Why I am Not Ultralight

To go ultralight or not, is that the question? Today, the debate seems over: why carry more when you can carry less and increase the enjoyment of your hike? Technology allows us to have lighter fabrics and materials, to bring more (food, books, music) while being lighter.

Of course, if you’ve foraged around the internet, you know the basics: go lightweight but stay secure and comfortable. You are not a tourist going around in flip-flops on a snowy ridge! (True fact: people show up to hike Mt. Blanc in flip-flops.)

Yet, it seems that the race to ultralight backpacking has wiped away some crucial factors to consider when hiking long distances.

My way to ultralight

When I started an AT SOBO thru-hike in July 2015, I had this idea that I would hike with the most minimal gear possible—the lightest and fewest items in my backpack. In fact, I had been trained—or rather influenced—by living with an accomplished AT thru-hiker who had the curious habit of weighing every piece of gear and washing his whole body, teeth included, with a small bottle of Dr Bronner’s (even when not thru-hiking, living in a city). We were both in Canada at the time and coming back to France—my country of origin—after my one-year stay, I managed to not bring back 50kg of stuff in each suitcase. (I love books. And dictionaries. Words weigh more than one might think). In spite of this nasty accumulation habit, the idea of minimalism had slowly infused me, at least theoretically. What made me move back to lightweight instead of ultralight is for other reasons.

Money?

Paradoxically, becoming ultralight often means replacing your “obsolete” stuff and buying more specialized gear. Here, the first obstacle popped up: money. I certainly could not buy a Cuben Fiber shelter with my teacher’s salary. Fortunately, hikers have found ways of following this philosophy on the right side: making your own gear reduces the cost (like making an alcohol stove with a soda can…. or a beer can as you wish), having smaller items like a smaller-volume backpack, or a tarp instead of a double-wall tent is also cheaper, and using an item for multiple purposes takes less space in your pack. Finally getting the most expensive items (like a sleeping bag) over a period of time makes it all right as you are not going to throw it away after only one year of hiking.

Comfort?

All depends on which comfort we are talking about. A French ultralight hiker has played around with measuring the ratio of pleasure to backpack weight: depending on your pack weight, the hike is more or less enjoyable. In fact, being ultralight usually means comfort on trail and enjoying the hiking process rather than the camping process. I do agree with this statement as long as basic needs such as sleeping well, are fulfilled.

However, everybody is different and does not need the same items to be comfortable on trail.

I am a woman; many ultralight thru-hikers are men. Does that mean anything? Even though ultralight gear is marketed without any difference of gender and we are now (mostly) over clichés, I still find this idea in conversations that women are less hardcore than men in terms of comfort. In fact, on the internet and in discussions, women and men seem to be equally accepted in this discipline (especially as potential gear buyers on the web) and you will hardly find statistics on this topic. It is more a recurrent idea I have encountered in different speech with both non-hikers and hikers. What seems true though is that women and men usually have different expectations from their hiking accomplishment. I would rather say that women do not necessarily need to confront the natural elements to enjoy their hike. Comfort is just a matter of personal differences and needs: I need moisturizing lotion and a very-warm sleeping bag. My hiking partner needs spare pairs of socks and two or three hats. As for extreme counter-examples if needed, Grandma Gatewood or Sarah Marquis are some good ones.

What then?

Everything was leading me to the ultralight way of thinking and hiking. Except that:

-I started hiking in the fall

-My hiking partner was eating warm dinners with his own cookset, too small for two.

If you have read Andrew Skurka’s article on “stupid light,” you know already what I am going to tell here. More and more I feel that hikers tend to forget they are hiking in a specific environment with its specific climate, topography, and seasons. In August 2017, my hiking partner and I met a young thru-hiker on the Colorado Trail. Chatting with him was interesting: he knew everything about gear, ultralight, ultralight gear and ultralight thru-hikers. He was wearing a Gossamer Gear Kumo as backpack and all his gear was within the ultralight range. He spent the first week too cold at night and not able to sleep. And we were not yet at high altitude… his pack was surely lighter than ours but at what price? When hiking in the fall, my favorite hiking season, I need more clothes and a bivy over my sleeping bag, thus adding more base weight to my backpack and becoming non-ultralight.

Everything is relative

Then, paraphrasing Plato (“know thyself”) and Skurka (“know yourself and where you hike”), the key points in choosing your gear are your body (and mind), your surroundings (topography, temperature, season) and your goals. Yes, you can get rid of a rain jacket in the desert. No, you can’t go without an ice axe on a snowy high trail. Yes, I need chocolate to keep going. No, carrying coffee is not necessary for me. Yes, I will need a small towel in France because French gîtes d’étapes (hiker hostels) don’t give you one. No, I won’t bring my phone because I want to be immersed in nature.

Stay open to changes

All that to rephrase what someone has told a lot better? What made me write this article is not so much my own backpack-weight philosophy; rather a feeling I got recently in thru-hiking culture (on trail and on internet) where ultra lighters have a tendency for sectarian attitudes and condescendence instead of sharing creativity and viewpoints. On a French UL hiking forum, I’ve read posts discussing about not allowing people on the forum if they are not looking for more weight-reduction in their gear. In November 2017, we were hiking strenuously uphill on the Arizona Trail when two slim boys passed us almost running downhill with what looked like daypacks. No hello, no talking. They hiked. Probably our backpacks were looking too heavy to be worth a word. In fact, they were wearing Pa’lante packs, a new ultralight backpack company; we had the Crown 60 by Granite Gear. Of course, not every ultra-light thru-hiker behaves as a machine. We actually had met the founder of this company—John Zahorian—on the AT in 2015; hiked with him for a while; shared views about gear—especially backpacks—and time on the trail. The idea of owning less and doing more is an attractive one but not at the expense of our humanity.

As for the warm dinners…this might be a French characteristic, but plenty of hikers go stoveless for months. I can’t. It really makes the difference for me on a long-distance trip because there, it is no longer a transitory adventure, this is the way I live then. And in my (French) way of living, good food and nutrition matter (don’t even mention Soylent here)!

I’m Agnès grown in the French Alps with mountains as my backyard. Since then, my job teaching French abroad has forced me to explore different mountains (flat areas also…): the Czech Beskydy, Hungarian Matra, Manitoba’s plains… and the Appalachian Trail which I decided to hike as an experiment in long-distance hiking in the Fall 2015, on a suggestion of a student of mine (the dangers of teaching!). I met my boyfriend and hiking partner there (the dangers of hiking) with whom I have been—and will be—striding along other American and French long-distance trails, reading heavy books and eating saucisson (a wonderful calorie dense French hiker food). My sometimes-updated blog is here, in French.

 

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Comments 7

  • Vince Piquet : Mar 12th

    Loved the Soylent reference. Reminds me of an old movie. Fair winds and following seas.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO, ’17/’18

    Reply
  • Stephen Robert Marsh : Mar 12th

    Enjoyed this. I first saw the light/ultralight split on sleeping pads. Some just aren’t enough pad to sleep on, no matter how light they are. 😉

    Reply
  • Smokebeard : Mar 12th

    You don’t “become” ultralight. It’s a spectrum. https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/the-three-kinds-of-ultralight/

    Reply
    • Agnès : Mar 15th

      Sure, I totally agree with you and actually like your term “spectrum” which describes it a lot better than “becoming”. A matter of finding the right word 😉

      Reply
  • Ruth morley : Mar 12th

    Bonjour! I really enjoyed your post. I agree with all that you said, especially needing hot dinners on the trail.

    We had the pleasure of living in Evian-les-Bains in France for 6 years, on the shores of Lake Geneva and at the foot of the Alps. What a joy! My first long distance hike was the GR5, from Lake Geneva to Menton on the Mediterranean. I enjoyed it so much that I did the rest of the GR5 (northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands) later on. The time in the Alps truly enriched and changed my life.

    And I loved stayed at the Gites d’Etapes….with my own towel. 😊

    Reply
    • Agnès : Mar 15th

      Glad to hear that 🙂 The experience of thru-hiking in the States or France can be pretty different! We did a part of the GR5 in the Alps with my hiking partner and had some more or less good experiences with Gîtes d’étapes…
      If you ever go back to France, I would suggest the traverse of the Pyrenees (GR10, GR11 or HRP); it is amazing!

      Reply
    • Kenneth : Jun 1st

      I agree that minimal/ultralight is not for everyone or every hike. I never quite understood those that don’t pack for the environment. I usually use a hammock, but if I’m back home in Nebraska I’ll use a tent/sleeping bag, not many trees except in the creek/river bottoms.

      Reply

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