There is no such thing as ultralight backpacking!


This rucksack, with trekking poles strapped to it and with a full one litre Platy inside, added less than a stone to my weight, according to my bathroom scales.  Just thirteen pounds of gear was enough to keep me comfortable in October despite a bitter wind.  I don’t know what the skin out, base weight was for my overnight trip but the Wikipedia definition for ultralight was probably met with ease.

Light and ultralight are generally defined as base pack weights below 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) respectively in the US; elsewhere the definitions are commonly given as lightweight being under 10 kg, and ultralight under 5 kg.

My memory of that night out is of pulling my bivvy bag halfway out from under my SpinnSolo so that I could look at the stars while still being sheltered from the wind.  With Alex Machacek’s Improvision playing in the headphones of my Samsung Solid Extreme, it was a great night.

But it wasn’t backpacking.  Overnight trips are like backpacking but they just aren’t the real thing because the penalty for going stupid light is minimal and consumables add very little to the pack’s weight.

By the way, to all those who use stupid light in their rants against ultralight backpacking, it just isn’t a thing in Britain.  We found out years earlier in our backpacking careers, before we could afford decent waterproofs, that taking liberties with Britain’s wild weather brings too much suffering.  Stupid heavy is much more likely to be an issue.

So, for real backpacking, for example, Cluanie to Strathcarron via Cannich over a nice selection of Munros, Tops and Corbetts, I don’t take the SpinnSolo.  Nevertheless, a Golite Cave 1 doesn’t add much to the pack’s weight.  At home, a spreadsheet had told me that my skin out base weight was under 5kg, but my pack definitely wasn’t light when I set out from Cannich.


This photo shows my overnight gear near Glen Affric.  My Big Three, another subject I could rant about, consisted of the Cave 1 with a few titanium pegs, a Golite Jam 2, an MLD Bug Bivy, a sheet of polycryo, a torso-sized foam pad and a PHD Piqolo, a respectably light collection.

However, I had used up the food packed at home while backpacking into Fort William.  Resupply at Morrison’s went fairly well for the hike over the hills to Cannich where I bought food and midge repellent from the village shop for the trip to Glen Carron.  Getting the quantities that I needed and no more was impossible.  On the platform at Strathcarron, waiting for the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, I was out of some essentials but still hauling silly quantities of other things.

This is the reason for the title of the post.  In a real backpacking trip, equipped to survive at least two consecutive foul nights and with at least two days of food in the bag, after a start from a village instead of from home, the rucksack just isn’t that light.  Consumables are heavy.

The trip I mentioned here was a learning experience.  I had some of the best ultralight gear with me but my pack was heavier than I would have liked for the slog up the side of Mullach Fraoch-Choire and for Bidean an Eoin Dearg.  After that trip, I remodelled my spreadsheet so that it now lists only consumables and packaging.  If the overnight gear and the summit ridge clothing are good enough, consumables will be the biggest controlable factor affecting the pleasure of a backpacking journey.  Consumables need a lot of thought.


To be honest, I don’t actually use the spreadsheet.  I’m a nerd who enjoys designing spreadsheets and learning how to make them do new things but I actually use a cereal bowl.  The usual quantity of muesli goes into the bowl and I add a bit more to allow for the exercise.  Then I package the helping into a small plastic bag.  Repeat for the appropriate number of days and take similar steps for the other food items that will be needed.

For my Kintyre to Cape Wrath trip, I made up day bags and it was a system which worked really well.  Cherry-picking tomorrow’s treats doesn’t happen because tomorrow’s food is down at the bottom of the rucksack.  Also, the day bag reminds me when I haven’t eaten enough.  Best of all is the feeling of virtue which comes from preparing properly.

And that’s the take-home message.  Ultralight is an attitude, not an excuse for retail therapy.  Just look at Ryan Jordan’s posts on the website if you can afford the subscription.

Eventually, I settled into a core framework that has been the foundation of my writing, instruction, clinics, seminars, and schools for more nearly two decades:

  1. Take inventory;
  2. Simplify;
  3. Limit contingencies;
  4. Value core function;
  5. Consider multiple use;
  6. Build systems;
  7. Develop your skills.”

I’m not sure what much of that means.  No. 3 probably means take a few plasters rather than the whole box.  Perhaps I should pay to watch the video but, clearly, precious little in the free preamble is about buying expensive equipment.

The Wikipedia definition of ultralight, along with discussion of the Big Three is just a starting point.  Getting those key pieces of equipment right doesn’t mean that a rucksack will feel light at the start of a decent trip.  In fact, if all you do is shell out for cuben and titanium, your pack is most unlikely to be light.  Time and thought put into preparing the consumables is the key.  As Hamish Brown said, you have to fight every ounce of the way.




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