Friday, October 21, 2011

Lightweight vs. Ultralight

I know it's been a while since I've posted. I have been moving and recovering from a moving related injury . I am going to try to keep the posts more regular from this point forward.

My first backpacking trip was a one night trip to the White Mountains in AZ. I was probably carrying a fifty to sixty pound pack. I used less than half of what I brought along on the trip and had some items that were not really backpacker friendly. I didn't really learn from this mistake and brought most of the same stuff on the Rae Lakes trip, to which I have referred in previous blog posts. That trip ended up being aborted due to illness, but I think lighter packs would have prevented the exhaustion that made the illness worse. I knew at this point that I was going to have to trim some weight off the pack.

I started to read into this new phenomenon called ultralight backpacking. I looked at equipment lists and trip journals. The weights these guys were talking about seemed ridiculously light. People were insisting that you could go with an eight to ten pound pack and do just fine. Although I disagreed with some of the items these people left out of their packs, I liked a lot of what I learned about multiple uses for each item. I started to go through my equipment and eliminate unnecessary items and replace others with lighter or multiple usage replacements. The heavy shovel got replaced by a small trowel, the thick and heavy jacket got replaced by a down sweater and a rain shell (which works better than my jacket ever did), and I was also able to eliminate the fleece I brought on previous trips. I got titanium cookware rather than aluminum and I got a tent that uses my trekking poles as tent posts and does not need a rain fly.

After a lot of swapping and dropping, I was able to get my pack down to twenty-five pounds before food. That was a good twenty to thirty pounds lighter then what I was carrying before. I went back to the ultralight forums to see if there was anything else I could do to remove weight from my pack. Some of the advice I saw was not only illogical, it was flat out stupid.

In today's UL world, people skip too much for the sake of shaving off ounces. One blog said to forget the water filter, another didn't bring any cookware on the JMT and ate Snickers on most of the trip. One bozo's first aid kit was listed as "None: be safe!" Some suggested that no tent is needed, just a tarp in combination with a down sleeping bag. I couldn't believe that I was reading this! I am willing to eliminate certain things from the luxury aspect, but to eliminate safety, food, and shelter just seems foolish to me.

I understand that the water in the Sierra Nevada mountains is very pure and clean, but are the hikers that just rinsed off upstream clean? Is the bear that just peed in the water clean? The added half pound or so for a water filter seems well worth it to me. You may be able to dodge a bullet a few times, but eventually you are going to end up getting hit. In the blog I read with the Snickers guy, he was feeling famished for nearly the entire trip. He even resorted to indirectly begging for hot food from strangers at camp. (By indirectly, I mean he sat there talking about how hungry he was and how sick he was of candy bars until hot food was offered to him.) A hot meal at the end of the day is one of the best things for morale on the trail, let alone nutrition and warmth.

I am always safe, but I will always carry a first aid kit. Mine isn't fancy, but it has what is needed (bandaids, some medicines, a few alcohol wipes, a few packs of antibiotic ointment, and some iodine tabs). Following the "just be safe" logic, I suppose you could stop wearing a seatbelt if you are a safe driver, but that's no guarantee that other drivers are also safe. First aid isn't about "being safe", it's about reacting to an unexpected/uncontrollable situation and having what you need with you, and you have to assume that one or both of those situations might happen.

Anyone who knows about down sleeping bags can tell you that once it gets wet it is useless, but that won't matter because you put it in your tent. What's that? You don't have a tent, just a shelter with no walls. Well it's a good thing water only falls straight down and doesn't run along the ground...

I feel that once you have eliminated unnecessary items you should stop eliminating and start packing smarter! Not bringing things like basic first aid and safety equipment is just flat out too risky. You are running a big chance of getting hurt or sick and being helpless about it. It is wrong to rely on strangers to provide what you failed to bring. I have no problem with UL backpacking, unless you are sacrificing safety for weight. I am more than happy with the weight of my pack. It is very manageable and I have anything I may need "just in case". Every backpacking trip is an opportunity to learn what you simply do not need, but when it comes to safety, it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.