Backpacking: Does it weigh heavily on your mind as well as your back?

“2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail” Source

“Six Lessons From the Ultralight Backpacking Movement” Source

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It seems every week there is another article, blog post, tweet or forum debate extolling the virtues of ultralight (UL) backpacking written by self proclaimed experts, amateurs and experienced backpackers alike. From ‘common sense’ advice such as cutting down the weight of the heavy backpacking trinity – backpack, tent and sleeping bag & mat – to the more extreme virtues of cutting toothbrushes in half and making our bootlaces multitask as dental floss and guy lines, it appears weight weighs heavily on the mind as well as the back for many bulk baulking backpackers.

Now I am as conscious of carrying excessive camping gear as the next person, but what is deemed unnecessary for one backpacker can be seen as vital to another, and, as a result of our individual requirements, the weight we are prepared to carry is as unique as we are. Sure, carrying the least amount of weight possible is something all backpackers should strive towards – after all, unless you’re a masochist or in training for the next Strong Man Championships, there is little pleasure to be had in lugging a lump of dead weight on your back. (There is another reason for lugging a dead weight on your back, but more on that later!) However, weight isn’t the only factor to consider when hiking 10’s or 100’s of miles and wild camping for days, weeks and even months at a time. Comfort is equally important.

“Comfort whilst backpacking? But surely that’s a paradox!?”, I hear you exclaim in confusion. Well, for many people I speak to, it does indeed seem to be a contradiction of terms. Collectively we go backpacking for many reasons and wild camping is either a necessity when hiking big miles or a joy in it’s own right, but comfort isn’t usually expected. The only comfort some walking weight watchers worry about is for their back and feet and count micrograms as if they were personal insults; these hardy souls are quite content to sacrifice camp comfort in their striving to carry as little weight as possible. As a result I read very little of the actual experiences of the backpacking trips undertaken by many UL adventurers – other than what was in their expensive featherweight backpacks (not very much usually). Their blog content seems to be equally lightweight, filled with contending with the contents of their backpacks rather than actual backpacking content and leaves me less than contented as a result. This isn’t to say such blog posts aren’t informative – I learn a lot from them and the examples given at the top of this blog are from people and forums I both respect and admire – and the comments left on some posts show there is a huge appetite for gramme grinding. However, I do wonder sometimes if some people only go backpacking to see how little they can carry ☺

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As a backpacking, wild camping long distance hiker for over 30 years I have not once weighed my backpack or items contained therein – until I wrote this blog post. And, until I discovered Twitter and online forums, I didn’t even know people put so much emphasis on backpacking weight and was quite content simply to put what I both needed and wanted in my pack for my own adventures with little thought for each item’s individual gramme count. My own criteria was based more on what I could physically fit into my pack to enhance my personal enjoyment of a hike than on how much my pack weighed. As long as I could carry my pack for the duration needed then why concern myself with its weight? I relied on common sense (of which I gained more of over time and experience) and my own physical limitations (which have plateaued out over time) to determine how much I could carry and focused instead on the actual hike itself; and on packing those items that make a wild camp something to look forward to at the end of a day’s hike instead of simply a necessity to sleep and shelter from the weather.

Having said all that you shouldn’t be too surprised to discover I carry pretty much the same as any other long distance hiker – the equipment just weighs more than that of the UL backpacker (I exclude the extreme UL’ers in this – those who forgo a lot of the equipment most of us take for granted as necessary). And there are always – in my mind at least – three good reasons why my equipment is often weightier than the equivalent carried by an Ultra-Lighter: Comfort. Durability and Price.

Comfort could mean many things. From the comfort of my backpack over many days hiking to the comfort of my sleeping gear. From the ease of setting up my shelter to the simplicity of cooking a meal. Comfort, here, is about peace of mind as much as physical comfort.

Durability is simpler to define. How well my gear holds up to anything I throw at it and how long it lasts.

Price I rarely look at the more expensive option – I am not a financially rich man! Value for money – I look for the lowest cost solution for my comfort and durability requirements.

From my backpack to my bandana, my shelter to my stove and my sleeping bag to my spork – all the items I carry must offer long term comfort, durability and value for money. You see, when hiking, I consider my backpack as my ‘house’ and it’s contents my living essentials and creature comforts. I don’t see it as a burden at all, I view my pack and contents as the means to not only surviving a multi-day hiking and wild camping adventure, but also the means to enjoying such adventures fully.

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This isn’t to say I don’t consider weight when purchasing items to replace worn out or damaged gear. I do. For example, I have recently purchased a new tent to replace my much loved Lichfield Treklight 200. My new shelter, the Luxe Sil Hexpeak V4, weighs a whopping 600g less than the Treklight and, of course, I am delighted with the weight reduction. But it wasn’t just it’s weight that was a deciding factor in purchasing the Hexpeak. Comfort and durability played vital roles too. It’s ease and speed of pitching in tricky conditions, it’s flexibility of materials, it’s confidence inspiring weatherproofness and abundance of internal space were all deciding factors.

Of course there are lighter alternatives -for example the ZPacks Hexamid Solo, a similar style shelter to the Hexpeak, would have saved me a further 600g of weight, but it’s comfort factor and price tag were off putting. This excellent review of the ZPacks Hexamid Solo by Keith ‘Fozzie’ Foskett highlights exactly what I mean by the weight versus comfort factors I’m talking about. The inflexibility of the Hexamid’s materials making pitching less than straight forward, the extra care required when deciding where to pitch the shelter because of its design and having to improvise ways to stop water from entering the tent when it rains are just some areas that highlight the trade off in comfort to save weight. And the Hexamid Solo costs twice as much as the Hexpeak V4 when delivery costs and import taxes are added to its retail price. Is the double price tag, inflexibility and less than ideal user friendliness of the Hexamid Solo worth 600g weight saving? Not in my opinion no, but Keith (a man who’s experience and opinions I greatly respect) certainly thinks so.

And that’s the point really. It’s not about comparing and buying gear based on weight alone: as I said in the second paragraph of this post, “as a result of our individual requirements, the weight we are prepared to carry is as unique as we are”.

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Oh, and the other reason – apart from masochism or strong man training – for maybe carrying dead weight on your back I mentioned earlier? Building core strength! I am lucky to be of a generation that starting hiking before the concept of Ultralight backpacking really began. As a result I spent my early years carrying weight that would make many a UL’er recoil in terror. But it did help give me a core strength that endures today. Maybe that’s why, when approaching 50 years of age, and comfort becomes more important to me, I can prioritise comfort over weight for the majority of my backpacking today? That, and taking advantage of the general weight reduction in hiking gear which, in large part, is all thanks to Ultralight revolution of course!

addendum

I have just read the excellent “Lightweight versus Ultralight” blog post by Geoff Crowther. Highly recommended.

8 thoughts on “Backpacking: Does it weigh heavily on your mind as well as your back?

  1. Great to see that this post is not a bog standard, anti-ultralight rant. Plenty of sense in what you have written, although Keith Bontrager’s famous maxim needs remembering. Strong, light, cheap – pick any two. In other words, ultralight gear can be durable and the main reason for not choosing that option is price.

    Your definition of comfort includes ease of achieving it, which is interesting. My Golite Cave 1 tarp can give perfect comfort but the faffing needed to achieve comfort became too much for me this Spring. I reverted to my old Akto. Reinforcing my first paragraph, I have no money for an Enan.

    The heaviest thing folks seem to pack is peace of mind. A Kindle is debatably a sign of someone not at ease with their own thoughts and unused gear in the pack a sign of being ill at ease with Mother Nature.

    My own biggest failure on the weight front is taking more consumables than necessary, which is really pathetic. The few occasions when I have spent time before the trip measuring and repacking food, fuel and pharmacy items have been rewarding in themselves. Without this kind of preparation, buying an ultralight Big Three will not guarantee an ultralight pack weight.

    This comment is already over-long but I have to warn you about your last paragraph.

    Back trouble struck me when I was in my mid-fifties. The pain was unbelievable. I now do the core stability work I should have done before back trouble struck. Allegedly, my problem was age-related deterioration of the intervertebral discs. If the problem was age-related, how come it has got a lot better? Physical jerks! Download one of the many 7 Minute Workout apps and crack into it. You could be saving yourself a great deal of agony.

    • Hi John
      Glad you enjoyed the post. As you have rightly ascertained I am not anti-ultralight at all – I just wanted to share a my own priorities for hiking and weight comes second to comfort for me (although the two are not mutually exclusive of course).

      I too have a tendency to take too many certain consumables – namely food! I am still ‘guilty’ of bringing home the odd freeze dried meal or two that I put in my pack for ’emergencies’ 😨

      As for your back trouble I can empathise. I fell off a 15 foot wall when I was 12 years old and have suffered from back pain ever since. However, it only bothers me when I stand still for more than a couple of minutes abd, bizarrely, when I walk WITHOUT a backpack for more than a mile or two. Building core strength was the best thing I did. As for workout apps – I simply don my laden backpack and get all the workout I need ☺

  2. Hi, PilgrimChris.

    Walking wasn’t enough to keep my lower abdominal muscles in the right shape to cope when those pesky discs lost their resilience, and I did a lot of walking. I think my slow pace had something to do with the problem. Anyone who hikes like a race-walker, with hip movement increasing their stride length, should be fine. The twelve exercises in a 7 minute workout, if done with a focus on style, are good insurance. Being a late convert to this type of exercise may have made me a bit too vocal on the subject.

    Putting the right amount of food in a rucksack is fairly easy for weekends but more difficult on longer jaunts. I used day bags for the first time in over forty years of backpacking for my Kintyre to Cape Wrath trip and the system worked well. We are never too old to learn.

    “…weight comes second to comfort for me although the two are not mutually exclusive…” I totally agree.

    • Hi John,
      Glad to hear you have found the exercise programme that works for you. I have a near pathological aversion to exercise other than what I get when hiking or cycling and the thought of a fitness workout fills me with dread lol.

      I am walking the Cape Wrath Trail in April/May so hopefully will lose the extra weight I have gained over the past 3 months of inactivity :-/

      • The Cape Wrath Trail is one worth training for as it is very demanding in parts. When I say training, I mean plenty of walking in the weeks before you go. The optional routes in the guide book are nice but the main route is worth sticking to because it is great. A few people had trouble navigating the pathless sections but anyone who regularly uses a map and compass should be fine. You probably know this already but the ferry back from Cape Wrath does not run in bad weather. Kearvaig Bothy is a brilliant place to hole up if you have to wait for the little boat.

        I enjoyed the Cape Wrath Trail so much that it will have to be done again, sooner or later.

        • It’s a route I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now. Looking forward to it 🙂 And I never train for a hike. I walk regularly which keeps me feet.

  3. Nice one Chris, and thanks for referencing my post/blog.
    I’ll limit my comment to just this; I love your focus on enjoying your time in camp. I carry my Kindle for reading pleasure and often a small FM radio. I do enjoy my time in camp.
    Well said, and written my friend.

    • Hi Geoff 🙂
      I hadn’t read your own post prior to writing my own, but how uncanny we were thinking similar thoughts at similar times.

      I love camp time. I only take my smartphone but it does have the Kindle app installed as well as music and movies. One can spend a few hours at camp after a days hiking and I do enjoy reading or the odd movie before I sleep.

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