Take a load off: why ultralight backpacking is the way to go

Hats off to outdoor equipment designers who are constantly reducing weight while still providing all the gear you need for backcountry exploration.
You’ll be happy to learn that outside of perhaps military training and Arctic assaults, the mythic “50-pound pack” is a thing of the past. Between new gear choices and altered habits, recreational hikers have plenty of ways to reduce their burden while amplifying their fun. Hikers call it the “ultralight ethic,” and you can take it as far as you want.

Take a load off: why ultralight backpacking is the way to go

First, the gear

  • Manufacturers now offer featherweight options in every one of the essential components of a backcountry tour. A high-tech, two-person tent, for example, is not much bigger than a loaf of bread, and uses your trekking poles for support.
  • Packs themselves have shed so much weight that a 45-litre bag—forget that 90-litre monster—feels like a day pack. And weight losses are invariably cumulative. For example, less weight on your shoulders means you need less shoe underfoot—say, a svelte hiker instead of a heavy boot.
  • Not every light option involves a costly outlay. Do you really require titanium cookware? Maybe not, but you’ll definitely want a plastic bladder for your water instead of a bottle. Likewise, water disinfection tablets are much easier to carry than a filter.
  • The other big boon to go-lighters is a variety of high-efficiency stoves, including inexpensive canister models that cook splendidly using mere twigs as fuel. Some even charge electronic devices—which the smart hiker will definitely want to carry.
  • Though there’s no cell service in much of the vast Canadian wilderness, there are smartphone apps that contain backcountry maps and track your GPS location via satellite. Other downloaded apps can turn your phone into a guide for identifying birds, plants, animal prints, and even edible mushrooms.

Then, the process

One thing that ultralighters soon discover is that it’s a process virtually without end.

  • Shaving grams becomes a game in itself. Partly it’s about what not to bring. (Non-essential clothes—really?) Then there are the little tricks. A ration of dental floss wrapped around your toothbrush may not save much weight, but little things like that all add up—even lightweight food. Bring tortillas or crackers instead of bread; couscous weighs less than rice. And once you really get organized, you can home-make dishes like stews and curries, then extract the water in a home dehydrator. Presto, fancy, ready-to-reconstitute trail food at a fraction of the normal price.
  • Just remember that ultralight backpacking is a philosophy that you must tailor specifically to your own preferences. Only you can tell yourself what you truly need out there. But gradually, you can get to a point where it’s darn near just you and the outdoors. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about in the first place?
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