Monday 7 February 2011

How New Is Lightweight Backpacking?

Going through my rather disorganised computer files I came across a feature I wrote for TGO five years ago on how lightweight backpacking isn't that new that I thought some of you might find of interest so, with a little minor editing, I've pasted it below.

The picture was taken on the Arizona Trail in 2000. At this time I was making the transition to lighter gear having been seduced by heavier designs over the previous two decades. I remember looking for a lightweight pack but not being able to find one that would carry the weight of a load including a week or more's food plus a gallon of water comfortably so I ended up taking my heavy but supportive Gregory Shasta, the last time I used a traditional pack on a long distance walk.

How New Is Lightweight Backpacking?

Way back in 1974 Hamish Brown became the first person to climb all the Munros in one continuous walk, an epic 1639 mile trip. Thirty-seven years ago was long before waterproof/breathable fabrics, fleece, silicone nylon, titanium, LEDs and many other products we have today and which make our loads lighter. Surely then, without the benefit of modern gear Hamish must have carried a horrendous load over all those hills? Actually, no. His rucksack averaged about 23lb (10.5kg) including food and only twice went above 30lbs (13.5kg). Yet he had all he needed to deal with 112 days of Scottish mountain weather. Lightweight backpacking is not so new then. Indeed, some of Hamish’s gear sounds amazingly like the ultralight gear of today. His pack, a Tiso Special made for Tiso shops by Karrimor, had no padding or frame, no hipbelt and no pockets. And this was 24 years before GoLite launched the similar Breeze pack, designed by Ray Jardine after he became fed up with complex heavy packs. Hamish’s tent, made by Tulloch Mountaincraft, was a single skin nylon tapered ridge that weighed “a bit over 3lb” (1.3kg), which is lighter than many solo tents today. This tent had a tray-shaped groundsheet that attached with elastic tabs and floated inside the tent so that condensation ran down the walls and into the ground rather than onto the floor. Now why has no-one revived that idea? Hamish also wore Sportiva boots that he describes in his excellent book Hamish’s Mountain Walk as light and fairly soft. Footwear wasn’t all stiff and heavy back then either.

Now at the time Hamish was walking the Munros I was a novice backpacker who’d never been camping for more than a weekend but who was keen to learn the skills to go on longer walks. To that end I eagerly pored over books on backpacking such as Derrick Booth’s The Backpacker’s Handbook (1972), Robin Adshead’s Backpacking In Britain (1974) and Peter Lumley’s Teach Yourself Backpacking (1974). Looking through these well-worn books all these years later I’m struck by how light much of the gear described is and how much emphasis the authors put on keeping the weight down. Here’s Derrick Booth: “Weight is the enemy. It has to be mastered at every stage if it is not to master you and spoil your fun. Every doubtful gram has to be thrown out – it will sneak back again if you don’t remain vigilant”. Gear lists are provided too and these are very interesting. Robin Adshead’s “possible comprehensive summer kit – not everything is needed for every trip” weighs 21 lbs 8oz (9.75kg) including boots and clothing worn, which is pretty light. That list includes a Karrimor Marathon tent weighing 3lbs 4oz (1.47kg), an 18oz (510 gram) Brown-Best Super Ariel rucksack, a 1lb 15oz (879 gram) Mountain Equipment Lightline sleeping bag (still around of course though now weighing 1100 grams), an 11oz (312 gram) Robert Saunders Pakjak poncho and a 5oz (142 gram) Optimus cooking pot with lid. All these are weights that would be regarded as lightweight today. The Brown-Best pack is particularly interesting as it had a blow-up air bag in the back rather than a frame.

By 1984 my backpacking experience was somewhat more extensive - as I’d completed a Land’s End to John O’Groats walk, a Pacific Crest Trail thru’-hike, a round of the Munros that included two 500 mile backpacks, and three TGO Challenges - and I began writing myself, producing a little booklet called The Backpacker’s Guide. This contained lists of gear that again show that lightweight is not new. Skimming through them I find a North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag weighing 890 grams/31 oz (still around but now 1340 grams/47 oz), a Fjallraven Hermit tent weighing 1150 grams/40 oz, a Robert Saunders Jetpacker tent weighing 1360 grams/48 oz (still around, now 1400 grams/49 oz), a Vango Zephyr Solo tent weighing 1300 grams/46 oz, a 63 litre Karrimor Lynx 2 pack weighing 1100 grams/39 oz, a Camping Gaz Globetrotter stove and pan weighing 450 grams/16 oz and a Primus Pro Adventurer stove weighing 130 grams/4.6 oz.

In clothing and footwear there was lightweight gear around too. Rohan launched their polycotton Bags trousers in the early 1980s and were told by retailers that such lightweight trousers wouldn’t last and wouldn’t sell! The weight was 285 grams/10 oz a pair. I wore Bags on the Pacific Crest Trail and the even longer Continental Divide Trail. They lasted well. Over a quarter of a century later Rohan still sell Bags, though the weight has crept up to 335 grams/12 oz. In footwear Karrimor introduced KS-Bs, the first lightweight fabric/suede boots, and Brasher the first suede Brasher Boots, designed by the late Chris Brasher to be as light as possible and weighing 900 grams/32 oz. Back then boots this light were revolutionary and many retailers said they weren’t suitable on rough terrain or for carrying heavy packs (some still say this). I wore them over most of the Munros (and the slightly heavier Brasher Hillmasters over all the Munros and Tops in a continuous walk in 1996) and for 800 miles with a very heavy pack along the Canadian Rockies. They seemed suitable to me. Today Brasher’s lightest boot is the low-cut Supalite Hybrid XCR weighing 1036 grams/36.5 oz. Some walkers were wearing shoes back then too. I was one, hiking 850 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in a pair of New Balance M575 running shoes weighing 720 grams/25 oz and another 1000 miles in a pair of Asolo Approach shoes weighing 800 grams/28 oz.

So with all this lightweight gear around in the 1970s and 1980s why was it necessary to have a lightweight “revolution” over the last decade? What happened to that gear? Why did loads become heavier? I think there are a number of reasons – designers gradually adding weight, the reluctance of many retailers to take lightweight gear seriously (some still advise against it), a desire by makers to produce durable gear that will last so customers don’t complain, a belief that heavier gear is tougher and safer. Of course not everything disappeared – Saunders tents are still around, if less well known than previously, and Brasher still makes lightweight footwear, though also heavier mountain boots. Lightweight sleeping bags have always been available. Rucksacks became heavier through the 80s and 90s though, as did tents and waterproof jackets. And there was a general shift in outlook away from the idea of lightweight to the idea of toughness, a philosophical shift that meant that weight wasn’t considered a major factor for backpackers. Gear was designed to be suitable for the rigours of a Himalayan expedition rather than the Pennine Way. You might not be going to climb Everest but you should look as though you were training for it.

Design plays a major part in all this. Back in the 1970s outdoor companies didn’t employ designers. They were manufacturers and once they’d set up their machines to produce an item they wanted to produce as many as possible without any changes. A successful product was one that sold year after year. Designs were functional first and last. However during the 1980s manufacturing began to be moved overseas, UK factories closed and manufacturers became design and marketing companies. The new designers and marketeers needed to have something to design and market. Products that sold steadily year after year unchanged were no longer very attractive. So designers started changing things, a reinforcement here, an extra strap there, a bigger zip, heavier fabric, more pockets. And so weights crept up. An example is the 100 litre Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion pack I used on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982. It weighed 2.15kg.4.7lbs, not light but not heavy for a pack that size. By the end of the 1990s the equivalent pack weighed 2.9kg/6.4lbs (as it still does under the name Vulcan) though it was no tougher or more practical than the original. Only in recent years have designers started thinking about reducing the weight of products rather than making them more complex while ignoring weight.

Modern materials mean that many lightweight items can be much harder wearing than in the past so the objection of poor durability should subside. Dyneema for packs, silicone nylon for tents and breathable windproof nylon for clothing are all tougher and longer lasting than the heavier equivalents of twenty years ago. Perhaps some of those old lightweight designs could be brought back made from new materials and weighing even less. A tent like Hamish Brown’s could be made from silicone nylon and pitched with trekking poles, which would make it very light. In fact a tarp with a tray-shaped groundsheet attaching with loops and clips or Velcro tabs would be excellent. Karrimor could revive the Marathon tent. This design had two upright poles at the front and tapered down to the ground at the back. Trekking poles would be ideal for pitching it. Self-inflating mat technology could be used to make a rucksack with an air filled back like Brown-Best’s Super Ariel. And maybe Brasher could reintroduce a boot weighing 900 grams/32 oz.

Lightweight gear is still a small specialist part of the market of course. Most gear is what can be termed standard weight. Some is heavyweight. This was true in the past too. Most tents were much heavier than the Karrimor Marathon or the Vango Zephyr Solo, most packs much heavier than the Brown-Best Super Ariel. However more people are involved in the outdoors than in the past which makes the lightweight niche bigger too. Maybe, hopefully, this time lightweight is here to stay.


  1. Good post. A bit of a trip down memory lane. I remember those books! I had the original suede Brasher boots, which were fabulously comfortable. The only drawback was the water resistance wore off quickly and they became like blotting papar! The Saunders Backpacker S was a brilliant design and weighed around 1.5kg. It would be even lighter now as you could replace the front pole with trekking poles.

  2. The KSB-3 boots were even worse than the Brasher Boots. They had a felt-like lining that soaked up water. I wore them on the 1981 TGO Challenge (or Ultimate Challenge as it was called then)and they were sodden virtually the whole way. And heavy when wet too. The Backpacker S was a similar design to the Karrimor Marathon and the Ultimate Packer with two poles at the front. Someone really should revive it for use with trekking poles.

  3. The only thing new about "ultralight" is the hype from companies that claimed to have invented it. From Chapter 15 of my book "Rock & Ice Gear," which was based on my old reviews:

    "The first summer mountaineering tent was designed by 22-year-old Edward Whymper in 1862. This technological marvel, which he used for his solo attempt on the Matterhorn, weighed only 23 pounds and rolled up to 6-1/2’ long. The A-frame shelter was made of the latest materials: unbleached calico walls, waterproof mackintosh floor, and four 1-1/2” thick ash poles with iron points. It was “sufficiently portable to be taken over the most difficult ground, whilst combining lightness with stability,” but required a Swiss guide to carry it.

    Thirty years later, Alfred Mummery was using a two-man tent that only weighed 3-1/2 pounds and used two ice axes for support. As early as 1917, a London firm was selling a roomy, “waterproof” tent made of silk that only weighed 12 ounces! The tent had to be strung in a forest, however, since it had no poles."

  4. Good article, Chris.

    In the big scheme of things, I'm a novice next to the likes of yourself.

    But from day dot, I always took it as common sense to keep weight down to a minimum. Stuff that wasn't used or likely to got left at home.

    I find myself nowadays though - seeking lightweight gear that is 'comfortable' as I've found some to be somewhat for the masochist.

    On the whole, I'd say my gear now through natural progression and personal taste is a combination of 'lightweight' and 'standard' weight.

    Even so, on 3-6 day hikes, I can manage to only lug about 10 kilos at most by being savvy with my choice of gear and budget.

    eg, I may take a few freeze-dried meals along with wet food and so on.

    Really interesting read - and a good day for it, too.

    Got the latest TGO to enjoy yet! :)

  5. An interesting article and food for thought.

    Didn't John Muir use to go around with nothing but a plaid and a loaf of bread back a hundred-plus years ago? He was tough mind.

  6. "I rolled up some bread and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off" John Muir

  7. Emma Rowena Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail in the 50s with a blanket in a bag slung over her shoulder. She and Muir had some common ground when it came to kit.

    A good read Chris and interesting. Be interesting to see your latest thinking on cutting pack weight in the next TGO.

  8. I also think this is a great post, particularly your 8th paragraph.

    We need to be clear that the latest generation of equipment does bring advantages. Because of it, I can still repeat the trips I did in 1986. Yes, there has always been light gear, but now we can carry weights on long journeys in demanding weather conditions which would previously have been more appropriate either for weekends or for kinder climes.

    Chris, do you remember the Showell Styles article in TGO called Over 70, Under 20? He meant over 70 years and under 20 pounds for rucksack and contents. It's worth digging out.

    You have one heck of a resource there at TGO Towers. Perhaps it could be the foundation of a regular feature.

  9. The latest equipment certainly brings advantages - it's more possible to be comfortable and lightweight now. Hamish Brown kept his weight down in part by not using a sleeping mat and having a basic pack with no hipbelt or padding.

    I remember Showell Styles article. I probably have it somewhere - but it could take hours to find it! I don't think they keep back copies in the TGO office - at least not that far back.

  10. A good read, as others have said. I remember the original in TGO, thought provoking then, and the same now. I'm sure we all have favorite gear from the past which was good in its day, and were it not worn out would be still be great today. Of course they could be made lighter with modern materials. Pheonix tents were one of mine, I wonder how light a Phreeranger design could be made today?
    The durability of "todays" lightweight gear far exceeds my expectations in almost all cases. My own experience of Golite Reed overtrousers is a case in point, the fabric feels wafer thin. I bought a pair of these about 6 years ago, tried them and found them very breathable but thought they wouldn't last very long, so i bought another pair. The originals are just starting to leak, after what must be many hundreds of miles.
    On a seperate point and I'm sorry to hijack the thread Chris, do you remember an article you wrote for "Footloose" about a bivi trip in the Yorkshire Dales. You bivied on top of great Whernside and Plover Hill if I recall correctly. This was probably 30 years ago, it was a great inspiration at the time, and showed me at the time that you didn't need to hump a Mk II "lightweight" over hill and dale!

  11. Al, I'm amazed anyone remembers my article on that Dales trip! I was using a Buffalo Pertex/pile bag for the first time. Thirty years ago sounds aboutn right.

    With cuben fibre I reckon you could get the weight of a Phreeranger to under a kilo. That was one of my favourite tents - I used it on my Canadian Rockies and Yukon walks in 1988 and 1990.

  12. You were wearing saddles in the Arizona picture. Is that still your preferred summer wear? What brand do you recommend?

    Walt from CA

  13. Sorry, .."sandals" unless you were really riding through Arizona!


  14. Hi Walt, I was walking not riding! I like Teva Terra Fi sandals. Merrell and Hi-Tec are pretty good too. I still prefer sandals in hot dry places but now that trail shoes have got so light I wear them more often. On the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer I wore Inov8 Terrocs most of the time and some Merrell sandals I bought along the way when it was very hot.

  15. Hi Chris

    Like others I really enjoyed this article, which I read whilst laid up with illness that has kept me off the hills now since October. Having to go periodically to sniff my rucksack to keep sane!

    The article also bought back some memories of gear used half a life time ago(we must be about the same age I guess) - I had almost forgotten the name Brown Best. The other thing of interest is to note that whilst we have many brands to choose from there is massive uniformity of product now a days. I sem to recall that when I was a teenager almost everybody seemed to use a framed Karrimor sack for backpacking - either the K2 or the Randonneur. And my first boots were suede "Spanish Fell Boots" that used to cost 30 shillings - then graduated on to Tuf Workboots for a fiver before buying a pair of Dolomite boots with my 18th birthday money. Crikes, I am sounding more and more like an old codger

    David Williams

  16. Excellent post, Chris. Showcasing that the whole hype ain't new, though some new materials certainly helped making UL or even SUL possible. Depending on the luxuries you need, of course - Grandma Gatewood, Muir and Nessmuk have shown that one doesn't need much to enjoy the outdoors.

    "Gear was designed to be suitable for the rigours of a Himalayan expedition rather than the Pennine Way. You might not be going to climb Everest but you should look as though you were training for it."

    This quote still holds true, in my opinion. Many people want durable, tough gear to survive... walking to the supermarket. In a spring rain shower.

  17. David, my first decent big pack was a Brown-Best pack frame, round about 1973. It came without a hipbelt! I bought one of the inflatable ones but it punctured too easily to be of much use. After a year or so I sold the BB and bought a Camp Trails. I wore Spanish Fell Boots - bought from the Army and Navy Store - on school fell walking trips. The first Brasher Boots looked rather like them! My first "proper" walking boots were made by Hawkins, a now long gone English boot maker.

    Hendrik - new materials certainly make it more comfortable to go lightweight.

    My piece was about modern backpacking, mainly in Britain. If you go back to the early days of outdoor recreation people were coming up with the same ideas, as Clyde pointed out. The book "Invisible on Everest" has many fascinating examples. In 1905 the Alpine climbers W.T.Kirkpatrick and R.Philip Hope made rucksacks out of gaberdine cotton that weighed 6 ounces each. In 1905 Thomas Holding's Phantom Kit for the self-propelled camper weighed 6 pounds including tent, down quilt and "cooking apparatus". The addition of clothing and some food took the total weight to 12 pounds.

  18. Jan '79 for the Showell Styles article. Has TGO really been going for all that time?
    Reference and extract in this thread:

  19. Thanks for finding that link Phreerunner. TGO began in 1978 I think - as The Great Outdoors, edited by Roger Smith. The TGO Challenge began in 1980, as the Ultimate Challenge. I was the first applicant!

  20. I may even have thought about entering myself, but we went to the Lechtal Alps instead. Then we got hooked on Showell Styles's BP in Alps and Pyrenees for a few years. Holidays were very limited in those took me until 2007 to enter the Challenge.
    Martin B

  21. Excellent article Chris a real trip down memory lane, especially paragraph 6.
    Rohan Bags - 285 grams/10 oz a pair to 335 grams/12 oz in over 30 years hmmmmmmmmm

  22. Late to the party as usual but I've finaly got around to reading this post. It immediately sent me looking for an excellant article by Bryan Hansel ( where he draws on the text of George Sears book, Woodcraft. I'm sure you'll have read it Chris but it can be found here: Bryan uses these quotes:
    "The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong, and we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how to do it."

    "Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment."

    Sears apparently travelled with a load of 26lbs including his canoe! His book was published in 1894! Lightweight is no newer than common sense.

  23. Thanks for sourcing the Muir quote Chris.

    I wonder how easy it is in the Highlands to get a campfire going for a brew, given how wet it often is?

  24. Robert, the real problem with campfires in the Highlands is the lack of fuel. Bothies with fireplaces in wooded areas solve the problem of the rain and are the only places I ever have a fire, other than tiny ones lit in wood burning stoves, which don't require much fuel.

  25. Magic post Chris. Went into Tiso's here in Aberdeen last week and they have a mannequin which looks just like me from the late
    60's: Orange pollycotton kangaroo anarak, tweed breeches, long wool socks, heavy duty boots wi' tricounis and lo' and behold an original Tiso sack with the old hemp rope thrust through the top. Everything still looked lighter for travel than what was on offer in the shop. In those far off days of unemplyment and the dole I had the time of my life. I wondered everywhere and slept where I felt like, bothy, bivvy, doss, tent, shelter. I carried the then revolutionary telescopic fishing rod just to vary my diet from square sausage.
    I've been nomadic ever since and now that all the youngsters are up and away I will be dissapearing now and again and I won't be leaving a forwarding address.
    Magic post mate - keep up the good work.

  26. Backpacking nostalgia trip.
    It brought back great memories.
    Still have my Karrimor Jaguar IV rucksac with backpacker's club badge (1970s vintage) attached - sorry Eric Gurney, should have handed it back.
    Zamberlan Anderlo (sp) boots
    Backpacker S tent
    Point 5 Bedouin 3-season bag
    30-year-old Trangia and the books...

    keep on trekkin'

  27. Nice article! It shows one more time, that the actual "Ultralight is Dead"-Discussion is useless :-) You just saw it near 2 years ago ;-) Thx.