Before I give my take on backpacking, I think a little background is in order. I have been hiking and backpacking for well over 10 years. Most of my experience has been in Colorado and Arkansas. About 8 years ago I went on an outing that changed my life (at least the backpacking part of it). I was hiking up Mt. Elbert in Colorado with some friends. This event was not really crazy, life threatening, or dramatic, but it was educational. We chose Elbert because it is the tallest mountain in Colorado. Being able to say we made it to the top of the highest point in Colorado was pretty cool. However, for me, getting there was pretty rough. At this point, I was relatively new (two years experience) to overnight backpacking/hiking. So, being the newbie I was, I had all the cool gear I could afford. My backpack was a Jansport hiking bag. Something like this:
It was big, cool looking, and anything but light. I also had it stuffed with a heavy water filter, tent, sleeping bag, too much water, and way too much other stuff. On top of that, any extra room was filled by whatever my companions wanted to take but couldn’t fit in their school bags. All that being said, my pack weighed about 50 pounds. 60 after you add food and water in there too.
This experience is what started my journey to lighten my load. For the last 8 years since that trip, I have been working on going lighter and lighter. Buying lighter gear that I could afford, leaving things behind that I realized I didn’t need, and making gear myself when I can have been the methods I have used to lighten up my load. Since then, I have gotten my base weight down to about 5 pounds.
Now that I have told you a bit about me. Here is my take on lightweight backpacking.
For the most part, I think it is pretty misunderstood. Since backpacking has no governing body like an organized sport would, there are no standards that mean the same thing to everyone. For example, there is not much meaning tied to lightweight (LW), ultralight weight (UL) or super ultralight weight (SUL) backpacking. The way I think about it, SUL is anything below 5 pounds, UL is anything under 8 pounds and LW is anything under 12 pounds (all weights pertaining to carried weights when backpacking are of course pack base weight). However, there are other people who carry 20 packs that call themselves lightweight backpackers. This is the result of looking at pack weight as something relative (due to the lack of universal standards on the afore mentioned groupings of backpackers). If you compared my 60 pound pack to a 20 pound pack, then yes, a 20 pound pack is lightweight, but this is an incorrect way to look at the issue. This would be like calling a box that weighed 500 pounds heavy and calling 300 pound box light. When compared to the 500 pound box, it does seem light, but when compared to some other outside standard (say the amount that a normal man could comfortably lift) it is still heavy just like the 500 pound box. This is what I think happens with backpackers, and it is very understandable.
Take my experience with what is known as the “big 3” in backpacking circles. I carried a 6 pound tent, 4+ pound backpack, and a 5+ pound sleeping bag. Together, in just these three items, I was carrying over 15 pounds. However, after spending $750, I now carried a 3 pound tent, 1 pound pack, and 1 pound sleeping bag. When I bought these new pieces of gear they were part of a 14 pound pack that I carried about 5 years ago. However, it kind of still felt empty, because I had not reached what I thought was a LW pack weight. This is what I think may happen to some backpackers. Having spent a lot of money and dropped over 20+ pounds, they feel like they have bought the title of lightweight backpacker. This is not true and does an injustice to others who have spent their time and energy to get what I would call a LW, UL, or SUL pack weight. Herein lies my gripe. When people are talking about their gear (like every backpacker does), no one knows who actually knows what their talking about. No one knows if you version of UL backpacking is the same as mine. Are you talking about a 6 pound base weight and I can learn something from you? Or is UL 10 pounds to you and you are in the same boat I am? I guess in the grand scheme of things this issue is pretty unimportant, but when you are trying to figure out what you can do to lower you base weight and you begin reading about UL backpacking, it would be nice to know that you time will not be wasted by someone who is just happy to have a 15 pound pack. Bottom line is that one of the great things about backpacking is that you get to carry what you want how you want, but to make the hobby grow and become more widespread, we should try to standardize some things. This way the conversation among backpackers will be a little bit less confusing.