FREQUENT QUESTIONS & TLB ANSWERS
QUESTION (from Jeremy Schmidt, 2/98):
(1) Do you think this ultralight revolution is really a new way of thinking? I've heard it called the "new paradigm." Of course John Muir went around the Sierras with a blanket, a teapot, and a sack of bread. But I suppose many of us have gotten trapped in the concept that our packs normally will weigh 40 to 50 pounds, and that's just backpacking. Certainly, people like you have caused me to reconsider my personal load. That's revolutionary.
We need to look at the phrase "new way of thinking" from, at least, two perspectives. Two views that yield somewhat different answers.
It is inherent in the act of carrying a heavy load on one's back to wish it were a lighter load. Thus, I think hikers, climbers, backpackers have forever thought of ways to lighten their loads. From that perspective, the pursuit of a lightened backpack is nothing new. There have always been those who were truly ultralightist, like John Muir, so that concept and practice is also not new.
What is new, I believe, are the creative ways in which ultralight/lightweight/fastpacking type equipment configurations are being pursued and manifested today, together with the increasingly focused, scrutinous attitudes that some of us have toward "what is essential and what isn't". For those of us committed to achieving a personal lightweight nirvana, this could be considered "revolutionary", and for many of us who go lightweight all the time, certainly we have entered a "new personal paradigm".
Another thing that is new, is the apparent ultralight/lightweight genre that is "uncloaking". Books such as Powerpacking: Principles of Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking, by Tom Ridley and The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook, by Ray Jardine have inspired many people to reassess their backcountry packing & camping practices (both these books can be found in the Backpacker's Bookstore). In addition, the world-wide-web has produced numerous forums wherein lightweight packers can congegrate and discuss and explore their common interests (for example the Lightweight Message Forums here at the Lightweight Backpacker.
One of the phenomena that I'm experiencing at The Lightweight Backpacker website is that long-time ultralight travelers are coming out of the woodwork, so to speak. I receive comments like "....I've been going light for years, but I never knew there was a corresponding genre...." Well, maybe there wasn't, but thanks to the aforementioned books and websites like The Lightweight Backpacker, Michael's Ultralight Backpacking Page and many others, there appears to be one "uncloaking".
2) Do you believe or have you noticed if this lightweight revolution is an increasing trend ?
There is definitely an increased interest, such that even the gear manufacturers and retailers are starting to describe their gear in terms of "Lightweight" and "Ultralight" and in one case, "Ultralightlightweight" (whether it is or not is another subject).
To a large extent, gear manufacturers and retailers influence our pack weight. As in all other markets, the masses tend to follow the mainstream products as provided by the manufacturers and retailers. Although, some lighter weight equipment is being introduced, the emphasis is still on heavier, "bomb-proof" construction, for the majority of items.
Apparently, the reasons for this include (1) over-built (heavier) gear can withstand more abuse which translates into decreased warranty-repair cost for the manufacturers (2) materials for ultralight gear, and in many cases their special production processes, are more costly and the resulting products more expensive, and (3) because ultralight products are, usually, more expensive and perceived as less durable, the masses (majority of folks) don't purchase, ergo, the retailers don't stock, and ergo, the manufacturers aren't encouraged to produce.
Many of the ultralight items on the market today are not carried in mainstream outdoor gear shops. Limited quantities are produced and are available, mostly, through special order directly from the manufacturers or from specialty mountain shops. Products like spectre and other ultralight backpacks, titanium stoves, ultralight tents, 800-fill goose down sleeping bags, etc. are very expensive and mostly available only through special order or from the specialty shops. This creates yet another problem because people, many times, must purchase items sight unseen. Most people won't do that. An alternative solution that many ultralight packers are pursuing is to make their own gear, but there again, most folks won't do that.
Yes, I do see the trend continuing toward lightweight backcountry travel much the same as it has been - a revolution for ones who have the attitude, determination, ingenuity, knowledge and skills to do it but a slow evolution for the masses who go as the mainstream outdoor gear market goes.
Having said that, however, The Lightweight Backpacker website has steadily increased in popularity and today consistently generates between one and two million hits a month and receives literally hundreds of email from folks who are genuinely thrilled to either prolong or resume their backpacking activities in a much more enjoyable manner through pursuit of a lighter load on their back.
3) What is the main reason that you travel lightweight ?
There are Several Reasons:
(1) Traveling light in the backcountry significantly increases my enjoyment level. A light pack allows for increased awareness & enjoyment of the surroundings while en route to the destination. Once I get there, I still have energy to celebrate the arrival, as well as to explore further.
In my experience, the heavy pack detracted from my enjoyment of the journey itself. Often, my primary focus would be just to get to the destination so I could remove the weight off my back and relax. Relax I would, too, because I didn't have the energy to go exploring. You may think this is somewhat extreme, but I suspect that you have had the same experience. Especially, if you are anywhere near my age.
(2) The challenge and process of reducing pack weight and gaining the knowledge required to get the most out of the gear that I do carry, is, in and of itself, fun! A bit eccentric, perhaps, but fun, nonetheless.
(3) My bad back necessitates! Although I was already well into the process of learning to travel lightweight, an auto accident in October of 1996 made it a requirement. Before the accident, I could carry 70 pounds in my Dana Terraplane pack. Now, my back bothers me if I carry 35 pounds for too long. Fortunately, most of the time now, my pack weights are below that number.
(3) Protects Legs, Knees, Feet, Back from injury. Carrying 40 to 50 pounds can be dangerous & is stressful to our body parts. Carrying a light pack, assuming you are carrying the right gear and know how to use it, is safer and less stressful.
(4) With ultralight gear and sufficient survival knowledge, I might be able to hike til I'm 90 years old.
4) What do you say to someone who likes the idea of carrying less weight but is reluctant to leave behind their "gadgets of comfort" ?
I don't tell people what they should or should not carry. One thing I do say, however, is if you really need to carry something into the backcountry, make sure it's the smallest, lightest, highest quality you can make or buy. That's the process I went thru for my "gadgets". My camera weighs 5 ounces; monocular, 2 ounces; fishing gear, 4 ounces; cribbage set, 3 ounces; and my wooden flute, 3 ounces.
Determine the gear that YOU NEED to maintain your personal level of security and comfort. Don't be unduly influenced by "lightweight gear freaks", but, also, for your own safety, avoid the "everything but the kitchen sink syndrome". Decide what makes you feel safe and comfortable, then start out with that as a baseline. As you become more experienced, you will discover that your gear configurations will evolve toward more efficiency and, hopefully, lighter weight.
Remember, though, a too-heavy pack increases your risk of fatigue-related injuries (from falling, heat-exhaustion, etc.) and injuries from undue stress on back, legs, knees, and feet. Conversely, a too-small pack may compromise your personal security, due to the lack of necessary gear.
One final thing that I would say, "When we are half way up a 4000 foot elevation gain and you realize that I'm only carrying 25 pounds compared to your 50 pounds, don't bother asking me to carry part of your gear, because I won't do it!"