Getting Started with UL Backpacking

SnapseedIt can seem rather intimidating to get started with ultralight backpacking. Do I need to run out and buy all new gear? How much is this going to cost? And will I need to sacrifice comfort for the sake of a few grams?

The short answer is that going ultralight takes some thought, but you’re reacquainting yourself with your gear and bringing what you need to ensure you have to meet anticipated conditions to have a safe and enjoyable outing. A few simple switches–Smartwater bottles for Nalgenes, chemical treatment for heavy filters–can go a long way to reducing pack weight.

Here are some tips and thoughts on going ultralight from DCUL’s Michael “U-Turn” Martin.

  • Look to the Big Three. In most cases, you’re carrying a lot of extra weight in your tent, pack, and sleep system. You can often shed significant weight by upgrading here—often while increasing functionality, and sometimes at a fairly reasonable cost. If you bought your pack retail from a major manufacturer, figure out what it weighs and compare it to packs from ULA, GG, and MLD. Most of the packs you’re likely to get in stores are studies of over-engineering with their zippers, pockets and other “features”—which look really cool but have limited utility. One new member of our group was able to save 10 pounds by buying a new shelter and a pack. 10 pounds is a lot.
  • Simplify your kitchen. Traditional backpackers often place great value on creature comforts in camp. They carry kitchen systems to make pancakes; a coffee pot; pots, pans, and plates; and multi-burner stoves. And, of course, they need a clean-up system (sponge, soap, etc.) to take care of all this stuff. There’s nothing wrong with this style of backpacking (with its emphasis on being in camp). But you’re likely to spend less time in camp on one of our trips, as we’ll wake early and walk most of the day. Often, you’ll be tired in camp, and backpacker midnight usually comes early for us. Consider a stripped down system that does nothing but boil water for a meal-in-a-bag or another dehydrated meal. These can actually be quite toothsome (see our forum for some ideas or Google PackIt gourmet). Alcohol stoves are tough to beat. You can also go totally stove-less, though I find this is a bit demoralizing, for me, especially in cool or cold weather.
  • Simplify your water system. Out with the Nalgenes and in with recycled plastic bottles. Also, seriously think about your water treatment options. Those pumps that many of us carried are hugely weighty. My current solution? Two drops of ordinary, unscented bleach per liter. Who said going UL is expensive?
  • Realize that progress will be easy at first, but will get harder the lighter you’ll get. Yes, your first move might knock off 10 pounds, but later on, cutting 3 ounces will seem like an amazing savings. Similarly, for strong hikers, the difference between carrying a 7 pound base and a 5 pound base is small. Both will feel very light. The difference between a 9 pound base and a 30 pound base is enormous.
  • Acknowledge that you’re going to hit various plateaus as you go through this process. When I started, I was easily able to get a base weight under 20 pounds. Further refinement brought me down to about 12 pounds. I did a lot of trips like that. But then I thought, “Man, I’m going to get that base weight down so I can brag about being UL.” An MLD pack and my cherished Trailstar did the trick. Further refinements brought me to about a 7 pound base weight. I feel very comfortable and secure at this base weight in the Mid-Atlantic for about 7-8 months of the year. Occasionally, I’ll add in another layer or try something new. I sometimes think about going lighter (and think I could easily hit the SUL barrier in the summer), but I don’t feel so motivated. I’ve arrived at a threshold I feel very comfortable with.
  • Isolate new gear upgrades and try them out in mild environments. Much of being “light” is understanding how your body will respond in different environments. What do you need to stay warm and safe with temps in the 40s, or the 20s? How will you respond to being soaked through day after day? You get that knowledge by going out a lot, seeing what other people are doing, trying new things, and yes, sometimes trying something you don’t like, or will never do again. It pays to be conservative and careful, and not try to do everything all at once. (On the STS last Memorial Day, I was surprised by the cold temperatures. I was fine while walking and snug in my bag, but I could have used an extra layer for camp! That stuff is going to happen. And I know myself well enough to know that I often need an extra layer when it gets cold. Thin southern blood.)
  • Ponder the concept of “stupid light.” Read this article by Andrew Skurka: http://andrewskurka.c…­ … And meditate on it. Then read it again. And meditate some more. Sometimes, objects have weight for a reason. I like to use the example of an umbrella. Anyone have one of those tiny little umbrellas that fit in your briefcase? They’re awesome … until you’re really out in the rain and need an umbrella. In which case, you’d prefer to have a good-sized one, which, yes, has some weight and bulk.
  • Realize that a line on a spreadsheet is exactly that. Making a spreadsheet with the weights of all your equipment is a great exercise, and we’ve all benefited from it, but it’s ultimately an abstract exercise. Being a good outdoorsman or woman means that you always bring the gear that is appropriate to the environment and that you build in a margin of safety. You can do all that and still be incredibly light, but it takes knowledge and experience. Which you get by being out … a lot.
  • A shelter is a thing that should shelter you. I have a rather strong opinion on this. Shelter set ups that really only work in fair weather are of limited utility. You should carry a shelter that you know works well in bad weather. My Trailstar withstood the surprise derecho of 2012; it sheltered three backpackers during a night of constant rain and no one got wet, without bivies; I’ve used it down to the single digits. I consider it almost a perfect shelter. Some look at it and say, “I can’t believe you use such a minimalist shelter.” Others: “Isn’t that rather heavy for a single person tarp?” The point is that it is a reliable, strong, all-weather shelter that I know how to use and feel comfortable with. Its weight (about 12 oz) is fine by me. Your shelter plus your sleep system is your last refuge, and you want to know that it will work in the worst weather you could face.

Consider that going UL is really a voyage of self-discovery. I know this will sound hippy-dippy (a technical term) but by going UL you’re really renegotiating your relationship with things, re-thinking your wants versus needs, and thinking very hard about your relationship with the outdoors. I guarantee that you’ll learn some interesting things about yourself. For people living in a modern, urban world, this exercise is mind-blowing.

Article originally authored by Michael “U-turn” Martin. New introduction by Jen “Shuttle” Adach.

 

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