Searching for a New Parahigm
If one can be ultralight without being ultralight then what the hell does ultralight mean? Such is the conundrum when multiple meanings are applied to the same word. For the last twenty years, to be an Ultralight Hiker was to be someone of distinction. Upon announcing oneself as an ultralighter in the presence of a gathering of traditionalist, a reverent silence would befall the room. Ok, that maybe stretching the point, but there is still is a lot of cachet associated with being an ultralighter. It will come as a shock to many to discover that their vaulted status of ultralighter has been reduced to that of a traditionalist with a very light pack.
When it was introduced twenty years ago, the advantages of an ultralight pack were a great enough inducement for many to overcome the obstacles that stood in their path. With the advancements in ultralight gear, many of these obstacles have been cleared away. This makes becoming an ultralight backpacker a simpler task.
Still confusion will reign for some sometime to come as people start coming to terms with the new reality. Standard backpacking is now divided into three basic divisions depending upon their base weights, Traditional (twenty pounds plus), Lightweight (twelve to twenty pounds) and Ultralight (eight to twelve pounds). For the backpacker the primary difference between each of these groups is the selection and utilization of the gear.
There is a second class of backpackers that I’m going to call Advanced Minimalists. This category of backpacker is really a combination of Ray’s original Advance Techniques and Minimalist gear. Over the last few years this has been the Super-Ultralight class of hikers. In general their pack weights are in the sub eight pound range.
For the backpacker, there are significant advantages in terms of hiking comfort for each time they are able to transition to a lighter weight class. In practical terms a person carrying a thirty pound fully loaded pack (Lightweight) is going to be a lot more comfortable hiking than one carrying a forty five pound pack (Traditional). The same is true for a person carrying a fifteen pound pack (Ultralight) vs. a thirty pound pack (Lightweight). For each transition you’re able to travel farther per day, enjoy the hike more and get into camp feeling better.
There is a point where lightening one’s pack bumps up against the laws of diminishing benefits. Practically speaking an Advanced Minimalist backpacker isn’t going to achieve greater mobility over an Ultralight backpacker. So if there’s no direct benefit to be gained, why would someone choose to be an Advanced Minimalist?
Over the years Ultralight backpackers have discovered it is fun to continually push the limits of themselves, their packs and the terrain they travel. A degree of competition has crept into this leisure activity. Often one is simply in competition with oneself, however; when multiple hikers assemble it’s not long before people scramble to see who has the lightest pack.
Looking forward, it’ll be up to the writers of gear guides, magazines, websites and bloggers to bring clarity to this new world we find ourselves. The transition will no doubt be a bumpy one. It’s not easy to giving up long cherished beliefs or assumptions.
There is one place we can start. Not long after the start of the Ultralight Revolution, a set of core principles was penned, often referred to as the Ultralight Principles. They were adopted by the ultralight community and promoted as a way to start transitioning from traditional to ultralight packs. The reality is that these are principles that should be learned and understood by anyone undertaking any human powered outdoor activity.
These principles are equally as important in a beginning book on Boy Scout backpacking as in books on advanced backpacking techniques. Understanding how to select gear isn’t just about having a lighter pack. You save money by not purchasing items you don’t need. If you’re enjoying your hike instead of being a slave to your gear, you’ll be doing more backpacking. Finally selecting the right gear can extend your backpacking life for years.
The future is unknown to all of us. But if Past is Prologue, then no doubt we’ll see many new and interesting things in the next decade and beyond.
Last Updated on Sunday, 05 February 2012 12:29