At some point, when people decide they’d like to give backpacking a try, they generally head to their local shop to get outfitted. Because specialty outdoor retailers are the front line in consumer education, it makes sense that retailers first need to fully understand ultralight philosophies themselves for the greater public to develop an ultralight consciousness.
Regular visitors to Backpacking Light know precisely the type of gear and base pack weights that tend to come out of outfitting sessions at most retailers: heavy! Start out with seven-pound tents and six-pound packs… the rest of the gear adds up quickly, and don’t forget all those quick-dry, wicking, multiple layering pieces! To some degree, this is a function of what manufacturers are making available. At the same time, product offerings are influenced by end-user purchases and sales figures – if "Tent X" sells a lot of units, then the likelihood is that you’ll be seeing more like "X" in the future. I think that products ultimately sell based on what the sales staff likes – or what they find easy to sell. So it becomes vitally important for retail staff to understand how and why virtually everyone can benefit from some aspect of an ultralight philosophy.
Sales are based in no small part on familiarity. If we assume that a novice backpacker has a passing familiarity with traditional backpacking, then we know what kind of expectations they have when they go looking for gear. And frankly, most of them expect to be pack mules! I think it is important for retailers (and their consumers) to realize just how much impact a retailer can have on a person’s limited vacation time. Proper guidance in gear selection can really help make or break someone’s trip.
The UL Soft Sell
That’s why I’ve found – and find with increasing frequency – the vital importance of retailers educating themselves to the point of truly understanding ultralight backpacking, along with more traditional approaches. With that understanding, they can apply ultralight philosophies to backpackers at any interest, age, or intensity level. It is important for retailers too (or especially) to understand that UL isn’t about sawing toothbrushes in half. Toothbrush handles are pretty insignificant. Ultralight is about taking less gear and making significant weight changes in the gear you do select. Understanding UL can be a powerful tool for the business of specialty outdoor shops, sure. But it’s also an important tool and educational component for each consumer who walks through the doors of an (ahem) enlightened shop.
There is no one who wouldn’t benefit from carrying a (relatively) light pack, but many people dismiss UL altogether! Youngsters scoff and say they don’t mind the extra pounds. Other people smile and say they think it’s a bit ridiculous to cut the handle off toothbrushes (they may have a point). Still others say health problems prevent them from doing any backpacking. A packfitter might just accept these comments and sell them heavier gear or let people walk away. However, I think it’s necessary for packfitters to call people’s bluff, to show them in a respectful way how easy it is to lighten a pack, and to show them why and how it can benefit anyone.
People are a bit incredulous when I tell them it’s a simple matter to have a base weight in the fifteen-pound range – and I point out that many book bags on campus weigh more than that. So I developed a straight-forward display that I use as a launching point for many of my outfitting interactions. Part of this is enthusiasm on my part that I hope translates to excitement on the part of my customers. Part of it, frankly, is the pleasure of seeing the proverbial lightbulb click on when people realize ultralight really is possible, easy, realistic – and simple to do comfortably without sacrificing safety.
For the Visual Learners
What I did in my shop was arrange a display on and alongside a shelving system. The shelves are floating and located under a window in hopes of accentuating the airiness of the system. I developed a basic three-season gear list suitable for cold and wet Michigan weather, then went through the shop and grabbed some of my lightest examples of each. I didn’t always grab the lightest, though! I wanted a gear list that would not leave someone feeling as though they were compromising anything. I’ve found that the biggest source of resistance to UL is a perceived need for sacrifice, so I made it a point to grab a full length 1.5-inch thick self-inflating pad, a double-wall free-standing tent, an insulated mug, and other such "luxuries." All told, I still ended up with a base weight of only 13.16 pounds.
I hung the sleeping bag and pack next to the shelves, then displayed the entirety of the gear list on the shelves. I made up a large print sign highlighting the complete pack weight, then printed off several smaller signs itemizing everything with corresponding weights. Cook gear, for example, is all displayed together on the shelf and has a sign over it with a description of each item, brand and model, and the weight. Okay, I admit, it looks a little train-wreckish, but people regularly stop and peruse the display. This area of the store is an important launching point for discussions about outfitting needs.
My favorite people to encounter are those who see backpacking as something they’ll never be able to do again. They have back or knee problems, or they’re too out of shape to carry a fifty-pound pack. When I tell them they can get everything they need for a solo trip – even a plush two-inch pad and a camp chair – for about fifteen pounds, they really perk up. The display allows me to show them exactly how it’s done. It also seems to help people process the low pack weight as a tangible reality.
Comfort, Safety, and Cost
The thing is, you don’t need to carry more to be more comfortable, and this is the point many folks miss. There’s really not much you could add to my list to improve comfort. There’s also no dangerous lack of safety margins. These points seem to escape a lot of people when you talk about lightweight backpacking in general; they assume you’re doing without and bordering on dangerous. I try to reinforce the comfort and safety possible – and expected – within the framework of lightweight backpacking throughout my discussions with people.
It is important to meet individual needs, not to outfit people based solely upon your personal philosophies. In other words, someone might be doing longer trips with infrequent or non-existent resupplies, in which case a heavier framed pack might be their best option. Just because that person’s using a heavier pack, though, doesn’t mean all of their equipment could or should be heavier. On the contrary, it calls for more emphasis on cutting weight of the other items in their pack. As we discuss gear options, I make it a point to talk about the importance of cutting weight when adding weight in other areas, and the fact that adding a couple pounds here and there suddenly adds up to ten pounds.
It’s also important to work within the real-world constraints of budget, desire, comfort, and priority. If someone already has a heavy pack but no tent, then the outfitter’s priority needs to be finding a lightweight tent that fits the person’s needs. A conscientious approach in doing so will help form consumer habits and experiences when it comes to their next gear list or upgrade.
Think of Ounces in Terms of Pounds
I take pains to reinforce the importance of ounces – save three ounces here, two ounces there, and you’ve saved yourself half a pound. Save only two ounces each on eight items in your pack, and you’ve saved a full pound. The stuff adds up quickly. Heavy hiking socks weigh nearly a quarter-pound. Within this framework, I address pack volume as a place to save ounces. This can be tricky footwork for both consumer and retailer. I explain that the same pack model in a smaller volume can save, say, a pound. However, if their gear doesn’t all fit in the pack it won’t carry as well (with gear strapped outside) and the weight benefits are lost. I then show people some demo stuff sacks displayed fully filled out so they can see exactly how much space difference there is between two models – for example, when referencing the difference between a 60- and 70-liter pack, I show them a roughly 10 liter stuff sack. I then explain that the 10-liter sack could easily represent the difference between a synthetic and down bag – reinforcing (a) the potential necessity for them to have a larger pack or (b) the potential importance and interconnectedness of choosing smaller and lighter gear in as many purchases as possible.
60 and 70 liter?! Yep. The reality is that people tend to start out with at least some kind of equipment, it’s usually not the smallest or lightest, and it usually takes them a while to whittle down their kit. There’s also the matter that many people might take trips with no resupply, unlike typical ultralight thru-hikers, and might need some more volume for chow. I still recommend 80- to 90-liter packs for some people who’ll be doing longer trips and winter trips – you have to keep an open mind and fulfill a person’s needs, not your biased interpretation of their needs. Back to those stuff sacks, I also show people how much difference in food volume there can be. For one week, I consume 10 to 15 liters of food. For about two weeks without resupply, I consume about 30 liters of (repackaged) food. Since many sleeping bags take up 15 liters in themselves (and let’s face it, some bulkier synthetics push 30 liters), if you add two weeks of food with an average bag you’ve got 45 liters of pack volume between two key factors. You’ve still got to add shelter, clothes, cook gear, and more. This is why I say to base your recommendations on ultralight philosophy, but to not restrict yourself solely to that philosophy. Help a consumer make a reasonable transition to UL!
One Piece at a Time
Cookware and kitchen stuff can be a great place to examine the balance between UL and more traditional gear. One of the techniques I use with customers is a sort of ratio, typically between price:weight savings. In other words, if a difference of $40 can save you a pound in a cookset, but that same $40 saves you eight ounces in a sleeping pad, get the cookset. (Incidentally, when I want to emphasize the importance of ounces, I speak in terms of pounds. Instead of two ounces, for example, I might phrase it "an eighth of a pound.") I rarely sell anything other than titanium cookware. I suspect that’s unusual for most retailers; I believe that many people simply sell less expensive product because (a) it’s easier to sell and (b) that’s all they think the consumer wants. Spending just a little time and effort to explain the benefits of Ti cookware usually helps people see why it’s a better choice, resulting in a happier customer and shopowner.
On the other hand, alcohol stoves aren’t for everybody, nor are canister stoves. The reality is that liquid fuel stoves are simply more versatile, functional options at times, despite their greater weight. If I have someone who wants to split their time between winter and three-season weather, I’ll probably sell them a broad-bottomed Ti pot and a white gas stove, while explaining why I made those recommendations. I also then suggest considering an upright canister stove for lightweight summer use.
I steer clear of single-wall tents or tarps as primary shelter considerations. The vast majority of complaints I hear from people about any camping experience is that their tent leaked or they otherwise got soaked while in their tent. In fact, it’s not uncommon for bad experiences in a tent to be a major reason people dislike traveling the backcountry. Many of these negative experiences are the result of condensation problems in single-wall tents… so I never sell them. Frankly, this is an area of major sacrifice for many folks that sometimes wouldn’t make sense for them anyway. Not everyone wants to push the edge. Some people like being warm, dry, and comfortable without having to futz or fiddle. And in my area, with plenty of sustained storms and steroidal mosquitos, double-wall tents can significantly help maintain and retain one’s sanity. We have far too much humidity here, too much weather and cold and bugs. In my neck of the woods, finding someone a lightweight double-wall tent is the name of the game.
No One is Always Right
We could talk about how retailers can best serve consumers all day long (which we might well do in the forums), but the last major point I’d like to make is price point. Some ultralight stuff is cheap, some quite expensive. Many retailers shy away from the more expensive products, perhaps afraid of being some sort of predatory horrible sales guy. Maybe they assume that people won’t want to spend the extra money for a superior quality or lighter weight product. Let me just say that I’ve sold $400 sleeping bags to people who were trying to get by with $50 ones, and they were happy to be leaving with the much more expensive bag. Those same people regularly come in to thank me and tell me how much they’ve enjoyed the things I’ve sold them, or how happy they are they spent the extra money.
People are never disappointed to find out that they own a quality piece of gear that works as advertised. They’ll invariably take a great deal of pleasure and pride in that piece of equipment. A truly warm, 20 F down sleeping bag that weighs about a pound and a half? And will last twenty years or more? Awesome! Price is often secondary. So: Sellers, buyers, don’t back away from the bigger-ticket options. They can prove to be money well spent.
It is important to be upfront with customers about your opinions, beliefs, and approaches to equipment, and to realize that those are your opinions, not the one truth for all backpackers. Openly stating your biases as you work with someone is important both for their benefit and to remind you of the lens with which you view the backpacking world. I relate personal experiences. Let’s be real. I didn’t start out with a ten- to fifteen-pound base weight. No one really does. I started with well over a fifty-pound base weight, but I’ve learned. So I take people through pertinent parts of the journey. Your way won’t work for everybody, but by lightening their pack, your ultralight knowledge can help people of all backgrounds and interests by making their time outside more enjoyable.