this is part 1 of a 2 part series.

it was my last day on the tahoe rim trail. the sun waned on the horizon in the late afternoon and i took a short rest/snack break on a rock beside a much larger boulder. from behind the boulder the familiar sound of laden footsteps sounded. soon enough a figure appeared and a friendly hello followed.

“are there any campsites ahead with a view of the lake?”

“this lake or lake tahoe?” i inquired. there was a lake to our east that was visible. lake tahoe to our west was not. “if you want lake tahoe, you’ve got another few miles before you can see it.”

“*sigh* i was hoping to watch the sunset over lake tahoe. is there any water?”

“not really until spooner lake. the pump at the campground is out of order. if you really, really need water, you’ll come to an open rocky area with two extremely small and shallow ponds that will be off to your right as you hike south. i can’t vouch for their quality, but i did see water in them. do you really need some? i can spare half a liter or so. this is my last night on trail,” i offered.

“i should be ok. i heard about the pump and was just checking.”

it’s always a good idea to double check trail intel that one has received. as we chatted about the trail for a few minutes, their slumped over forward position silently testified to the weight on their back.

“my feet are killing me. i think i’m just going a short distance further and will stop for the night.”

“a couple of nice areas are  just ahead of you that will make for some nice camp spots. no view of lake tahoe, though,” i said with a smile. “what’s wrong with your feet?”

“i have plantar fasciitis in both feet. it’s torture to walk right now.”

i looked down to see brand new hiking boots. the suede leather kind with red show laces. odd, i thought. why choose those with that condition?

there was some conversation about what had been tried to remedy the pain and the sheer enormity of the pack struck me. towering what i assumed could only be a good foot above the hiker’s head was the pack’s “brain”. it also had items attached at the bottom. a closed cell foam pad. crocs camp shoes. a cook pot. hand sanitizer. a rag.

the description of the pain endured really made me feel for them. i saw clearly in my mind a major contributor. “how much does your pack weigh?” i reflexively blurted out thinking about how much pain the force of gravity must be inflicting. i knew it was a very bad question the millisecond the first syllable erupted from my mouth.

with a volume wholly unexpected based on physical stature , “i’m not going ultralight!!”

i assure you i was really attempting to assist this hiker. there are literally stops on the some of the long trails where experienced hikers give other hikers pack shakedowns to help lesson some of the burden. maybe they just hadn’t thought about it. or maybe they had and equated pain with price for comfort.

i apologized for overstepping and wished them a good hike.

as i stood up and mounted my pack, i wondered why. what could instill such animus toward reducing pack weight?

the problem with ultralight backpacking

there isn’t one. it’s all perception. and it may appear to some that it’s a new concept, but it’s not. the idea of packing light has been around for decades.

what exactly is ultralight backpacking? it’s backpacking with a base weight of 10lbs or less. base weight is everything in your backpack that isn’t consumable (food, fuel, water, e.g.) i hover right around that mark. i get a couple pounds over when i add in camera gear. if i expect it be close to freezing for days on end, then that additional gear might add a further additional pound. i prefer to have what i carry on my back as light as possible because i am out there to hike. i’ve carried close to 40 pounds of gear and food for weeks at a time and i do not enjoy that.

for me comfort is not having a pack dig into my shoulders or bruise and abrade my hip bones. i don’t spend a ton of time at camp. i spend almost all of my waking time hiking. typically when i stop for the night, i pitch my tent, spread out my gear, eat dinner, and then crash. i wake up, pack up, and eat breakfast while hiking. i’m a thru-hiker. i enjoy traveling ultralong distances on foot through wilderness areas. my backpack and the gear it in allow me to do that.

most ultralighters are going to be thru-hikers. a weekend backpacker or dayhiker is probably not so interested in ultralight. the hiker i described in the example above was a thru-hiker. i’ve had weekenders and short section hikers inquire about my gear because it does look small and light. when i’ve unpacked and shown them everything in my pack they are almost always amazed. i’m a wizard. a practitioner of some magical art that creates a liminal space between physical and metaphysical inside my pack: a black hole. and there are those out there that pack smaller and lighter than i. they sometimes leave a little of what i would consider necessary at home to go even lighter and faster. sometimes they don’t. they just get very creative with what they carry.


hikers with 5 and 6 pound base weights, carrying a polycryo sheet as their sleeping pad and using a 40 degree quilt in all but subfreezing conditions are extreme ultralighters. a thin garbage bag as a rain poncho. 2 ibuprofen and some floss as a first aid kit. i met a man that was 70+ early on the appalachian trail. he had a pyramid tarp for a shelter. under that, a plastic sheet for a ground cloth that was just big enough to keep his sleeping bag clean. next to that a paper back book. he had a ula ohm backpack hung from a low hanging branch. it weighed close to 40 pounds. almost all of it was food. honestly, i was envious. i wish i could sleep restfully on the ground night after night. this guy was not carrying much gear at all. he knew exactly what he was doing. he was there to hike. not spend time in town. this man was my introduction to “pack only what is really, really needed,” or ultralight backpacking.

getting down to a 10 or even 12 pound base weight is no easy task. it requires courage, focus, knowing your needs, understanding the conditions that you will most likely face while hiking, and then discarding anything that is superfluous to the task ahead: hiking safely in the conditions that one can most reasonably expect to face. sounds smart, right? well like most everything in this universe, it’s all subjective. what exactly is safe? what does one require to be “safe”? take 10 people and you’ll probably wind up with 11 or 12 different risk profiles.

i think that some people get protective about all the literal crap they have stuffed onto their backs. it all makes them “safe and comfortable”. through that, they lash out at the people who can throw almost everything to the wind and just go hike even though the amount of gear is not what makes one safe or comfortable.

the problem with saying there’s a problem with ultralight backpacking

i just think ultralight brings out the insecurities in people that was [sic] always there to begin with.

that’s a quote from the comments section on a youtube video about how “ultralight needs to die!” the problem is not ultralight, the ultralight mindset, or the arbitrary (but community accepted) 10 lb base weight threshold.

the problem is two fold. first, people not being pragmatic and properly prepared when they go out in the wild. carrying too much is just as bad as a failure to carry enough. second, people get it in their heads what is “needed” and/or what is “right”. and that’s when the policing starts. i’ve had people scold me on trail because they felt my pack that was too small: there was no way i had everything in there i needed. i have had a lone star hiking trail worker scoff at my use of a sawyer filter to filter my water as unacceptable and unsafe: it clogs and then i would be left with drinking unfiltered water. he offered no alternative, it was just that my choice was not satisfactory. i’ve also enjoyed people telling me that hiking 30 miles or more in a day was not possible and, furthermore, just dangerous and irresponsible.

i’m not sure on which side the commenter of the quote above was coming down. ultralight people are insecure or people that are not ultralight are insecure. either way, his comment rings true. people are insecure and they pack for their insecurities. i can tolerate being wet. i can tolerate being cold. i cannot tolerate being wet and cold. my intolerance of/for this causes me to pack gear (and in such a way) that does as much as possible to prevent this situation.

i would never impose my insecurities on someone else. a lot of people would and do. they are the problem with saying ultralight is a problem.

how did ultralight get this bad reputation?

one will get to a particular point with hiking gear where it is not possible to reduce weight by actually eliminating anything else. the kit is literally the bare minimum required to hike: a backpack, a sleeping cover, some form of shelter, water system, extremely rudimentary first aid supplies, basic hygiene items. you get the idea. once you get to that point, the next logical step is to find the absolute lightest of those items. then, and this is where ultralighters are sometimes called “gram weanies”, you start eliminating the unnecessary from those items: tags, extra features such as a spare cord on your backpack, cutting your toothbrush handle to a nub, cutting your sleeping pad in half, etc. finally, the last thing possible to reduce weight is to get rid of something that could be considered necessary. hike in the summer, check the forecast to ensure no precipitation, then leave the shelter at home. cowboy camping is fun.

and this is where some people’s insecurities can make them lash out at the gram weanies. how dare they leave an item of safety and comfort at home? but, if they did their research and are willing to accept the risk what’s wrong with that? additionally, some of the gear labeled ultralight is pretty stupid ultralight. tents and backpacks made of super(stupid)-ultralight material that withstand maybe a couple hundred miles on trail. $40 camp shoes made from that corrugated plastic sign material  that weigh as much as a small handful of gummy bears. but, hey, to each his own right? i don’t understand that hiker with tortured feet carrying what i understood as way too much. that said, i wouldn’t stop them.

though much of the angst about ultralight hiking is about the safety or its lack with regard to the hiker, i have not seen one instance of an ultralight hiker requiring evacuation due to improper gear. all of the reports that i have read or seen were about what would be considered a traditional hiker. seriously, most of the ultralight stupidity is on the internet. it does get ridiculous (or humorous) and i’d bet that those are almost all computer chair hikers. and it’s the internet, so there are a lot of them. which gives everyone else a bad name.

i’m not an ultralight thru-hiker

any category or label that humans desire to ascribe to themselves will inevitably lead to a policing of said category/label. who to include and who to exclude. if we went with what i might be called, we could more or less land on ultralight thru-hiker.

and, surprise! the definition of thru-hiker is not even set in stone. thru-hike means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. and yes, there are people policing that term, too. i avoid labels pretty much altogether. when someone asks if i’m ultralight, i say not really. if they ask if i’m a thru-hiker, i reply that i am just hiking from point a to point b.

what i’ve found when on long trails with other thru-hikers is this: no one out there for the hike cares. everyone has packed what they think they need and then they go hiking. sure, we discuss gear choices, distances, campsite selection, food, but i’ve rarely ran into judgment from other long distance thru-hikers. well, i did have that lady on the colorado trail describe andrew skurka as a dangerous asshole. but, i sleep with my food, too.

part 2: what ultralight means to me

to follow . . .




Published On: 2024 June 4

leave a comment

share this post