Ultralight backpacking for assholes

Four years ago I published one of my most read (non-gear) posts, equal parts misunderstood by others and a personal favorite.  The most salient point, and one which readers found and still find hard to swallow, is that the content of small, banal activities has cultural import.  My example back then was that backpacking dreams too long unrealized or at least unpracticed poison the soul and thus, by proxy, the soul of others.  Another example would be that those who enjoy watching Avatar (2009), one of the more notably racist movies in recent memory, are themselves racist, albeit in a likely tiny and almost certainly subconscious manner.  Multiply little, unintended evils by many millions and something significant will inevitably come to pass.

R0013094A year later I discussed that too directly translating the expectations of civilization to the backcountry is a recipe for disaster, or at least disappointment.  Backpacking is fantastic because of the intimacy it demands, with the land and ultimately with yourself.  While I wouldn’t advise going out without a sleeping pad, sleeping soundly in the backcountry is a process which involves campsite selection, a pad suited to your anatomy, enough but not too much insulation, and practice.  Nothing in the world is free, and consistently nailing all of the above and sleeping better in the woods than at home would be robbed of most meaning if it merely happened by accident.  My best guess is that it took around 300 nights in the woods before I slept well almost all the time.  In the 13 years since I spent half a year sleeping almost entirely outside, between working wilderness therapy and sleeping in the dirt next to my home (Subaru), I’ve been firmly on the dark side and look forward to every night outdoors.  Sleeping near water and having a nice breeze in my face make a good thing even better.

M, above, still struggles with this a bit, and has hips which require a much thicker pad.  We’re still collectively fighting her bearanoia, thermal regulation issues, and leaky Big Agnes pads.  Little Bear, so long as he has a few snacks in the night, sleeps as easily in a tent as he does anywhere else. For the moment.  It’s remarkable how far an eight year old can walk, provided there are interesting things to see and she’s never been told that doing it should make her tired.  And it’s remarkable how cold and wet a seven year old can be without either being unsafe or uncomfortable, provided he’s never been fully enlightened as to what uncomfortable is supposed to mean.


Heavy packs are both worse and not as bad as they seem.  Just as with sleeping outside, hiking shouldn’t be easy, immediately.  No one expects to play a violin well, or even acceptably, without years of practice, but plenty of folks are mystified that their legs hurt after a 15 mile day of hiking, or butt hurts after 20 miles of cycling.  Part of this is laziness and the contemptible desire to not put in the time before the rewards.  Part of this is the persistence of myths; that more padding makes both saddles and pack hipbelts more comfortable.  Part of it is the massive amount of nonsense the internet has cultivated concerning the subject of the backcountry.  No doubt people have always heard what they want, but the internet amplifies this by rewarding flash and the warm fuzzies over substance.  Being unwilling to be a bit miserable is both a personal flaw, and evidence of good planning.

DSC01245In short, while backpacking is supposed to be hard, thoughtlessly making it more difficult than necessary is something to be condemned.  Everyone, no matter how experienced, pack their fears, and having a kid and thus getting out a bit less has in the past year given me a renewed appreciation for just how big a cluster backpacking can be when it’s been months since the logistics and routines have been last practiced.  These are excuses, but not necessary and sufficient reasons for either failing to embrace the process or just being bad at something with which you’ve been consistently fascinated.

A lot of bullshit has been written about how difficult attaining a given pack weight may have been a decade ago, before preferences in fabrics and changes in design philosophy became as widespread as they currently are.  I speak pejoratively because what is really meant here is that attaining a certain pack weight previously required growth in skill and accumulation of experience, which engendered both a more intimate knowledge of what terms like “necessary” and “safety” actually mean, as well as changes in mindset and physiology.  There’s a gap between being so cold at night that you cannot sleep well, and being warm enough at night that you feel immediately comfortable and secure, and when measured in ounces and dollars and insulating garments that gap is larger than most can fathom.

So, does the recent profusion of 30 oz, “double wall” and “two person” 500 dollar tents enhance the backpacking experience?  Or does this do little more than further build the elitist reputation of outdoor pursuits, and allow those practitioners to get further and longer without being obliged to learn anything they didn’t plan to in the first place?

I ask mostly, rhetorically.



6 responses to “Ultralight backpacking for assholes”

  1. Bravo! I see too many failing to seek and learn in all facets of life leaving a sole bound for mediocrity.

  2. I thought everyone already knew ultralight backpacking was for assholes :)

    a quick tip on how to accelerate getting comfortable sleeping the backcountry: work or volunteer for a trail crew- a couple of days of swinging an axe or pulaski, using a crosscut or single buck saw and hiking with a 50 lb+ pack does wonders for sound sleeping!

  3. Amen! In the 1920’s Horace Kephart managed to keep his pack weight to 35 lbs (Including axe, rifle, and bacon) by not bringing all the useless accoutrements available in your local REI.

  4. Since I exchanged my self inflating sleeping mat for a down insulated air matress I slept well from the first night.

  5. Loved the post Dave! Does ultralight still has some benefits?

    1. Shaking up ones dogma occasionally to keep the pack light, and therefore performance and style up, will always be highly relevant. I am not sure “ultralight” is the phrase of the future when it comes to encouraging such behavior.

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