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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Skill Builder: Bearable Lightness

Ultralight packing allows you to hike longer and go further.

By Ann Raber

“To equip a pedestrian with shelter, bedding, utensils, food, and other necessities, in a pack so light and small that he can carry it without overstrain, is really a fine art.” — Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917

“Ultralight” might conjure images of arriving at your destination in a rickety, one-man flying machine, but the term in this case refers to how much you carry as opposed to the mode of transport. Actually, ultralight isn’t a new approach to outdoor gear, but rather a return to the original aspiration of every outdoorsperson: to bring what we need on our own strength and move with ease. Whether you favor multi-day excursions, day hikes or rafting trips, ultralight can enhance the experience by saving your strength and energy, giving you more time to explore once camp is set up. Going ultralight also makes longer trails accessible to small children, hesitant city folks and longtime outdoor enthusiasts who’ve been sidelined by injuries. Many women have found that ultralight equipment and techniques have given them independence in the backcountry. When we consider our basic needs, we find plenty of ounces and pounds to be shed, saving us energy and time on the trail or river.

Food

Joe Gervais is a backcountry guide based in Arizona. He sees a lot of campers hauling around food that never gets eaten. “Someone always has the proverbial 10-pound bag of trail mix.” Gervais and others swear by what they call “the heartiest lightweight meal available:” A vacuum-packed single serving of tuna, a packet of mayo, and a bagel. The variety of flavors and the mix of carbohydrates and protein make it perfect for a day on the trail. “Plus,” he added, “there’s just something about eating a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise out in the middle of nowhere that’s just, well, it’s magnificent.”

Water

As specialty water bottle manufacturers fill the shelves with new indestructible canisters it’s refreshing to learn that some of the heartiest hikers in the country recommend carrying water in a reused plastic soda bottle. Impressively sturdy (there are stories of one intrepid 2 liter putting in over five years of service), an empty soda bottle adds less than 2 ounces to your pack. Contrast that with the hard plastic canisters, or aluminum models, which contribute almost half a pound bone-dry.

Shelter

As Gervais pointed out, “the best rain layer is no rain.” Instead of a rain jacket, a good option is the hiking umbrella. At 10 ounces, these large domes are designed to withstand scraping branches and heavy gusts. With neutral colors as well as brighter options, the umbrella also functions as portable shade, camouflage or even aerial identification (you never know).

Fun

For a swim or a float trip, leave the bath and beach towels at home and opt for a pack towel. Aside from being enormous, a cotton towel takes on up to ten times its weight in water. In contrast, a microfiber pack towel folds up small (3.5 by 5 inches) and weighs almost nothing, but pushes water off, even if it’s wet. These towels dry off in the breeze before mildew has a chance. Want to get even deeper into ultralight? Set your pack on a digital scale and look for excess ounces. The Complete Walker IV, an updated edition of Colin Fletcher’s classic meditation and manual on hiking, describes the classic weight-shedding methods. By investing in a few pieces of specialized lightweight gear and revising what you bring along, you can enjoy your time outdoors more, for longer and with more of the people you love.

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