Why Helium Backpacking Might Just Be Hot Air for Thru-Hikers

 Even those who live under a rock (which, let’s be honest, is a real possibility among thru-hikers) have likely seen the viral video of a hiker using a helium balloon to lighten his backpack. As an ultralight thru-hiker myself, I was intrigued — albeit skeptical — by what a helium-assisted thru-hike could actually look like in an alternate universe. For ultralighters seeking to shed every last ounce from their packs, it’s a tantalizing notion.

While I’m thrilled at the opportunity to lighten my pack even further, perhaps even with a negative base weight offset by the strength of a balloon pulling my pack up toward the heavens, I’d caution any ultralighters out there against a helium balloon becoming your go-to kit just yet. Is this innovative concept destined to soar, or simply fizzle out like a balloon losing its helium?

Have Helium, Will Travel

Innovative mastermind Brendan Carberry puts his sky-high aspirations to the test in a new series titled “Failure is an Option.” By attaching a large helium weather balloon to his heavy pack, Carberry takes to the trails, Up-style, to see if helium-assisted hiking is the solution to sore shoulders.

Comically, Carberry finds the balloon to be too much of a match for his pack’s weight, floating his backpack high enough to simply rest above his shoulders. At one point, he straps his pack down to keep it from floating away.

The viral video, which received over 38 million views on YouTube, has taken the backpacking universe by storm. Many viewers got a kick out of the gravity-defying experiment, debating whether this could be a viable revolution in ultralight backpacking technology, or simply a silly solution.

User @SpaghettiniFiveMillion comments, “‘Uhh… I think I lost my backpack with all our food…’Where did you lose it?!’ ‘The stratosphere…'” @DavidAWA points out, “As an avid balloon backpacker, you should always carry an emergency slingshot on your belt.” Others questioned whether the itinerary for the day would be “wherever the wind takes them.” 

Future or Fail?

We hate to be a lead balloon, but we’d caution you against taking all the weight off your shoulders … for now. Here’s just a handful of reasons why helium-assisted backpacking probably won’t catch on. 

Trees + Wind + Balloon = A Bad Time

Unfortunately, trees, wind, and any natural aspects of the environment aren’t conducive with a fragile, prone-to-popping balloon. While Carberry’s Zeppelin was fortunate enough to sail up and over a vast, wide-open trail, some of us are not so fortunate (looking at your Green Tunnel, AT thru-hikers). Imagine stopping every few feet to rescue your helium balloon from getting ensnared in a tree branch. Talk about tedious miles!

Sail Up, Up, and Away

Additionally, any amount of wind would likely cause your pack to become so ultralight, a helium balloon could take off with it into the sky, not unlike the movie “Up,” leaving you pack-less, tent-less, and hungry. In the experiment, Carberry struggles to keep his pack on his shoulders with little to no wind. For those trekking windy ridges of the PCT or CDT, we wish you luck in outer space. 

Resupplying Gets Tricky

Forget about a standard resupply of ramen and snacks — now, you’ll need to stop in town to regularly replace your balloon’s helium. Pretty sure the local grocery market’s aisles won’t have what you’re looking for … not to mention helium being the least renewable resource on earth (once released into the atmosphere, the gas is so light that it simply floats off into space). We can’t imagine the cost of regular helium resupplies is friendly to a thru-hiker on a budget (or anyone, really). 

Deflating the Hype of Helium-Assisted Backpacking

While Carberry’s experiment may have provided us with a good laugh and some whimsical visions of backpacking among the clouds (and a solution to sore shoulders), it seems the practical challenges of helium-assisted hiking outweigh the benefits … at least for now.

It might be best to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and our packs semi-comfortably on our backs. After all, as much as we love the idea of floating effortlessly along the trail like a Pixar character, there’s something to be said for the simplicity of good old-fashioned hiking.

Featured image: OutsideWatch

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

What Do You Think?