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Ultra-Lightening the Load

How to make light of a heavy pack

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From old timers with their wooden pack boards to the nylon-clad hikers now scaling the Sawtooths, backpacking equipment is continually evolving. And while it seems obvious that the lighter the pack the better, you might be surprised by just how much weight you can shed.

Ultralight packers start with a base weight--the total weight of everything in and on their pack, including the pack itself (food, water and fuel are not factored in). A lightweight backpacker's base weight is no more than 20 pounds. An ultralight packer's base weight is less than 10 pounds.

An important step to understanding the ultralight, or UL, concept is to realize that it's not all about expensive, space-age gear. The core philosophy of ultralight backpacking is to use gear suited for specific trips and to use multifunctional equipment. The next important step is figuring out how to go UL.

To start, take out all of the gear that you would normally use for a weekend trip. This includes your pack, sleeping bag, pad, shelter, cooking kit, stove, clothes and first-aid kit. Using an inexpensive postage scale, weigh each item to the ounce (sometimes this is called being a "gram weenie").

Divide your items into categories--clothing, sleeping, cooking, shelter, etc.--and then figure out what the total weight of each category is, down to the ounce. What may look like a 25-pound pack will probably weigh closer to 45 pounds.

My original gear list was full of expensive items I felt were necessary to be safe, dry, warm and well fed. But after weighing it all, I was at 28 pounds--and that was before food, fuel and water. My final pack weight was almost 40 pounds. Do you ever wonder why, after a five- or 10-mile hike, you begin to look for a place to camp for the night? Carrying 40 pounds through the mountains is exhausting.

But it doesn't do much good to go UL if you can't carry everything you need. I knew I needed the Big Three--sleeping bag, tent, backpack--but these items alone weighed more than 15 pounds. When I added my chair (definitely a luxury item), the total weight climbed to 17 pounds. Most UL packs weigh in at 1 to 2 pounds. Mine weighed 6 pounds. By breaking down all of the elements necessary for a successful hike, I could easily see where I could lighten the load. Sure, some would take a financial commitment to change, but there were many areas in which I could improve by simply leaving items out or changing them.

For example, my stove was awesome, but it weighed a full pound. I discovered that a cartridge stove is more efficient and weighs just 2 ounces. And by eliminating parts of my cook kit, planning different meals and finally building my own alcohol stove and cook pot, I reduced the weight even further: from 43 ounces to a paltry 5 ounces. Because I have reduced so much weight in my pack, I now have the flexibility to add or subtract gear and weight depending on the style or purpose of my trip.

In Idaho's high country we are lucky to have relatively fair and mild summer weather. Thunderstorms are usually short, rain patterns predictable. Heavy rain gear, tents and cold weather sleeping bags are overkill during the main summer season. With this in mind I attacked my gear list with a vengeance. For hiking in the Sawtooths, I had to keep three things in mind: terrain, temps and necessity. I already had a nice down-filled bag, but my pad was heavy. I replaced it with an extremely lightweight air mattress. I bought a smaller tent. I bought a pack that was lighter, held less and cost half of what my previous pack did. I removed or changed my clothing based on weather and function. Finally, by adding my hand-built cook stove and pot, I dropped from my original base weight of 27.71 pounds to a mere 8.23 pounds.

The biggest difference for me is my newfound ability to hike farther and faster with considerably less effort. I have easily doubled my "strength" in the high country. My flexibility and adaptability is no longer tied to the load on my back. Setting up and taking down camp now takes minutes, and this simplicity adds to my overall experience.

I now have a base weight of about 10 pounds. When I leave for a three-day trip, my pack weight is less than 15 pounds. If I head out for an overnight trip, it's only 10 to 12 pounds. Hiking up switchbacks is no longer a panting, sweating affair. I can climb through passes with my head up, and now breaks are for photos, not for water or to catch my breath.

With less gear, there is less to carry, less to use, less to pack and ultimately, less of an impact, all of which enhances my time and experience in the backcountry. I may be a gram weenie, but I'm better for it.