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.”

Backpacker, 1974

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.


23 responses to “Ultralight is dead”

  1. At first, I didn’t understand what you were getting at… then I realized, after reading Martin’s comment, that I learned ‘UL’ in Alaska, where your kit has to be purposeful and modified/appropriate for every trip based on technique, weather, etc. I never had a weight limit, a blind goal, or anything other than ‘how little can I take for X conditions on X trip to be X comfortable for X duration, travelling X speed?’
    I agree with you, and everyone else. UL is dead. Simplicity, skills, knowledge, minimalism, etc, will live on.
    Try going with less or simpler means, but for the experience and learning, not the bragging rights.

  2. Good post David. I’m going to quote a few lines and respond to them specifically.

    “amongst those whose time online vastly outstrips time in the woods, some form of techno-geekery is required to maintain any level of intrigue”

    I think there’s a point to this, but it’s not all a bad thing. For some it may be a way to draw attention to themselves. “Look at me I hike with on 3 pounds of gear.” For others it’s just a fun personal challenge. For example I went back to Virginia after some epci adventures in Alaska and Colorado where I was in real wilderness with real challenges. After that hiking in Virginia was pretty boring. What made it more interesting was experimenting with lighter and lighter gear. Camping under a tiny poncho tarp, or setting a long mileage goal added some challenge and adventure to what would have been a rather boring trip. If I’d been in Montana or Alaska I probably wouldn’t have bother as much.

    “Perhaps this is the first and largest hurdle for ultralight backpacking to generalize, demystify, and become merely smart or deliberate backpacking”

    One thing that makes ultralight more mainstream is that the gear is becoming more widely available and more user-friendly. Remember when Ray Jardin was cutting edge with his 9 pound baseweight? He was camping under a tarp, using an umbrella for raingear, sleeping on a tiny foam matt, and using what I’d consider a horrible pack to get that light. In his day going UL meant you had to learn some special skills and approach backpacking differently. Today don’t need to have special skills or hike differently, you just have to shop smart. I could go to REI and put together a gearlist just as light as Jardin’s but mine would include an inflatable sleeping pad, an internal frame pack, and a real rain suit.

    1. I have always believed that ultralight is secondary to function. If it is the lightest and also functions as well for the intended purpose, then I choose the ultralight, if I need to gain a few grams or ounces to achieve the function I desire then that is my choice.

      Where I go as far as terrain, climate, on trail or bushwhacking all are factors in my decision on gear.

  3. That reminds me that I still have a response to DHYOH in my drafts folder. Well, no hurry; it’s a timeless topic.

    A number of your more recent trip reports seem to be a bit of a departure in the direction of trying to capture the profound in your experiences. I had assumed that was deliberate on your part, and I hazard from this post that I was correct.

    Some people find satisfaction in meeting arbitrary weight goals. I don’t get it either.

  4. Clayton Mauritzen Avatar
    Clayton Mauritzen

    I can see some of the fun in arbitrary limits. But then, in those situations, gear is the game, not the route. There are parts of my personality that are attracted to that and there are parts that aren’t. I can even understand the obsession with gear as a replacement for actually getting outside–I’ve been there myself when living in a place that didn’t offer the same experience that Montana offers, and my rather unhealthy coping mechanism was a gear obsession.

    I had a couple of summers where I didn’t/couldn’t get out much, and UL/BPL was a borderline obsession. But after covering a respectable amount of ground this summer, the drama of BPL is growing thin. Technique is always great to learn, and I appreciate seeing what has worked well over the long haul for others. But I’m glad to see the obsessive sides of my personality focus more on training and getting out instead of getting gear or losing weight.

  5. […] and defending the ultralight backpacking. The next take on the topic came from Dave Chenault (“Ultralight is dead”) who wrote that “Perhaps this is the first and largest hurdle for ultralight backpacking to […]

  6. Good view on the topic, Dave. My take on the topic is as an individual post in my blog. Link above and here: http://korpijaakko.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/the-death-of-ul-and-feeble-assumptions/

  7. I don’t think I have met anyone that I would characterize as as purely UL. From what I see, everyone takes the nuggets of information that work for them, and discard those that don’t. Like anything in life. What UL backpacking as a philosophy does is challenge us to think about what we are doing and why. If you follow everything blindly, then you are bound to end-up in stupid light situations. Andrew Skurka’s post was just validation of that premise. I don’t think he was saying UL is dead, nor that the techniques are not valid, but that you still have to use your brain.

    For someone like yourself who understands the principles and technology inside out, maybe UL backpacking has nothing more to offer you. But for a lot of folks (the vast majority I see on the trail), they have no clue, and hence the info would be vastly relevant and new to them. The way I see it, for those who have been enlightened, the honeymoon period is over – such is life with any new interest we invest in. That does not mean it is irrelevant for everyone else.

  8. The point here isn’t that the concepts which flow out of critical evaluation of gear and technique are dead. That would be an absurd and patently false statement. The point is that clinging to ultralight as an identifying concept needs to go away.

    I have certainly been guilty, on many occasions and for many reasons, of substituting gear geekage for actually doing something. It’s worth noting here that gear geekage is only problematic in this specific context. In every case I would have been better served by finding something else to occupy my thoughts and time.

  9. ” It’s worth noting here that gear geekage is only problematic in this specific context. In every case I would have been better served by finding something else to occupy my thoughts and time.”

    Do you mean that there is a misconception that being UL (as identified by gear (weight) and style) in concidered equivalent to being a good/efficient/better (?!?) hiker? Member of some sort of hiking elite? I think that kind of idea does excist, at least in some form…

  10. For me UL has always been a project management philosophy. That is, a systematic way of planning and executing more ambitious journeys. My adherance to it is always directly proportional to the difficulty of the challenge before me. It has never been a form of identity, which seems to be what Martin Rye is taking issue with (a sentiment I share).

    I’m a bit puzzled though how Skurka’s post has morphed into talk of the “death of ultralight”, as if this has become a philosophy to flee from. Concepts like “gram weenie” and “stupid light” have been part of the community for as long as I remember. Maybe we just needed to be reminded that all this talk of gear and technique is just a means to an end. It’s a tool, nothing more.

  11. Interesting and I agree. UL at its core as an aim bothers me, annoys me and is self defeating. Let’s just backpack and enjoy that. Share the skills that allow us to travel lighter, plan smarter and go into the wilderness. I did write some more thoughts about this on my blog. A debate that I expect will run and run Dave. Enjoy backpacking. On rucksack design I also feel I agree with you.

  12. Excellent post, Dave and an ideal I’ve held for years. I have always felt that a MINIMALISTIC approach to backpacking was more advantageous to the overall backpacking experience than those espoused in the UL doctrine. The less items one takes into the wilderness in my opinion enhances the experience. Add to the that the durability of said items. I don’t want to have pay any attention to my gear when I am in the wilderness. Equipment failure – due to flimsy materials is something I don’t want to have to think about. That is why I own a WM Badger vs. the lighter and more delicate WM Versalite.

    I believe that a lot find it easier to lighten the load on their back than on themselves. I know this tends to ruffle feathers. But if one is in their personal peak physical shape a couple extra pounds in the pack won’t amount to much on the trail. If more backpackers spent more time focusing on improving physical fitness rather than gear, as a means to enhance their overall wilderness experience, I believe they would shake their head at all the time wasted on internet backpacking sites. If said sites wanted to truly benefit their readers, they would publish more articles based on exercise rather than on gear.

    Anyway, great post.

  13. I like to think that Ultralight Backpacking is going through an inevitable and necessary growing up phase, and that it will move beyond identity politics, as you put it. Or it could just atrophy into a religion, complete with its dogmas and different churches (UL, SUL and the new purest form of the doctrine XUL).

    Re-remembering the importance of analysing what I carry and how much it weighs, in the context of the conditions I will face and the experience I want to have, has been very useful to me. But I have always had a few issues with Ultralight Backpacking (including the identity politics Dave mentions):

    1. It started by questioning traditional dogmas, but has now developed some of its own.

    2. Gear Geekery. – Now I don’t believe that there are large numbers of “other” backpackers who just don’t get into the whole gear thing, or that there are large numbers of UL backpackers who spend so much time and money on gear that they don’t go backpacking (the Chan hypothesis). However Ido recognise that it is easy to start “substituting gear geekage for actually doing something”. You see this in so many hobbies and I have been guilty of doing it myself. It also seems to me that Ul backpacking can magnify this tendency for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it provides a single criteria, weight, on which to compare each bit of gear, and secondly something lighter is always coming along giving use an excuse to switch to a new shiny thing.

    3. Complexity. Seeking to always to optimise weight can lead to multiple systems for slightly different conditions.

    4. The lack of consideration giving to different environments that are encountered around the world.

    None of the above negates “the concepts which flow out of critical evaluation of gear and technique”,but it is useful to be aware of them.

    I have been backpacking and gear geeking for 30 Years now and without Jardine’s prod to re-remember the philosophy I discovered myself as a 13 year old, then I would probably have had to give up backpacking (for reasons I can’t go into here). Every time I strap on my pack and start out on a journey I soon find myself with a wide smile on my face. I discover that after al;l these years there is still little I enjoy more than travelling by foot through the wilderness. It’s backpacking that I love. Not being an UL backpacker. Its a pretty simple pursuit and there’s not really that much to it, but it fills me with joy.

  14. […] recent post has everyone thinking.  Good, though not too good because too many are agreeing with me.  So […]

  15. I commented with this on Martin’s post:

    “The ‘UL’ concept was born out of the general movement towards paying attention to the weight of your equipment, taking it to the logical conclusion of seeing how far it could go. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately the grandiosity that accompanies calling anything ‘ultra’ gave the followers a hugely undeserved sense of importance and superiority. It’s a running joke now about Hendrik and spending a night in the woods. And it does always seem to be that the UL evangelists are the ones who only do very short trips. This might be because the equipment isn’t up to much, or it might be because they’re not up to much. They might just not have the time, or the inclination. But the flip side is that the people who spend a great deal of time outdoors (tracksterman, Mountain Rescue, guides) are definitely NOT ultra-light. And that says it all, really.”

    There’s nothing wrong with trying to make things lighter and lighter. But the preaching and onanism that comes with it has reached saturation point, and it certainly seems the majority are bored with it. So, less gear talk, more hiking!

  16. It seems all rather self generating. Yap about gear – others will too. Yap about no, no, its not about gear or at least UL gear, others will too. None of this makes any difference to my experience of the hills. What strikes me about hill walking is how little content there is, how little people say, about the phenomenological experience. Robert Macfarlane is good at it (although I find his books get a little tedious), but most of the writing consists of two things. You have the gear talk, and the challenge talk, describing the hardship, effort, summiting etc. What Macfarlane does is construct a narrative, based on situations where none exists: its not in the tracks, not in the hills, not on the paths, as such. They are inert things. Roger Deakin did the same, and their writing is very similar. Gear talk – for, against, heavy, light, whatever, is another kind of narrative. Its fine insofar as it helps us make informed choices, but when it goes beyond that it gets correspondingly tedious.

  17. The nod to Jardine is spot on. There’s been little useful innovation since his wave.

    I have a hard time discussing gear. Haven’t we had that conversation before? Let’s talk experiences, feelings and destinations.

    I’ve got an shrink wrapped 1st edition copy of Jardine’s 1992 book. He didn’t call it ultralight on the back cover. It was “long distance power-hiking”. The PCT – and internet geekery – have had a profound influence on backpacking.

  18. […] a result of Andrew’s post, Dave Chenault posted Ultralight is dead on his blog. And now the furor over these postings is spreading like a […]

  19. As in any human activity, backpacking is about what you get from it, whatever that is on your case, it doesn’t matter as long as you are immersed in the activity. And as Jiro says, there’s always room for improvement, no matter how good you are.

    If you spend many days a year out there your techniques will refine and logically your load will lower itself, either by exercise of thought or by pure chance (you forget something and you realise It’s dead weight). In the backpacking technique there aren’t many factors, so it gets really simple in a short time, unless something new is developed or imported from another area of expertise (cuben or freezerbag cooking). In my opinion that’s why people think UL is dead, but the truth is that as long as there are people trying to go lighter/faster/more comfortable, UL will be in good shape.

  20. […] So when I read (and yes I am about to say excellent post by Dave C on his BLOG ) this:  ”Increasingly I agree with Martin Rye: it is time for ultralight as identity […]

  21. […] here is a great opinion piece from one of my favorite […]

  22. […] I tried my best five years ago, but despite little technological progress of consequence since, that little bastard ultralight refuses to die.  Rather, it lives a more robust life than ever, largely as a marketing catchphrase.  That being the case it is important than usual to take some time today and discuss all the things ultralight is not. […]

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