Thoughts on the practical application of UL gear

Thoughts on the practical application of UL gear

Ultralight backpacking - a moniker defining, among other things, the upper weight limit of one's base equipment (everything carried minus food and water). As an example, some sources state a UL kit must be below 10 lbs.

The backpack holding it all together is included in the total weight, so it is also of light scantlings. Therefore, for it all to mesh together into a workable package, the total weight with food and water is best kept under 20-25 lbs. Beyond that point compromises in carrying comforts escalate.

A UL base kit is a study in technological minimalism. The components typically have to be of high quality, but pared down to a bare minimum of function. This puts the user in a situation of balancing weather, environment and personal experience in a much more delicate fashion. The point of a sudden unacceptable drop in safety can be reached with little warning.

Pure UL therefore adapts well to hiking on predictable trails during the right season. The origin of the idea was partially to ease the impact of thru hiking the big ones: the PCT, AT etc. Executing these trails is a well documented endeavor with few surprises, enabling a thoughtful, prepared hiker to easily stay safe, even within the realm of the skimpiest UL equipment. 

Taking the lessons thus learned to a higher risk environment will be the next step for many. This is where UL challenges can limit or endanger even seasoned travelers. 

Chasing weight savings involving the three biggies (shelter, pack, sleep system) is the most common, as the payback in grams saved is real. Here's some points to consider:

* The UL shelter takes a solid backcountry skill-set to use safely in adverse weather conditions, an exposed high altitude environment or shoulder season travel.

* The UL frame-less, belt-less pack is easily pushed beyond its limits while trying to carry adequate food or water between known or unknown resupply spots.

* The sleep system's reliability often depends on a careful application of clothes and accessories. Moisture management in the insulation during periods of extreme weather takes a deliberate approach. 

Other issues one need to ponder with a total commitment to UL practices:

* Approved bear safe food storage containers rarely adapt well to UL packs. Some highly desirable destinations require the use of approved containers.

* The same carrying capacity conundrum surfaces with special equipment often needed on more advanced outings. Two examples are climbing gear and packrafts.

* As UL tempts us to move fast and efficient, most trips will likely be planned around that. Imposing a sudden limit to this essential agility (such as injury, weather, anything unforeseen) could push the margin of safety into the red zone to a much higher degree than that hitting a traditional backpacker and his sizeable safety net.

A more nuanced approach to UL might well suit an experienced user seeking adventure beyond the PCT. The fact is that modern equipment just outside the realm considered by UL aficionados, but not completely in the REI camp, so to speak, is still acceptably lightweight while providing a much broader field of use. 

Shelters for example. Let's compare a 16 ounce tarp, a two pound floorless pyramid, and a traditional free standing dome tent of about 4 lbs.

The tarp is wonderfully light but does not provide much protection from mist and spray, and adds only marginally to the warmth of a sleep system. It can be fiddly and time consuming to set up properly in the face of incoming weather. Site selection is crucial, and limiting. 

The traditional double wall dome or tunnel tent, if from a reputable maker, is a bombproof and adaptable shelter at home anywhere. However, most UL folks rule these out immediately, being many times the weight and bulk of a simple tarp. 

In between, but much closer to the tarp in heft, is the single wall pyramid, or 'mid' as it is known. This proven design can surpass the dome tent in wind and rain protection, offer an easily erected large interior space and even become bug proof without adding liners. An equally rated quilt will feel warmer in the still air of a low pitched mid compared to an airy tarp.

Clearly, choosing to carry a little more weight, as with the mid, increases safety and comfort plus extends the range of travel to high and wild places. The same is the case with the pack choices. A frameless, belt-less minimalist sack is great for shorter trips where little food is carried, or for the speedy thru hiker doing 30+ miles a day and therefore reaching the next resupply in less than half the guidebook time. 

But add the need to lug along a gallon and a half of extra water on the Hayduke Trail, and most folks will hike as fast in greater comfort with a UL 'based' pack sporting some sort of frame and connected hip belt. 

While the trail focused thru-hiker with a totally dialed setup can achieve a base weight of 6 lbs or less, the more adaptable 'adventure kit' might just be double that. The three big ones could be distributed like this: pack 3 lbs, sleeping bag 2 lbs, shelter 3 lbs. Add a real water filter, a reliable stove, a headlamp with a respectable output and a few other tidbits and one is truly ready for advanced high routes without undue burden.

Like bare foot hiking, true UL is an esoteric pursuit many will find too limiting. 

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