Revealing the Phenomenon of Ultralightby Josh Rhea
Itís well before dark, and 20 miles from this morningís trailhead is a freshly-constructed campsite. Amongst the surrounding sub-alpine firs, pines, and scree fields, a silicon-impregnated tarp is staked out with guylines over a 2-foot by 8-foot ground cover. A titanium trekking pole provides the tarp with support and some needed headroom, but sleep is the last thing on the occupantís mind. Several nearby peaks tower spire-like in this Rocky Mountain cathedral, and time and energy are abundantóa quick scramble to a craggy 13,000-foot summit is just the thing to finish off the day. The lone camper bounds agilely across loose talus and boulders until he disappears from sight.
This strange species of backpacker is no uber-athlete; his endurance, speed, and mobility are certainly attributable to a high fitness level, but few, if any, traditional backcountry travelers could cover 20 miles in one day, set up camp, and still have energy to spare. His seemingly superhuman abilities stem from one condition: he only brought 20 pounds of gear, food, and clothing on a 5-day backpacking trip.
Which inevitably brings us to a term thatís fast taking extremeís place as the outdoor term du jour: Ultralight. The most basic concept behind the ultralight philosophy is painfully simple: you can travel greater distances with a lighter pack because you expend less energy. You donít burn as many calories hauling a 20-pound pack versus a 70-pound pack on a multi-day excursion. Subsequently, you donít have to bring as much food, which means your pack gets even lighter, and so on. By sacrificing a little comfort and a few amenities, a backpacker can gain immensely in energy, distance covered, and simple enjoyment of the outdoors.
Ultralight (L) vs. Ultra'normal' (R)
Before committing to a 12-pound packweight (everything minus food and water), itís important to know that ultralight is one of those practices that offers excellent Ďtrickle-downí benefits to the average backpacker. There are a variety of ways to reduce pack weight without jumping the gun to full minimalist ideologies, allowing you to evaluate just how light you want to go.
Traditional packs can be a drag.
First and foremost: DO NOT buy an ultralight backpack first! Because of the light loads these packs are designed to carry, they offer little reinforcement, support, or padding. Loading an ultralight pack with traditional gear will ruin the pack as well as your body. If youíre buying a complete package with total pack weight not exceeding 30-pounds, then a pack like the Granite Gear Vapor Trail will suit your needs. If youíre like most of us, start with basic gear that can significantly reduce your pack weight, like a sleeping bag and tent. Lose your old synthetic bag and grab a compressible 1.5-pound down mummy like the Marmot Hydrogen. Leave the hefty 2-man tent at home and bring a lightweight, non-free-standing tent (these require guylines for support), or go all-out in milder climates and only bring an ultralight tarp and ground cover for shelter.
Ultralight isnít only about lightweight gear; itís a shift in the way you think, behave, and pack. Cutting off toothbrush handles is one weight-shaving method that often garners disproportionate attention. While such measures may seem extreme, they serve as a great illustration of the basic philosophy: take ONLY what you need. If your pants have an elastic waistband and a drawstring, remove the drawstring. Leave your full toothpaste tube at home; bring small canisters to contain just enough toothpaste and sunscreen for your trip. Donít bring a change of clothes or a towel. sporkí for meals. You can use the pot to cook your dinner and to sip tea from afterwards. Small stuff sacks can double as camp shoes, and trekking poles can add support to a tarp shelter. All this niggling over ounces quickly adds up to pounds saved. And that equals one wonderful thing: flying past heavyweight backpackers on your way to a campsite twice as far as theirs. Backcountry travel is about escaping the burdens of daily life; going ultralight allows you to escape the burdens of your pack trip, too.