Has Ultralight Backpacking Gone Too Far?
Whenever a new trend or a new way of doing things becomes popular, there is almost always (at some point) a backlash, as people go back to doing things ‘the old way’.
It seems that (for some people) ultralight backpacking may have now reached that point.
Robert Moor, a freelance writer, recently wrote an article for OnEarth.org in which he talked about how he became obsessed with finding ultralight hiking gear, and how he eventually became disillusioned with it.
As Moor hiked the Appalachian Trail (which runs from Georgia through to Maine) he got the ultralight backpacking bug, and he began to swap all of his ‘old’ gear for ultralight alternatives.
“Even though my kit was perfectly light, I often found myself looking covetously at other people’s gear, always with an eye to reducing my load” Moor recounts.
Despite all these great advances in technology, Moor began to question whether somewhere along the way the soul of lightweight backpacking was lost: “Somewhat ironically, the ultralight movement was founded on the virtues of minimalism and thrift. The godfather of ultralighters, Ray Jardine, built his gear from scratch, shaving 17 pounds off his pack weight and saving some $1,500 in the process. But as outdoor goliaths like Marmot and Mountain Hardwear co-opted the craze, ultralight devolved from an ethos to mere advertising jargon — meaning ultra-elite and, of course, ultra-expensive”.
In addition to the high costs of ultralight backpacking gear, another problem a lot of backpackers began to find was that although ultralight technology has allowed them to carry more (as each item now weighs less), they’re forced to replace it more often as it tends to break/wear out a lot more quickly.
On this point, Moor states: “Lighter gear has indubitably allowed us to move faster and farther. But it has also created items that are ever more fragile and quickly outmoded: the iPodification of the outdoors.”
Talking about Jeff Thrope, a writer who coined the term ‘outdoor nostalgia’, Moor says: “Authentic is a word Thrope uses a lot. It implies that our experience of the outdoors has become impoverished by technological advances — that there’s something unnatural about sleeping in ethereal domes of nylon and rehydrating our dinners atop flaming canisters of pressurized gas”.
These three things (high costs, short lifespan and inauthentic experiences) combined have since led to a series of ‘heritage brands’ emerging in an attempt to rekindle this ‘old style’ of camping. These brands offer “canvas backpacks adorned with swatches of leather, heavy flannels, and clunky leather boots” (among other things).
Many people seem to have mixed feelings on these heritage brands, with Thorpe being one of them: “Half of it’s wonderful and authentic and made to last, and then there’s some real crap out there that’s called ‘heritage.’ It’s bad stuff, a marketing ploy.”
Of course, as Moor states “going retro doesn’t have to mean returning to the days of the 75-pound pack”.
So how does one keep the weight of their backpack down whilst using good quality gear that won’t break every few months and that provides an authentic experience?
Moor continues: “In 1948, the first man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, Earl Shaffer, kept his pack weight to just 20 pounds by trading his tent and sleeping bag for a poncho, a burlap sack, and a blanket; on his feet he wore moccasin-style boots with no socks.”
The secret here, it seems is to carry sturdy, rugged (and heavy) gear, but less of it.
Have you become disillusioned with using ultralight backpacking gear? Or do you think it provides for a much better experience (despite it costing extra)? Leave a comment in the box below!
- Ultralight Bivy Bags
- Buying an Ultralight Sleeping Bag
- How to Travel Light – The Principles of Lightweight Backpacking
- How to Make a Single-Can Backpacking Stove
- A Guide to Backpacking Water Filters
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