Ultralight is dead
“To me, whoever would go backpacking with a hundred pounds of lightweight equipment is missing some of these things and consequently a good deal of the primordial experience.”
There is a futility to contemporary ultralight backpacking which I’ve always found puzzling, as though I’m several steps off base during discussions and debates. I’ve written about this before, albeit in an intentionally inflammatory fashion. Increasingly I agree with Martin Rye: it is time for ultralight as identity politics to die.
This started with Skurka’s post over the summer, which I read shortly after publication and thought well researched if rather banal. My wonder has thus been not at the post itself, and content I thought obvious, but at the 60+ comments and wide ranging citations. Plainly many people, coming from a fairly wide range of outdoor backgrounds, find the idea revelatory. A sufficiently emminent figure has given them permission to break from orthodoxy. As one of Skurka’s interlocuters writes: That led me to think that the whole movement toward “ultralight” may have started off on the wrong foot. It may be stupid to label/brand oneself as “an ultralight backpacker”; it is an over-simplified shorthand that masks so much of the thoughtfulness that has gone into “packing more in your brain and less on your back”, to borrow Andrew’s words.
Ultralight is not new, all the informative yet rote videos and blogs aside. The latest wave is fed by two books published in 1999, both of which restated old ideas in an especially fluent and attention-getting way: Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking and Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism. All comtemporary UL gear is heavily influenced by one or the other, a state of affairs which can explain much myopia. Most popular cottage gear is still optimized, whether by intention or default, for PCT conditions in the Jardine idiom. Suitcase-dimensioned packs with mesh pockets are great on dry, wide open trails, but come up short elsewhere. Tall, streamlined packs are great for climbing but have to be adapted to other uses. There are still remarkably few packs which are light, smart, and in the middle of these two poles.
Google “backpacking blog” and virtually all the top results explicitly claim to be ultralight. I wonder how many are written by owners who came into backpacking post-Jardine? Backpacking is, in and of itself, profoundly unsexy; and amongst the dedicated and obsessive, and amongst those whose time online vastly outstrips time in the woods, some form of techno-geekery is required to maintain any level of intrigue. Perhaps this is the first and largest hurdle for ultralight backpacking to generalize, demystify, and become merely smart or deliberate backpacking. For my own part, I’ve been a backpacker since age 2, and a catalogue and navel gazing gear geek since about age 7 or 8. 4 years ago, when I began to get involved with BPL and by extension the contemporary UL ethos, I was already a backpacker. And though my load in lighter, my outlook more critical and self-aware, and my backpacking more frequent and passionate today, I remain merely a backpacker. ULing for ultralights sake is still not something I can understand on a gut level.
So my challenge to everyone is to go beyond labels and beyond your comfort zone. As linked to above, if all that attention to your gear doesn’t provide for more profound experiences in the woods your time has been wasted.