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My Backpacking Philosophy


I was recently interviewed for a outdoor magazine, and I was asked about my backpacking philosophy. More specifically, I was asked why I like ultralight backpacking. The following six reasons that came to mind.

1. Comfort

Less weight equals more comfort. No sore shoulders, fewer foot and knee problems, and a cooler back (I often sling the pack from one shoulder at a time to let my back cool). I don't see the need to suffer more than is necessary, even on long hikes.

2. Range

Being able to go 20 miles instead of 10 in a day puts many new places within reach on an overnight trip. It puts a lot of new areas within range for a longer trip as well. This "distance factor" also adds to safety, because in a bad situation a light load makes it easier to hike the long miles necessary to get to a car, road or help.

3. Fewer Injuries

Though some still argue that more injuries are likely when going light - due to lack of ankle support in running shoes - my experience is the opposite. With light shoes and less weight, I'm less likely to lose my balance, or twist an ankle, or hurt my knees on long hikes downhill. I stopped getting blisters when I started traveling lighter.

4. Freedom

I can carry my pack everywhere - including up to the summits of mountains. That ability to change plans or add side-hikes to a trip is a great benefit of reducing pack weight.

5. Fast Travel

This is about freedom again - and safety too. I don't have to travel faster if I don't feel like it, but it's nice to have the option. It's good for emergencies, for example, like if I need to hike out to the car quickly. Being able to travel faster also makes it easier to plan for the best spots for setting up camp.

6. Simplicity

I usually keep it real simple. No cooking, for example, means no dish washing. Less gear to fight with means more swimming time.

More Backpacking Philosophy

It isn't about going light for it's own sake. The idea is to enjoy our time in the wilderness. Too much weight and too many time-consuming technologies take away from that. Notice that technology itself isn't the problem. It is the type. I love my high-tech sleeping bag, but all I have to do is climb into it. On the other hand, I don't want a tent that takes an hour to set up, or a stove that requires assembly and cleaning.

In addition to the pleasure of carrying less weight and keeping it simple, though, I do like the challenge of finding new ways to go lighter. I like to think outside of the box, and use classic creative problem solving techniques. For example, I ask what seem like silly questions, like, when I had the thought "It's insulation that keeps us warm, so why not get rid of the lining and shell of a coat to save weight?" That may seem ridiculous at first, but I worked with the idea.

What I came up with was a tunic made from polyester batting. I just cut out a rectangular piece, put a hole in it for my head, and voila - I had a four-ounce insulating layer. I figured I always had an outer rain shell, so I just wore it under that. I assumes it would fall apart after a while, but I actually used it numerous times over a period of a couple years. In fact, it helped keep me warm on the glaciers at over 20,000 feet, when I climbed Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

Another way to think out of the box about backpacking is to challenge the common assumptions. For example, it is assumed that sleeping bags with baffles are better than those sewn "quilt-style," because the latter have potential cold spots at the seams, where the inner and outer shells are drawn together. If we look at this, though, we realize that those baffles, which are supposed to make a warmer bag, weigh something. The real question, then, is how well the bag keeps you warm for the weight.

My down bag is sewn quilt-style and as a result weighs just 17 ounces. It keeps me warmer than the baffled bag I used to have - which weighed over three pounds. Of course, that was a synthetic insulation, but the question isn't about insulation, but whether you really get more warmth for the weight with baffles, as assumed, or whether it is better to just add insulation to get a similar insulating ability with less weight.


For more on how I approach backpacking, including a list of six ways to "think light," see:
How to Think Like a Lightweight Backpacker


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | My Backpacking Philosophy