WEATHER »

Going Ultralight - The Basics

First in a Series on How to be Ultra Cool and Lite on the Trail


My friend Otis likes the idea of lightweight backpacking - sort of. Intellectually he loves the concept but practically, the idea of sending his Boy Scout troops out with equipment that needs careful use gives him the shudders. He’s taken them out in all sorts of conditions: winter trips atop Big Pine Mountain; high country journeys with winds and torrential rains that howled; and snow camping expeditions in the High Sierra. He’s as tough on his kids as they are on their gear.

His worries are echoed by an emailer who goes by the handle fearbeneath.

While packing ultralight is the hip new trend,” he responded to an earlier article I had written (The Lure of Going Lite), “ it sacrifices too much convenience for my taste. It may be appropriate for the fair-weather climate in the Santa Barbara backcountry, but nobody wants to get stuck outside without a proper tent and rain gear in a torrential downpour.

Not to mention the durability that is sacrificed with thin, light materials used in this genre of equipment. You’ll be pretty bummed when you’re down-climbing a slot canyon and the sandstone scrapes a hole through your brand new pack. Oops.

Point well taken.

Going lite isn’t for everyone and it certainly requires a great deal more experience both in the country in which you’ll be traveling, your own personal skill level, and in the care of your gear. Still, it’s so liberating to head into the backcountry with barely enough weight on your back to feel it.

Here’s how you can go light and do it well.

First of all, there are some basic things you’ll need to come to terms with if you’re thinking ultralight:

Most of the gear will likely cost more. Titanium is expensive but super light. Carbon fiber is even more but in many cases even lighter than titanium. Items that use either material will cost a lot more but the weight savings are well worth it. You’ll also want only the very best down products (850 to 900 fill) and that’s also way up on the price scale. It’s also an extreme bummer when you already have heavier versions of similar gear already in your backpack closet that you spent big bucks for in the past. Grin and bear it, donate the old gear to a local Scout troop that might use it and in a few months when you’re out on the trail you’ll be glad you did.

Look at the weight (to the gram) of everything you buy. Grams count and ounces saved even more. You’re your time before you buy to make sure you get the most for the least amount of weight. Get a postal scale at Staples or Office Depot. it will set you back $50 or so but not only can you weight your gear to the tenth of an ounce but use it for mailing things as well.

Some of what you buy will be more fragile, require more care or need more thought in how you use it. Down sucks when you get it wet but for UL purposes it’s the only way to go. That means a tent you can count on if it rains, solid rain gear and being religious about keeping it dry. UL packs are also more fragile as well. They are made of lighter materials that can tear or abrade more easily as well. Plus it takes more care in how you pack them and organize your gear and food. We aren’t talking rocket science here but there is much less room for error with UL gear than the traditional stuff.

Think getting your base pack weight down to less than 10 pounds. Base pack weight is basically everything you take along that doesn’t get consumed. It will be tough to reach that weight if you’re like me and love having the kitchen sink along, but if you think 20 pounds, you’ll end up with 20 pounds (or more) before you ever load in the food or water. Set a goal of getting the basics down to ten pounds and you’ll come close enough.

Check out a variety of the ultralight websites to learn more about the subject. BackpackingLight is one of the best (http://www.backpackinglight.com) but to take advantage of to the fullest you’ll need to shell out $25 for a year’s subscription to the best of the site but the good news is you can also get discounts on equipment you buy through the site. Trailspace.com is another great site to visit (http://www.trailspace.com/) with excellent gear reviews and lots of tips on going UL. Another site to visit I find refreshing is a blog created by Brett Marl a Washington state guy who used to work for Microsoft. The site has a great gear list with each of the items linked directly to gear reviews of the products he’s chosen for his own pack (and wife Theresa’s too).

Hopefully these sites will provide a good start in getting ready to go lite. Over the next few weeks the Indy Outsider will be providing additional articles on UL packing with a focus on how to do it well in the Santa Barbara backcountry.

Next: The Three Basics: Pack, Sleeping Gear and Shelter

Related Links

event calendar sponsored by: