The Ultralight Backpacker, by Ryel Kestenbaum. Ragged Mountain Press (2001), 139 pages (softbound, illustrated), $15.95. ISBN 0-07-136828-0.
Book Outline (Table of Contents)
Introduction: The Ultralight Way
3. Sleeping Bags
6. The Rest of the Gear
8. Health and Safety
10. The Ultralight State of Mind
11. On the Long-Distance Trail
Appendix 1. An Ultralighter’s Overnight Pack
Appendix 2. Manufacturers and Suppliers
Appendix 3. World Wide Web Resources
The cover of The Ultralight Backpacker states: “The complete guide to simplicity and comfort on the trail.” In our view this claim is overstated, as this slender book, 138 pages long, can be read in an afternoon and is far from complete and will likely disappoint the experienced lightweight backpacker yearning for new information about equipment and techniques not treated in other texts. However, for the newcomer to lightweight backpacking, The Ultralight Backpacker will not disappoint – it provides an introduction to lightweight backpacking that will certainly put you on the right track to shedding pounds from your pack.
The book was written in an informal, conversational writing style. Perhaps this was intended to engage the reader with its informality. A minority of our reviewers enjoyed the tone, claiming that it made for easy reading. To the rest of our review panel, however, this style detracted from the message and did not convey a sense of authority that is a hallmark characteristic of serious how-to writers. All of us were somewhat surprised that the book came from Ragged Mountain Press, which usually offers professionally-written titles.
Kestenbaum is a former outdoor retail shop employee, and his bias towards heavily-marketed, commercially-available equipment is reflected in his discussions of gear choices and the gear list he presents in an appendix. To his credit, he did include several pictures of a hiker carrying a GVPGear G4 pack; on the other hand, the G4 was mentioned nowhere in the text. Missing from the book is any serious discussion about homemade equipment, which must be addressed if any ultralight backpacking guide is to be considered “complete.” Thus, we would have liked to have seen recognition of gear from both cottage industry manufacturers and do-it-yourselfers, which are as responsible for advancing the lightweight hiking movement as any Backpacker Magazine advertiser.
If you are a traditional backpacker not yet well versed in lightweight backpacking practices – and we know there are many such – The Ultralight Backpacker will provide a general overview of equipment and techniques to get you started, including information about how to compare items at your local outfitter’s. However, if you are an experienced lightweight backpacker, you are unlikely to learn new skills or gain significant new insight. You will note, for example, that Kestenbaum does not provide a serious analysis of the real-world performance of different types of gear, taking care instead to discuss the most heavily-marketed products in a given category; we find ourselves wondering to what extent he has had the opportunity to explore the full variety of approaches to ultralight equipment and technique currently in practice. This is most evident in the clothing chapter, which promotes a traditional system of layering (synthetic wicking base layer, fleece insulating mid layer, and waterproof-breathable outer shell layer). Kestenbaum touts windproof fleece (without mentioning either unlined or lined windshirts) and Patagonia Regulator insulation as some of “the most exciting new fabrics to come on the market,” but he fails to include synthetic or down high-loft insulation as a lighter, more compressible alternative to fleece. To his credit, he does question the practicality of waterproof-breathable shell clothing, preferring either the less expensive polypropylene rain gear or well-vented waterproof-nonbreathable garments, but he doesn’t treat the subject in enough detail to offer new insight to an experienced backpacker. Given the products and information currently available, we expected a more comprehensive discussion of different alternatives in a new book.
Most of the chapters are devoted to the discussion of equipment, as expected. Although some on-trail technique is addressed in those chapters, technique (food and nutrition, health and safety, and walking) is the focus of a much smaller (30-page) section. From our perspective, there is much for the ultralight backpacker to master in these crucial areas, and the information in such a brief section is necessarily superficial, leaving the reader with too little guidance about how to apply lightweight practices in the field. The book proceeds to discuss ultralight philosophy in a six-page chapter on the “ultralight state of mind” (treating a potpourri of subjects from meditation to leave-no-trace wilderness ethics); and it ends with an eight-page chapter on long distance hiking, concerning itself mainly with a conventional approach to physical training.
One of Kestenbaum’s core principles, expressed time and again throughout the book, is the importance of being strictly in tune with nature, so that the hiker leaves every luxury out of the pack, including books, a camp chair, and even toilet paper. While only a small minority of backpackers would hold rigidly to this line, we appreciate the way this perspective reminds us why we go into the wilderness in the first place.
Our litmus test for value in a how-to book is a simple one: does it offer new insight or a unique perspective into lightweight backpacking philosophy, technique, or equipment that has not been addressed in earlier texts?
Unfortunately, we felt that Kestenbaum’s attempt to develop a guide to ultralight backpacking fell short of our expectations in this respect. Even so, although The Ultralight Backpacker is not comprehensive or original enough to become a major and authoritative new reference source, it might still earn a place in your home library, simply because it is one person’s perspective on lightweight backpacking, against which you can further articulate your own, and because you will undoubtedly find tidbits of information in it that will make you a better hiker. Despite our overall disappointment, even we, serious students and practitioners of lightweight backpacking, found some valuable tips that we can apply on the trail.
We are all still learning, and we learn from each other. And for that, Mr. Kestenbaum, we offer our sincere and heartfelt thanks for your courageous contribution to our field.