So just what is ultralight these days?

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    alan genser
    BPL Member


    Locale: NE

    A little bit of backstory, i’m 25 yrs old. i decided to try my hand at backpacking a little more than 5yrs ago. being the ‘researcher’ type i looked around & ray jardines book was right there, golite had just been founded & coup was interviewed in outside magazine.

    so i guess i got started out on the right foot, my first pack was breeze, first headlamp a tikka, it was so cool that i had one of the lightest rainshells on the market at the time, i think it was a sierra desigsn & weighed about a pound. i used a hennesy hammock & cooked on a snow peak giga power. life was good.

    so a little more than 5yrs later i still use the gigapower, but when it came time to get a new pack i got a nimbus ozone.
    i sleep in a firstlight now, i’ve still never tarp camped, don’t really have much of a desire to.

    what i’m getting at is that when i first started backpacking going ultralight definitely meant sacrifices. the gear wasn’t as durable for the weight as it is now & you certainly had to leave more behind.

    nowadays i find myself wondering, ‘why not take a windshirt, hardshell & that silponcho (yup & the tent too)’, because nowadays i can take all that for practically the same weight i’ve always been used to, but with *much* more versatility.

    so i’ve found myself going from ultralight to ‘reasonably light’, whereas i used to have to make judgement calls concerning the safety & adequecy of my kit for the conditions that i was encountering, i now head off with a much decreased psychological load than i did before, since, along with the experience i’ve gained over the years, i’ve got the gear to handle almost anything that comes my way out there. i don’t hesitate these days to commit to a good slog or bushwack, whereas before my margin for error was much more slim.

    perhaps it has something to do with the notion that ultralight, truly ultralight was cool until i realized that it meant (for the most part) sticking to the trails (with the gear that was available then) & when i wanted to get off the trail i needed more durable gear, & now i can have that gear (& more) for similar weights to before.

    so i find myself wondering just what is ultralight these days, i definitely find some answers on this site, the 5lb fringe sounds wild, but i don’t know if it’s for me, i really like a hammock or my firstlight, that’s just me. i’m probably about to get a mchale, so thats a 3lb’er right there, a far cry from a 12oz breeze. conversely i’ll probably give a well built alcohol stove a try.

    so i realize this has a lot to do with my chosen ‘style’ & i know if i were to do a trip that stuck to trails amongst other things, it’d be pretty easy for me to do it ultralight.

    keep in mind i’m only talking about a 15lb base weight here, for my ‘full’ kit, sure, a little more if it’s really cold.

    so how about some discussion on the ultralight vs lightweight & versatile
    just interested in opinions out there.
    approaches others are taking, the type of trips you take with what gear, etc.

    -never, ever, wore boots-
    – a fish asking what ‘water’ is-

    Dane Burke


    Locale: Western Washington

    Good post.

    As far as weight is concerned, I’d say under 20 pounds is light, under 10 is ultralight, and under 5 is, according to BPL, super-ultralight. But I don’t think that’s the kind of answer you’re looking for.

    I’ve been thinking about ultralight backpacking and how it affects backcountry experiences (unlike all of you I’m sure). I like that it brings back that “back to the basics” feeling which must have been predominant in the pre-waterproof/breathable, GPS, internal frame days. Of course I say that based on my style…W/B, GPS, and internal frames all have a place in ultralight backpacking.

    If you leave all of the high-tech gadgetry and heavy duty gear behind, and instead take lightweight gear such as poncho tarps and alcohol stoves, you will find yourself working with nature and learning ways to make nature work for you, rather than standing up to and defying nature. Sure, pitching a 4 season tent on a super-exposed ridge in stormy weather is probably an exciting experience, but if all you know how to do is rely on your gear and stand up to nature, eventually you will be in a situation where nature simply has more to throw at you than you can defend against, and if you can’t start making nature work for you at those times you will be in real danger.

    Taking lightweight gear promotes learning and skills rather than a reliance on gear and instruction manuals. If you take fool-proof gear with you like a 0 degree synthetic bag on all your hikes, you can’t really make any mistakes from which you can learn.

    I think it would be good to challenge yourself in some way on every hike. Bring your tent or tarp along, but instead of pitching it right away try to make a shelter out of sticks, brush, logs, a big rock, snow, whatever, and sleep in that for the night. If there’s plenty of downed wood, try building a nice warm fire and leaving your sleeping bag stuffed for the night (Okay, roll it out in your bivy sack for the night to protect it’s loft). Always bring a firestarter, but maybe read up and practice techniques like the bow drill and hand drill and try starting your fires that way when the situation is right. One measure of ultralight might be instead of how much your pack weighs, how much you actually rely on that gear for your safety rather than simply your comfort.

    David Lisak


    Locale: Grand Canyon hiker

    Congratulations Dane and alan g. on two very thoughtful posts. As a 50 year old post-knee surgery, hockey-damaged joints backpacker, I can add another value to the ultralight ethic: by reducing weight, whether to “lightweight” or “ultralight” levels, you can extend your backpacking life, as well as increase its enjoyability. My dear friend and hiking buddy is in his late-60’s, and I have been on a multi-year campaign to lighten his load; I’m happy to say he just converted to an internal frame pack, a lighter sleeping bag, and some other “new” gear invented and disseminated because of the ultralight movement. Which brings me to another perspective on Ultralight: Some of us will be moved to go “super ultra light,” some of us just to “ultra,” and some of to “lightweight and versatile,” but all of us benefit from the constant striving and creativity and inventiveness that abounds in this community. For that I am ever grateful.

    alan genser
    BPL Member


    Locale: NE

    …oh yeah, the *spirit* of the thing, thanks dane…

    good points about back to basics, skills, & how much dependence on gear one has.

    in that vein, i’ve used my firstlight as a bivy when i found some neat little hollow to tuck into. i’ll often leave my hardshell behind in favor of my softshell, knowing how to stay warm & dry by keeping moving if the conditions got bad (some thanks to the ‘science of breathability’ article, one of the first ones up on this site), meaning i kept my dwr’s up on my gear. cleaned them properly, etc.

    i suppose it’s become a little difficult to remember that it isn’t about the gear, given that we’re in a glut of so much great stuff hitting the market, even this site has become pretty gear focused as of late. coupled with winter that i didn’t get out in, my ‘spring fever’ growing, but not having had any primal experiences recently to remind me, it’s the spirit of the thing.

    as dane began some faint outlines of, there’s the notion of ultralight being that one doesn’t carry around a dogma of ‘how it has to be done’.

    still, what’s up with that 2-3lbs i know i could live without, but choose not to?

    Jim Ells


    Well, let a rookie chime in on this discussion. My idea of ultralight after hours and hours of research in the last 3 months(much to my wife’s dismay),is all of what you have said. However, from my needs standpoint(wallet included), I have tried to minimize weight but not become a ‘minimalist’. I’m not trying to deny myself anything. The gear I have bought and continue to pursue will get my summer weight around 15lbs. before food and water. If I can afford it I will attempt even more reduction. I want to be able to enjoy the walks, nature(whatever it has to offer), and the scenery. After reading what Ryan Jordan, Glen van Peski, and Ray Jardine have done, I knew I could do those things even though I am over 50, and they have shown that losing weight is the biggest key. How you approach your treks after that is a personal thing. Now I’m not in a position to just go off and fastpack the AT or something, but my weekend trips can be more pleasant and my eight day Sierra Club service pack in August will no doubt be more pleasant. I have all the people who created these forums and converse through them to thank for that. Can I consider myself an Ultralight enthusiast? Yes, although by definition it may be rather vague.
    Great conversation. Thank you.

    David Neumann
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Oregon Coast

    I always enjoy the comments here. I too am over 50 which makes lightening the pack even more important. Ultralight isn’t new, back in my teens we called it bivouacing! A friend and I climbed Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineers Route and carried our 12 pound packs right over the top after spending the night at Iceberg Lake. Other than the fact quality, ultralight gear really wasn’t made back then, the concept was the same.

    I think it is important to enjoy the experience regardless of how ultralight you go. Knowledge is more important than gear and the knowledge lets you save weight. But the knees rule and lightening the pack really spares my knees.

    Dane Burke


    Locale: Western Washington

    I like to think that the reason for going ultralight is to increase your chances of a positive, rewarding experience. It can be hard to keep sight of that ultimate goal. If you are going so light that you feel uncomfortable, either physically or mentally, than you are completely defeating the purpose of going light. If those extra 2 or 3 pounds of gear are capable of increasing your enjoyment levels, despite having to carry them, by all means bring them along. The only time I think it would be justified to go so light you feel uncomfortable is when you are on a strict schedule such as a thru-hike, or if you are having knee and back problems which require you to go as light as possible.

    Getting outside and experiencing nature is more important than being comfortable, but if you are just plain miserable than you will not be able to appreciate nature quite as much. There is plenty to be enjoyed during a good heavy rain, but it is hard for me to enjoy it all when I am sweating like crazy in a “waterproof/breathable” jacket and have tunnel vision because of the hood. Therefore I carry the extra half pound *gasp* of an umbrella.

    I am planning an easy overnighter for this month, and I have decided that for dinner I want hotdogs. Than means bringing along a package of hotdogs, buns, mustard, wasabe (strange, I know). If my dad wants relish and sauerkraut he’ll have to carry those jars. That’s almost a four pound meal. But roasting hot dogs over a fire sure beats freeze-dried, just add water, meal in a pouch crap. It’s good to indulge yourself every once in a while. And hey, I’ll be saving the weight of a stove and fuel.

    Remember that comfort is not the goal, but it can help you achieve your goal.

    Phil Simcich


    When I started Jump School in 1988, I weighed 130 pounds. When I graduated, I was down to 114 (run everywhere for three weeks straight and you’ll lose weight too).

    On my second jump with the 82nd Airborne, however, I weighed well over 300 pounds going out the door (Honduran border, March 1988). This included myself, my parachute/reserve, my rifle in its case, my helmet and flak vest, my web gear and ammunition, surveying instruments–I was a Field Artillery Surveyor then–tripods, survey stakes, tools, batteries, workforms, manuals, etc. all in my backpack. My personal gear consisted of a mechanical pencil, a towel, three MREs and a poncho liner. I would have shed the weight of the poncho liner, but the instruments needed the padding.

    Just running the 300 yards to the assembly area darn near did me in, and I was in the best physical shape of my life.

    It didn’t take me very long to learn the value of packing only what I needed, because mission requirements took up all my pack space.

    Now I’m in Iraq. I’m not a FA Surveyor anymore, but I still have to lug around my helmet and “improved” flak vest, which weighs about 18 pounds more than the one I wore in the 80’s (it’s truly bulletproof, though, which I suppose IS an improvement). I also have to carry ammunition and now, since I’m also the M203 gunner, my rifle’s heavier and I have to lug around the grenades for same. I’m also my team’s Combat Lifesaver, which means I get to carry the medical bag, too. Oh, and I can’t forget the water. Can’t carry too much water here (as I write, the temperature is a pleasant 105 degrees outside, down from a high of 134).

    The fact is that I simply CAN’T carry anything extra and hope to function. I MUST pare down. My “backpacking” gear consists of what I can fit into about half a buttpack’s worth of volume.

    When I’m home, I’m a ham radio operator, and the lighter my pack is; or rather, the lower the volume of stuff in my pack, the more room I have for radio gear. Backpacking for me is simply a means to an end; namely, getting to wherever the activity I planned is.

    My habit of “travel light, freeze at night” was hammered home to me by experience, and now serves me when I simply want to be outside and enjoy myself. I know no other way to camp.


    John Davis


    Locale: Isle of Man

    Reading this thread makes me realise what an imposter I am – or how different the British backpacking scene is. I was going to say that I tailor my load to the type of trip. For example, I could be car camping with friends or pushing hard lines solo across trackless moors, in which case I’ll probably use my tarp. Munro bagging in the land of the midge requires a aolo tent. Mine is an Akto.

    But, reading your comments about the different skills needed made me think. I don’t use different skills. Under a tarp, in a small tent or in a big, mountain tent, I usually have the same few favoured items of kit which call for the same few skills.

    The mention of luxury items needed for comfort also sounds strange. I don’t take luxuries but almost always feel comfortable. A full belly, a cup of tea, an accurate map for planning the details of the next stage of the route and a long view into the gloaming constitute luxury for me. Perhaps I would want more if I spent more days out on the hill. Perhaps I would want more if I hadn’t spent so many days out on the hill.

    John Davis


    Locale: Isle of Man

    Maybe I’ll keep this popular thread going on my own!

    Perhaps poundage isn’t the best way to define ultralight. The thing which struck me when first reading Ray’s book was attention to detail. I got the same impression from reading Ryan’s piece on walking for ten days with a fourteen pound pack. Ray talks of carrying 50 pounds across the desert, but every ounce was essential. Take anything away and the trip becomes less satisfying or less safe. Perhaps that is the definition of ultralight.

    Scott Ashdown


    Locale: United Kingdom

    Good discussion so far! My pack weight constantly changes as i’m still trying different combinations of gear to find what best works for me. Nice to see some comments from someone else in the UK as most people on the site are from the USA, where many discussions center on how to deal with bears etc, which are not the kind of problems we have over here. I often plan my hikes via places of interest, e.g. ancient roman settlements. Lightweight backpacking enables me to wander around these sites looking like any other day visitor with a day pack instead of drawing attention to myself with tin pots and pans hanging from my pack like years of old. I can then hike on to the next site etc with ease.
    Here in the UK, the weather is so variable, that I don’t think that I will ever reach super ultralight limits due to having to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Hiking with a friend always reduces my pack weight, since I’ll take a stove for example and he’ll take the water treatment kit. He’ll take the tent and i’ll take a first aid kit.

    QUESTION : So should a ultralight weight guidline mean everything one person needs to be self sufficient? I.E. would one person who is self sufficient carrying 10lbs be light weight compared to two people each carrying less, e.g. 8lbs each(But needing others kit) also be considered ultralight?


    Ron Bell / MLD
    BPL Member


    Locale: USA

    Hi everyone. Nice posts on what is UL now.

    Perhaps another way to define what is UL is to take the idea of the weight out of the equation and look at the goal of the hike.

    It may be about using the desired experience based idea vs. a gear based idea for defining what is UL.

    A gear based definition would simply look at the function of the gear and it’s weight. Maybe the “ten essentials’ (whatever they are) and the min weights.

    An experience based definition of UL might include the individual hike goal and time required, personal failure and bodily risk level accepted and projected memories you seek. Throw in other varibles like impact to the enviornment and interaction with other hikers (or not), gear resources and expense and maybe even setting personal development goals, both physical and spiritual.

    Could a sub 2lb base pack weight for a three night 115 mile hike fit some of those goals and definitions? Yes and no depending on the individual.

    I guess when I think of UL I think more about how I feel after a hike and ask did my equipment selection help me in that goal.

    If I can feel I lightend my spirit using minimal gear then I feel I acheived my goals for the hike.

    I do admit I like some creature comforts from time to time. It’s never about suffering or raw survival. That’s something else entirely. That’s an unplanned Epic. Which may also be nice…


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