My Backpacking Philosophy
By Steve Gillman
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.
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.
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.
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
I usually keep it real simple. No cooking, for example, means
no dish washing. Less gear to fight with means more swimming
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