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Ultralight backpacking gear is aimed squarely at backpackers who want to shave time and effort off their hikes.
Their motto: "Ounces matter".
This type of hiking appeals to a minimalist, someone who wants to go fast and light without being burdened by creature comforts.
Ultralight backpacking equipment is designed to ease the anxiety of any hiker who has a particular base pack weight target to achieve.
Pause for a definition: Base pack weight = backpack + what's in and on it, minus food, water, fuel or anything else consumed over the duration of the hike.
To be considered lightweight, base pack weights need to stay around (or under, which is the target of fierce competition) 20 pounds, or ~ 9 kg.
Ten pounds (4.5 kg) is the maximum target weight for an ultralight backpacker.
NOTE: These weights are for U.S. hikers, and the numbers vary depending on where you are and who you're talking to.
These gear weights are astounding for someone like me who started backpacking in the late 1970's, carrying up to one third of her body weight in heavy gear. That worked out to 40+ pounds!
Let's take a stroll (because we're going fast and light, rather than heavy and burdened) through what sets ultralight backpacking equipment apart from the regular stuff.
One of the first people to notice that travelling light was the way to hike was Emma Gatewood. Her late-in-life Appalachian Trail adventures make me proud to be in the female hiker clan.
A climber (among other things) named Ray Jardine receives most of the media credit for the origins of the ultralight backpacking equipment philosophy, which makes sense coming from a guy who defied, and defeated, gravity again and again.
The book can give you some great trail insights even if you're not interested in lightening up the the nth degree.
And there's a chapter written by a woman to shed light on female hiker trail issues.
I highly recommend it!
The planet we live on enforces certain rules.
These rules are annoying to hikers in general, but particularly onerous to lightweight and ultralight backpackers.
Rules such as...
All of these facts lead to a hiker's natural curiosity about how to reduce the weight of your backpacking gear.
Which leads us to considering whether or not ultralight backpacking gear is a good choice for your trail time.
What kind of backpacking gear delivers function and form without a lot of annoying gravitational tugging?
A sarcastic hiker might respond: expensive gear, that's what!
Indeed, it takes some coin to purchase the highest end lightweight backpacking equipment, but it could be the best investment you ever made if it spares you a sore back and gives you more time to explore the backcountry.
Or if you adhere to the RayWay of Mr. Jardine, you should be sewing your own lightweight hiking gear! He even gives you sewing tips on the link I shared above.
Some gear stores will rent the backpacking gear, something I highly recommend before making an investment in any hiking equipment that has a high price point.
This company, aptly named Ultralight Gear, has great ultralight packs with really interesting features, and they do business in a unique way:
At the very least, read what some of the gear testers have to say about lightweight gear, and then decide if you need to be a fanatic about weight or are just trying to shed a few pounds of pack weight.
Read on for a little advice on how to avoid feeling intimidated if you're just wading into the world of ultralight backpacking gear, and why going lighter and lighter is kind of a silly way to frame things for a hiker.
And here's a great choice for your hiking bookshelf as you evolve, or dive into, ultralight backpacking gear:
If you're just beginning to explore
the wonderful idea of a lighter pack on your next backpacking adventure,
I recommend the following strategy.
Don't run out and buy anything new.
Instead, get a reliable scale and record the weight of every piece of backpacking equipment you now possess.
If you need to purchase some gear, do some comparison shopping and take note of the weights. Select the lightest gear possible within your budget.
This ultralight pack review will help you get started.
Next, sit down with maps and guidebooks and decide what your upcoming hiking season looks like.
Then consider which gear you can leave at home, or scale down.
On and on it goes, the merry chase of "What can I leave at home?" Subtitled: "Shaving the ounces".
I caution you to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of shaving off ounces along with a wide margin of safety and comfort.
It's great to lighten up, but not at the risk of you getting back to the trailhead in one piece.
Caching supplies along your long trail is of course the best way to lighten your load, as long as you've plotted your course carefully, factored in "oops" days so you don't have to forego food or water, and vowed to stick to your plan once you're on the trail.
You could also map out resupply opportunities, factoring into account shorter store hours in rural communities, holidays and week-ends, and how much effort it will be to arrive there.
Now consider which gear you can afford to switch over to ultralight. I have done this, one big item at a time, over several years, and found it to be a nice gradual transition that doesn't shock my check book.
Tip: Expect the names of the ultralight backpacking gear companies to be different than the usual suspects.
Several companies specialize in lightweight hiking equipment to appeal to a select group of hikers.
Again, read what the ultralighters are saying about their gear, and then begin to investigate companies such as:
Only you can decide whether or not to invest time, brain power and money into lightening up your pack.
No matter where you decide to shed weight, please realize that you're way ahead of where hikers were just a few decades ago.
Take small steps to trim the weight of your hiking gear, and never pass up a chance to ask questions, pick up someone's pack and mentally weigh it against yours (with permission, of course), or read about what other hikers are doing.
Send any questions my way. I don't claim the title of ultralight backpacker, but I am definitely making an effort to go lighter as I replace my worn out hiking equipment.
I love to talk about the merits, and drawbacks, of ultralight backpacking gear.
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