October 14

The Lightweight Backpacking Conundrum

Do we need to redefine backpacking weight categories? Most lightweight backpackers are aware of the concepts of base weight and backpacking weight categories, but are the categories getting out of date?

For those not familiar with the concepts, I briefly review them here; for those already familiar, jump to the next section. Are you a beginner? Learn how to start lightweight backpacking.

lightweight backpacking
Lightweight backpacking and more comfortable gear weights makes hiking more enjoyable for people of all ages.

Base Weight Definition

Base Weight is the total weight of your entire gear kit, excluding consumables which are food, water, and fuel. Consumables are not included because the amount varies by trip length and conditions.

  • A lightweight backpacker (LW) carries a base weight under 20 pounds.
  • An ultralight backpacker (UL) carries a base weight under 10 pounds.
  • A superultralight backpacker (SUL) carries a base weight under 5 pounds.

For comparison purposes, if we use 10 pounds as the weight of consumables for a 5-day backpacking trip, then the total weights are 30, 20, and 15 pounds respectively. Those numbers assume your base weight is at the top of the category, which is probably isn’t.

Conventional backpackers simply go by total pack weight, which is typically 35 pounds or more.

Making Pack Weight

Fifteen years ago – when lightweight gear was scarce, silnylon was revolutionary, and we often had to make our own gear – it was challenging to “make weight”, i.e. get our base weight under the limits listed above. Fast-forward to the present. We now have a myriad of lightweight and durable materials, and there are nearly 100 companies, large and small, making lightweight and ultralight gear. We have lots of choices in every gear category, and it’s easy to make weight.

When I prepare for a presentation on lightweight backpacking, I load one pack with lightweight gear and one with ultralight gear so people can see what’s in a sub-20-pound base weight and a sub-10-pound base weight. For the pack full of lightweight gear, I try to be luxurious by throwing in a double-wall tent, 15F sleeping bag, a full-length inflatable sleeping pad, Jetboil stove, headlamp, etc, and guess what – the whole kit and caboodle weighs only 13.5 pounds! When I do the same for the ultralight load, it comes in around 8 pounds. However, the SUL kit is always hard to make weight; a 5-pound limit is very restrictive. I have previously proposed a Mountain SuperUltraLight (M-SUL) category with an easier to achieve base weight of 6 pounds, which also provides adequate protection, warmth, and comfort for the conditions.

Traditional Backpack
A fully-loaded and heavy conventional backpack like this is what we commonly see on the trails, which begs the question: How do we reach these people and inform them of the lightweight alternative?

The Lightweight Backpacking Conundrum

Frankly, given the availability of lightweight gear, I find it hard to understand why there are so many conventional backpackers on the trails. Is it because they don’t get the information, because they don’t understand it, because it takes too much effort, or because they are just not into it? Or all of the above?

One thing is very noticeable: when I walk into an outdoor store, or REI, I don’t see very much lightweight gear. When I ask about it, they say it doesn’t sell. It is true that buyers prefer familiar brands, so that’s what retailers stock their in their stores, because that’s what sells. There’s a catch-22 here: retailers don’t stock LW gear because it doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t sell because they don’t stock it!

What this means for a backpacker who wants to lighten up is she needs to deliberately find the information she needs, select the gear she wants, and locate where to buy it. That takes some time and effort, and I believe that’s where the conundrum lies – many people don’t want to invest the required time and effort. And it goes further than that because there are barriers to overcome as well (fear of getting wet or cold, or being uncomfortable), which largely require knowledge and experience.

Gossamer Gear Murmur Hyperlight Backpack

Do We Need to Adjust the Categories?

From a purist point of view, lowering the weight limits sounds like a reasonable idea given the abundance of high quality lightweight gear. However, from an evangelical point of view, there’s nothing to be gained from lowering the base weights and excluding some people.

One thing I have observed over the years is that there are a lot more potential lightweight backpackers out there than potential ultralight backpackers. For example, when my wife and I give our lightweight backpacking presentations, we find that most of our audience (80-90%) is interested in lightweight backpacking and only a minority is interested in ultralight. On the trails we see 95% conventional backpackers. So, do a few conventional backpackers evolve into lightweight backpackers, and a few of them further evolve into ultralight backpackers?

What is really needed is to reach more people and get them on board. We have been preaching for 15 years and we are still a small denomination. How do we reach out and enlighten more backpackers?

It would be helpful to have a philosophical discussion on this subject. If lightweight and ultralight backpacking is so easy to achieve and has so many advantages, why aren’t more people doing it? Your thoughts are most welcome.

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Will Rietveld