Monday, April 7, 2014

123. Ultralight Backpacking

In the world of long distance hiking and backpacking, there are many different approaches when it comes to gear. Some people do it standard, with a big ol' backpack filled with all the necessities, no matter the weight. Some folks go ultralight, carrying the bare minimum and hoping that they just have good luck. Most hikers find a balance between those 2 extremes, aiming for backpacks that are approximately 30 - 45 pounds. 

Some other people, intent on doing things in the vintage fashion, will carry a hobo stick (the stick with the bandanna at the end, which Whistle taught me is technically called a "Bindle." THERE ARE WORDS FOR EVERYTHING). Just kidding, that was a whimsical lie, based on the fact that I wish there were people who carried hobo sticks, because then we'd all be just that little bit cooler.

I was not an Ultralight backpacker, but along the trail, I met a few folks that managed to survive this way. One such person was my dear friend Catch 22 (Lucas), whose pack was 10 pounds at base weight. I asked Catch to write a guest post about the wonders of Ultralight backpacking, because it really is a truly terrific facet of long-distance hiking. As though living out of a backpack wasn't minimalist enough, Ultralighters are hardcore devotees of finding a multitude of purposes for every single item, and thus carrying the fewest things possible.

Catch really was an incredibly swift hiker. He could basically trail run for 15 or 20 miles, lay down to take a short nap, then keep going. There are definitely benefits to going ultralight, and there are also downsides, which Catch has elaborated upon. 

The one thing he didn't say, which I think is important, is to note that Catch was (and is) one of the most easy going, calm, take-it-as-it-comes people I've ever met. I think this type of attitude is frankly the only way to be an ultralight hiker. He was never a mooch, and always took full responsibility for his choices in regard to what he chose to carry or not to carry.

Without further ado, take it away, Mr. Catch:


On the Virtues and Vices of Being Ultralight

In the quest of ultralight, I went to some reasonably idiotic extremes. However, it was part of the fun of the mighty quest.  Being ultralight is a game unto itself at times. There is a point where you can achieve a happy medium of comfort and lightness that is ideally efficient. Then there is the obsession with ultralight that is contracted like a rabid frothy head cold that strips the infected of all self preservation.

The virtues of being ultralight are comfort and safety while in motion.  Imagine waking up every morning knowing that a 60 pound pack must be thrust upward and onto your back for the next 6 hours. Sounds unpleasant, right?  How about a 15 pound pack. Es muy bueno.  It is less gross stress on your joints and muscle tissue.  This allows greater distances to be covered with the same aggregate workload.  Another factor to be considered is that your probability of  falling is lower because your core will be more stable and the chance of recovery mid fall is higher as well.  On a bit of a side note the less things you have to carry the more room you have for a 10 liter of bag of Franzia. Just saying.  

The vices of being ultralight are the potentially unpleasant and dangerous moments you could encounter while not hiking.  Being stationary, your body isn't generating heat so you are going to get cold.  And say you are jumping around in a river and you fall in wearing your only set of clothes.  Guess what.  You are now wet and will remain so until some AWESOME people build a fire.  For a short while I was hiking with two twin bed sheets and it was sub 30 degrees a few of those nights. More cold. Less comfort.  

A lot of Ultralight backpacking is just a game of trade-offs.

Some suggestions and tips for the ultralight inspired folk who are looking to save some money:

1. If you are cold while sleeping, wear your backpack on your feet. 
2. Socks = Hobogloves. 
3. Hiker boxes* have free clothing.  Enough free clothing = layers.
4. Blue Tarp, Poly Cord, and Tent stakes. Total cost $15 - $25. Also makes hammock.
5. Gatorade bottles are cheap. Smart water bottles can be converted into bladder systems.
6. Novelty toilet paper.  Read a novel while feeling ripe. Rip. Wipe. Walk.
7. Do not carry toilet paper.  Learn to identify poison ivy/oak/sumac.  Go Green ;)
8. Rain jackets make bad rain jackets but make good pack covers.
9. Make friends.  Friends carry important things you may not carry. True story.
10. Do not carry a first aid kit (I know this is horrible advice, but this is how I did it). My thinking goes that if a small first aid kit is all you need, then bleeding is fine.  If you have a situation that requires more help than a small first aid kit provides then you should get medical attention.
11. Learn to evaluate water sources.  Bleach is cheap and weighs less than any other treatment.
12. Trail runners over boots.
13. Blue tarp = Rain poncho
14. Grab a spoon.  Body heat can make up for lack of insulation.
15. Take many naps.  This is all.  


*Hiker boxes are a delightful part of trail life that will have its own entry at some point. Basically they are big plastic tubs at hostels, full of a mish-mash of random items. Hikers can leave unwanted items in the box, and other hikers can grab things as they need/desire.

Catch, on the left, demonstrating tarp as raingear

Catch's tarp hammock?



  1. Great post Clever Girl and Catch! Love the pictures too. In the raingear pic, Catch, Dumptruck and Whistle look like hobo galactic visitors...Whistle as Chief Diplomat. "We come in harm will come to you...can we borrow a towel?" Love, Mom and Dad

  2. OMG, now I'm going to have to make myself a hobostick/bindle and hike into the nearby shelters just to see what happens. :)