Some hikers, upon converting to the ultralight style of backpacking, become rabid proselytizers for the cause, convinced that everyone needs to get their base pack weight below 10 pounds to avoid the eternal damnation of 65-pound packs. Though it may border on blasphemy—since a good chunk of my recent life has been devoted to creating ultralight gear and getting it into the hands of like-minded enthusiasts—I’m not convinced that everyone needs a small base pack weight. If you are young, in great physical shape, your trips consist entirely of relatively short distances into the backcountry to establish base camps for day trips, and you already own a bunch of traditional backpacking gear, you can probably save yourself the trouble of reading this website.

Good for the Body

For the rest of you, there are many benefits to going light. The most obvious is perhaps the physical benefit. For anyone who is older than 25 (or younger than 16!), whose career and rest of life doesn’t leave as much time as they would like to work out, who has an old sports/war injury, who has some kind of disability (any part of the body that doesn’t work as well as the norm), who has limited vacation time in which to recreate, lightening your pack weight will be a blessing. Your body will thank you for carrying a lighter pack. A lighter pack will

  • Be easier on your joints and muscles
  • Help prevent aggravating old injuries
  • Allow you to maintain your outdoor activities to a ripe old age

I have received many excited letters from graying outdoor enthusiasts who had resigned themselves to giving up backpacking for good, only to find out that with ultralight gear and techniques they were once again able to spend time in the backcountry that they loved.

A lighter pack allows longer daily travel distances, putting more of the backcountry within reach. Now with a three-day weekend you can see countryside that would have required a week off of work using traditional backpacking techniques. As you get further into the backcountry, you get to enjoy less crowded trails and more solitude. The ability to travel further can extend your backpacking into the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, where previously the shorter days were an impediment to any serious trip.

Good for the Environment

Besides having less impact on your limbs and ligaments, a lighter load can result in a reduced impact on the backcountry. Many ultralighters, freed from the slavish adherence to short grinds between established campsites, use their ability for enhanced distances and greater flexibility to practice stealth camping. Adopting proper “Leave No Trace” ethics, the ultralighter can reduce their impact on the backcountry. They don’t need to camp near water like everyone else. Their lighter loads allow them to enjoy dinner near the water and hike on a few miles, avoiding overuse of the waterside sites and opening up some new pristine vistas from their stealth site. To the extent that ultralight techniques allow more people to enjoy the backcountry, this can foster a greater base of ownership and involvement in preserving that backcountry, donating time and resources to protect it.

Good for the Mind

Besides keeping your body active later in life, going light helps keep your mind active and healthy. Techniques and knowledge are a big part of lightening your pack weight. Often you rely on your experience to reduce the amount of gear you carry. Some ultralight gear requires a little more thought to use than the standard issue stuff.

For instance, a nice 4-pound tent is fairly easy to set up just about anywhere. But if you are carrying an 8-ounce tarp, you will need to be more clever about where you camp and you will need to know some techniques to fashion the tarp into a worthy shelter. Lightening your load engages your mind in your backcountry adventure. This engagement starts before the trip, as you gather information, analyze options, and refine gear lists. As you educate yourself online and through books, you help to keep the brain cells active. Studies have shown that is integral to a long and healthy life.

This article is reprinted from the PREFACE of LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKING AND CAMPING: A Field Guide to Wilderness Hiking Equipment, Technique, and Style, to be introduced at on August 7, 2005. Click here for more info…

Good for Simplicity

Going light helps to simplify your life. Through the tenets of multiple-use items and taking less gear, the number of items in your pack drops with the overall weight. Less gear to pack means it’s easier to get out. In this day and age of busy careers, multiple kid activities, and overlapping commitments, having a simple kit may make the difference of you getting out on a trip or not. Even if you haven’t planned anything, when you’re prepared and flexible there will be times you can jump into a trip when an original participant cancels at the last minute.

Besides the obvious benefit of less weight, having less gear is a freeing experience in that you have less stuff to keep track of on the trail. (On the flip side, with your gear honed down to a minimum, if you lose something, it was probably something that you really needed.)

Good for Relationships

One of the more esoteric benefits of going light is the ability to build relationships with the people who design and make your gear. It is unlikely that the average hiker will be able to pick up the phone and easily get hold of a major manufacturer’s equipment designer for a gear discussion. But since much of the cutting-edge ultralight gear being produced is coming out of cottage manufacturers, you get the opportunity to ask detailed questions of the people making the equipment. In many cases, you have real input into the design of the next generation of ultralight backpacking gear. Many ultralight products on the market today bear the mark of individual enthusiasts who asked for tweaks to suit their own needs. If you value the diversity of small business, going lighter provides you ample opportunity to support smaller shops.

Good for More

Sometimes the benefits of going light aren’t so much that you get that light, but that you make room for your passion. I have photographer friends that will leave home a stove and subsist on cold mashed potatoes so that they can make room for 10 pounds of camera gear. Similarly, climbers who carry ample racks of hardware to ply their craft benefit from going light on everything else.

Since the journey to lightness is largely a cerebral one, where does one start? Self-education is critical to avoid getting in a situation where you didn’t bring enough gear to be safe for your experience level. Your journey should be one of baby steps, learning and trying a couple of new things on each trip, finding what works for you and what doesn’t. There are many online email lists that are a great resource. Basically, any list having to do with long hikes—such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, or Appalachian Trail—will have a following of experienced ultralighters. There are beginning to be significant books with the latest information on ultralight backpacking, like the book for which this Preface was written, LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKING AND CAMPING: A Field Guide to Wilderness Hiking Gear, Techniques, and Style. If you have not already read it, I also highly recommend the book Lightweight Backpacking 101, also published by Beartooth Mountain Press. So dive in and start your own journey to lightness!

Glen Van Peski is the founder of Gossamer Gear, serves on the Board of Directors of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, lives in Carlsbad, California, and for a really tall guy, has a really light pack (with a base weight that is normally less than six pounds).