|On the Pacific Crest Trail, 1985|
Over the last few weeks there’s been a debate on backpacking blogs about the trend in recent years for putting backpackers into categories – ultralight, lightweight, traditional and so on. Now over the years I’ve mostly ignored this as not really anything to do with backpacking itself, though I have been mildly concerned at times by both the holier-than-thou and competitive aspects that sometimes appear in the ultralight approach. Backpacking should be about the experience not the tools and there’s nothing “superior” about any weight of load (I have an old book that says that loads under 60lbs don’t really count – real backpackers carry heavy!).
|On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985|
The current discussion was started by Andrew Skurka on his blog. After reading this I wrote a piece for the September issue of TGO. As there’s obviously interest in this topic below is an edited version of this feature. Since Skurka’s piece appeared as well as my article there have been blog pieces by Martin Rye, Dave Chenault, Jaakko Heikka plus another piece by Andrew Skurka. All have interesting points of view. I like Martin Rye’s comment “we are all backpackers in the end”, as that exactly sums up my view. It’s why my book is just called The Backpacker’s Handbook.
|On the Arizona Trail, 2000|
I don’t think the descriptions “ultralight” etc will die, though the emphasis on fixed cut-off weights and rigid definitions will hopefully fade away. A few years ago I wrote a piece for TGO about the history of lightweight backpacking, showing that it long predates Ray Jardine (and in fact goes back much further than described in my article). You can find this on my blog here. There will always be those who want to experiment with cutting weight to the minimum and there will always be those who carry very heavy loads. And most backpackers will continue to be in between the two.
Anyway here’s my TGO article.
STUPID HEAVY, STUPID LIGHT
Backpacking only has one definition: hiking with camping gear so you can stay out overnight. Whether it’s a one night trip or a six month long distance hike, whether you camp on a campsite next to a pub or high in the hills, whether you walk all day or just a few hours, whether you sleep under a tarp or in a bivi bag or in a geodesic dome, whether your pack weighs 5 kilos or 25 kilos it’s all backpacking. There are no rules and style and gear are a personal choice. Labels are arbitrary and have no real significance. What it comes down to is choosing the right gear for the circumstances and being able to use it properly.
|On the GR20, Corsica, 2005|
This brings up the question of what is too heavy and what too light. In recent years “ultralight” has been a big trend, to the extent that it has sometimes seemed that all that mattered was getting below a certain weight rather than considering how well the gear would perform. This has led to some people suffering sore backs from inadequate packs, cold nights from too-thin sleeping bags and cold, wet days due to insufficient clothing. Long distance adventurer Andrew Skurka (his impressive Alaska journey involved skiing and rafting as well as hiking shows he’s more than a backpacker) discussed this recently on his blog under the eye-catching heading “Stupid Light” (http://andrewskurka.com/2012/stupid-light-not-always-right-or-better/). In the past he has been a big proponent of ultralight backpacking. Now he admits that this meant that at times he took gear that was too light for the conditions and omitted gear he should have carried, hence “stupid light”. Whilst still travelling light he now carries a little more and says he is more efficient for doing so. He’s discovered fleece clothing, trekking poles, inflatable mats, gaiters and more. It’s good to see such a well-respected and influential hiker saying this. I hope people listen. Weight isn’t the only criteria for backpacking gear.
|On the TGO Challenge 2009|
Of course there is a converse to “stupid light”, namely “stupid heavy”, and I have to admit to doing this in the past. I have only gone “stupid light” a few times and that was for short trips when testing gear. However I’ve carried unnecessarily heavy loads too often, sometimes for days on end on long walks. Partly I think this was because I’m a British backpacker and therefore had to deal with rain and wind. Staying warm and dry was more important than the weight of gear. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andrew Skurka discovered that his ultralight approach didn’t work so well when he encountered wet and windy conditions. When they are the norm you have to carry more.
However whilst I may have been carrying more weight than necessary, sometimes much more, this did not really affect my enjoyment of trips. Most of my long walks from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s were done with packs weighing 40-60lbs. That sounds heavy now. It seemed the norm at the time. I might have done the trips more quickly with a lighter load but that’s the only difference it would have made.
|On the Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010|
For many years now I have carried gear I think will comfortably cope with expected conditions. I want my load to be as light as possible but I also want to be comfortable and definitely don’t want to be cold, wet, aching or hungry. The right selection of gear, chosen on the basis of function and weight and not just the latter, that is suitable for the expected weather is the way to go. Choice comes into this – boots or shoes, tent or tarp, down or synthetic, foam pad or inflatable mat – but what matters is that the gear performs as you require and that you are comfortable with the weight you’re carrying. There is nothing “right” or “better” about meeting an arbitrary weight target. It’s purely to do with comfort.
|On the TGO Challenge 2012|