Over the last few months, after returning from Cape Wrath and writing about my favourite coffee setup, I have been teased a little by fellow hikers and backpackers about the fact that with all my luxury items I’m a little far from ultralight backpacking. It is funny how those terms come to play – I always thought I go pretty light, my base weight is regularly under 9kg (19lbs), but when thinking about it that is not really light. I probably carry about 3-4kg of luxuries: an Aeropress, my Alite chair, extra clothes, reading material etc, a pile of things that are not really needed, especially when walking 12-14 hours a day which is what I’ve been doing lately as part of sticking to fast hiking.
Incidentally, a few days ago Brendan Leonard wrote a great post on adventure-journal.com about the concept of taking spoils with us. Between the post and the teasing, I decided to test myself so I could really see what I need and check how I can lighten my load by stripping out all the luxuries and going on the leanest ultralight backpacking trip I’ve ever been on.
The place for perfecting my ultralight backpacking
I’m planning on section hiking the Pennine way over the next few months, going for a 2 day weekend once a month. The Pennine way is relatively clearly marked, but on challenging terrain, covering just over 260 miles. I’ll be walking 50 miles per week in sections – almost a mountain race distance and conditions (a little less mileage), so ultralight backpacking on these fast hiking weekends is perfect.
But what is ultralight backpacking?
The term is used endlessly, especially by a variety of outdoors manufacturers, walkers and more than anyone, thru-hikers. To give the best explanation, I will turn to the leading resource for lightweight backpacking – backpackinglight.com:
In essence, lightweight backpacking involves using the lightest gear to meet the needs of an overnight (or longer) wilderness walk. Many “ultralight” backpackers have a base pack weight (weight of gear not including clothing worn, items carried, food, fuel, and water) of less than 12 pounds. For others that are transitioning to this ultralight range, a base pack weight of 12-20 pounds is considered lightweight.
– Ryan Jordan, backpackinglight.com
Ultralight backpacking just takes this a step further and aims for a base pack of less than 10lbs (5kg). In my opinion, ultralight backpacking aims to eliminate gear as a factor in the outdoors adventure so you rely more on skill and need fewer tools to stay comfortable. This is the case in many places around the world, but in the West we tend to have many limitations on how we can behave outdoors, especially when it comes to fire use, hunting etc, so we need more gear to conserve the nature around us. But the ultralight concept still can still be used: for example, going tentless and just finding the right sleeping locations like a cave or building a shelter from branches. The problem with that kind of a gear trade-off is that it comes at another cost – time. Building a shelter takes time and if we are planning on fast hiking like the tortoise we need to carry a little more gear to be more flexible, like a tent to sleep anywhere we want.
Another danger of ultralight backpacking is becoming obsessive with the gear and weight cutting. Usually when that happens the outdoor adventure is less about the outdoors and more about the gear, or lack thereof; spending more time adjusting and tweaking rather than just being outdoors. What can also happen is cutting too much, going towards what Andrew Skurka calls “stupid light“: not carrying the right gear or carrying gear that is too light to perform efficiently.
I think that in the UK we get some really problematic conditions like rain for days on end, very windy conditions for miles on end and boggy terrain. These conditions mean that we need to avoid the stupid light pitfall but continue to adhere to the ultralight backpacking principle of light and efficient gear, aiming for multi purpose items and preferably less than 5kg base weight.
My ultralight backpacking setup – pretrip
I’m writing this prior to my first section of the Pennine way, before I have had a chance to test my gear and methods. The key to taking lightweight gear is planning (and using very light gear), planning and more planning. The more you know in advance about the planned trip (the conditions etc), the fewer redundancies you need to pack – you are carrying only what is truly needed. I wrote about the conditions to consider when creating your gear list, so all I will do is implement that concept and touch on a few new skills and tools I have been using. I just want to reiterate that I haven’t bought any new gear for this trip, only used gear that I already had in a new setup.
First was to look at the trail: as I said before the Pennine way is a pretty straightforward trail, usually marked with some elevation gains but absolutely no technical crossings or bush whacking – just simple walking. Because there is nothing technical I don’t need to take any special gear and I just need to be ready for some exposed ridges.
Second was the weather – I’m checking this twice: once when packing a few days before the trip and once the night before going. The
forecast for the weekend in the Peak District (the section I’ll be hiking) is partially cloudy, no rain, cool weather (10-20°c) with slightly colder nights (5°c). The wind will be moderate and that is due to last until the end of the weekend when rain might drift in. The lack of rain means I’m not taking any waterproof gear, assuming that if it does rain it will pass and I’ll dry out. I am taking wind resistant gear and a light insulated jacket, I won’t need more than that for a mild weekend.
I also know that it has been raining for the last few days in the UK and that the trail is pretty exposed. I plan on camping along the trail in some point (I’ll be discreet, so it is not an issue) but since the ground will be wet and there is still the chance of rain at night, I’m taking a tent and not just bivvying (cowboy camping). I’m also spoiled for a good night’s sleep and I’m taking my regular 3 seasons sleeping bag and a sleeping mat. This setup is heavy (around 2-2.5kg) but is worth it for a good night’s sleep and a potential shelter if the weather does turn. That is all I need to consider in terms of weather conditions.
The next items that I trimmed on my list are food and cookware: from a heavy system with the MSR Reactor and the Aeropress for a nice coffee, it is a titanium mug, MSR Pocket Rocket and simple dried foods: instant coffee, freeze dried dinner and porridge for breakfast. I’m only going for one night so no need to go overboard with food. This setup and food is light, very light: 800g including cozies, food, stove, canister and spoon.
Next to be trimmed are my luxuries: no ebooks (I have my phone), camp chair, sleeping clothes etc. I m carrying a basic first aid kit, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, mini headlamp, lip balm, foot cream, tooth paste and brush, a couple of reading pages (that are also to write on) and a pencil. I’m also taking a spare battery for my phone, my camera, a tripod (gorilla pod), Platypus bottles and walking poles. That is it – small list of small items.
Last, is how I’m approaching navigation. Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of printing map segments instead of carrying whole maps and taking my phone as an emergency GPS device. I’ll be testing various services and apps in the coming months and will write a full post about that, but for now I’ll just say that instead of 2 OS maps (110g each), I’m taking 5 A4 pages that weigh 24g altogether. Those will packed in a ziplock bag to stay safe and dry. The maps were printed from the OS Maps Online site and the app I’m using to navigate is the Viewranger with a map set I created on their site for the Pennine way and downloaded to my phone for offline use.
All that smaller, lighter gear is packed in a two part system: a Haglofs Gram Comp 25l backpack (my latest day pack) and the Ribz front pack. Between the two packs I have 32l of space that is frameless and really light. The total weight of the backpack (including food, no water) is 4.26kg, the Ribz (no water) weighs 821g – a total of just over 5kg, not too bad?
Post-trip – is ultralight backpacking valid?
Simple answer – yes!
I had a great trip on what seems to be the last nice weather weekend for the year, so good score for me. Besides that I found carrying such a light pack amazing, comfortable and gives the whole trip a much less “dramatic” edge. I used the combination of the Ribz and my Haglofs day pack and the combination was great. Keeping all the essentials and my day to day gear in the Ribz meant I didn’t need to take the backpack off; maybe just to take layers on and off, but that’s it.
My walking was simple and my only hindrance (again!) was my footwear, or more precisely, my feet. My back was loose and not tense from a heavy pack and there were no rubs or rashes after a long (44km/27miles) day in the sun; I was sweating from having two packs, but that was it. I didn’t miss anything besides some entertainment as my phone didn’t last for long due to the GPS usage. I will need to have a better charging solution and find ways to reduce the battery use from the GPS unit and the Viewranger app.
I’m beginning to like this ultralight backpacking idea, not just as a concept, but as a practice. I’ve seen that it is not the gear that made the difference (since it is the lack of it that makes it ultralight) but using the right skills and tools that made the difference. My new navigation tools and the ability to (semi) use them, the flexibility in terms of a camping spot, being fit enough to walk a long distance, being able to filter water, cook easily and cut down on some of the spoils – those made my experience good and ultralight. I also want to reiterate again the importance of planning – this is where it all comes from, planning. Know the route, the resources on the route, weather forecast (and check again), optional food sources etc and you will need much less gear, allowing for an easy switch to ultralight backpacking.
I think that developing the right skill set and getting some better gear (mainly the big 4) are all that you really need – not spending thousands on the shiniest and lightest and not sawing the handle off your toothbrush. I will personally continue to pursue ultralight backpacking as a sport discipline as I think it is a great tool to see the outdoors while reminding us to also live a simpler life without so much faff.