How Much is Just Enough? In Defence of the Ultralight Philosophy Opinion

© Norman Hadley

Cutting out the clutter is not just about taking weight off your shoulders to allow more mileage. There's a zen-like beauty in minimalist backpacking too, says Norman Hadley.

Brace yourselves, here comes a card-carrying ultralight bore. We are, by common consent, the most annoying tribe in all of Outdoorland. If you're incautious enough to let me corner you at a party, I will tell you the base weight of all six seasonal permutations on my Lighterpack database, like a vegan confessing the date of their last cheese sandwich. There will be no respite for you until you pretend to spot a Youtube tarpologist by the nibbles table and make good your escape.

Lighter in body, lighter in mind... it could catch on  © Norman Hadley
Lighter in body, lighter in mind... it could catch on
© Norman Hadley

Allow me to make the case for the defence. Not with any hope of an acquittal, you understand, but maybe a commutation of sentence. I'm also happy to advocate for the prosecution as I go because I'm not scared of a little cognitive dissonance. I drop ice-cubes down the vest of cognitive dissonance. After all, F Scott Fitzgerald argued the test of a first-rate intelligence was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Dickens reckoned it was the best of times and, get this, the worst of times.

So let's unflinchingly confront the stereotypes. The Worshipful Guild of Toothbrush-Sawyers might seem so ludicrously nerdy and obsessive a bunch as to make parody superfluous. Look at those sad sacks, shaving futile fractions of grams off their loads, skin pallid from spending longer on web forums arguing sil-poly versus sil-nylon rather than actually getting out, their Dyneema boxer shorts rustling whenever they move.

The pale green dot is home...  © Norman Hadley
The pale green dot is home...
© Norman Hadley

OK, I might have exaggerated slightly about the boxer shorts. Believe me, I'm not about to Google if such things exist: my browser history is staying spotless. But, amidst the obvious silliness of the ultralight ethos, there's a kernel that really matters. And it matters for reasons that I think aren't discussed enough. We tend to talk about ultralight in purely mechanical terms, of reduced pressure on shoulders or wear and tear on knees. And it does that all right. Doubly so if you're running. Mile-munchers talk about the extra distances they can cover when they're not bent under vast burdens. Fastpackers speak loudly of how much faster they can go, the less they pack. All of this is indisputable.

Staying within the purely physical realm, there are also some pleasing virtuous circles in ultralight. A lighter, smaller load requires a smaller bag. That bag will almost certainly be lighter, amplifying any gains. A smaller load will sit closer to your centre line, reducing the leverage on your spine. A more upright stance will pay dividends in posture, making you less australopithecine. Be more sapiens.

If you don't photograph your kit all laid out, are you really an ultralight backpacker?  © Norman Hadley
If you don't photograph your kit all laid out, are you really an ultralight backpacker?
© Norman Hadley

We didn't need metaphors in my day; we didn't beat around the bush

But weight isn't just a physical quantity: it's ghosted by a metaphorical twin. There's a reason our figures of speech for negative emotion often invoke load: we talk of being "weighed down", "burdened" or "heavy-hearted".

So lighter gear can benefit us above as well as below the neck vertebrae. The lower the pressure on the shoulders, the greater the lived experience of carefree abandon. You feel less like you're portering a cupboard over a landscape, and more like a pure observer floating through it, more alert to its textures, sounds, wildlife, nuances. That's the theory, anyway.

Out overnight with just a running pack - it's a liberation  © Norman Hadley
Out overnight with just a running pack - it's a liberation
© Norman Hadley

The love of money is the root of, like, really bad stuff, man

The charge is levelled against ultralight, often fairly, that it is too expense-conscious and elitist. Again, this matters. Even if you have the readies to buy the best kit, it cuts against the whole carefree vibe if you're spending your weekend worrying about damaging an eye-wateringly expensive sleeping bag made of spider-silk and angels' breath. It seems anathema to the outdoors spirit to pollute our world with brand-snobbery, one-upmanship and tawdry commercialism.

At the very top end, some of the prices are a bit silly, but it isn't hard to find compromises. The second-lightest item might be half the cost of the lightest. For the sake of a few grammes' difference, I'll often go for that. My kit doesn't include a single square metre of Dyneema, nothing has been sprayed with microscopic metallic layers, but it works fine. My approach focuses more on volume than weight, anyway, so Dyneema would probably present a packability headache.

The strange, zen, vertiginous pleasure of knowing all your possessions would fit in a shoe box  © Norman Hadley
The strange, zen, vertiginous pleasure of knowing all your possessions would fit in a shoe box
© Norman Hadley

A false dichotomy and an obligatory sprinkling of limp liberalism

Ultralight works for me, and I guess I'm in the ninety-ninth percentile of fetch-the-men-in-white-Goretex lunatics, depending which measure you employ. There are some personal factors that skew my choices to that tail of the bell-curve:

I'm a runner. Did I mention that?

Enjoy the pragmatic benefits of shedding weight by all means. Just don't be blind to the less tangible rewards. There is beauty in minimalism

My metabolism tends towards the warm. You could read that as "thermonuclear" if you ask my wife. It makes a huge difference which of the many temperature ratings you look at on a sleeping-bag label.

I'm only doing two-day trips so a little discomfort can easily be shrugged off for one night

My gimmick is getting everything into a bum bag (though I've recently started using a running pack sometimes), so Helinox chairs and paraffin lamps are out of the question.

But I'm obliged to recite from the Liberal Gospels: if you prefer a higher level of comfort in camp, go for it. If you want to pack an Edwardian smoking jacket and a roll-top escritoire to keep up with correspondence in the evening, I can only respond with a hearty, "you do you". I don't subscribe to the false dichotomy whereby minimalists are "hardier" than their camp-slipper-and-pillow-toting counterparts. You could just as easily accuse us ultralighters of being ounce-dodging softies. What the hell, I'll take it. The choice isn't between comfort and discomfort, rather it's a personal trade-off between two different modes of comfort: on-trail and in-camp.

We live in a world where this is a stove. The Speedster 20ml is a thing of minimalist beauty  © Norman Hadley
We live in a world where this is a stove. The Speedster 20ml is a thing of minimalist beauty
© Norman Hadley

I would do anything for lightness (but I won't do that)

The very word ultralight is misleading, because it's one-dimensional and relies on a simplistic lighter = better equivalence. My own red lines, regardless of season, are:

A pole-supported shelter

I did plenty of bivvying as a young man and it was great, but partly because I'm looking back three decades through pink specs and partly because bivvying was a means to get into prime position for a dawn raid on some Scottish winter gully or Alpine aiguille. Having long since yielded to middle-aged timidity, that's not me any more.

An inflatable mat

I know it's technically possible to sleep on bubble-wrap, or an eighth of an inch of foam, especially if you can find some generously squidgy turf. Shakespeare said, "weariness snores upon the flint, while sloth finds the down pillow hard." Sorry if that makes me slothful, Billy Bard.

Safety backups

For example, I have a lightweight bivvy bag as protection should the tent not survive the night. A power bank is a must in case the phone runs out of juice. My flysheet is wearable as a poncho.

Nothing that will blow away from under the flysheet at the slightest breeze

For example, polycro groundsheets, or tin-foil windshields and pot lids are incredibly light, but do you really want to wake up to find you've created a downwind swathe of litter in the night? Never mind that your stove will then blow out and you'll have to eat cold-soaked porridge as breakfast penance.

Dry clothes for sleeping in

Starting off damp from rain or sweat does not augur well for a good night's sleep. Take it from one who knows.

Stove for morale

No cold-soaking or crotch-cooking for me. If you don't know what the latter is, I can only suggest you remain in blissful ignorance. I know I could cut my weight even further if I ditched the heat. But there are limits. Dammit, you might as well say I could ditch sleeping bag, mat and tent if I could only master the Wim Hof method and sleep naked on the ground. Repeat after me: this is supposed to be fun.

Toothbrush and paste

I'm not a complete barbarian, you know.

Hot food - essential for in-camp morale  © Norman Hadley
Hot food - essential for in-camp morale
© Norman Hadley

Imagine (nearly) no possessions

But I'm falling back into the trap of considering only the physical dimension, when the lived experience of ultralight travel offers something richer and rather less material. For starters, you'll be spending time with a lot less stuff than normal. You can only get so far by miniaturisation and modern materials: a big part of the ultralight ethos is eliminating unnecessary items. A good trip is when the only thing untouched is the first aid kit.

Part of this involves creative multiple usages. A water bag, in my experience, makes a perfectly serviceable pillow, and the warmth from your head conveniently stops the water from freezing. A tent peg may not be purpose-built for digging a hole the way a poo-trowel is, but it works, with a suitably deft twist of the wrist. If you carry an inflation pump sack for your sleeping mat, it can also serve as a drybag. Assessing your kit in its entirety makes for an excellent problem-solving puzzle, if you need mental grist. An engineering nerd might call it "systems thinking". If you're more of a yoga and scented candle sort, feel free to describe it as "holistic".

So light as to barely leave an imprint in the snow...  © Norman Hadley
So light as to barely leave an imprint in the snow...
© Norman Hadley

This combination of reducing and repurposing delivers a kind of mental decluttering that cuts through the absurd excess of much modern life. If your kitchen drawers at home are stuffed with single-purpose gadgets like pineapple-corers and egg-slicers, paring back to the essentials is refreshingly zen. I really enjoy laying out the kit in camp and seeing how little of it there is. That, I think, goes a long way to offset the accusation that ultralighters are materialists too easily seduced by the latest thousand-fill-power down jacket.

And, at the risk of sounding like a pound-shop mystic, I think the deeper appeal of ultralight has something to do with a connection to the natural world. When you come back from a trip and you realise that the kit you took was just enough and no more for that environment in those conditions, it elicits a sense of kinship with the creatures around you. That swallow (or house-martin) flashing over the buttercup meadow has been optimised to fractions of a gram by millions of years of evolution. To survive the flight from South Africa to our shores, the gods have refined every feather, with obsessive detail, to a perfect just-so-ness. You might blanche at the comparison, in deference to the bird's incredible desert-crossing prowess, but the principle of what you're doing remains the same.

So enjoy the pragmatic benefits of shedding weight by all means. Just don't be blind to the less tangible rewards. There is great pleasure and beauty in minimalism. The eminently-quotable theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once described his academic field as "like sex: sure, it may give some practical results but that's not why we do it."

There's always someone lighter than you, and they may cover vastly greater distances too  © Norman Hadley
There's always someone lighter than you, and they may cover vastly greater distances too
© Norman Hadley

Postscript: a reluctant and rather indefinite definition of terms

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed I never stopped to define what ultralight is. It's self-evidently silly to even attempt such a definition because it will depend on so many factors: the season, altitude, terrain, the individual.

But, if we have no datum at all, that is also silly. I could lug around eighty pounds and call it ultralight because it's less than soldiers carried in the Falklands. So we need some sort of line in the sand. In the realm of the American backpacker, ten pounds base-weight is generally used as an arbitrary marker for where "ultralight" begins. That's about four-and-a-half kilos in proper units. For the purer-than-pure aficionado, getting under five pounds (2.25 kg) base weight puts you in a category known as "super ultralight." That's where I am - in summer, anyway.

Undercutting all this, the term "base weight" is ludicrous because it assumes you've used up all your food, drunk all your water and burned all your fuel, so it's just the weight of the pack plus all the non-consumables therein. The definition contains an obvious absurdity in that you could take a jumper out of the pack and put it on, or take a power-bank out of the bum bag and put it in your pocket, and both actions would reduce your base weight, because "worn weight" is in a different category. This is despite the self-evident point that those same items will still need hoisting over a mountain pass by the same legs, regardless of where their weight sits. Similarly, I could carry a tiny rucksack but walk in lead-weighted diving boots and I would still, technically, be an ultralighter.

The point of this nerdery is to illustrate the ridiculousness of taking a purely numerical approach to ultralight. There just has to be more to it than a single-parameter, competitive numbers game.

2 Oct, 2023

I once knew a Canadian climber who said some people actually went as far as drilling holes in their toothbrushes to reduce pack weight. He wasn't joking

2 Oct, 2023

Now apply the above philosophy to winter climbing. For if a winter sac doesn't kill you on the walk-in, that missing bit of gear you left behind just might. Seriously though, the real challenge with winter mountaineering is how to get weight down to a minimum without sacrificing safety, a difficult equation. True we have ultralight ropes, boots and crampons, but there is still a long way to go. I imagine there must be a pair of ultralight axes now on the market. The dilemma whether to carry that extra pair of gloves, a dry thermal to change from the sweaty one. I once carried a full weight 60mt rope up to Stob Coire an Lochan...and died. Lesson duly learnt. So I fight this constant battle to reduce weight. The other option is obviously to get fitter, or get a lot richer to be able to afford all this ultralight gear!

2 Oct, 2023

Usually ones death precludes the learning of lessons...

The canny option is to engineer things so as to have your partner carry the heavy stuff.

2 Oct, 2023

Very good! I had to google escritoire, so have learnt a new word as well. I must report I found on Amazon a reasonably priced (less than a tenner) titanium poo trowel that also is designed to be a tent peg, a reassuringly large one at that.

For some reason I only seem to have taken photos of the gear laid out before bikepacking. A photo of your gear laid out seems to be a central part of bikepacking culture, not just ultralight backpacking. I even included one in a UKC review - which coincidentally looks like the same bag that Norman has in his pic!

2 Oct, 2023

Going light I think is as much about matching route choice to the conditions, weather, time of year. Thinking Scottish winter, go light every time, but if it's January, not the best weather etc. drop a grade or two on a crag you're familiar with. March, sunny, high pressure then push it. It's balancing risk, likelihood etc..

You don't go light pushing up a grade, on crag you've never been to before and so on, don't change too many variables.

More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email