Friday 26 October 2012

Ultralight, Lightweight, Traditional ... Or Maybe Just Backpacking?

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.


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” ( 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


  1. Couldn't agree more Chris. I've enjoyed reading the articles but none of it surprises me. I think this underlying message has been going on for years and now it appears to have come to the fore.

    I think these things come about in cycles though but manefest differently.

    Perhaps for now during hard times, the main focus for many is spending less money and considering more on the durability of gear coupled with comfort. I find most 'lightweight' gear perfectly fine while others somewhat underwhelming and consequently much prefer gear that is inbetween.

    I used to be a bit of a masochist when it came to overnighters, sleeping on foil or a short piece of bubble wrap and sometimes Thermawrap. But I couldn't do that night after night. Not now at least as I've got older.

    I never used to mind sleeping on foam mats but now I rather sleep on an inflatable mattress such as an Exped. Aye, it may weigh a little more and add a little bulk, but I don't care because of the considerable comfort and warmth I get as a result.

    At the end of the day, each to their own. Hike your own hike. It's the way of the world nowadays and the internet and social media will always throw debates like this up. Whatever one's opinion or the merits of an argument. Common sense will always prevail I guess.

  2. Excellent, sensible article, Chris. Really enjoyed it. I have been "stupid heavy" and "stupid light" in the past. Sometimes I just think I'm plain "stupid full stop"! Each hike/trek/pilgrimage throws up different challenges. I always think: Why didn't I bring this/omit that/wear those new boots for at least a week before I set off? Sometimes there's a weird, almost masochistic pleasure in the hardship... but that only goes so far! Must admit, over recent years walking the St James pilgrimage routes, the accommodation is so cheap and plentiful (gîtes, albergues, hostales) that I've never taken a tent and cooking gear.

  3. From Dave Porter

    A great piece Chris, I enjoyed that.

    I was backpacking in the Caucasus this summer. Apart from a few Swiss walkers on a commercial trek we only met Georgian hikers who were carrying enormous Sherpa like loads: musical instruments, heavy coats and blankets, plastic bottles full of cha cha (the local fire water, fresh fruit and veg. etc. etc.).

    They looked at our small lightweight rucsacs and felt sorry for us – surely we had forgotten some essential supplies, or else we would freeze at night. And, we would miss out on the pleasure of singing and playing folk music at night as we sat around our camp fire!

    The Georgians we met were on longish treks of 10-15 days and seemed to be having the time of their lives. I would say they were carrying about 50-60 pounds. The concept of lightweight travel seemed irrelevant. They marvelled at us and we certainly marvelled at them.

    It’s all a matter of perspective.
    Dave Porter

  4. I really enjoyed this. You should try all sorts of backpacking. You’ll have different needs when it comes to different trails. Some would require lighter loads specially if you will be on dangerous trails. You have to be ready for things going wrong at anytime and of course enjoying each and every one of them.

  5. I will soon embark on my first backpacking trip with my friends. I'm a bit scared because I'm thinking of all the things that may happen. Aside from having fun, I was also thinking about the bad things that might happen to me. Any tips for my first backpacking trip?

  6. Mai Yan, my advice would be to relax and enjoy it. As long as you've planned properly and aren't being too ambitious with distance everything should be fine. I've no idea where you're going but checking the weather forecast before setting off is always wise and adapting your plans if bad weather is forecast. Good luck with your trip. I hope it's the first of many.