What ultralight is not, part 2

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.


Ultralight is the Valeskos sharing a gen 1 Hexamid through fall blizzards on the CDT.  Ultralight is not the Triplex below treeline during the summer.

Ultralight is 3 and a half weeks of food in a frameless pack during the Arctic 1000.  Ultralight is not a DSLR for photos on the same trip.

Ultralight is sharing a boat for weeks across the Brooks Range, through historically low water.  It would still have been ultralight to use a different boat with more comfortable paddling positions.

Ultralight is 50+ pounds of kid and gear as pictured below, which did not include any waterproof outerwear.    Ultralight was not the paranoia-induced 70 diapers we brought.


Ultralight is using a proper framed pack for this or this; ultralight is not using the same pack for this.

Ultralight was just enough extra food and no shelter during the Wilderness Classic in 2011.  Ultralight was not omitting rain pants during the same trip.

Ultralight was plastic boots that kept my feet warm sitting still in 35 degree weather when soaked, even though they shredded my feet.  Ultralight was not bringing waxable skies and two sets of skins, rather than the fishscales the conditions dictated.

Ultralight is the combination of experience and boldness applied to create style, which is a feeling of partial mastery under personally challenging conditions.  Ultralight is listening to the right kind of fear, in the right moment.  Ultralight is dedicated to the task at hand and the end goal, defined in a way that divorces it from any intrapersonal illusions.  Whatever that goal, and trip, might be.

17 responses to “What ultralight is not, part 2”

  1. “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

    Douglas Adams

    1. Good to know I’ve been bending the curve for quite some time now.

      In all seriousness, while quotations may be one of the more edifying of the many ways ad hominem shenanigans rear their heads in response to these posts, that whole class of responses remains shallow and bankrupt. Try harder next time.

  2. “Ultralight is the combination of experience and boldness applied to create style, which is a feeling of partial mastery under personally challenging conditions. Ultralight is listening to the right kind of fear, in the right moment. Ultralight is dedicated to the task at hand and the end goal, defined in a way that divorces it from any intrapersonal illusions. Whatever that goal, and trip, might be.”

    Very well said Dave! Last weekend I took a overnight trip with what is essentially a daypack (HPG Tara). I knew I was pushing the envelope as my sleep/shelter setup was minimal at best, BUT it is very close to what I carry on a long day hike or hunt. Enough to get by. I also threw in a Tenkara rod and was lucky enough to be the first person this year to hook cutthroats out of these lakes. I ended up bagging it a 4:00 AM (the mercury dipped pretty good that night), put on my headlamp and walked the 7-ish miles out to my truck.

    I don’t know what the pack weight was, but it proved out to be just enough (while far from cozy, certainly enough to get by with on an unexpected night out).

    Ultralight? Doesn’t really matter, it was a memorable trip!

  3. A quick glance at reddit suggests that many are hung up on a literal interpretation of ‘ultralight’. It almost seems like there needs to be a change in the nomenclature that makes a clearer distinction between the measurable mass of your pack and the philosophical approach to experiencing the outdoors. While these two things are not completely orthogonal, they are certainly distinct. Since injuring my back a year ago I have spent a good bit of money to lighten my pack by investing in fancy schmancy gear, and have found that to be entirely worthwhile. However, I have not (yet) taken meaningful steps towards being an ultralight backpacker — that requires perforating my comfort zone instead of simply buying more cuben.

    1. Well said, and I quite agree. For the time being I’m more interested in highlighting that distinction for folks than working on nomenclature, but it would be a worthwhile project.

  4. When everybody is ultralight, does that mean that nobody is ultralight? Is it there an implicit comparison in the term? In addition, I am not clear whether ultralight is packing just what you need (and a lot of what you need can be safely and effectively packed as knowledge) or whether it is a matter of actual weight (‘if you cut off most of your toothbrush…’).

    Finally, how does ultralight keeps from sliding into ‘buy more shit’, to have the most effective combo that matches every trip (place + weather), but unfortunately just that trip?

    1. The ideal gear hypothetical is a good one. My response would be that sufficient experience breeds the proper mindset and allows one to use a limited quiver of gear for a surprisingly wide range of conditions. Put another way, its about moving the “comfort” metric closer to the box your gear occupies rather than picking up with new gear and actively looking for ideal comfort all the time.

      1. I will add a small variation and the same issue. My ridiculously heavy boots have been resoled and have thousands of miles on and off road. Save from worn out soles nothing has been landfilled yet. I am concerned that some ‘light’ stuff is not durable/as durable, though I admit I have no hard data to back my concern up or dispel it. I acknowledge the parallel issue that ‘durable’ gear is not in itself going to stop people from throwing stuff away. Yet my personal preference is for gear that does not need frequent replacement and can be fixed — the happy marriage of my stinginess and environmental concerns.

        1. There’s a big paradox square in the middle of the numerous companies which advance a conservation agenda and at the same time push material weight limits and come out with new colors every season. Far from a straightforward contradiction but certainly something worth discussing.

        2. I did not mention that I find your comment about changing one’s comfort zone to match a reasonable quiver of gear very illuminating. On this comment of yours, and on my own concern about durability then I can see the discussion potentially veering towards ‘what about the users?’. Companies might suggest subtle variations of gear every year. They might offer not durable gear that is ‘lighter’. But it is us, the hikers, who decide (1) what to buy and (2) what is our comfort level. I am a cynical bastard but this ultralight stuff seems to be gear obsession and a marriage to some scales. The suggestion you often make ‘learn stuff and you can safely do without quite some gear’ does not strike me as that prominent. Maybe it is me, but what I seem to notice is ‘buy lighter stuff to lighten your pack’, and not ‘learn something to make your pack lighter, since you have to carry your head anyway’. But as I said, I am an awful and cranky old codger.

        3. Be it with magazines (and now websites, etc) or retail, education has never been a traffic mover when the first few steps usually amount to “go out and be miserable, then come back, think, and try it again.” I think the internet highlights the tendency to buy ones way out of this sort of process, but it is nothing close to new.

          This post is only the latest piece of evidence that a fairly plain and mellow statement of this can engender a pretty violent knee jerk reaction.

        4. Yeah, that was quite a shitstorm over on reddit when part 1 was shared. I for one really appreciate your reflections on the subject. These days the thing I struggle most with is packing my fear… that can be some heavy stuff.

        5. I’ve seen worse. On another forum, and with a different post, someone said they’d punch me in the face if they ever met me in person, unaware I’d been a forum contributor for 2+ years at that point.

          Only packing as much of your fear as you should is tough. Mine was always food, and I really had to crack down to manage that.

        6. Wow, that is crazy. Very surprising how the subject seems to get people revved up.
          I think it’s a fun conversation, and I can see parallels with many other parts of life.

        7. Maybe if the term ‘ultralight’ did not potently evoke gear and gearheads things would be smoother? call it ‘skilled’ and that might make a difference. FWIW people can go and get experience by doing easy things first and making stuff harder gradually. Misery need not be the number one ingredient.

        8. disregard my latest comment — live blissfully unaware of reddit and similia.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s