Luxury Items: Am I Ultralight Yet?

Stepping into the world of ultralight backpacking is scary and judgmental and… expensive.  It’s intimidating.  It can make one feel like failure is inevitable if they bring one too many bandaids.  But when it comes to hiking over two thousand miles, how can you quantify comfort?  Is comfort about having less weight, or having a memento from a loved one?  Is it making more miles per day, or is it bringing along something to help the miles pass easily?  Is it living on the most minimal supplies, or is it hunkering down for the night knowing you’ll get great sleep in your spacious tent?  Luxury means your pack won’t be heavy (because there’s nothing luxurious about back aches and blisters) but it will contain just enough to keep you a happy camper…whatever that means to you.  Luxury means making smart, tactical decisions to not only survive, but enjoy yourself for five months on the trail.  If you can do that with a six pound pack, welcome to UL stardom.

What is worth the weight?

At some point in the 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, you’re going to want something you don’t have.  If you’re a normal human being, it’s going to be food most of the time.  But when it’s not, maybe it’ll be a good book that takes your mind off the blisters and cold.  Or maybe it’ll be soap.  The hardest decision when challenging yourself to go ultralight: is it worth the weight?

I can’t answer that question for you.  Each person will find value in their belongings, and it is up to you to quantify that weight to value ratio for yourself.  For the vast majority of hikers, this ratio changes throughout the hike.  That’s why hiker boxes are full, and bank accounts are empty.

Below I’ll discuss my luxury items, and what luxury items many people choose to take that I won’t.

What I’m bringing:

Trekking Poles

Some won’t consider this a luxury, but many ultralight hikers don’t use trekking poles, or only use one.  Before I had done any overnight backpacking, I debated whether or not to invest money into trekking poles.  I don’t have bad knees, my ankles are strong.  Then I actually used them on a 12 day hike, carrying 12 days of food, crossing early summer creeks.  They’re great for stability on steep downhills and for endurance on steep uphills, but more than that: they’re two extra feet on slippery river rocks and logs.  Mind changed.  I will always carry lightweight trekking poles.  I use Black Diamond Distance Z poles, 5 oz each.

Stove

There’s a ton of debate in the thru hiker community about stove vs. stoveless hiking.  Hiker food is already bland and repetitive, so I won’t be limiting myself further by eating cold tortillas and granola bars for five months.  I also have a hard time staying nourished, and I’m a very small person, so I can’t afford to lose too much weight on the trail.  To me, it’s about an equal trade-off: stove and gas canisters or more dense hydrated foods.  If I have a stove and boiling water, the food I carry can be dehydrated until it’s nearly weightless.  (And yes, I know about cold-soaking food.  I refuse to eat cold, wet food while cold and wet.)  To me, this is a no brainer.  There are nearly weightless stoves on the market today, but I’ll be choosing one a little heavier.  Jetboil makes a line of water boiling systems that work incredibly fast with little gas required.  I’ve got my eye on the JetBoil Zip or JetBoil Lite.

Gaiters

I’ve gone back and forth on this one.  Can’t I just wear pants?  Is it really that gritty?  Won’t I get dirt in my shoes anyway?  The most common gaiter on the PCT is surely the Dirty Girl gaiter, a thin stretchy material that velcros to the back of the shoe.  To me, if you’re going to carry the weight of gaiters, make them good gaiters.  I’ll be going with the Outdoor Research Rocky Mtn Low.  Sand in the desert, snow in the Sierra, ash in Oregon, and then rain in Washington; these will come in handy through every section.  It’s waterproof and heavy duty.  Still, at 4.8 oz for the pair, I’ll take extra protection over nothing at all.

Camp Shoes

Most ultralight hikers skip the camp shoes.  Shoes are for being outside your tent, no shoes are for being inside your tent, and that’s it.  But me?  I get up to pee like four times a night.  I do not want to a) put on cold ass shoes in the dark or b) step in cactus spines or actual poop.  The Teva Olowalu flip-flop is my choice, at 5.5 oz for the pair.

Pillow

This is one of those things whose value you can only quantify on a personal level.  Can you sleep at night flat on your back, with your puffy stuffed under your head?  Are you a side sleeper who needs a little more elevation under your neck?  Does your quality of sleep effect your quality of life, or can you handle flat, cold ground for five months?  For me, I’m going to start with the camp pillow, and eliminate it if I feel like I can get by without it.  I’ll be going with the inflatable Cocoon Sleeping Bag Hood Pillow at 3.5 oz.

Zero Day Dress

This is last on my list, because it’ll be the first thing to get eliminated if I decide my pack is too heavy.  A zero day dress is exactly what it sounds like: a dress I keep in a stuff sack that is exclusively for zero days, after I’ve showered, and before my clothes are done washing.  I haven’t found the perfect one, but I’ll buy something polyester, sleeveless, and super light at a thrift store and call it good.  I know there is such a thing as loner clothes, but I think I’d like to have a zero day dress of my own to make sure it’s always there and always clean.  I’ll keep this item under 8 oz.

What I’m not bringing:

Solar Charger

Endless supply of power?  Sounds great.  I’d never have a dead phone while I’m trying to go to sleep to the sound of sticks breaking outside of my tent.  Never have a dead phone when I round a corner and see the best view of my life.  But when I actually consider how long I’ll go between resupply (and therefore recharge) I think a 20,000mAh Anker battery, which will recharge my phone 7-8 times, will be plenty.  It weighs 12 oz, whereas the Goal Zero solar charger is over a pound for the kit, and only reliable in full sun.

Book/journal/kindle

I love the idea of having something to read or write to pass the time, but in my experience, I never end up actually utilizing these chunky blocks of paper.  I’ll have my phone, and I may bring a few pieces of paper in a ziplock for emergency note taking.  As far as reading goes, I can always download on iBooks and read there if I’m desperate.

Camera

With the rise of social media competitive posting, lots of hikers are bringing nicer (and heavier) cameras and equipment like drones, tripods, and specials lenses.  I definitely have no shade to throw on these people; in fact, tons of my research and vicarious experiences of the trail have been through youtube and instagram accounts by people who carried the extra weight.  A lot of these bloggers rely on sponsorships from brands and followers, and that means they have to produce quality content.  If carrying another three pounds of camera equipment meant I was able to travel year-round and be supported, I would sure as hell do it too.  I’m just not one of those people.  I may upgrade to the most recent iPhone before my hike, but other than that I’ll pass on the bulky and expensive equipment.

Umbrella

This is one of those items that didn’t make my list, but might quickly make its way into my pack if the desert is too unforgiving.  I’m pale and freckly.  I can’t even have my lower legs exposed to the sun while hiking or my skin will literally bubble and fall off.  I’m also prone to skin cancer.  I take it seriously.  So I’ll be starting off with long (but breathable) layers, a sun hat, and sunscreen for my hands and neck.  But we’ll see.  Basically, my decision here is based on what is going to prolong my life, and nothing else.

Sleeping Bag Liner

My body is filthy, my clothes are filthy, my tent is filthy… is there really a way to protect my sleeping bag?  Unless I’m wrapped in a contractor bag, I somehow doubt it.  I like the idea of a piece of gear that keeps the inside of your sleeping bag clean while your stench soaks into it, but I don’t believe it, and I’m not convinced it’s worth the weight.

Two Person Tent

I think I see two person tents on gear lists more than one person tents.  I get this one.  You’re living in this little strip of fabric for five months, so you want it to be comfortable.  And maybe if I was six feet tall, I’d be on board.  But I’m only five feet, and I scored an amazing deal on a one person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 1 at an REI garage sale.  I set it up in my living room to play pretend, and found it perfectly suitable for my tiny self.  If I grow to hate it, it’ll be more motivation to get up and walk instead.

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Comments 11

  • stealthblew : Oct 10th

    my two cents…replace the hiking poles for the umbrella at least until Lone Pine. The trail is graded and much easier to travel on than the AT , but the sun is very hot and the shade will be most welcomed.

    Have a great time.

    Reply
    • Sydnee Tigert : Oct 10th

      I like that idea! I’ve been thinking of my gear in a multi-purpose low-cost kind of way, trying to think of things I’ll need the entire hike as much as possible, but that might be one of those low cost items that’s worth carrying for a short time. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Reply
      • Redwolf : Nov 2nd

        The sun can defiantly beat down on you even in the winter months. An umbrella is a good idea as long as its not windy. Just remember to put on sun block and eye protection. I cant wait to see your trail updates!

        Reply
  • BILLK : Oct 10th

    Check out “Dixie” on you tube HOMEMADE WANDERLUST she is on the PCT now used umbrella and poles
    very informative and entertining!

    Reply
    • Sydnee Tigert : Oct 10th

      I love watching Dixie! I’ve been following her the whole way. I saw that she really enjoyed her umbrella, but she also didn’t like hats and wore shorts. I don’t mind hats, so I’m still wondering if that’ll be more light/convenient for me.

      Reply
  • John Spencer : Oct 10th

    This article is brilliant. I am hiking the AT this spring and this has been helpful. I am a writer and am very interested in blogging for The Trek as well. Any advise? Thank you for your time and your words, they’re priceless 😊

    Reply
    • Sydnee Tigert : Oct 10th

      Thanks! When I applied to be a blogger for The Trek, I knew they’d look for someone with a fresh take on hiking. Lots and lots of people have opinions on gear and everyone’s walking down the same 18″ of earth, so you have to bring something original that people want to read. You also need to show them that you have a sense of humor, and that it translates well in text. Good luck!

      Reply
  • Ant : Oct 11th

    I agree with the one person tent for tiny people. I am six foot so im taking the Big Agnes 2 person so far. I want to be ultralight but i want to be comfortable. I dont count trekking poles as weight as they are nearly always attatched to me so im not carrying them. As for the town dress, consider jersey, its light and stretchy and doesnt crush. I bought a wrap around so that if i loose alot of weight it will still fit. See you out there next year.

    Reply
    • Sydnee Tigert : Oct 11th

      I’m counting my trekking poles as luxury because it seems like a lot of hikers don’t use them and have them stored a way for long periods of time, but I do rely on them a bit more than a lot of people because I’m not as strong as a lot of hikers. I find that a lightweight polyester (like the cheap low quality kind you find in fast fashion boutiques) are lighter than jersey (albeit not as comfortable) and I’ll try to find one with a shift cut so if I lose weight, it hangs the same. These are a dime a dozen at thrift stores! They definitely don’t last as long but if I’m only wearing it in town, it should last.

      Reply
  • Katherine : Oct 12th

    suggestion: Columbia PFG Freezer Dress

    Reply
  • Swath : Oct 15th

    look at zpacks pointy hat for sun and rain that’s also a sit pad but requires a visor. Add OR’s echo visor on Amazon for 4 bucks and an ounce or so.

    Reply

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