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Ultralight Backpacking: The New Way


As a sport, primarily two things impact backpacking: the building of new trails, and development in outdoor gear. Over the past 10 years, there has been an explosion in the latter, as the trend towards ultralight backpacking equipment has continued to grow. The most hardcore ultralight backpackers now measure their equipment in ounces, not pounds.

One of the most famous anecdotes in all of backpacking is that of the Appalachian Trail hiker cutting off the bottom half of a toothbrush to save weight. Now that just sounds ridiculous, right? Think about it, though: all of those tiny little corners that you cut turn into major, Oprah-style weight loss. By shaving pounds off your back, you'll be able to increase the number of miles you can hike per day. For those on long-distance hikes, a single ounce measured out over a couple of thousand miles can make a huge difference.

There's no real answer as to where lightweight backpacking begins. A fairly "standard" load for someone preparing for approximately a week in the backcountry during summer is approximately 40 pounds. This represents the weight for a hiker with quality equipment practicing rudimentary weight-saving techniques. Contrast this with the most stalwart ultralight hiker, with pack weight cut down to below 10 pounds for shelter, clothing, water purification, and cooking.

For those raised in the old school of external frame packs and bulky nylon sleeping pads, a load of only 10 pounds might sound ridiculous. Consider this, however: many lightweight backpackers now carry a denatured alcohol based cooking system that weighs just one ounce. Additionally, when carried during warm summer months, a tarp tent weighing less than two pounds provides nearly the same level of protection as a full standard tent at two or three times the weight.

Your weight-saving solution probably lies somewhere in the middle, between ultralight and "standard" backpacking. Consider that with most ultralight equipment comes a significant drawback. With the stove mentioned previously, for instance, boiling water takes longer than with a standard white gas or canister fuel system. Some "hardcore" lightweight backpackers will skip first-aid kits, or stock them with only the bare essentials. Above all, however, the most prohibitive aspect of lightweight equipment is cost. Manufacturers like Go-Lite (a pioneer in the industry) use higher quality materials; obviously, this cost is passed on to the consumer. One way to save money is by making your own equipment. You can make your own stove out of a soda can and a little chicken wire for pennies.

If you're short on cash, don't fret: one of the easiest ways to convert to lightweight backpacking is by concentrating on acquiring the lightest gear possible when making new purchases. In other words, you don't have to run out and spend thousands of dollars completely revamping your entire backpack's worth of equipment. Instead, when you realize your sleeping bag has completely lost all of its loft, buy your new bag with weight as the primary consideration.

Converting to lightweight backpacking can be a great way to increase your average mileage. Remember that you don't have to go overboard. If you can save even five pounds, you'll notice it over the long run. Beware, however: ultralight has been known to become an obsession.


All pages on this topic:
Ultralight | Fastpacking: Carry Less, Go Further | Top 10 List for Lightweight Backpacking Gear | Ultralight Backpacking Gear: For the 21st Century Hiker | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters
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