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To Ultralight or Not to Ultralight?

In considering the act of backcountry travel I am led to consider the two most common methods: traditional backpacking and ultralight backpacking. In looking into these two different methods of travel I am wondering which people consider more admirable or note worthy? Is it the guy or gal who carries the most weight the longest, or is it the person who sleeps under the stars and only brings the basic essentials?

I lean more towards the ultralight, but I think it would be interesting to find out what other people have to say on the topic.

Note: This is just for fun, backpacking should be about personal experience, health, or for whatever reason a person has. I just want to know what other people’s preferences are and why.

I don't really hold one school of packing as superior to the other. But things I do admire:

On the trail
I secretly admire those who are able to get others to carry the load for them. I admire those who carry more than their share because they can. I admire those who can sneak up on nature without being detected. I admire trail maintenance volunteers. I admire women who can shoulder their full share of the load. I admire preteens who stoically shoulder their own loads. I admire anyone under seven or over sixty years of age who gets out there, period. I admire those wise enough to turn back as conditions warrant.

Camp side
I admire (envy) those who can fall asleep sitting atop the snow, leaning against a rock, while wearing only a parka and hat over their day clothes. I admire those who can eat the cooking I have sometimes witnessed in the backcountry, without suffering stomach distress. I admire those who prefer Indian camp fires to cowboy camp fires. I admire the informed debater who can respectfully disagree. I admire those who hold their liquor well, and offer to let me hold some as well too. I admire those who always step up and do camp chores without the topic even being mentioned.

I admire those who pack out more trash than they take up. I admire those who graciously terminate their trip because a member of their party was not up to it and needed to be taken home. I admire strangers willing to shuttle me back to my starting point of a through trip. I admire locals willing to share local secret vistas, fishing secrets, best local eats, etc. I admire those who step up and proudly bear the obligations of stewardship.

I think that was the best ever reply I have ever read!

Love ya man!

I laughed!


To ultralight or not, now that is a very common question. If I had to lean one way or the other I would probally lean towards the traditional side. My reasoning is simple, durability of gear. Not always, but often enough, the ultralight gear on todays market is significantly less durable than their counterparts. I have had the majority of my gear since I was 13 or 14 years old. My father wasn't really a father figure when I was growing up, so I used to spent alot of time with my Judo Sensei, an old retired marine. Some of the things he gave me I still use to this day. Like an old alluminum WW2 canteen and canteen cup. Weight isn't that much, but i can toss both on a stove or in a fire, cook in them, boil water, whatever I need to do. I could spend some big $$ and buy Ti stuff, but why? to save like 4oz? Those items are almost 70 years old and still working just fine for me. Another big one is UL tents and packs. Some of the materials they are made out of are strong, but I wouldn't call them super durable, especially to abraision. Yeah they will keep the rain out. But If I am going to drop a couple hundred dollars on something I want to be able to get years and years of use out of it.

There is a fine line here between weight and durability. You have to look at each piece of gear closely and decide for yourself. Some items if you really take care of them will last you a long long time, other items for a little more weight can really take a beating and still serve you for a long long time. I for one would never go UL on a pack, because my packs get way too much use and abuse, and I don't feel like always sewing rips and tears.

I want a real knife, not a razor blade. A razor blade wont do squat for you in a survival situation. Ultralight has alot of good gear, you just have to think about what you want.

Goodluck in your gear search!

I wouldn't consider my self an ultralight backpacker nor would I consider myself a traditional backpacker but more like somewhere in-between. There is some things I could do with out but I am there for my enjoyment along with my comfort not to see how long I can last with almost nothing. Not to mention most of the time I am solo so I take a couple other precautions just encase that I wouldn't if I was a true ultra light backpacker. So I would say that I am a light weight traditional backpacker. Now from what I have learned over the years is that everyone has there own flavor and style that they are comfortable with so don't be swayed to follow someones lead simply because you think they are smarter. My recommendation to figure out your particular gear pack list is. Start off with you feel you need and are comfortable with and add and remove from that each trip until you get your style nailed down. I am also going to say IMO there are a few items that are essential and will not change trip to trip, on that note I will say there has been many many lists regarding the "10 Essentials" that are different in some regards. Your essentials list will be different than mine ill guarantee it all he lists out there are not carved in stone they are more like guidelines and good ideas for you to start with.

Excellent thoughts Ed.
I as well don't think I fall into either category, but am probably closer to traditional than ultralight for a couple reasons:
-I have priorities that are more important to spend my money on, so, at the present at least, I can't afford expensive ultra light gear.
-I like to livecomfortably out there,and for me that means a real cookset large enough to do some related looking in, a full tent, and other "heavy" amenities.
-Durability- I like my gear to be able to take blow or two and not break
-Contingencies- I will always have more food, clothes, emergency gear than I am likely to need. Because if a serious situation does happen, I want to be fully prepared.

Some excellent points & commentary!

Anymore I just plan a trip & make up a gear list based completely on what I want out of the trip, taking into consideration the seasons, length of trip, solo or with a group, and such.

I have slowly acquired enough variety of gear to go traditional, lightweight, or to some extent ultralight.

I don't stick to the parameters of any style, I may take a heavier bombproof tent and a alcohol stove along on the same trip.

I just do what I feel like doing, and I respect those who make their own decisions without feeling bound by any fad, or cult gear movement.

I think you truly must hike your own hike.

Hi SouthEastHiker,

Trouthunter says it all. "Hike your own hike". Myself, I have back problems so light is important to me but then again so is sleeping comfort. It is all about creature comforts and what you are willing to give up for lightness. I have been experimenting with different ideas that work for me so I can backpack light because of back issues. I start with a light weight pack, then add a light two person tent, minimal clothes (I use my rain gear as wind breaking clothes), have a light weight stove and only travel with dehydrated meals. When the weather gets a bit cooler I take a light weight sleeping bag and a vapour barrier liner to add warmth and sleep in my clothes. There are many tricks that work when you are desperate to keep on hiking even when your body fights you abit. You need to experiment with what you have. Take a trip and after that trip place in two piles what you used on that trip and what was just an extra. You will know pretty quickly what you need to get rid of next trip! I try to get double duty out of everything I take. Works with some stuff but not with others!


Hike your own hike...hmmm.

My "hike" has changed a bit over the 40+ years I've been backpacking. As a Boy Scout it used to carry whatever I could find around the house or in the garage. No tent, but had some large sheets of plastic. A flannel lined 'dacron 88' insulated sleeping bag. 1/4" ensolite mat. A old canvas pack on an oversized frame. Cans of ravioli. Maybe 40-ish pounds of stuff for a 2-3 day weekend. More for longer hikes.

Then a job where I could buy real gear. Nylon pack on a lightweigth aluminum frame. Goose down sleeping bag. Inflatable pad. 2 man tent. Backpacking stove, backpacking lantern, etc. The latest and greatest in "lightweight" gear and carried so many creature comforts my pack increased in weight. In my 20's and 30's no problem.

The penultimate trek was a 10 day hike along the CDT, starting load 80 lbs! I was 41 then and though I could muscle it, the first few days were less than enjoyable.

Then I read about the Ray-way. Not my hike, but a lot of wisdom there and I started leaving behind things I seldom used and as gear wore out I replaced it with lighter stuff.

And at 53 and still going strong I've found that 30 lbs or less really don't matter, but more that 30 lbs I notice. So for 2-4 day trips I carry a few extra creature comforts and maybe some fresh foods, while on longer trips I don't. I like it all.

But now my usual hike is a 30 lb load wherever and whenever I choose. Sure I'll go for a 20 lb weekender when I want to knock down a few extra miles and I'll push 50 lbs when I'm off for a week in Grand Canyon but 30 lbs works out pretty good.

It doesn't qualify as ultralight and I'll never confess to being a "traditional" backpacker, it does however qualify as "my hike" for now.

I am sure as I push 60 and even 70 "my hike" will continue to evolve.

Trouthunter has the right advice: carry what you want. As long as it works for you what's the label worth?

Another 53 year old hiker here. and like most others, I "hike my own hike." Over the years I've gone from "traditional" to "lightweight." As much as I'd like to think and act like I'm 25, the sad truth is that I'm not, and I just can't shoulder the loads like I used to.

I've moved into the lightweight camp quite rapidly the past two years. My work as a missionary pastor keeps me in Mexico most of the year, so I can't get out much, and, consequently, I'm not in the best shape any more.

Be forewarned.. this is a bit of a ramble:

..I realized early while hiking a section of the AT (I believe it was the Smoky's, although it was some 10 years ago) that I did not enjoy hauling a heavy load, sleeping under tarps, or hiking in a large (8-10 people) group; stupidly I left my sleeping pad in order to shave some weight -a whopping 9.5 oz. mistake which I was reminded each time we stayed in shelters. (my back hurts just thinking of the wood plank sleeping.. rather discomfort "rest"). After this I swore to myself there are two things that are "essential" for hikes; sleeping and eating comforts. Over time I have had three tents.. now just two. One was the MSR TwinPeak, which I picked up for next to nothing, and got rid of the following season mainly because I don't hike with poles, nor did I enjoy having something between me and girlfriend (now wife!). The other tent was a cheap Wenzel 8' x 8' tent, which though is not super light (5 lbs. give or take) it has proved to be more than worth the $40 we spent on it by giving us comfort in a variety of settings from snow blizzards in Peru to hot summer festivals here on the East coast. Recently I purchased a 2.5 lb. (2 person) tent, which is spacious enough for myself, my wife, our dog, and a room to wiggle. It's nice, though not for all occasions. This is our "go to" tent for hiking and camping.. the Wenzel is for everything else.

In Peru we hiked with US Army surplus green duffles (you know, the ones with shoulder straps), and loved them, but our weight was heavy (gifts), and there was no hip support, but we got through it, and managed to have a good time.. though we hiked a bit faster than we anticipated -no map to speak of.

Typically our style is shove everything in a bag, and go.. but we so happen to bring really good food (and more than needed, but we do enjoy to take our time and have the luxury of staying out a few extra nights). Our philosopy is why worry about the rain; we will get wet, and then dry.. of course we are not reckless, and know when to say when. Where was I going? Oh yeah, traditional, lightweight, or ultralightweight.. um.. I never really liked this categorization thing, since typically food and water is not factored in. I enjoy having a good nights sleep, plenty of food, and a few comforts for those "zero mile days," including a good book, pen and paper, and six dice for a handful of games, and of course I always pack the extra 9.5 oz. of comfort when planning to sleep out.


P.S. I typically carry the tent, and my wife carries the kitchen (she likes to cook, I like to eat), which consists of to pots and a MSR Whisperlite International -the stove is sometimes left home when we decide to cook over a fire, but this is not so much done.. we enjoy having hot breakfast and dinner whenever, and wherever; and we even up our bags throughout our hike so that one person is not carrying all of the weight.

Well now. lots of opinions and takes on the ultra-light vs 'traditional' style packing. Obviously everyone has their own preferences and capacities for leaning one way or fitting somewhere in the middle. "To each his own"... again, reiterating Trout's invaluble wisdom to 'hike your own hike.'

In my experience, each hike is circumstancial. If out of the blue one Friday, I decide to head to the woods for a quick overnighter with some friends, typically the hiking isn't going to be extremely lengthy or strenuous. In which case, Ill overlook the ultralight deal and pack some heavier "luxuries." I can stand the extra lbs of bulky gear for a few miles of heavy discomfort, no prob.

Now when it comes for long distance hiking.. my method of choice quickly turns to gung-ho ultralight! no question about it. Last summer I began a month on the AT, and as with any young thru-hiker, started with a bolt and an overloaded pack. I paid the consequences the first week. If your going to be doing any long-term trekking, your body will thank you for going ultralight and sparing the strain by shaving the pounds. Ive been making strides since to improve my ultralight aspirations. The physical payoff for long distances is well worth it.

In the end, consider the trip specs, personal tendencies, and most importantly... listen to your body.

My trip style has really changed over the years and a bad disk in my lower neck has dictated going UL. I do not go out for more than a night or two anymore, I select routes that have plenty of water and I make most of my own "just add hot water" meals. I insist on a good bug-poof tent and comfortable sleeping.

I guess, though I'm not sure, I probably have, up til now, followed the "traditional backpacking" model. I tried to get gear that was "reasonable" (e.g. a MH mummy bag, not a rectangular coleman bag), and a MH Skyview tent, not a canvas pup tent like when I was 16 :). But my gear is by no means "ultra light".

However I'm leaning more and more towards the ultralight approach now. While I don't anticipate drilling holes in my toothbrush handles anytime in the foreseeeable future, my goal is to replace as many "heavy" items as I can with "reasonably light" ones. For example my target on my recent tent+footprint order was ~3lbs (down from 9lbs). My sleeping bag target is 2lbs (for down to 15deg or so) (down from 3.5 lbs or more). And even with smaller items, if I can save a quarter or half pound on several items, that adds up. But I won't be replacing an item to save an ounce or two unless the replacement is equally functional and inexpensive.

I'll try to strike a balance between equipment durability, bulk in my pack, weight, cost, functionality, and my ability to actually enjoy backpacking rather than feeling like I'm laboring under an unreasonable load.

I am definitely the traditional hiker. Not to say I don't think about weight, I just don't go to the extreme of an "ultra-light" hiker. When my wife and I head out I carry the house and she carries the kitchen. We split the water. Mish carries a Nikon D-40X with an 18-200 VR lens and is the designated photographer. My pack typically runs 30 - 40 lbs depending on season and length of the hike and so does hers. She is a foot shorter, over 100 lbs lighter and insists on carrying her fair share... (which if you did the math based on our respective weights would be much less) yet she insists the loads be equal. I don't mind the weight and enjoy the exercise. I do cuss at the mountain sometimes when it always seems to go up or when the person who planned the trail thought it would be nice to head to the bottom of the ravine rather than traverse around it...

We are never in a hurry and would probably drive most hikers crazy with our slow pace but to us it is not about getting from point A to point B, it's all about the in-between. Just this weekend we did a hike called Mount Marshall and Beyond in Shenandoah. It is a 14 mile hike that we turned into a 2 night 3 day hike. Easily a day trip for some but how many of those day trippers found the little pool next to the trail and sat for 30 minutes watching salamanders battle for territory or saw the crawdads perfecting the entrance to their home while their wife snapped pictures of butterflies down the trail?

I set a goal for what I want my pack to weigh and then shoot for that weight. I am a photographer and don't like to do the long trek, but rather find a place to hang out and shoot pictures. Hey...if I only get a mile that's fine, but I pack camera gear and that adds a lot of weight. So I use an Ultra-Pod camera tripod instead of the manfrotto (trade-off) which is four pounds versus ounces of the Ultra-Pod. But being not in the best of shape and 57 years old, I find a weight that is comfortable and then stick with that. So if I want to take the telephoto, then I need to lose something else or shorten the trip. I feel that there are ways to make use of the lighter products, but I won't take it to the "bible of weight". I use a pack that is light weight but still comfortable, as that is one way to shave weight on every trip. I won't use aluminum to cook with, although it is light, as I don't trust eating from aluminum under heat. Therefore I have favorite gear that will always win out over anything else, such as my stainless steel pot. But I take only one pot. I would love to not take the sleeping pad, but these old bones won't allow it. That brings up another point and that is bulk. It is not always just about weight, but the bulk or size of what you pack. I will not spend a hundred bucks on a wood burning stove (another thread) but there will be a time when my old bones will talk me into the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir. That shaves a boat load of weight, and the bulk of a moose, down to the size of a small loaf of bread and just about as heavy. Total set pack weight...that's my target.

Ya know I wanted to get into hiking ultralight, but some of the equipment I was looking at gave me the heebie jeebies at the store. About a year and a half ago I started rebuilding my kit and I initially wanted the lightest gear I could afford. Through research, and some trial and error I found that some things just wont work with my style.

For example, I would love to have an all titanium cook set, but I would rather have the versatility of hard anodized aluminum. Although the ti pot and pan were a little lighter, I found it hard to keep a good even temp for frying and saute'ing. Hey I like to eat well when i'm out.

On the other hand, I have in the past believed in tents as the primary shelter of the backcountry explorer. I myself don't want to be cooped up in a single person shelter, and made the choice to go with a heavier 2 person tent. Then I ran across some hammock people who persuaded me to try it out, those hammock hippies were right, I did like it, and for summertime fun I can save a pound or two by hanging from trees.

So while I struggle with the ultralight/traditional gear selection, I find myself more of a hybrid, and get the things I need from both worlds.

There have been lots of good opinions here on this one, and all being said, I follow the same mindset as Trouthunter. I have accumlated a good deal of gear, some heavy, some UL. Some of the UL gear that I have gotten is because I liked what I have seen/read about it and it just so happened to be UL. I intentionally chose a lightweight tent and cookset so that I could go heavier on other items. No need to go over it again, but I agree, "hike your own hike".


My pack typically runs 30 - 40 lbs depending on season and length of the hike and so does hers.

Hmmm, yeah, that's my target range too. To me that seems pretty danged light since when I last backpacked my pack was in excess of 60 lbs for an autumn 3-night pack in the Sierra. Even with much lighter gear and more judicious selection of foods etc, I'm targeting around 35 lbs PLUS my photography gear. That's another 10 lbs...

But it's still way better than having that extra 20 lbs along :).

For me the less weight I carry the easier it is to travel afoot. I still take all the necessary items for comfort and survival, I simply shop around a bit and find the lighter equipment. I could probably still carry a 40lb. pack but why would I when I can achieve the same effect with 20lbs? In fact I`m safer and more comfortable and less prone to over-exertion, injury, aches and pains. O well I`d better stop before I anger someone.

We are never in a hurry and would probably drive most hikers crazy with our slow pace but to us it is not about getting from point A to point B, it's all about the in-between.

This is exactly how my wife and I hike. After all, it's nice to "stop and smell the flowers," rather than speed on by them. ;o)

i do a fair amount of cold weather/winter hiking, where UL isn't feasible. we take family trips to campgrounds in warmer weather, which are the antithesis of ultralight - more like packing a minivan for D-Day. on the other hand, having a cooler full of iced tea for the weekend is pretty great.

the occasional weekends i go UL, i have a 9 ounce frameless sack (a minimalist golite), hammoc, quilt, tarp. it can work, it depends on conditions. sleeping in a hammock under a tarp is great in fair weather or gentle rain, but in windy/horizontal rain, it's a damp night and leaves me wishing i had a tent.

some things, i just can't go UL. Boots, for example. my regular hiking boots weigh a few pounds more than my trail runners, but they just fit better. i'll tolerate the pounds to stay blister-free. packs too. the pack i usually use for a weekend runs about 5 pounds, fits like a glove. about the same volume as a granite gear nimbus meridian or nimbus ozone. happily carries 50, though it generally isn't nearly that heavy. i just can't see paying a lot for a good UL pack so i can shave, what, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds?

Hey Bigsmoke, I still do all that, thats why I go out there. I just do it more comfortably now and I`m less strained and fatigued at days end and now I have more energy after setting up camp to explore the area I`m in. I can go very light and still go slow.

I think There are a few basics that need to be fulfilled - if that ends up as ultralight so much the better - but the basics vary with the season and the circumstances. In a very dry climate you just can't travel very light as you need to carry all your water, in very cold climate you need a lot of weather protection, lots of food, and fuel, and so on.

Since a motorbike accident that nearly cost my life twenty years ago I am not a good trekker any more, so we, the wife and I, tend to go by Klepper kayak nowadays, thus the weight is of less importance, but bulk surely is!


Two Hennessy's Hammocks, a huge tarp, a MSR kerosene stove (white spirits is a bit hard to get hold of here), two small folding chairs/stools, two Thermarests (or similar, one each), two sleeping bags, cameras, water-resistant binoculars, rain gear, food, and wine, plus a repair kit (for the kayak and other things that might break), medical supply, mobile phone, VHF radio - if at sea.

At times the huge tarp, and the Hennessies, are replaced by a storm-proof tent - sometimes a small one, sometimes our Atlas, if we plan to stay longer in one spot. The chairs, or stools, are luxury items, but as you approach 60 years they become more and more essential :-)!

Also, some extra equipment for the kayak is essential if you plan to be on away on a longer expedition, like bilge pump, batteries, solar panel, water purification equipment, sail and mast, outrigger, fishing gear, et cetera.

It also happens, if we plan to stay a long time in one spot, that we bring two thermarests apiece - so much nicer for your back:-)!

September 27, 2020
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