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.
This is not some ecumenical, ultimately nihilistic hike-ya-own-hike song of reconciliation. Words always mean something, even if you’d prefer to give your mind a rest, and the best definition is always the one which does the most work. Ultralight meaning nothing other than “lighter than I was last year” does little for anyone.
Ultralight is only superficially concerned with the weight of your pack. Arbitrary benchmarks like the oft-cited 10 pound base weight (everything in your pack, minus food and fuel) were of use because by the standards of the day they were provocative and challenging. In 2005 that number demanded consideration, rigor, and skill. Today it does not.
There are two ways to “go” ultralight; bring lighter things, and bring fewer things. The later will almost always get you less weight than the former, be it by sharing or abstraction*, otherwise known as learning to do without. Just how deep something this simple can take you is hard for most to understand, and is why the persistent myths about lightening your pack involve cutting the handle off your toothbrush and the corner off your maps, both parthian shots at best, but more likely to just get you in trouble, like when that improbable bail route you suddenly need is home in the trash.
Abstraction is an inherently intellectual process, and while it tends to breed over-intellectualization not too many trips should be required to convince anyone that trying to out think themselves is not a good use of time, to say nothing of out thinking the wild. This is why even modern attempts at a 10 Essentials list can’t help but get lost in the weeds of this thing is better than that thing. Knowledge taken far and specific enough will reduce the list of essentials to near zero, at which point aesthetic preferences can like a William Carlos Williams poem start the list growing all over again.
In conclusion, ultralight is not manufacturing reasons to either bring more stuff or less stuff. It is about learning, ideally painfully and repeatedly, what you don’t know and then resisting the dual temptations of complacency and reinventing the wheel.
*cf. Dial, 2006.