What ultralight is not

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.


9 responses to “What ultralight is not”

  1. I read this thinking ‘my tripod, spotting scope and binos push me so far from any definition of light I might not even try’. Admittedly though, who needs food or water when you have good optics?

    1. If you’re birding or hunting leaving optics at home is as self-defeating as leaving poles home on a fishing trip, or indeed ones backpack home on a backpacking trip. This is the simplest reason why the weight benchmarks aren’t a good jumping off point.

  2. When I pulled out from the shelf Ray Jardine’s book “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook” at the Chinook Bookstore in Colorado Springs in 1996 my backpacking life was reborn. I contracted a spinal cord disease in 1988 which left me much weaker and less coordinated than I was previously; a disease which seemed to create a barrier between me and my beloved mountains. Suddenly, upon reading Jardine’s book I was given a way of thinking that once again opened the high places to me. His way of thinking about backpacking equipment appealed to my Shaker/Luddite tendencies but it also gave me a mental rigor to pare down to the basics. I believe his book was very contrarian for the times but perhaps was simply a recovery of an ancient aesthetic. I don’t think Jardine used the term “ultralight” just “lightweight.” I sewed a pack and tarp. I modified an umbrella. I got the weight down. And I was climbing over mountain passes in Colorado! And in many ways I was enjoying the mountain passes much more than I did when I was 18 and carrying on my back everything including the proverbial kitchen sink.

    Perhaps you are correct that ultralight no longer requires the rigor and skill it once did. Whatever ultralight is or is not–for me it is a discipline that has brought once again a freedom and joy to my life that I don’t think the REI or local sporting goods store promised in 1996.

    1. Achieving the sub-9 lb benchmark isn’t tough anymore (for “normal” backpacking) because of technology, but Jardine was more responsible than any single figure for kickstarting the change in thought that made all that tech so widespread. The originality of his ideas is irrelevant, he presented them as a coherent whole that was heard much better than any previous version.

  3. To me ultralight backpacking is simply being aware of the choices and how they effect the weight on your back. For example, I have friends who I would not call ultralight hikers, and it is fairly obvious why, even before we start talking base weight. If I ask them how much something weighs, their typical answer is “I don’t know, it isn’t that heavy”, as opposed to “I forget, but I did the research and this was the best balance of weight and functionality”. I have plenty of gear that some ultralight hikers would scoff at (a tent, a sleeping bag, an inflatable pad) but I can defend each decision as being appropriate for me. We all make trade-offs, and mine are simply more informed that a huge segment of the backpacking population (still) even though there gear is a lot lighter than packs of yore.

    1. Spot on. A friend uses a Savotta backpack that he loves, but is twice the weight of my Seek Outside. Thing is, he carries it, not me. So why should I care? Ultralight is the idea that a lighter load is easier to deal with, so less stuff and lighter stuff might be a good idea. Thanks for the advice, I’ll keep that in mind, but I am not planning to join a religion or a cult.

  4. Ultralight is or isn’t matters little. Without the militant preservation of wild and Wilderness all is folly.

  5. […] My post the other week has proven quite popular, more than anything a cautionary tale for me.  In 10.5 years of doing this I never go more than a few months without being surprised by what proves of interest to folks, and have long since ceased being surprised when a personal favorite earns low numbers.  In the case of something like What Ultralight is Not, there could always be more to say.  Things are settling down nicely here in Helena, at last, so what follows are more and more specific thoughts on useful definitions of ultralight backcountry travel. […]

  6. […] remains some confusion about how to make a backpack lightweight, and yet still functional.  The simplest and best way remains to raise your own bar; get better at packing, need fewer things, need lighter things, and so […]

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