*Warning: The following article contains partially restrained rage and explicit exaggeration.
Have you ever heard of an ideology that requires one to eschew personal possessions in favour of a life of austerity and discomfort, all in the pursuit of lofty, largely unattainable principals? I’m speaking, of course, about Ultralight hiking. Whilst I won’t go so far as to label its advocates as communists, Ultralighters are dangerous, extremist left-wing radicals and are a scourge of the Earth.
How can you tell if someone is an Ultralight Hiker? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Ultralight Hikers are the Crossfitters of the outdoor world. The first rule of Ultralight hiking is you always talk about Ultralight hiking. The second rule of Ultralight hiking is you always talk about Ultralight hiking. On balance, I think the militant nature of the Ultralight movement is the aspect to which I most object. It seems that Ultralighting requires not only full and unwavering commitment to the tenets of the philosophy, but also to the full conversion of the heathen non-believers through aggressive rhetoric and liberal employment of shame tactics. Much as in matters of religion or politics, I support the right for others to engage their own belief systems, but I take issue with being forcefully shanghaied into those beliefs at the expense of my own.
Before we venture any farther down the rabbit hole of this savage appraisal of Ultralight hiking, let’s take a few steps back. What exactly does the term “Ultralight” mean, you may be asking. Wikipedia defines Ultralight Backpacking as “a style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest kit safely possible for a given trip” and goes on to say that a total pack weight of under 10 pounds (4.5kgs) is considered to fall into the Ultralight category. This description therefore places a definitive, though arbitrary figure on the total weight deemed necessary for an endeavour as vague as “a given trip”. Essentially, the goal of the Ultralight Hiker is to carry as close to nothing as possible, a goal which comes very close to reality in certain circumstances. Whilst I’d agree that there are obvious benefits to be had from minimising the carriage of weight and thus the associated negative impacts on the body, I can’t help but notice inherent problems with the enterprise.
I first came into contact with the idea of Ultralight hiking via the internet and immediately dismissed it as the indulgence of eccentricity and sheer anal-retention. However, I was soon to confront the concept on real terms during my recent trip to New Zealand where I walked part of the Te Araroa Trail. It somehow transpired that we were given a lift into town from an ex-pat Australian whom, I believe, had somehow or other had been involved with the conception and implementation of the TA. On the way, he took us to his house where we received coffee, biscuits and a 90 minute diatribe on the virtues of Ultralighting. His advice was not entirely without merit, but included no small amount of apparent tips that were later described by my team-mate Adam as “somewhat asinine”. These included, but were not limited to:
- Throw away your sleeping bag. Buy a cotton sheet and proceed to cut that in half.
- Don’t carry a stove. You only need granola bars.
- On the subject of food, carry one day less than you need. That should give you the motivation you need to get into town faster.
- Don’t carry a tent. In fact, don’t carry anything to sleep under.
- Don’t carry water, much less anything with which to purify it. Drink from streams until you burst and if traversing a particularly dry section, carry a collapsible cloth bucket which you can fill and carry.
- Cut your toothbrush in half.
I drew the line at this last suggestion, explaining that there is no circumstance, on this planet or any other, wherein the weight savings of this foolish act compensate for the inconvenience. I don’t know where these people get their ideas, but I’d have to be in some sort of drug-crazed psychosis to even consider cutting my toothbrush in half to save a few grams. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The internet abounds with forums that outline various strategies and tricks to shave weight, from cutting the labels from your clothes to donating kidneys. These are little more than electronic pissing contests, providing a grim insight into the carnivorous disposition of the Ultralight community and its tendency toward one-upmanship. It seems that, like the Piranha, the Ultralight Hiker is content to devour its own kind in the absence of easier prey.
Perhaps the illusion of superiority helps some of these characters sleep at night, though my suspicions are that the adverse is true. The whole enterprise reeks of physical ineptitude, at best a reluctance and at worst a total inability to carry weight. I could be wrong about this, but there’s no smoke without fire. I don’t see anything particularly heroic about the act of carrying a small backpack along a groomed trail, much less when compared to the hardcore exploits of polar explorers hauling fully laden packs and sleds across the frozen wastes. But, then again, everything is relative.
The principles of Ultralight Hiking appear to be at odds with the ethics of Leave No Trace which form the backbone of modern expeditions. Primarily, they seem to breach the first rule which encourages adventurers to Plan Ahead and Prepare. Whilst I’ve no doubt that a great deal of thought and foresight has gone into the contents of an Ultralighter’s backpack, the emphasis is placed largely on considerations of weight rather than preparation for contingencies of an urgent and possibly dire nature. Safety, a criteria implied by Wikipedia’s description of the endeavour, is a subjective, variable condition which is subject to a raft of external stimuli. The minimalist approach leaves little margin for error in circumstances of unpredicted weather, injury or encounters with unfriendly wildlife. It could be argued that these risk factors have been taken into consideration and weighed against the benefits of skill and experience such hikers possess, but I fear that this may not always be the case. As in our case, the collective experience within the group and the relatively benign conditions of a New Zealand summer could provide ample justification for a dearth of equipment. However, as I wrote in a previous article, the alpine environments of New Zealand are frequently underestimated, a fact which has resulted in fatalities in recent times. Like any other cult, I feel that the number of hikers practicing Ultralight methods will continue to swell until an appreciable portion of these drink the proverbial Kool Aid and meet their untimely demise.
Perhaps I’ve become biased in my views on this subject due to my background, it being largely based on expedition mountaineering. Whilst I don’t feel the need to haul a 40kg backpack on each and every adventure, there are certain comforts I’m not willing to part with for the sake of reduced weight. Decent food, ample reading material and the promise of a comfortable sleeping arrangement probably aren’t outright necessities, but they certainly contribute to my overall enjoyment of the trip and have a direct impact on the chances of its success. It’s certainly possible to pack too much, but I believe in the need to strike a balance on the bell curve of diminishing returns. At what point does a reduction in weight cease to be of benefit and instead becomes an exercise in futility? For example, does the weight saved by carrying only granola bars represent an overall saving in energy expenditure when compared to the carriage of a light stove and nutritionally superior food? My guess is that it doesn’t, but that’s one for the boffins and mathematicians to work out. There’s also a cost/benefit analysis to be made in all this, as the price tags on specialist Ultralight equipment can often be staggering. A good friend of mine compared it to the world of cycling, where the insane expense incurred for a marginal weight reduction could easily be offset by a modest decrease of the BMI possessed by many of the Lycra-clad, Latte-swilling goons I see kicking about the streets of Brisbane.
Most importantly, hiking is meant to be enjoyed. To me, the benefits of Ultralight hiking are totally outweighed by the abject misery I’d experience from engaging in such tomfoolery. If you take pleasure in weighing your equipment, compiling a comprehensive inventory and cutting all your expensive shit in half, then I say go for gold. Personally, I enjoy chilling out after a hard day on the trail with a hot meal and some good tunes, after which I’ll retreat to my tent before the incumbent hordes of mosquitos feast on my delicious blood. To each their own, I suppose.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in February 2015