Thursday, March 10, 2011

Going Ultralight [GUEST POST]

Today's Guest Post is brought to you by John Roan a bonafied Ultralight Warrior. This year John has his seights set on a little 211 mile ramble through the high sierra that they call the John Muir Trail. When he's not floating along ridge lines and over summits, John runs Mountain Ultralight a blog dedicated to the finer points of ultralight backpacking.

When Chris asked me to do a guest post on his site, I was of course flattered. I thought it would be fun to talk to you about the benefits of ultralight backpacking, the main theme of my site. Here goes...

Wikipedia describes ultralight backpacking as " advanced style of backpacking that emphasizes packing (carrying) the lightest weight and simplest kit safely possible for a given trip...below 10 pounds base weight” (BB - soooo, does this mean no 3lb gourmet coffee pot John?) ...there's a lot more, but the definition does little to convince you it’s the right way to go. In my opinion the word "ultralight" is the most abused word in the backpacking industry.

For example, REI sells the 4 pound 8 ounce Quarter Dome T2 tent as an ultralight 2 person backpacking shelter. While great marketing might talk you into that thinking this, or any one of a variety of other tents, is the solution for your aching back, there just might be a better way that the big retailers don't want you to know about. Take my ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent for 10.6 ounces, it weighs 85% less than the REI tent and provides more interior living space. Both are coined as ultralight, but only one truly is. This is just one of many examples you will find when you take a hard look at your gear. No offense to REI, they are geared to satisfy the masses, but I think they and the large manufacturers are trying to keep you in the dark in the name of profits.

Why should you go ultralight? The choice is of course yours, but I can tell you what got me into it. First and foremost is comfort on the trail. With a day pack I can hike all day long, but if I have 40+ pounds on my back, I will expend all of my energy way before the sun goes down. What if your 3 season backpacking gear could be as light as a day pack? Could you hike all day? In the above photo, I am heading down from local 11,918 foot Charleston Peak with my 6 1/2 pounds of gear (base weight) all packed inside my 5 ounce homemade backpack. I had intended on camping up there for the night, but I got to the meadows area (where I was going to camp) just after noon and ended up day hiking the 18 mile loop. The trailhead is at an elevation of 7,600 feet, so needless to say it is one steep climb! This would not have been possible for me with a heavy pack.

Now what about comfort off the trail? Am I one of those minimalists who freezes at night, never has a hot meal, and is in constant danger because I don't take safety into consideration? Not a chance...I bring everything I need to stay safe, warm, dry, hydrated, and energized. My homemade dehydrated meals are both lighter and more nutritious than those packaged freeze dried ones.

Are you still in disbelief? That's OK...changing your entire backpacking style is a paradigm shift, and you are currently convinced that everything in your pack is a necessity. You probably have redundant items because you think you need them just in case something fails. The big retailers have spent millions of dollars scaring you into thinking you won't survive without a 5 pound tent, a 4 pound backpack, a 1 ½ pound first aid kit…and big leather boots to help you stabilize that huge load. You can do better.

Most people will tell you to concentrate on "the big three"...tent, backpack, and camp kitchen. This is a great start and some quick wins, but don't stop there...get rid of the extra clothing, fuel, and the other redundant items that are adding unnecessary weight.

In the end, being open minded is the key to making change possible. Take for example Roger 1954 he broke the 4 minute mile barrier. Before that no man had ever run a mile in under 4 minutes, and it was thought to be impossible. In the 3 years after he broke the record, 16 others did the same. Why? Because it was no longer thought of as impossible. The mind is a powerful thing.

Change your mind set about your backpacking gear and you can substantially reduce your pack weight, making your backcountry trips more enjoyable and frequent. We all have our 4 minute miles, and what currently seems impossible can become reality if you keep an open mind!


  1. The Big Three = Shelter, backpack and sleep system. Though I agree that much weight can be saved in the kitchen area!

  2. I stand corrected sir...shall we call it The Big Four?

  3. The REI tent is only 1/2 pound from being UL, assuming the weight is split amongst two partners. This is where couples get it easier than soloists. :-)

  4. Good call grabbing John for the guest post. This was one of the more convincing arguments for reducing weight. I think even newbs will get it.

  5. Actually Jake, I'm still not sure I get it. :)

  6. Great post! Making me reevaluate some of the comforts I bring on the trail "just because". I know it will be a slow and gradual process (even starting backpacking certainly was!) but I'm sure it pays off in the long run! :)

  7. Thanks Beylah! IMO going with a simpler kit makes the trip less about the gear and more about nature...less stuff to fuss with. Try taking yur full backpacking gear on day will encourage you to bring less for sure!