Ultralight backpacking

Ultralight backpacking

My recent post about the perils of wilderness areas with treacherous trails and mountain lions has perversely rekindled my interest in backpacking! I’ve done several wilderness trips in the past, usually in the High Sierras, through the amazing Adventure 16, a small chain of outdoor supply stores in southern California.

These Adventure 16 trips were expertly guided by people who love trekking in the back country and want to teach others how to do the same. Safety and being prepared are the top priority, along with respecting the land and leaving no trace.

The most amazing backpacking trip I did with them was two years ago in the High Sierras  where we did three major passes in five days with backpacks that on Day One were probably 55 pounds (at least). The most challenging pass was 11,500 feet, very steep, with no trail. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and became more than a trip, turning into an adventure. I hasten to add that Adventure 16 won’t let you on such a trip unless you’ve been on other of their trips and they know you can handle it. Oh, did I mention both guides for this trip were women, and their backpacks were heavier than ours?

I’ve just learned these Adventure 16 guides now have their own company, Wilderness Outings, and I signed up for two ultralight backpacking trips!

Ultralight is a fast-growing idea in the backpacking community. Basically, the idea is to get the backpack weight down as low as possible. Use a bivy bag (a sleeping bag with rainproof cover) or a hammock instead of a tent. You’ve just dropped five pounds of pack weight. Take only the clothes you need. Be ruthless about eliminating unneeded gear. Now maybe you’ve dropped another ten pounds. Continue as needed. Then you’ll find you no longer need a huge seven pound backpack.

With less weight, you can go faster and cover more distance each day. The guide for one of the trips is Glen Van Peski, who has a cottage industry business making ultralight backpacks. He has 4000 cubic inch storage backpacks that weigh, are you ready, a mere 1 pound. Now you’ve dropped 6 more pounds. Get the idea? Some hardcore ultralight types wear sneakers, not hiking boots. With less weight, they say, you don’t need heavy boots. There goes 3-4 more pounds!

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood is the considered by many to be the “patron saint” of ultralightweight backpackers. She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 1954 when she was 67, becoming the first woman to thru-hike the AT in one season. She hiked the entire distance alone.

What made accomplishments even more interesting is that she never carried more than 20 lbs of gear and food during her hikes. In fact, she had complete contempt for traditional backpacking gear. Instead of boots, she wore Keds sneakers. Instead of an expensive parka, she wore a rain cape which she also used as a ground cloth. Instead of a heavy tent, she carried a plastic shower curtain for shelter. Instead of a sleeping bag, she used an army blanket. The only remaining items she carried were a sweater, jacket, flashlight, Swiss Army knife, a small pot, first-aid supplies, safety pins, needle and thread, soap, and a towel. In fact, she didn’t even use a backpack at all, but just carried a homemade demin sack over one shoulder.

Ultralight trekking requires planning, assumes you know what you’re doing, and that you are willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort and security for increased speed and mobility. I can’t wait!

As Glen puts it

My passion is sharing ideas about getting outdoors with less and lighter stuff. Backpacking with 20 lbs. on your back is a whole different experience than with 50 lbs. on your back. Go towards the light…

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