newspapers use fear, as well as blood and guts, to sell more newspapers. Sensationalism sells, I guess.