Extreme Ultralight? Superultralight? Ultralight? Lightweight? Conventional? Heavyweight? Which of these philosophies make the most sense and best fits my style? These questions are partly practical and partly philosophical. Even if one develops the knowledge, experience, skills and appropriate lightweight gear (mostly practical issues), there is still the question of motivation, mental toughness and commitment to follow an ultralight philosophy.

Adopt a “Situationalist” Philosophy?

 Instead of adopting just one of the above philosophies or styles (e.g., a Conventional Packer), consider adopting most of them. Theoretically, one person could qualify for most of these styles or definitions, depending on the time of year, the location, the goals of the trip, etc. In other words, why not adopt a “Situationalist” philosophy in this regard? The Situationalist packs according to all the relevant variables, especially the conditions likely to be encountered. The Situationalist packs according to need, not to hit some target weight.

Range of Situations and Variables

Here are most of the situations or variables that could have an impact on pack weight and hiking style, for the situationalist:

  • Time of year, current weather patterns and weather predictions
  • Goals and target activities (e.g., leisurely with lots of time around camp or more aggressively with lots of miles to cover each day; doing mainly day trips from base camp or carrying full packs most of the time)
  • Distance from the trailhead; proximity of escape routes if weather turns bad
  • Length of time out in the backcountry
  • Type and difficulty of the terrain (e.g., the amount of off trail travel above the treeline)
  • Size, strength and experience of the party
  • Knowledge of first aid, wilderness survival techniques
  • Knowledge of the terrain
  • Knowledge, skill and experience level with backpacking in general and with LWP techniques specifically
  • Personal responsibilities to a group (e.g., team leader; most experienced first aider; close friend)
  • Height, weight and body fat
  • Age and gender 
  • Metabolism and warmth needs (some can get by with little food or clothing)
  • Safety and functionality of dual use items (e.g., a poncho tarp for shelter and storm gear; extra socks for mittens and pack strap padding)
  • Level of physical conditioning
  • Physical or mental problems being dealt with; predominant mental attitude and comfort zone
  • Amount of time, money and energy to research, purchase and experiment with LWP gear and techniques

With these considerations in mind —wow, a lot of them—an Extreme or Minimalist approach might work well in hot and dry climates (e.g., the Southwestern desert regions). A “Superultralight” or “Ultralight” approach might work well in midsummer in lower elevations (e.g., hiking the Appalachian Trail), especially involving experienced backcountry travelers in good physical condition.  Such approaches are probably not appropriate when planning a multiday, solo trek in the fall on the exposed northern sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) when driving rain and snow storms could pin one down for several days.

Adopt a Situational Ethic?

Why would one use the phrase “Situationalist Ethic” as the focus for this philosophy? Simply because most hikers and backpackers do have family, friends, coworkers, etc., who care very much about what happens to the hiker, and whose lives would be seriously impacted if the worst happens. In addition, there is the impact on emergency personnel if one gets into serious trouble. Because of these potential impacts and conflicts, this is very much an ethical matter that deserves careful consideration from an ethical point of view.

For loved ones, perception is often as important as the reality. In other words, can you convince loved ones that you have the gear, skills, experience and mental toughness to deal with emergency situations that might come up given your chosen pack weight and style of hiking?

Examining the Motivations Behind the Lightweight Philosophy

A quite different approach this question of becoming an ultralighter, at least in some situations, is to examine the motivations underlying this philosophy. For an in-depth overview of motivations held by lightweight backpackers, consider reviewing the numerous motivations espoused by lightweight backpackers in this website article: The Challenge From the Lightweight Backpacking Movement.

Become A Situational Ultralighter?