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Ultralight Backpacking Questions and Answers

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Having had this site up for more than seven years now, I get a lot of emails from visitors and from subscribers (when I used to give away the book Ultralight Backpacking Secrets a chapter at a time). Here are some of the questions people have asked over the years, along with my best shot at an answer that makes sense (at least to me).

Do you have to go without a tent?

The short answer is no. You can cut the weight in other areas. Many ultralight backpackers go with just a tarp to save weight, and some go with bivy sacks. I have done both. But there are enough lightweight tents available that you can still keep your pack weight down and bring a bug-proof shelter (and that protection from bugs is the biggest advantage that I see).

At the moment I have a screen tent with a nylon bottom that weighs just seventeen ounces (a GoLite "nest"--not sure if they still make it). When I pitch that under my 16-ounce tarp I have a complete shelter system that comes in at close to two pounds. Some complete rain-proof tents are around three pounds now, which is another option.

Is there any reason the weight has to be below a certain target?

Yes, there actually is a reason that you need to get your total pack weight down to a certain level to truly benefit from going light. It has to do with how your entire backpacking system functions together. If you have too much weight on your back you not only have that additional weight, but you will probably need a bigger, heavier pack to carry everything and you'll want hiking boots for the ankle support.

This isn't an exact science, but to look at it from the other direction, when the total weight of your stuff other than the pack and footwear drops from around 25 pounds to about 20 pounds, you can replace your four-pound frame pack with a one-pound frameless one, so saving five pounds really saves eight. More than that though, you drop a pound off of each foot when you can then convert to running or trail shoes instead of hiking boots. Since it is estimated that a pound on the foot equals about five on the back in terms of energy expended while backpacking, this is a huge difference. You'll be much more comfortable once you drop to the truly ultralight range for your total backpack weight.

What about water weight?

I would always push the limits of the pack with the water carried if I was hiking in a true desert and was unsure about where there would be water available. Water is just too important. In other environments I have found that I can get by with two pounds of water in the form of two plastic pop bottles. While one is being treated (it takes thirty minutes for water purification pills to work), I can drink from the other.

If I plan well, I always have enough water (I ran out once--for a couple hours). The key is to always drink your fill when you arrive at a water source, and then fill the bottle or bottles. If you are making a longer stop, wait until a bottle of water has been treated, drink that, and fill it again before returning to the trail.

Is a frameless pack hard on the shoulders?

It's true that with a good frame pack you can shift much of the weight to your hips using the hip belt. This can help save wear and tear on shoulders, and allow the air to cool your back a bit. But if you go light enough your shoulders should never get too sore from a frameless pack, and you can swing it from one to the other shoulder on smooth stretches in order to cool your back.

What's the single biggest reason to go light in your experience?

Probably the freedom it allows you. Hitting the trail with less weight is much more comfortable and enjoyable, but the freedom to go where you want or change your plans makes the biggest difference for many of us.

For example, people used to carry "summit packs" with them if they planned to run or climb to the top of any peaks while backpacking. This was used to carry a jacket, water and snacks while going for the summit, and the big backpack was then left somewhere down below during the attempt. Of course that meant that after reaching the top (or giving up), the hiker had to go back down the same way to retrieve the big pack.

Imagine you are in this situation and you see a great little valley down the other side of the mountain. Wouldn't it be nice to just head on down to camp there for the night? If you have everything with you the choice is easy. Going light enough makes it possible to bring everything to the top of the mountains and so to leave options like that open. Also, the fact that you can go twenty miles in a day when going light, and as easily as going ten when traveling with more weight, means you can decide to take a side-trip or change your route. Freedom is the biggest advantage of ultralight backpacking for myself.

Keep sending in those questions, and watch the homepage for announcements of more "q and a" pages like this.



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