A number of years ago the ultralight backpacking movement gained significant momentum. More and more backpackers started reducing the weight of their gear in order to facilitate their travel through the wilderness. In recent times, the super-ultralight movement has begun. While ultralight backpackers generally aim for a base weight of less than 10 lb, super-ultralight backpackers try to achieve a base weight of under 5 lb. Well, this line of thinking has lead to me to make a contribution of my own to the struggle to reduce weight, the extreme-super-ultralight form of backpacking. The goal with extreme-super-ultralight is to reduce your base weight to under 5 oz. Yes, you heard it right, 5 oz. Impossible you say? Have a look at the gear list:
Of course, because of the minimal gear used, you have to rely heavily on your skills and plan accordingly. While a regular backpacker might simply set up camp wherever he wants in the woods, an extreme-super-ultralight backpacker has to use his skills and resourcefulness to find appropriate shelter locations. Often times that requires calling ahead of time, and making what we extreme-super-ultralighters call “reservations” in what is commonly referred to as hotels. Similarly, while a regular backpacker might be able to just throw some food together in a heavy pot, the extreme-super-ultralighter has to do extensive research and locate food resources known as restaurants, or at times use his highly developed skills to locate food stashes known as supermarkets.
Why bother you ask? Why extreme-super-ultralight? Once you have experienced it, there is no going back. When you master the necessary skills and gear, you will seamlessly and quickly move through the wilderness, utilizing the available shelter and food depots, to provide yourself with comfortable and exciting backpacking experience.
Clearly the above is a joke. There is no such thing as extreme-super-ultralight backpacking. Yet. However, in this post I hope to speak to a very real issue that I have encountered in the pursuit to cut weight.
I am a big proponent of weight reduction, and I think more specialized forms of backpacking like ultralight and super-ultralight have lead to the development of great technology and techniques which help us towards that end. The problem that I keep encountering however, in doing research about such forms of backpacking, is that I keep running more and more into what I see as “disingenuous weight reduction”.
What I mean by that is that way too often I encounter people who speak of how light their gear is, only to discover that they have only managed to achieve the weight savings by sacrificing the ability to actually go into the woods. Here are a few examples of typical conversations I have with ultralight backpackers (ULB):
- Me: That’s a very interesting set up. It looks light. How much is your base weight?
- ULB: Base weight is 6 lb (followed by an explanation about how not everyone can go that light because it requires a lot of skill)
- Me: That’s amazing. What type of shelter do you use?
- ULB: I use my poncho. It’s a multi-use item-rain protection and shelter. Weights 8 oz.
- Me: How does it perform in more serious storms, or rain? Does it offer sufficient protection?
- ULB: Well, I usually stay in shelters along the trail. This is just for emergencies. I also don’t go out when it is going to rain.
- Me: :/
Here is another example:
- ULB: I used to use a large pot like you, but now I have this SUL set up that weight only 4 oz. I never need more than two cups of water anyway.
- Me: That looks great. How much fuel does the alcohol stove consume during winter? How much time do you spend each day melting snow for water?
- ULB: Oh, I usually don’t go backpacking in winter. When I do, I bring a white gas stove.
- Me: :/
Weight reduction is great. Ultralight backpacking is great. However, I thought the whole point was to have the same capability as a “regular” backpacker, only do it in a better and smarter way, utilizing different gear and a wider set of skills. But let me be clear, being able to look at the weather channel and decide to stay home because it might rain, is not the type of skills I am talking about here.
What has happened in many respects is that we now compare apples to oranges. Instead of seeing how we can reduce the weight of different components while maintaining their functionality, we have simply removed the need for the function itself.
If you told me that you developed a shelter that weighs 1 lb instead of my 2 lb shelter, and that you could weather the exact same conditions with your shelter as I could with mine, then that would be a great achievement, and we should all take notice. However, telling me that your shelter weighs 0.25 lb because you actually never use it, while using cabins along the trail each night, then we are really comparing apples to oranges. You haven’t made the shelter lighter, you have simply “cheated” by staying in someone else’s shelter instead of carrying an adequate shelter. This is “disingenuous weight savings”. Similarly, telling me that you have this great super-duper-ultralight kit that you get to use this one perfect weekend in June, but then can’t use the rest of the year, really doesn’t show us much, nor does it translate into actual weight savings.
None of that is any different from carrying an extreme-super-ultralight kit comprised of a credit card. Sleep at a hotel each night, eat at restaurants, and then take a cab back to the trail. You hardly have to carry anything. It kind of misses the point though. Can we get back to the days when going ultralight meant reducing the weight of your pack, but still having all of the functional components necessary for traveling through the wilderness? How did we get from that, to cutting weight by sleeping in cabins and not going out when the conditions are less than perfect? Seems like we took a left turn somewhere and missed the point entirely.