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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Solution: Buy a regular Sawyer Squeeze and keep the Mini at home for weekend trips.
Weight Gain: 1 ounce
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.
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.
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)
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.)
Solution: The Deuce of Spades is a good trowel and it weighs .6 ounces, which is nothing.
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.
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).
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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