Monday 31 October 2011

Backpacking: How Light Is Safe?

Here's another piece from the archive. This was written for TGO three years, after some backpackers on the TGO Challenge has been criticised for "going too light".

The picture above was taken on a trek in the Himalayas. I couldn't lift the load on the left! It belonged to a porter working for a local company, not a trekking organisation. Our porters carried much smaller loads. In fact one of our Sherpas tried lifting it with the tumpline in place. His neck muscles bulged as he stood up and he soon put the load down again, saying he wouldn't have dared trying to move while carrying it.


A common criticism of lightweight backpacking is that it isn’t safe. This seems to be based on the assumption that heavy gear is stronger, more protective and more functional, a dubious idea. Although it’s surfaced frequently recently due to the upsurge in lightweight backpacking weight equals safe is in fact an old argument. Over two decades ago I was told I couldn’t take my 1.8kg nylon backpacking tent, veteran of several long backpacking trips in the Scottish Highlands, on a mountain leadership course in Snowdonia because nylon tents were too light and therefore unsafe. Instead I had to carry a cotton tent weighing 3.2 kg. I never finished that course. Today that 1.8kg tent would be the heavy option.

Being safe isn’t about the weight of gear. It’s about having the right gear for the conditions and, crucially, the knowledge of how to use it properly, and the many hill skills that don’t rely on equipment anyway (such as route finding, campsite selection, decision making in stormy weather). Often the weight of gear has no bearing at all on safety regardless of conditions. Take packs for example. A 700 gram pack is just as functional as a 3kg pack as long as it holds all your gear. Stability on rough steep terrain may be important for safety with a pack but here the actual weight is immaterial (other than that good balance is easier with a light load).

On the TGO Challenge with the GoLite Pinnacle pack, which is made from Dyneema and tougher than many much heavier packs.

Are there areas where heavy gear is safer? Not really, at least not for backpacking and hillwalking (please note, I am not talking about technical mountaineering). Certainly if I am planning on a winter camp in the snow on the Cairngorm plateau I would be safer with a geodesic dome than an ultralight solo single hoop tent (though some of the latter will withstand amazingly strong winds). However I would be safer still with a tarp and a snow shovel weighing less than the geodesic dome. Snow shelters can’t blow away. Outside of such extreme situations safe camping means knowing the limitations of your shelter and choosing appropriate camp sites. With experience comes the knowledge of where sites protected from the weather are likely to be found. Last year on the TGO Challenge I headed north, away from the nearest low ground and the nearest roads, during a big storm in the Monadh Liath because the wind was from the south-west and I knew that streams flowing north would probably have some sheltered spots below high banks where I could camp comfortably. Also, it’s always easier and safer to go with the wind than fight against it. As it was I found a good site at 720 metres where I had a comfortable camp before struggling on through the storm the next day.

Restful nights like mine on the Monadh Liath are important for safety. Lack of sleep means muscles won’t be fully restored and judgement may be faulty. To that end I view a sleeping bag that will keep me warm essential. Here again though this doesn’t mean a heavy one. Down bags are much warmer for the weight than synthetic ones. They pack much smaller too, which means a smaller and lighter pack can be carried.

Many people would say that an insulating mat was essential too. I certainly don’t camp without one because I like the comfort but other than on snow they aren’t actually necessary. Back in the 1970s Hamish Brown walked over all the Munros on one walk for the first time, camping most nights. He didn’t bother with a mat, saying that “the rucksack, tent-bag, waterproofs and any spare clothes did just as well”. Hamish’s walk was at a time when much of the lightweight materials we have today – waterproof/breathable fabrics, silicone nylon, fleece – didn’t exist but he still completed it safely using non-breathable waterproofs and wool and cotton clothing and his pack averaged just 10.5kg, which would be quite low even today.

The real answer to how light is safe depends on the time of year, the location, the intended plans and the experience and skill of the backpacker. I can’t emphasise the latter enough. Part of the skill lies in choosing the right equipment for the trip. In summer I usually carry just a lightweight fleece as warm wear, knowing that it will keep me warm in the coldest temperatures likely. I would never go out in winter with just that thin garment, adding to it a thick – but still light - insulated vest or jacket. If you want to camp on a high exposed site then a shelter that will stand up to strong winds is needed. That needn’t mean more weight however. Just look at the GoLite Shangri-La 3 single skin tent reviewed in this issue. It’s very light yet will stand up to strong winds better than many much heavier tents.

A winter camp in the Cairngorms with the Shangri-La 3 tent.

This brings up another point, the question of design and quality. Just assuming extra weight means a safer product is very simplistic. The design of a product, how well it’s made and the materials it’s made from, are often more significant than the weight. Silicone nylon is one of the strongest tent fabrics available and also one of the lightest. Heavier fabrics are more likely to fail in a storm than silicone nylon. A well-designed, well-made lightweight silicone nylon shelter can withstand winds that can flatten a heavy tent. The pyramid design of the Shangri-La 3 is more stable than a far heavier dome tent with three poles that cross at the apex and which will wobble like a jelly in strong winds. New materials mean that lighter weight gear with the strength and performance as heavier gear is appearing all the time. One day silicone nylon may seem heavy.

Often the difference in weight between items is due to added bells and whistles that aren’t actually needed for the item to perform well. How many pockets do you need on a waterproof or fleece jacket? How many straps, buckles and cords do you need on a rucksack? And with many items – stoves, pans, headlamps, base layers and more – the weight is simply irrelevant to safety. A stainless steel pot is no safer than a thin aluminium one, a hefty liquid fuel stove is no safer than an ultralight cartridge stove or tiny meths burner (some would say the opposite!).

Because the answer to how light is safe is a complex one you can’t put a figure on it. You can’t say that a backpacker with a 12kg load will be safe and one with a 6kg load won’t be. It could be the reverse. In either case anyone could buy the gear, sling it in a pack and set off without any idea how to use it properly. And in both cases this would not be safe. How light is safe is what you, with your experience and skill, know will work in the places you walk and the conditions you encounter. If something seems too light for you then it is. Confidence in equipment matters. Most lightweight backpackers reduce the weight of their loads over time as they become more skilled and confident.


  1. I liked the part of selecting a camp site. That is where I lack experience, as all I see, with very rare exceptions are tussocks, even those a few inches high look bumpy on Dartmoor. I know you have said to lie down on grass. But not in my Arcteryx ;-) I have patted the ground with a foot and it still feels "rough". I see photos of camp sites that to my eye look very rough.
    I have so far found two (prob a third - but too close to car park) definite places on Dartmoor. Almost next to each other. There are lots more, I "know".


  2. Good article Chris, I would love to see the day when our outdoor centres and DofE providers accept such common sense and stop overloading our kids in the name of safety, putting them off the hills for life

  3. "How heavy is safe?"

    On an Lancaster University Hiking Club trip to the Cuillin in, I think, 1974, so much fresh snow fell that we took a day off at Elgol to avoid avalanches - and sustained the only injury of an adventurous week.

    IR fell over on those round boulders and dislocated his shoulder. I had to carry his rucksack back to the minibus and it weighed a tonne. IR had been on a leadership course and was carrying everything the experts told him to carry. I strongly suspect that the weight of his rucksack is the entire reason why he was the only member of the party to be injured in a week where we pushed our limits.

    Hamish Brown talked of sinning with our eyes open. That's how you find out about the safe limits of mountain adventures. Read and listen, but never stop thinking out your own solutions.

  4. I agree whole heartedly with this Chris. I take what I feel safe with and works for me. Some go lighter, some go heavier.
    I was amazed recently when my sone did DoE. They gave him a rucksack that weighed 7½lb and the tent for 3 had to be carried by 2 because of the bulk and the weight. I offered him my pinnacle Quest, and the use of one of our much lighter 3 men tents but they were not allowed to take them.

  5. There is a well-designed scientific research concerning injury and pack weight. This study may be the most reliable one. At present, packweight, age, gender etc had not related to injury.

  6. I always prefer to go light. Fell running shoes in all weathers except snow. Bothies instead of tents. Cold food so I don't need to carry pots and stove (admittedly that can be pretty miserable at times). Winter changes everything though and I've never managed to go light once the snow is on the ground!

  7. A little story about my own DoE style camping experience as a youngster - on day one we walked from Glen Douglas to Glen Fruin near Helensburgh in rain and sleet at Easter, pitching camp near Auchengaich reservoir. I was carrying a 3-man Vango force 10. When we arrived I discovered that my dad had repacked my rucksack overnight as the first thing I found in the pack was a claw hammer! He thought it would help to hammer in the tent pegs...

  8. Lots of food for thought for a Norwegian slimming his load. Heavy isn't always the most bombproof or safest way. Then there's that heavy DSLR ...