Challenge From the Lightweight Backpacking Movement

The unexamined gear may not be worth toting!

—Charles Lindsey, The Lightweight

What makes you an ultralight backpacker is the whole package: your gear, your technique, your style, your philosophy, your stewardship, your mindset, your simplicity.”

—Ryan Jordan, leader in the lightweight backpacking community

A lot of people say, but I can handle the weight. So could I, when I was younger and dumber. But now my knees creak, and I want to have more fun—not show off my machismo. Carrying more than you need to will catch up with you in some way, shape, or form. You will sprain an ankle or strain a muscle, get altitude sickness, or fail to move fast enough on summit day and need to retreat. I had a guy bail on a climb once because he got badly sunburned. The real issue was he carried too much into base camp and it took him longer than normal to hike in, and that’s what caused his sunburn! I don’t know how many times I’ve almost had to turn around near a summit because my client was too tired, only to pick up his pack and find out he’s carrying a piano!

—Gary Scott, “Fast and Light with Gary Scott: Lightweight Backpacking and Climbing Strategies”

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

What is the best way to define “lightweight backpacking”? Should I adopt a lightweight backpacking philosophy and, if so, what motivations are most persuasive?  If adopted, how far should I go with this philosophy? How far can I go to lighten my pack without compromising personal safety, functionality and comfort?

Historical Perspectives on the Lightweight Movement

There are many terms floating around referring to this movement, often without consistent usage: “pack light,” “lightweight packing,” “ultralight,” “sub ultralight,”  “super ultralight,”  “extreme ultralight,” “mega-light,” “uberlight,” “gram-geek,” gram-weenie,” and “minimalist” name most of them. In this article, I will use the phrase “lightweight packing (-packer)” and its abbreviation (LWP) as an umbrella term covering the whole range, unless otherwise noted. I have chosen the LWP phrasing because it is relatively neutral and should, therefore, allow for a more objective analysis of this topic.

The LWP movement has been around in different forms for many years; it is not new. John Muir was one of the original practitioners of superultralight hiking in the United States often going out for days or weeks with little on his back or in his satchel. In the mountaineering world, the “fast and light” alpine ascents of Messner, Bonatti and Twight are well known. In the horse-packing world, the “light packing” approach is receiving increased attention. Light packing with animals utilizes lightweight backpacking equipment with a goal of limiting each group to no more than one or two packhorses or mules per party rather than carrying most of the creature comforts with a full pack string. On the contemporary hiking scene, probably the best-known proponent of the LWP philosophy is Ray Jardine, especially in his classic text, Beyond Backpacking: Guide to Lightweight Hiking (now updated and revised as Trail Life: Ray Jardine’s Lightweight Backpacking, 2009). Even though Jardine’s book focuses primarily on long-distance “thru-hiking” and sometimes pushes lightweight techniques to their outer limits, the sympathetic reader will find challenges on many levels to conventional ways of thinking. Since Jardine’s book appeared, there has been a proliferation of things “lightweight” and “ultralight.” Web sites on the Internet, articles in outdoor magazines, books espousing LWP gear and techniques, and gear manufacturers touting this philosophy are just a few of its manifestations. Lightweight outdoor gear has become a mass-market product. It is now being produced by a number of manufacturers and is getting increasing attention at outdoor recreation shows.

Whether lightweight packing is a passing fad or a revolution among the backpacking community is a difficult question to answer. What is true is that the movement has thrown down the gauntlet to the traditional hiking and backpacking community. By its very existence, the movement challenges beginning and experienced hikers alike, prodding each of us to examine all manner of assumptions and beliefs about our ways of being and styles of travel in the backcountry.


Operational Definitions and Lightweight Terminology
Before going further, some definitions and clarifications are in order. The most common way of defining LWP is to focus on base pack weight. Even though there are no universally accepted definitions, following is a typical breakdown for three-season backpacking that includes the pack but excludes consumables (water, food, fuel): 

  • Extreme ultralight or minimalist (XUL) = below four pounds of base pack weight
  • Superultralight or minimalist (SUL) = below 5 pounds
  • Ultralight  (UL) = below 10 pounds
  • Lightweight = below 20 pounds
  • Conventional/traditional weight = below 30 pounds
  • Heavyweight = 30 pounds or more of base pack weight

The above base pack weight computations probably originated from long-distance hikers who have to replenish food and other consumable items as they progress. Regarding this approach, note how much the backpacking culture has changed! Years ago it was common to find heavyweight backpackers (“iron men” or “mountain men”) carrying 60 pounds or more. Himalayan porters reportedly carry loads in excess of 100 pounds.

A second common way to define these concepts is by using the ratio of total pack weight to body weight. For example, a common definition of LWP is a total pack weight of 15% or less of one’s body weight. With this standard, a 175-pound person could carry and wear 26 pounds (total packed weight) and be classified as LWP. In contrast, a conventional or standard weight pack is often given as 20-30% of ideal body weight. This equates, on the 30% end for a 175 pounder, to 53 pounds total pack weight. A heavyweight pack is then anything over 30%. Note that these ratios usually are interpreted to apply to the lean or ideal body weight of a person who is reasonable fit. The more body fat one carries, the lower the percentage. Then there is the consumables factor. If this second method is used, consider calculating the average percentage on a specific trip with gradually reducing consumables. For example, in the beginning it could be 20% and end with 10%, giving an average of 15% of body weight (the upper end of a LWP).

Note that this second approach uses “total pack weight” compared to “base pack weight” in the first approach. This second approach is quite problematic on several points. For example, what method should be used to determine ideal, lean body weight? What does it mean to be fit and in shape? Should age, body type, frame size or gender be taken into account? What standards should be applied to the person who spends weeks or months in the backcountry humping heavy loads?

 Sometimes the LWP will fudge the definitions (thereby distorting the results) by excluding clothing worn and items carried in pockets or in the hands (e.g., trekking poles). This distortion has led many LWP proponents to expand the definitions by dropping the word “pack” and replacing it with “from-the-skin-out” (FSO) weight. With this expansion, the two standard approaches then become “base weight carried from-the-skin-out” (without consumables) and “total weight carried from-the-skin-out” (including consumables). This expansion makes sense because all of the carried weight must be transported up and down the hills, not just what is in the pack. Another modification to the two standard approaches would factor in carried body weight or body fat (especially that above ideal "fightin' weight). This factor is important and needs to be acknowledged, but it complicates the whole business so much as not to be useful.

Another distortion of LWP definitions is the advocate who regularly attempts to borrow gear, food, water, fuel, or guide pages from others. Instead of LWP, the better descriptive phrase is “parasite.”

 All approaches to defining LWP are somewhat arbitrary. This is partly because there are no universally accepted definitions and partly because of the fluid cutoff points (e.g., is “light” base weight under 20 or 15 or 10 pounds?). Although somewhat arbitrary, these two ways of defining LWP should be useful starting points, both in this article and with your own analyses and pack weight comparisons.

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The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:  

Historical Perspectives on the Lightweight Movement

Operational Definitions and Lightweight Terminology

Lightweight Packing Principles, Values and Philosophy

Claimed Benefits and Motivations of Lightweight Packing

Reader Participation: Lightweight Motivations

Gearing Down into the Ultralight/Super Ultralight Range 

Critics of the Lightweight Philosophy Speak

Author’s History with Lightweight Packing

Consider Adopting a “Situationalist Ethic”

Final Thoughts About Lightweight Packing