4 Reasons Why Ultralight is NOT Worth the Hype

Almost all backpackers can be sorted out into one of three categories. You’ve got Mr. Kitchen Sink: a Bear Grylls machete is strapped to the side of his Gregory Baltoro 75 pack, half of which is overtaken by his Big Agnes Hog Park sleeping bag. He is at 12lbs. 9oz. with just these three items and we haven’t even scraped the surface. Then there is the opposite side, the Ultralighter: He’s got a Hyperlite Windrider pack, sleeps in a zPacks sleeping bag and doesn’t even carry a knife because if his teeth can’t get the job done then he can always borrow one from his buddy. Right now he is sitting at a whopping 2lbs 12oz. and when it’s all said and done he may only add on a little over 10 or 11 more. His buddy is the last sort, a Regular Joe: He carries an Osprey Atmos 65 pack, an REI Igneo sleeping bag and a Gerber Paraframe knife for getting into the wrapper of his Seriously Sharp Cabot Cheddar Cheese. He is carrying a reasonable 5lbs 7oz with these items.

Your gear is meant to help you get to Katahdin (or Springer). It won’t put you there on it’s own, but you also probably can’t make there with out it. So who is doing himself the most favors in his trek? I think most can agree that if Mr. Kitchen Sink doesn’t wise up and drop into the realm of Regular Joe then he will either injure himself off of the trail or give up all together. But between the Ultraliter and Regular Joe, who has himself best prepared for 2,000+ miles of mundane and strenuous mountain climbing over six months?

First off, let’s define “Ultralight Backpacking

 To me: Carrying up to 23lbs.                     To REI: Carrying up to 30lbs.

Having walked with my life on my back for a good while (23 weeks) in 2013, I definitely don’t see eye to eye with REI on what they call ultralight. (At least not for a thru hiker.) I think 23 to 28lbs. is lightweight, but definitely not ultralight.  Based off of my experience with my own pack weight and those of hundreds of other hikers I have met on the trail, I save the ultralight term for anything below 23lbs. And from there, we continue on with…

4 Reasons Why Ultralight is NOT Worth the Hype

1) Expense

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In the gear world, a lack of weight is directly tied to a spike in price. It is important to buy lightweight gear if you plan to thru hike but the weight savings on a zPacks sleeping bag is hardly justifiable up against the extra $200 spent if you are on a college student/recent grad budget. When I become independently wealthy I plan to immediately buy a 20° bag from them for $390 plus tax and shipping costs despite the fact that I have never seen it in person but right now, on my meager salary, I can not even dream of taking such a financial risk on a piece of gear I can only assume I will love. For a pound more in weight and $160 less, a Serra Designs bag will do the trick.

2) Comfort

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Comfort is a psychological tactic one can use to get to Katahdin. Want to quit? Take a hot shower, sleep in a real bed and don’t walk for a day. Revisit the idea the next day and its probably gone from your mind. You can use this same strategy by choosing more comfortable gear. I use an Osprey Exos 58 pack but I could easily save 13oz. if I were to use a ULA CDT pack but it is massively important to me to avoid the dreaded swamp-ass. The “Airspeed” back suspension build of the Exos pack allows for over an inch of airflow between my pack and I. Not to mention that it has a wicked smooth connection with the back. You never have lumpy, poorly packed gear stabbing at your back like what happens if inexpertly load up a frameless pack. Also, the Exos has load lifters. I can’t imagine a backpacking world with out load lifters but it exists, albeit, only in the ultralight realm. I just can’t rationalize a sweaty, sticky swampy back and an uncontrollable center of gravity based solely on your packing technique, even if it saves a few ounces shy a pound of weight.

3) Compromise

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Choosing gear is always about a compromise. You have to decide what benefits are most important to you and go with the product that caters to your desires more. Price, weight and size are typically your deciding factors. Despite trying to get lighter and lighter in my gear set up, I sometimes find a better reason than weight to sell me on one piece of gear over another. I currently use a Therm-a-Rest Prolite sleeping pad and for a while I contemplated switching to a Therm-a-Rest zLite. If I cut two panels off of the zLite to fit me it would weigh 12oz. as opposed to my 16 oz. Prolite. That’s only a savings of 4oz and a sacrifice of actually being off the ground (I think my 1in. pad is super comfy) and great ‘packability’ if I were to switch to the zLite. I think I would get used to sleeping on a foam pad but it’s just not worth 4oz. to have to strap a bulky pad on to the outside of my pack or have it take up so much space inside. This in one example of innumerable possibilities between two pieces of gear.

4) Unpreparedness

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My biggest fear for ultralight backpackers is that they will find themselves unprepared for a bad situation. The best way to become ultralight is to simply take things out of your backpack. Some things are pretty easy to call nonessential until the time to use them comes. I believe this happens most commonly for ultralighters with ditching extra clothes. The unpredictability of weather in the mountains means that even in warm months cold weather can set in and easily become the down fall for unprepared backpackers. Carrying lesser degree sleeping bags, lighter material tents and not enough layers can lead to several miserable days on the trail, if not something even more dangerous. This ties back into comfort. Having what you need to make it through those inevitable rough times on the trail can be make or break in having to get off the trail or being able to push on. Not to mention that spending half a fortune on gear that you give up on in just a month is more than this frugal kid wants you to go through.

An End Note

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Despite what you just read, count your ounces and make smart gear choices with in reason. Think long and hard about your commitment to ultralight gear, but still cut your tooth brush in half. Why carry the extra part? Bring a small pack towel. You will probably barely use it. Find a small container of soap that works for hair, body and clothes at the same time. Ditch the first aid kit and carry a few Band-Aids, a few pills of a few different kinds of meds and thread and needle. Forget about paracord. If you can’t fathom this, cut off a shoestring length. It’s probably more than you will ever use unless a ridge runner hassles you into bear bagging, of which the chances are slim. Point being, don’t over pack even if you stay far away from ultralight tendencies.

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Comments 11

  • Alan : Sep 9th

    Leave your 1st aid kit at home? Wut? That kit is to save your life in the event of trauma. I have an Israeli bandage, blood clotting powder, 4 meters of elasticated bandage, alcohol wipes, tweezers etc etc, Total weight, in plastic zipper bag, 270 grams. Excluding water, fuel, food and spare clothing, my pack weighs just over 12 lbs. Soon I’ll be swapping my hammock tree straps and carabiners for lighter versions, bringing my back under the 10 lb mark.

    There is absolutely no need or reason to leave your 1st aid kit at home. Anyone who thinks so has never suffered an arterial bleed or a compound fracture – or both at the same time.

    Reply
    • Tony : Oct 6th

      Mate if you have arterial bleed you will die in 2 minutes and lose motor movements in 1 along with staying awake. I hope you mean veinal bleeding. Also how will you prepare to stop a artery bleed without a clamp to stop bleeding? Sorry if i seem abrupt, maybe i have read your comment wrong, in which case i apologise. Hammock i do not disagree though, Mine weighs just shy of 500grams with bug net and the comfort is simply amazing.

      Reply
  • Craig : Feb 12th

    Carlie, do you not hang your food? I thought that it was required in certain places like the Smokies. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on this….

    Reply
  • Scott : Feb 12th

    Take the time and effort to hang your food for the sake of the bears. If food is easily accessible, they will eat it, they will come back, they will become dangerous, they will be killed by the authorities. Don’t let this happen with you or anyone else. Keep the bears safe.

    Reply
    • Brent : Feb 12th

      You can say that again.

      Reply
  • Scott : Feb 12th

    Please take the time and effort to hang your food. If it is easily accessible, bears will eat it, they will come back, they will become dangerous, they may be killed by the authorities. Keep the bears safe. Don’t allow yourself or anyone else to cause this to happen.

    Reply
  • LightDan : Apr 25th

    Nice article Carlie, with some valid points, but also with some points that are not really true.
    To start from the top:
    Expence:
    “In the gear world, a lack of weight is directly tied to a spike in price.” This is definetily an oversimplification. If you want cutting edge, super lightweight stuff of the best quality available, yes, then it’s true. The same is true for normal weight stuff.
    It’s possible to buy a total equipment around 10-ish pounds for $300 (google $300 ultralight hiking challenge or variations of that and you will find lot’s of gearlists but most of the stuff is possibly of poor quality.
    However, with a little (or rather a lot) of investigation it’s quite possible to buy lightweight gear of good quality for the same or lesser price than for a “full weight” counterpart, while still in the 10-15 pound range or lighter.
    Comfort:
    I love the Exos backpack for exactly the reasons you give, but I learn with every short trip to get more and more comfortable with a frameless pack.
    Compromise:
    Absolutely agree here.
    I have (very) few pieces of equipment that actually is both cheap, have a very high comfort, is lightweight and of superb packability and quality. Even if some of these dream equipments exist, it’s impossible to have a complete backpack full of them..
    Unpreparedness:
    The main difference between a skillful and a less skilled hiker is the amount of knowledge they have, rather than the number of equipment they carry in their backpack. Many ultralight hiker talk about their skill set, and with good reason.
    Usually it’s hiker with gaps in their knowledge that get in trouble in bad weather or other difficult situations. To copy an ultralight packlist and buy the way into a low packweight without learning the skills to use the equipment in difficult circumstanses is indeed a way to get into trouble.

    To conclude, experience make it possible to buy relatively cheap and comfortable equipment that is still ultralight. The same experience make sure you know what compromises to do to maintain a good level of comfort and to be prepared and safe on the trail. Most ultralight (or super ultralight or extreme ultralight) hiker points that out when they share their packlists. Every hiker should always think safety first and carry equipment they know can keepcthem safe. One persons “stupid light” is another persons redundancy.

    Reply
  • Joshua Fields : Dec 23rd

    I pack 25 lbs In summer and 30 In winter. I do not get how people complain this Is too much weight. I have had gear stolen and made due with tennis shoes, knife, and a bic lighter. I do follow some aspects of ultralight backpacking but also reality Is I am a hitchhiker and hiker and there are times I may not be able to resupply food and gear every few days. And when I was In my 20’s I packed 60 lbs In a navy sea bag and learned from trial and error what works for me. 12 lbs counting backpack In my opinion Is ok for nice climate. Not for hard core survivalism. Nor Is packing everything Including the kitchen sink IMO the way to go either. But I never once had problem even to this day and at my age of 43 packing 30 to 40 lbs of gear and hiking 10 to 20 miles a day. There will be times when you will need a machete or an extra pair of shoes. And there Is no way In hell I will pay 150 to 500 bucks for an Internal frame backpack when my medium size Alice pack for 30 bucks will last way longer and IMO Is more comfortable and can repaired or Imrovised easier If something breaks like a shoulder strap. Not having a good small first aid kit Is moronic at best. And a small fishing pole with a few hooks and lures or even fishing line tied on a stick will keep me fed along with a slingshot or wire for making small snare traps. I carry 2 moraknivs. Cheap priced,made In sweeden and light. And a 1 lb 10 ounce Gerber kukri machete with my pack and a lighter and pack of emergency matches. If you cannot walk 10 miles a day with a 20 to 30 lb pack or even more then hiking may not be your forte. Once again I stress that ultralight hiking has It’s place In the wilderness but for survivalism and long term outdoors living you need to have a bit more of gear. I know 65 year old men who hike 10 miles a day with 30 to 40 lbs of gear and even petite women who can do 30 lbs.

    Reply
  • Dave Long : Aug 30th

    Which all just verifies what I’ve come to know about the ‘go light’ crowd: they are parasites that depend on other people carrying the gear that they don’t use everyday but may need in an emergency. No first aid kit? Sure. If injured, the plan is to lay in the trail until someone with a first aid kit comes along and then demand it’s contents. No extra food? Sure. If it becomes needed, demand someone else’s extra food. On and on it goes. Water. Cold weather gear. Sturdy knife. Bear canisters. Make everyone else into your camel and lie your ass off about it. Parasitic scum.

    Reply
  • Jesse Stinton : Oct 27th

    Hey new to recreational backpacking but did my time in core including a good amount of rucking. I’m with you on most of this they saying was oz lead to pounds pounds lead to pain but we were also big on carrying what we needed. For example never trim pounds by carrying less ammo. The only part I can’t shake is the 550 cord I don’t carry spools by any means but I like to keep a couple hundred feet on hand plus I lace my boots with it. It’s come in hand a ton for me. Still great article and good advice

    Reply
    • Jesse Stinton : Oct 27th

      Corps.. damn auto correct teach what happens when you don’t proof read

      Reply

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