When Ultralight is Too Light

PCT hikers are notorious for obsessing over their base weight. Thru-hikers might start the AT with two camp chairs and a thermos strapped to their pack, but PCT hikers look more like elementary school students who forgot to pack a lunch. For some perspective, a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds – that means that if you have a forty-mile carry and you bring 6 ½ liters with you, you’re adding an extra 15 pounds to your pack weight. So understandably, PCT hikers are ruthless about cutting grams.

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But with low weight comes great responsibility.

There’s a big learning curve to ultralight, and you need to make sure you’re really prepared for it.

I think the number one gear mistake many PCT hikers make is thinking that they should buy all of the hot new ultralight gear that’s available and ditch their older, heavier stuff. New ultralight gear is expensive, but conventional wisdom dictates that we should invest in saving our knees and buying the best stuff for what is a pretty intense, once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, if you’re dedicated enough to quit your job and leave your family and friends for six months, what’s an extra hundred dollars for a lighter sleeping bag?

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But the downside of ultralight gear is not only its cost. Some of it can be less durable, less functional, or incompatible with your other gear (Andrew Skurka has some great thoughts on this in his article, ‘Stupid Light’.)

I was guilty of joining the low base weight race, as were many of my hiking partners. We all wanted to shave off grams and start with the best gear line up possible, but on the trail there were times I regretted our friendly competition on lighterpack.com. I think I would have been better off if, after I stripped away all unnecessary ounces, someone had told me what weight to add back.

So here it is: The gear that’s not worth its weight – and how many ounces you should put BACK in your bag.

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1. Trekking Poles

One of my hiking partners, the Camel of Corvallis (he insists on me using his full name), started the trail with some very expensive ultra-light trekking poles that he was extremely proud of. The only problem? They broke almost immediately. The tips kept falling off. He sent for new tips and glued them on, only to lose them again within a week.

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He’s not alone, either; we met a handful of other people on trail who had a story about these particular poles separating, breaking, or collapsing. We also met a number of people with other light weight pole designs who had them snap while crossing rivers in the Sierra – which, with all of the tent designs that call for trekking pole supports, meant they were stuck ‘cowboying’ (sleeping under the stars without a tent) until they could get to a town.

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Solution: Don’t expect the thing that holds your body weight to be ultralight. You’re using these poles to support your impact against the ground, which can be a lot of pressure. You’re almost better off not bringing poles than bringing ultralight ones that are going to give out on you when you depend on them most. Not only will you risk injuring yourself from a fall that you didn’t expect, but you’ll still have to carry the (now useless) poles.

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Instead, just buy some standard Black Diamond or Leki poles. They’re not cutting edge, they’re not ultralight, but they won’t make your tent collapse when it snows and they will keep you from doing a face plant or drifting down the river.

Weight Gain: 7 ounces (if you switch 10 ounce poles for 17 ounce Black Diamond poles, including baskets for each)

2. The Ultra-Light Puff

I was so excited about my brand new, bright orange Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer when I was planning for my thru-hike that I wore it everywhere the month before leaving. I couldn’t wait to use it on the trail. Unfortunately, that month of pre-wearing must have taken its toll, because the flimsy ultralight zipper broke a few hundred miles into the PCT and I spent the next 4 ½ months with a taped together zip-up that had become a pullover. This would have been OK, except for the other problem: it wasn’t warm enough. There’s no good way around it; when you trade on weight, you lose warmth (assuming a constant fill power).

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Solution: Look into a jacket for the long term. One of my hiking partners had an Arc’Teryx which she swore by, while the standard REI down jacket was an affordable and popular option for a lot of other hikers. The Ghost Whisperer is a popular jacket and I’m not saying it won’t keep you warm at all, but it might not be the right jacket if you tend to run cold.

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Weight Gain: (Assuming you started with a Ghost Whisperer hoodie) It’s a 6 ounce gain if you switch out for the Arc’Teryx Thorium or Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie).

3. The Fancy Cuben Fiber Tent You Don’t Understand

One of our hiking partners, Bivvy, got his name because every time he tried to set up his Tarptent Notch, it collapsed. Guess what he slept in? The Camel of Corvallis had the same tent – and apparently, the same problem – because he cowboy camped for the first three weeks of the trail until he ordered a different tent. And yet a third hiking partner, Centerfold, started the trail with another popular model of a non-freestanding tarp style tent, the Z-Packs Hexamid. On day three, at Mount Laguna Outfitters (which is fantastic, by the way), he traded it in for a Big Agnes Fly Creek. I’m not saying Big Agnes is the ideal tent or that you shouldn’t buy Tarptent (I loved my double rainbow for the AT) or that the Hexamid isn’t fantastic (a lot of hikers swear by it and it gets great reviews), but if you’re used to a free-standing, two-walled tent with its own poles, maybe you don’t want to make the jump to a single-wall, non-freestanding, trekking-pole-supported tent or tarp right before your thru-hike. Or maybe this is just evidence that our entire hiking group should not have made it to Canada.

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Tents arguably have the biggest learning curve of any piece of gear. Site selection is important for any tent, but if you suddenly jump up to a tarp, you need to be much more aware of site selection and how to set it up. In Northern California, I watched a hiker spend a full 30 minutes trying to set up the guylines on her ultralight tarp she had just bought. When she finally climbed into her bag she laughed and said, “Well, that’s probably not going to protect me from much!” If you’re carrying a tent or tarp you don’t feel secure about setting up, you might as well be hiking shelter-less.

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Solution: There’s a pretty big learning curve on some of the tents out there. If you stick with the same tent all trail, you’ll be a pro at setting it up by the end, BUT that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy with the most complicated model. Make sure your tent is comfortable for you, because you will be sleeping in it a lot. (This seems like obvious advice, but so many hikers, myself included, start the trail in a tent that they haven’t set up before.)

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Weight Gain: It’s a 9 ounce gain to trade your (one-person) Zpacks Hexamid for a Big Agnes Fly Creek (and roughly double that if you’re trading the two-person versions).

4. Dry Bags

The whole point of these is that they keep your stuff dry. But any veteran hiker knows that they also inevitably get holes, which sort of defeats the whole point. I have to say that the cuben fiber stuff sacks, while lighter and pretty cool looking, don’t keep their structural integrity half as well as the regular old sil-nylon ones. I used the Zpacks ‘Food blaster bag’ to keep my food safe and odor free on the PCT – but by the time I had reached ‘bear territory,’ the bag had at least a dozen holes, allowing the scent of cheese to waft freely through the forest.

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Solution: Sea to Summit’s ultra-sil stuff sacks are cheaper, more colorful so you don’t lose them, and they barely weigh more than their cuben fiber competition. On average they add about 1 gram of weight per liter (so, an 8 liter sack made from sil-nylon is probably going to weigh 8 grams or one quarter of an ounce more than a cuben fiber bag of the same volume). In other words, just take the ounce.

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Weight Gain: About 1 ounce, assuming that you carry around 30 liters of storage in dry bags (for example, I like to carry a 20 liter that I use for my clothes and sleeping bag, an 8 liter for food, and a 2 liter for all small stuff I want to keep safe.

5. Sleeping Bag

I personally think this is the most universally regretted ultralight purchase. Even if you sleep warm, consider the fact that as you hike North, you’ll lose fat from your body and loft from your sleeping bag. So even if you start with a 20 degree, it might feel like a 30 by the time you reach Washington. In order to sleep comfortably, two of my hiking partners eventually bought Sea to Summit sleeping bag liners – which, at 14 ounces, made them feel pretty silly for buying ultralight sleeping bags to save half a pound.

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Solution: Read those reviews and make sure that when you buy your bag, it’s really the temperature rating it says it is. OutdoorGearLab has a great review on ultralight bags and I agree with them that although Zpacks, Feathered Friends, and Enlightened Equipment make a good product, Katabatic is definitely accurate to its temperature rating. I used a Katabatic for the whole PCT and never regretted it. If you are going for the weight savings, make sure you have a good layering system.

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Weight Gain: About 5 ounces (comparing the standard size 15 degree Katabatic (fits up to 6 feet) to my friend’s 20 degree Zpacks (fits up to 5’10”) bag).

6. The Sawyer Mini

Sawyer is known for making the best water filter and might just be the most-carried brand by thru-hikers because of it, but that doesn’t mean that all Sawyer filters are created equal. While the Sawyer Mini is great as an inline filter when you’re trying to make time on a short stretch, it gunks up faster than the normal Sawyer and will drive you insane in the desert and Northern California. I think the most common trade out of gear for thru-hikers (on any trail) is the Sawyer Mini for the regular-sized Sawyer Squeeze. The larger one is more versatile, easier to clean, and simply works faster – which, when you drink 6 liters of water a day, is really important.

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Solution: Buy a regular Sawyer Squeeze and keep the Mini at home for weekend trips.

Weight Gain: 1 ounce

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7. Tent stakes

Tent stakes, like socks, belong to another plane of existence. This is why they will occasionally disappear into thin air. Don’t be that hiker trying to pound a stick into the ground to hold up your tent. It’s really hard to convince yourself to take anything ‘extra,’ but this is one exception that you’ll be glad for. We ran out of stakes probably once every week when we started the trail. It seemed like every time we left town, one of our stakes leapt out of our tent bag and every time we reached an outfitter, they had about one stake left to sell us – because, let’s face it, the other hikers are all in the same boat and stakes get bought up faster than town food. With the crazy desert wind, tent stakes were like gold.

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Solution: Make sure you buy sturdy stakes, like the MSR groundhogs. It’s definitely worth a few more grams to get stakes that will not break on hard ground. I probably broke about a dozen stakes in the course of our trip.

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Weight Gain: 1.6 ounces (assuming you use 6 stakes, if you replace all of your .2 ounce ultralight ‘shepherd’s hook’ style ultralight stakes with .35 ounce groundhogs and add 2 extra)

8. Trowel

Some of you might not even think you’ll need a trowel, but I highly recommend it. You’re going to be digging a cat hole once or twice a day and the soil in the desert is hard, dry stuff. I was so proud that I saved .2 ounces with my aluminum trowel (yeah, I know how ridiculous that sentence is), but I fell into the classic trap where I undervalued a tool that I was going to need literally every day (and as a result, had a few near disasters when I couldn’t dig a hole fast enough.)

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Solution: The Deuce of Spades is a good trowel and it weighs .6 ounces, which is nothing.

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Weight Gain: Only .2 ounces (No, I don’t know why I insisted on carrying a UL trowel).

9. Camp shoes

One time in Northern California, I left my tent barefoot. We were camped at an RV park and it had a huge, grassy lawn. Between the full moon, the warm air, and the grass under my feet, it felt like a summer night back home. In fact, when I saw a group of hikers across the lawn at a picnic table, I almost forgot that I was in the desert.

Until I tried to walk towards them and promptly stepped into a patch of cactus thorns. The next day we had to take a half-day because I spent the morning digging the thorn tips out of my feet.

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Long story short, I wouldn’t recommend hiking in the desert without camp shoes. If you really want to save weight, you can always just put your boots back on to get up at night, but then you’re putting a (hopefully) clean sleeping sock into a boot that is filled with at least an inch of accumulated dust (desert dust is insane).

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Solution: You can pick up some cheap flip-flops for a few dollars or, if you have the cash, check out Xero shoes. 

Weight Gain: 11 ounces on average for Xero shoes, more for flip-flops.

Total Weight Gain

Total extra weight on your back: About 35 ounces (or one liter of water)

Total extra weight on person: 7 ounces (trekking poles)

Can you make it without these things? Well, I wouldn’t have so much anecdotal evidence if people hadn’t made it without them, but this post isn’t about fear-mongering. You won’t die if you don’t follow my advice here, but you might have a moment where you feel dumb. Like when your mom told you not to wear shorts and you ignored her and then you had to pretend you weren’t freezing all day. Don’t get caught with your metaphorical pants down.

Your base weight, like your body, makes for a more efficient hike when it weighs less. But there is a point where ultralight becomes too light, and I hope this article helps you decide where the line is.

So go ahead, gain a couple pounds.

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Comments 21

  • Chris G. : Feb 10th

    Great article, no fun to go ultralight if you have no idea how to use the gear. I also had serious issues setting up my non freestanding tent when i first took it out of my bag. I am gonna take some lighter trekking poles for the AT bur hopefully I dont fall into the first trap you talked about but if so I have some back up black diamond flip locks to get mailed out to me if I snap one of the others in half.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Sounds like you’re all set, I hope those poles work but it’s smart to have a backup. I have set up more new tents than I would like to admit in the dark, next to the trail, after a long day of hiking. Preparation really does pay off!

      Reply
  • Bev Staley : Feb 11th

    Great article, Maggie.
    It seems to me thatsome people just don’t do the necessary research and preparation before setting out on their hikes. I mean, they obviously haven’t done any real shakedown hikes or even attempted to put up new tents, tarps, used poles in treking situations etc. Quite amazing really when you think of the commitment to time and money that goes into such a trek. I’m about to do the 6 day Overland Track here in Tasmania, and though it is still summer, temperatures in the hills at night are already down to 1C (34F). Now I sleep cold, so I bought a new sleeping bag to cope – it just happens to be a Zpacks, but I chose the 10F, long version at 6’3″ (I’m 5’10”), and an extra wide one so that if I encounter really cold weather sometime in the future I can wear my thick down jacket with hood inside. It all comes down to research and preparation, really.
    Keep up the blog, Maggie.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Thanks Bev! I hope the Zpacks works for you, I think you were smart to buy the 10F and do your research. I hope the Tasmania Trek was incredible; there are many jealous Trek writers sitting around and wishing they were doing that with you.

      Reply
  • Tim C : Feb 12th

    Excellent, practical advice. People, listen to the voice of experience!

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Thanks for reading, Tim, and boosting my ego!

      Reply
  • Liz "Rest Step" Fallin : Feb 12th

    Awesome article! It also pays to revisit this advice as the years go by. I’m sleeping a lot colder than I did back in the day.

    Oh, one tiny detail: The stakes you are showing are MSR (not REI) Mini Groundhogs. MSR also makes the sturdier Groundhogs, at 0.5 oz. I carry a mixture of the two types, as the soil in the PNW is full of roots and rocks, and I use the big ones to get enough tension on my BA Copper Spur UL1 vestibule.

    Keep up the good work! 🙂

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Thanks for the correction, I’ll fix that in the article. PNW and more specifically the Glacier Peak wilderness were my favorite parts of the PCT!

      Reply
  • Steve Gilliam : Feb 14th

    Excellent discussion on the inevitable ultra-light “bounce” back from stupid-light. Been there, done that.

    Personally, I will still keep my ZPacks big-3 gear (tent, sleeping bag, pack) since it all works awesome for me. Every year I set everything up and test it out in the back yard before my first hike of the season – a minor investment to confirm everything is in good working order – which reminds me how to adjust/set it all up. Keeping the overall pack weight low is still an important guiding strategy.

    However, I’ve added back weight with the Sawyer Squeeze instead of the Mini as you suggest, a Jetboil instead of an alcohol stove, an actual pillow (Sea-To-Summit) and a Kindle e-reader to make my time in the woods much more comfortable. Those are the items that make the experience more relaxing for me. And so, as I encourage friends and family to go lightweight, I also try to remember that it is OK to carry a bit more weight sometimes to keep some things that truly make the experience more enjoyable for them. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to go out and hike again!

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Nice, I hope you’re happy for the changes and not cursing my name on the uphill!

      Reply
  • scott herndon : Feb 14th

    Great advice!! for new hikers I would say start cutting heavy weight first then shave the ounces. It seems obvious but I run into newer hikers who have dutifully ripped pages from guide books and cut down their toothbrush handles (great if you think you may be caught in a prison riot on the trail and need to use it as a shank) but who are carrying around 5lbs of extra gear weight in their tent sleeping bag pack selections. Allow yourself adequate time to research test and prepare for your hike so you can find the lightest gear that meets your needs, but if you are pressed for time get the pounds cut first and then start shaving off those ounces.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Thanks! This is great advice, too!

      Reply
  • Aaron Bennett : Feb 15th

    I don’t worry about the weight of hiking poles anyways. They count as worn weight, and not pack weight, so I never bothered with ultralight poles. I get Wal mart aluminum ones for 20 bucks a pair.

    I made my own tarptent from a cut down silnylon tarp and mosquito netting. Far cheaper than other options, and just as good. I don’t use down, at all. Synthetics are getting lighter all the time, and retain warmth when wet. I had to cut a couple trips short because my down bag got wet. Wasn’t life threatening, but still not worth it. Even with a 20 synthetic quilt and jacket, my base weight is 9lbs. Plenty good enough for me, and plenty light enough.

    Most important, I have spent the time needed to practice and learn survival skills. This is probably the best thing I have done as far as hiking preparation. Shelter building, fire starting in extreme conditions, ect.

    I have no problem with finances, and I think the fact that I choose to stick with some of my homemade gear, particularly the tarptent, says a lot.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Thanks for commenting! Also, that’s awesome that you made your own gear. I am always blown away by people who do that, my own sewing skills and patience are pretty limited. I’m also impressed at how light synthetics have gotten. I’ve been spoiled by my dri-down bag, but admittedly those are pretty pricey. On a budget, synthetic is starting to look better and better.

      Reply
  • Centerfold : Feb 16th

    Tip: lose 2 oz on your person by removing your shirt sleeves.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Author’s note: I approve this comment, but be sure to check the open carry laws in each state you hike through before unleashing those guns.

      Reply
  • Dizzy : Feb 19th

    I feel like this is ok advice for new hikers but new hikers shouldn’t be using ultralight stuff anyway for the most part. Why would you go out on a 2000+ mile hike using a tarp/minimal tent if you have no experience doing that, or even much camping experience at all? If you don’t have much experience obviously you need something a little beater. I didn’t use a tarp on my AT thru for a reason. Now I feel more confident to use it on my upcoming PCT thru, I have a ton more backpacking experience in general and specifically with site selection etc. Also not all ultralight gear is junky- my UNIQLO jacket is still going strong, and it’s been not only my AT but regular winter coat for 3 yrs now. Relatively cheap too. My Zpacks Zero will be going on another thru with me with a small (free!) repair (though I did have a year’s experience with a similar frameless pack from MLD first). I saw people with more “sturdy” Osprey packs who needed to get a new one by the time they were in Damascus. I’ve never lost a stake in probably 250+ nights of camping last couple years- not sure why the type of stake you have will make a difference there. Can you count to 6 (or 8, or 10 etc) in the AM? With a little coffee no problem 🙂

    I am curious though as to which ultralight poles you say are the ones that break all the time. I did have one pole break on me last year when I fell on it on the corner of a ledge (coming off Dragon’s tooth)..they weren’t crazy expensive though ($50/pair). It was by Fizan.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      Hi! Thanks for commenting. I totally agree with you that some ultralight products are worth a lot more than their weight. I wanted to talk about the temptation to jump into ultralight before we’re totally ready for it. I think every hiker has done that at least on a small scale – I know I have and I know a lot of my hiking companions have, and that’s all I have to go on.

      The stake losing problem was one I had a lot in the desert which is why I mentioned it for the PCT, but admittedly I didn’t have stake issues on the AT. I know site selection and a good pitch make a big difference, but the group I hiked with lost several stakes in the sandy ground, strong wind, and limited cover of the Mojave and Anza-Borrego regions. Since this article is aimed at new and new-ish hikers who might not be as well-versed in site selection as some of the veterans on this site (even after a cumulative two summers of living outside, I still had a lot to learn about desert hiking apparently!), I thought it was important to mention that.

      The poles my friend had which broke (and which I heard of breaking for another hiker) were Gossamer Gear’s poles. I don’t want to besmirch the company too much though, since I think they’re already an underrated and fantastic company, but their poles specifically might be a little too light for a thru. That being said, if I go on another long trail I’ll probably buy a GG pack.

      Reply
  • Kevin Mann : Mar 16th

    It’s worth investing a bit of extra weight in a pack that can hold and properly transfer to your hips 40 to 45 pounds, without restricting the movement of your spine. It’s easy for a pack to feel comfortable with 30 pounds. It’s when you are really loaded down with 6 liters for a dry section and with 5 days of food that you are stressing your gear and your body.

    Reply
    • Maggie Wallace : Mar 20th

      I totally agree! Backpacks are so personal, and it’s so hard to pick one for something like the PCT where your pack weight might have a 20 pound range of difference from one day to the next, depending on what kind of water carries and weather you’re facing. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  • Dave : Jun 14th

    Good article apart from the part about shelters. This sounds more like user error and stupidity for not setting the tent up a handful of times off the trail. The Notch is ridiculously easy to set up.

    Reply

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