- Challenge The Editor

The Ultralight Report

Summarised from Backpacker Magazine with full acknowledgement


Earlier this year, after BACKPACKER published a popular story about ultralight backpacking ("Heavyweights vs. Lightniks," August 2001), we asked readers to participate in an interactive project we called Challenge The Editor. The idea was to take a hiker who loved carrying everything but the kitchen sink and send him backpacking with the bare essentials. Our volunteer was Managing Editor Jonathan Dorn, who for years has carried 60-pound loads, worn big boots, and eaten deluxe trail meals. We figured that Jon was the ideal guinea pig - a diehard overpacker who, as an experienced gear tester and outdoors guy, would quickly find the costs and benefits of radically lightening his load.

Almost 4,000 readers participated in the Challenge, casting votes that decided what gear Jon could take on his ultralight hike. When all the ballots were counted, we found that you'd assembled a load weighing a mere 19 lbs., 8.5 oz. (See "Jon's Gear List" on page 3.) Worried more about his slim food allowance than your refusal to let him carry a change of undies, Jon gamely packed up his gear - it didn't take long - and headed for California's Lost Coast, a rugged coastal hike several hours north of San Francisco. His report follows.

Jon's Report

Sometime shortly after lunch on the second day of my long-awaited ultralight hike, I realized that only an utter moron would pack a poncho for a place like this. California's Lost Coast is notorious for its fierce winter storms, and here I was, bending into the teeth of a late November gale without proper raingear. Since breaking camp, we'd been hiking south along a crumbling coastline as 30-40 mph gusts flung sand, seaspray, and sheets of rain against us. Water ran in rivulets from my shoulders to my toes, having blown between the buttoned sides, up the nonexistent sleeves, and under the wildly-flapping skirt of my 10-ounce poncho. The drawstring hood was keeping my head dry, thank goodness, but the absence of a rain visor meant my face and eyes were stung by 50 angry bees every time I lifted my head to marvel at an ocean horizon gone completely white with froth. Or so it felt, thanks to the ferocity of the wind.And then, to add indignity to discomfort, a fist-sized rock tumbled from the cliff beside me, bouncing twice on the rubble of a previous landslide before popping up and bashing me in the left buttock.

Later that night, as I lay awake shivering and sneezing, my ass still sore from the cursed rock, I realized that only a complete fool would try to dry four layers of rain-soaked clothing by climbing into a down sleeping bag. Around 3 a.m., my clothes still soaked, the bag now sodden and limp from all the moisture the feathers had absorbed, I began to wonder what "ultralight" really meant. Light on fun, perhaps. Light on comfort and convenience, too. Clearly light on common sense.

Funny how a warm, sunny morning can change your whole outlook. I didn't notice what time the rain stopped--it may have been during the 30 minutes of sleep I managed that night--but I sure did feel the warmth spreading through my body as the returning sun burned through a light dawn mist. Within two hours, my clothes and bag were dry, my belly was full, and all was right with the world. So I went for a swim in the surf.

Pardon the metaphor, but looking back on that dunking, I now see that it was a baptism of sorts. I went into the water a disbelieving skeptic, full of anger and doubt regarding the ultralight gospel. I emerged a different man. In the days that followed, the scales fell from my eyes, and I began to see the glory of going ultralight. Here's what happened.

The weather improved. While periods of rain interrupted the next three partly-sunny days, we didn't encounter any storms approaching the epic of the second day. That helped me discover that my weatherproofing system was perfectly adequate for moderate weather. My mistake had been to judge the lightest of ultralight raingear--a poncho--in monsoon conditions. Not fair. If I were to hike the Lost Coast again, or hike some other wet location, I'd pack the lightest waterproof/breathable jacket and pants I could find. To make up for the extra weight, I'd leave behind one of my fleece tops, which I didn't need for the mild evenings in camp.

My shoulders and feet experienced newfound relief. Know that feeling at the end of the day when you take off your pack and boots, and you suddenly feel light as a feather? I felt like that all day long, and the feeling never segued into the foot and shoulder aches that always set in as your muscles cool down and stiffen up. I was certain the lightly-padded shoulder straps on my pack and the minimal stiffness of my trail-running shoes would leave me aching, but I felt no discomfort at day's end, thanks entirely to the lighter load on my back.

My pace picked up. In the afternoons, as my normal-packing partners began to flag, my legs were still bursting with energy. Since I'm not in any better physical shape than them, and since they were hogging all the energy bars, the only explanation is that my light load was less tiring. Twice, as we hunted for a campsite in the gathering darkness, I raced ahead to scout the next location. But the value of spending less energy lies not just in the ability to hike farther and faster. It also lies in the ability to shift into overdrive when storms or darkness threaten, or in an emergency. When your pack weighs little more than some dayhiking loads, it's like having five gears rather than three.

My pace picked up, part 2. Try outrunning an incoming wave while strapped into a 50-pound pack. Add wet sand underfoot, and you're doomed. Not so with 20 pounds. I routinely sprinted around corners where my slower brethren got splashed. I also moved more quickly and confidently across streams and cobbled shorelines than I ever have before, with less fear of bone-snapping missteps. To a super-slow-mo kinda guy who's always worried about twisting his bum ankles, the experience of feeling nimble, fast, and well-balanced while backpacking was a revelation. Imagine turning a rec-league hoopster into Michael Jordan. That's how I felt.

The days got longer. Not literally, of course, since we were approaching winter solstice, but I found myself with gobs of free time for exploring the neighborhood around camp and writing in my journal. With a small, simple load, everything goes faster, from packing to pitching camp to dining to getting the hell out of Dodge when foul weather is looming. In fact, going ultralight may be the ultimate get-out-quick scheme, since it took me all of 60 minutes to shop and pack for a 5-day hike.

I learned how to walk again. Watch a heavily-laden backpacker hike, and it's almost like watching a 90-year old man hurry to the men's room. There's the stooped, bent-over posture, the neck bent and eyes cast down, the unsteady, shuffling stride, and the pained, pinched expression. Now watch the ultralight backpacker. The legs swing easily; the head is up and active, catching the sights; the back is straight and shoulders relaxed; and the hands rest easily in the pants pockets. Once I settled into this new, more comfortable posture, I may as well have been strolling in the park. Except I was still a backpacker carrying my shelter on my back, completely self-sufficient and capable of making camp in a remote wilderness area. Pretty cool, eh?

So, am I a convert to ultralight backpacking? On this hike, I experienced both the rich rewards and uncomfortable risks of traveling light, but I'd have to say that I'm hooked. More than anything, I can't get over the sensation that wilderness backpacking could feel as easy and unburdened as an afternoon stroll in the park. I certainly won't pack ultralight for every hiking trip I ever take--there will be winter outings, family hikes, places where I want more camera gear, and off-route adventures in Alaska and other farflung places. But I plan to lighten my load to 20 pounds for as many 3-season hikes as I can manage, and to find ways to slash pack weight on all those other trips. If you haven't tried a 20-pound load, I highly recommend it. Just check the weather forecast before you go. And beware bouncing rocks.

Jon's Gear List
Shelter Integral Designs Sil Poncho: 10 z.
Groundcloth Tyvek sheet (2' x 8'): 6 oz.
Pack GVP G4: 12.5 oz.
Sleeping Bag Marmot Never Winter: 32 oz. (size long, 30°F down)
Stuff sacks (2) GoLite Pouch: 1.6 oz.
Pad Cascade Designs Z-Rest 3/4: 11.5 oz.
Stove SnowPeak Giga Power: 3 oz.
Fuel 1 butane/propane canister: 13.4 oz.
Cookware Snow Peak Mini Solo Cookset: 5 oz.
Headlamp Petzl Zipka: 3 oz.
Water treatment McNett AquaMira: 2 oz.
Camera 5 oz. disposable
Fleece hat GoLite Frost: 1.75 oz.
Gloves SealSkinz Waterproof Gloves: 3.5 oz.
Socks Smartwool Ultra Cushion Mini Crew: 1.75 oz.
Patagonia Capilene Liner Socks: 1.75 oz.
H2O Bladder Camelbak UnBottle: 7 oz.
Toothbrush and powder Generic toothbrush (cut in half) and EcoDent powder, 2 oz.
Utensil SnowPeak Titanium Spork: 0.6 oz.
Sunglasses Cebe Athlon: 1.5 oz.
7 lbs. 13 oz. (124.85 oz.)

Microfleece zip-T Sierra Designs Apex Zip Mock: 13 oz.
Long john bottoms Mountain Hardwear eXtend Tight: 8 oz.
Swim trunks Generic, 8 oz.
Fleece jacket Beyond Fleece B1 Jacket: 22.5 oz.
Synthetic fill vest Wild Things Primaloft Vest: 14.25 oz.
3 lbs. 15 oz. (62.75 oz.)


Four 4-oz. packets instant mashed potatoes, 16 oz.
10 oz. hot cocoa, 10 oz.

Five 3.5-oz. packets ramen noodle soup, 17.5 oz.

18 oz. shelled pistachios, 16 oz.
14 oz. dried apricots, 14 oz.

Four packets miso soup mix (2.5 oz. total), 2.5 oz.
Two 3-oz. packets vacuum-packed tuna, 6 oz.
3.66-oz. tin smoked mussels, 3.66 oz.
Two 4-oz. packets smoked salmon, 8 oz.
8-oz. packet stuffing mix, 8 oz.
5.9-oz. parmesan couscous, 5.9 oz.
5.6-oz. toasted pine nut couscous, 5.6 oz.
5.7-oz. mushroom risotto mix, 5.7 oz.
4 tea bags, 1 oz.

119.86 oz. = 7.49 lbs.

Total Pack Weight: 19 lbs., 3.6 oz. (307.6 oz.)

Rain hat Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero: 4.5 oz.
Long-sleeve synthetic shirt Mountain Hardwear Synergy Shirt: 6.75 oz.
Windshirt Polo RLX N2S Zip-T, 11.4 oz.
Long pants Patagonia Talus Pants: 10.5 oz.
Underwear Pearl Izumi X-Sensor Fitted Boxers: 1 oz.
Trail running shoes Hi-Tec Perpetua (size 13): 32 oz.
4 lbs. 2 oz. (66.15 oz.)

Total Trail Weight: 23 lbs., 5.6 oz.

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