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What is ultralight hiking? Why should I hike light?

by Steve Green

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The answer most ultralight hikers would give is: It�s more fun. Lightweight backpackers typically say they feel free, close to nature, and enjoy not having the burden of a heavy pack.

Lightweight hiking typically is not �fast packing� or covering as many miles as possible. It�s about hiking at the pace you like and enjoying it a lot more. The simplicity of ultralight hiking allows you to spend more time on the trail seeing more of the beauties of nature. And the lighter weight means you end even high mileage days feeling stronger and more refreshed. Lighter packing weights leave your feet and legs with far less soreness and fatigue.

Many people are forced into lighter packs by age or injury, but more and more young backpackers are discovering the common sense freedom of lighter packs. Long distance hikers often start out with their �old� heavy packs, but are quickly converted to the joys of lightweight hiking after the first few days on the trail. Weekend hikers can recover from heavy loads, but thru hikers need to make better plans.

Weekend hikers might as well learn from the experience of others. It makes sense that you�ll have more fun on any hike when you�re carrying less. Think of the freedom you feel with a day pack. Then think of the weight you usually carry when hiking and camping for one night or longer. Wouldn�t you like to be close to that day hike weight when you�re on extended hikes?

All backpackers are concerned about comfort, safety, and cost of equipment. That doesn�t have to keep them from hiking lighter. Switching to a lighter piece of gear might seem like a tradeoff in comfort, but most changes are easy to make and don�t require giving up any comfort at all. For instance, you may be carrying a pocket knife that weighs five ounces. A simple five ounces doesn�t seem like a killer on your back, and by itself it�s not. But chances are you�re not using that knife for any really heavy tasks, so why not carry a quality knife that weighs less than one ounce?

With one tiny change you�re lighter with no loss in comfort, and you�re carrying less volume. And if you can reduce volume as well as weight, it helps in your final efforts to work your way down to the lightest comfortable pack for you. A smaller, frameless pack is more convenient to bring inside your tent. And a small pack makes it easier to find any item you�re looking for.

You don�t need to compromise safety to pack light. One of the first things you�ll notice with a light pack is you�re more agile. You�re less apt to roll and ankle or get off balance and fall. You can hike quickly to more protected areas if there�s threatening weather.

Some lightweight items actually cost less than their heavier counterparts. Your pack can be less expensive because it�s the smaller version of a series. Things like your knife, compass, flashlight, and stove can be smaller, cheaper, but full-functioning versions. Much of your weight savings is just planning what to leave home. A good example is your cook kit. You may be using only the kettle to heat water for your meals, so there�s no need to take the frying pan and dish. You�ve cut your weight by more than half by just leaving it home.

This all leads to planning which is at the core of lightweight backpacking. It might seem tedious to those who don�t like to make lists or get technical with details. But most of the changes you�ll make are things that you�ll only have to do once. From that time forward, you�ll enjoy the benefits of every little change. Even the box you store your gear in at home will be smaller and simpler.

Planning helps you avoid last-minute packing, too. Often those last few things you grab before you leave home, like unnecessary clothing, add extra pounds to your pack.

There will be some expense to make these changes, but you�ll enjoy the advantages forever. For some, there can be an actual savings because the first thing you should do is quit buying and carrying �cool� things you don�t really need. It�s easy to walk through a backpacking store and grab items that will have you carrying a 70-pound pack. Resist the urge! No more impulse buying.

Most backpackers carry extra weight because they use gear that manufacturers make �bombproof.� That may sound good, because it sounds safer. But those heavy materials are usually there because the companies don�t ever want to see returns, even from hikers who are ridiculously hard on their gear. So it�s easier to make the gear from heavy materials that can never break. And some of those heavier materials are cheaper because they�re more common.

All lightweight backpackers will tell you the greatest savings can be made on your three heaviest items -- your pack, tent, and sleeping bag. You often hear those who hike light talk about their �system.� They use that term because it all has to work together. You can�t pack a lot of bulk into a small pack. So you�ll get the most benefit when you reduce the tent and sleeping bag weight and volume when you choose your new pack. When you choose the pack, don�t buy one that�s too big in volume. You�ll feel the need to fill it. Instead, keep feeling the need to reduce weight and volume.

Packs are an item on which individual backpackers have a wide variety of needs and likes. Try to find the light ones that have the features you want. After ordering your pack, fill it with gear and walk around to see if you have the right fit. There are packs that weigh from one to two pounds. For the lightest backpackers, you can even have a pack that�s less than a pound.

Most hikers carry a sleeping bag that�s overkill for summer use. Since they�ve purchased for the worst possible conditions, they carry too much weight for long hikes and end up roasting in their bags on most nights. You can have a sleeping bag that is comfortable to 35 degrees and weighs only one pound or one that�s good to 20 degrees and is just one pound 10 ounces. Down sleeping bags are the lightest and can be compressed better than synthetic bags. Don�t avoid down bags because you�ve heard they don�t function when wet. All bags are miserable when wet. Just increase your expertise in keeping the bag dry. Quality down bags have extremely tight weaves that are very resistant to moisture.

There are a wide variety of tents and tarps that can reduce your shelter weight to one to two pounds. At less than 2 pounds you can have full bug and rain protection. So, your �big 3,� the pack, tent, and sleeping bag can weigh 4 to 5 pounds. Add an ultralight stove, lightweight rain gear, and a light sleeping pad and the total weight of 6 of your most important items is still less than your old 7-pound pack! That should be enough incentive to inspire any backpacker.

Since you lift your feet with every step, wearing lightweight running shoes can save more energy than any other item. Experiment with a pair that fit your arch well and give you good support. Don�t fall into the trap of thinking you need a pair of boots because you�re hiking. Lighter loads reduce your chances of severe ankle sprains. An ankle sprain in boots can give you a high ankle sprain that�s worse than a sprain in running shoes. In warm weather, you don�t need waterproof shoes. Regular running shoes breathe best and dry out quickly after stream crossings. In wet areas and cool seasons, you may want a pair of lightweight hiking shoes (not boots) that are waterproof.

Calculate the weight of your clothing, too. It�s part of what you�re carrying. Synthetic clothing is lighter and since it dries faster, it�s safer.

Water is vital when you�re hiking, but you can stay well hydrated and carry less weight by just reading your map carefully and knowing where the next water is located.

Start lightening your load by spreading the contents of your pack in front of you. Take a pad and pencil and start taking notes. What�s too heavy? What�s overkill for summer use? What can be left home? Look at the small items, too. Where can you make the quickest, easiest changes? Where can you make the quickest, inexpensive changes? You can make a big difference when you save weight on lots of small pieces of gear. Consider buying an inexpensive digital scale that weighs in 1/10 of ounce increments. Seeing the actual numbers will be an eye opener. If you�re carrying 30 pounds or more, you can cut your carrying weight by more than half! And you can do it in total comfort. That will make every outdoor adventure more fun.

Hiking light can get you back to the essence of backpacking � light, carefree outdoor travel.

About the Author

Steve Green is an avid hiker who has enjoyed trimming his backpack weight for over 40 years. He has a website devoted to lightweight backpacking at www.hikelight.com.


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