Friday, April 5, 2013

The end of Ultralight Backpacking?

There is much online about the death of, or the end of Ultralight Backpacking.  I'm a bit surprised.  I just started and it's over with?  I find that silly actually, but after reading pages of posts, I see what the issue is.
Ultralight Backpacking has become a "bone of contention" or a sore spot to those who don't believe in it, or those who feel threatened or are abused by some who they feel preach too much.  I say if it doesn't work for you, then great.  If it does work for you, then great.  It's all just backpacking anyway.
Lite Hikers assisting the Santa Barbara National Forest to recon trails for repair after a devastating  fire in 2008.
Ultralight Backpacking has come to mean a base weight (gear excluding food, fuel and water) of 10 pounds.  By purchasing a one pound tent/tarp, a one pound sleeping quilt with a one pound sleeping pad, a one pound backpack and about a pound of stove and cooking gear, it is easy to reach that base weight.  Note I said "purchase" in that sentence.  All the gear I already had and used for years weighed from three to eight times more than what I needed to buy in order to get to the base weight of 10 pounds or less.  Most of my gear was worn out and needed replacement to be effective anyway.  So I had to spend money to buy into "ultralight" gear, some of it from cottage producers like Gossamer Gear.  I already knew I couldn't buy into the typical heavier equipment because I just couldn't carry it.  I'm proud of my purchases.  And I'm not going to talk to you about them unless you ask me first.
I have been pleased to read of many areas where ultralight backpacking helps the outdoors, like in the Santa Barbara National Forest in the link above.  All backpackers I know are helpful people.  In some cases an ultralight backpacker may be able to get in quicker and is lighter on their feet, or can cover more ground in a day on the trail.
I started backpacking in the late 1960's, during the industry change from cotton canvas to manufactured fibers for tents, packs, jackets and sleeping bag fill.  I was so happy to carry my lightweight tube tent instead of a ten pound canvas one, that I never considered both ends were open and I would be eaten alive by bugs at night.  I was just glad to be free of the weight.  While I didn't read about or follow Ray Jardine until forty years later, I felt I had done well keeping up with the Boy Scouts with the gear I had.  Reading Jardine, I see his plan of "camping systems" was right on, the packing, sleeping and the cooking systems are the best ways to consider your gear for weight and usefulness.  I see him as a thought leader who helped bring Ultralight Backpacking into existence.  Ray Jardine was a person who talked a lot about what works for him, but not necessarily for me.
Gramma Gatewood, Hiking the AT in 1958, 1960 and 1963.
If you look back into the 1950's, Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail with about the same weight of gear as modern-day ultralight backpackers, but unlike Grandma Gatewood I didn't have these things laying around my house, so I purchased them.  If I could sew, I may have made some of my gear, but I don't know how to sew and didn't want to take the time to learn how.  With a 40 hour weekly job plus family, school events and more it is hard enough to balance my little free time with being in the outdoors.
The outdoor skills I have used for years still work for me; I know how to safely select a sleeping space, pitch a tent or a tarp, how to build a fire, cut down a tree, clean and take care of my body, watch for snakes and wildlife, navigate off trail with a map and compass, deal with rain and severe weather, use basic first aid, feel comfortable outdoors and even lead a crew.  Called "Black Arts" by some, these skills are necessary to anyone interested in more than an overnight trip into a local park.  And they have nothing specific to do with "Ultralight Backpacking".
Adding to those skills Ultralight Backpackers rise, strike camp and backpack an hour before breakfast.  They eat lunch while taking a long mid day break, and later have an early dinner while still on the trail.  Then they hike until just before dark to make camp.  That increases your daily mileage and leaves less of a mess "in camp" to deal with.  That works for me, but maybe not for you.  And that's OK.
The real truth is we all must "hike our own hike" and use the tools that work best for us.  In my very personal way, that is to reduce my pack weight to make it possible for me to hike all day long without pain.  I have shoulder, back and leg injuries that make carrying a heavy pack nearly impossible.  And I'm over 55 years old, so I don't have the strength to sling fifty to sixty pounds over my shoulder and walk all day any more.  And that's OK.
Twenty five years ago we didn't have ultralight anything, so I had to quit doing something I loved.  Now I can take it back up again, and even dream of making a through-hike a possibility.