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Why Are We Making Lightweight Gear and Not Ultralight?

Why Are We Making Lightweight Gear and Not Ultralight?

The term "ultralight" when it comes to backpacking gear is very, very popular - from big brands to handmade garage brands, it seems that everyone is making ultralight gear. You might have bought into the craze or just heard about it, you might be a skeptic or a believer, but there is very little doubt you have encountered it.

Lightweight backpack resting

As a company, we set out to design gear in the lightweight category; we know it is not ultralight, but we really like to also stay comfortable on the trail. But before we dive too deeply into our philosophy, we need to explain and define a few things:

What are lightweight and ultralight backpacking

The term ultralight backpacking (and in connection, lightweight) was used first by Ray Jardine in a book he wrote in 1992 after several PCT thru-hikes. Jardine is considered the father of ultralight backpacking, even though Grandma Gatewood thru-hiked the AT in 1955. A good book about Grandma Gatewood can be found here.

There are no official standards for ultralight and lightweight backpacking, but the consensus seems to be:

  • Traditional backpacking: base weight* of 30 lbs (USA) or 15 kg (Europe) or more
  • Lightweight backpacking: base weight of less then 20 lbs (USA) or 10 kg (Europe)
  • Ultralight (UL) backpacking: base weight of less then 10 lbs (USA) or 10 kg (Europe)

There are also Super Ultralight (SUL) and Extreme Ultralight (XUL) but those are too much even for us to deal with.

Ultralight backpacking

To read all about ultralight backpacking, the Wikipedia article about it is very good and complete without presenting any judgement, as so often exists in UL communities.

*Base weight: fully packed backpack before the addition of water and food and without the warm clothing and footwear.

Ultralight gear

From the definition above you can see that there is no specific ultralight gear, but it is all related to backpack weight, so you could carry an 8 lb frying pan in a 1 lb backpack (and a couple of other things) and still be considered an ultralight backpacker. This kind of definition makes it very way to define ultralight gear. 

When it comes to ultralight gear, there are several characteristics that most things have, which are a big part of the ultralight backpacking philosophy:

  • Multipurpose - the most important aspect of a UL item: it needs to have more than one role in your arsenal and perform as many functions as it can. You can check our list of 11 other uses for trekking poles besides hiking as an example
  • Lightweight materials - using the lightest materials that can withstand the conditions it will be exposed to
  • Simplicity - less zippers, less pockets, less handles and so on. The idea so to have a piece of kit that is so simple it functions perfectly while cutting its individual weight
  • Minimalism - taking the bare minimum you need to carry, for instance: instead of a two wall 4 season shelter, maybe a simple tarp will suffice?

Based on the above, we do make ultralight gear: it is very light, simple, minimalist and multi functional, but why are we not an ultralight gear company?

Super minimalism

Making lightweight gear

The main reason we don't feel like an ultralight gear company is because we keep one aspect of backpacking that is usually trimmed out in ultralight gear: comfort. In order to shave precious ounces (and sometimes pounds), ultralight gear is often a bit too simplistic for us, or too small/thin/skimpy. How does that translate in real life? Let's show a few examples from our products and prototypes we are developing:

  • Padded straps - our Vertex poles have a bit of padding on the wrist straps to make them just that tiny bitty bit more comfortable, reducing chaffing on long days. Too often lately, trekking poles have very thin straps to save another 0.5 oz but this results in a less comfortable experience
  • Adding a "heavy" slider - the Vecto water container has a slider, which is a heavy and bulky item for a collapsible water container; it is also less efficient as a "standing on your table" bottle, but it is so much more comfortable to fill.

Versatility of the Vertex poles

  • "Skinny" backpacking mats - industry standard backpacking sleeping pads are 20 inches wide, but if you have ever tried to use one, you like will have found them to be too narrow, especially if you are a side sleeper. Instead, we are making a 3-season, lightweight backpacking pad that is 23 inches wide - and it makes all the difference!
  • Not making gear for expeditions - this might sound odd, but it has been a while since any of us been in the most extreme conditions, so we don't need gear that performs that way. Instead we make gear that normal people, like us, use and abuse. So instead of an ultralight catenary tarp, we are making a flat, square tarp since it is more versatile - but won't hold up in winds of 100 mp/h (who wants to be outdoors then anyway?)

As you can see, our tweaks are meant to make the ultralight backpacking experience and philosophy and little bit more comfortable and user friendly, so we tend to just call it lightweight backpacking gear.

As it happen,we will be show casing our gear and prototypes in PCT Days in Cascade Locks (Oregon) over the weekend of the 18th to the 20th of August, so maybe come and see us? We will have all our poles there, a new Vertex, the Vecto prototype and more! Not only you can play, test and judge for yourself, you can even get 20% off in the event. So check the details and join us!

How to get lighter outdoors

How to get lighter outdoors

We all know the classic image of the outdoors backpacker: heavy leather boots, wool socks, shorts and a massive backpack with too much stuff attached on the outside. That image of a heavy laden walker has changed over the last 20 years, especially with the introduction of minimalist footwear and ultra running, creating a whole industry of lightweight gear. Who wouldn’t like to be “lightweight” when outdoors? Being nimble, fast and not dreading putting on the backpack after a much-needed break; but the lightweight community tends to be harsh on ways cut weight, including some myths like cutting toothbrushes in half.

Toothbrush

Lightweight Gear

My move to lightweight gear was not overnight, and really a conscious move either; I just started to upgrade gear here and there as it got old and worn, or just couldn’t perform to my needs, and getting lighter gear made sense. As I started to go into a full lightweight gear transformation, doing some serious research and too much reading was inevitable. The opinions and perspectives about lightweight gear are endless, including the definition of what lightweight gear is. Not long after starting my research I found there is also ultra lightweight (UL) and super lightweight (SUL), each claiming to do it “right.” But first, what is lightweight?

As a generally accepted rule, lightweight gear is usually seen as gear that weighs under 20lbs (9kg) of dry bag (without water and food) for an overnight trip. The idea behind an overnight bag is that the marginal addition of gear for more than one night is minimal (an extra pair of socks and underwear).

Ultralight gear carrying

When considering how to begin the lightweight gear transformation it can be a little overwhelming, trying to figure out what is the most important gear to buy and where to spend the most money. Usually, the widely recommended best starting point is to attack your 3 heaviest items: tent, sleeping bag and backpack. Those three can weigh up to 6.5lbs (3kg) each, but with the lightweight option will not weigh more than 6.5lbs (3kg) combined. I would add your cooking system to this list of initial items since it can be relatively cheap and you can shave off quite a bit of weight when upgrading. But now comes the obvious question: I have limited funds and can only buy one at a time, which one should I get first?

Hillerberg tent

My advice: start with a sleeping bag, then look at your cooking system, then the tent and backpack last. Replacing your backpack last has to do with the fact that each backpack has a weight that is most comfortable to carry it at, and lightweight backpacks are aimed to carry lower weight. The sleeping bag should be first because your sleep is one of the most important things you do to make sure you can repeatedly hike day in and day out.

Sleeping bag

So let’s go over my recommended steps to go lightweight:

  1. Upgrade your sleeping system first: a light and warm sleeping bag and a good light sleeping mat.
  2. Your cooking system: find what works for you and how you can get the most efficient cooking to match your taste – there is no point on having a stove that only boils water when you like to make risotto in the outdoors.
  3. Shelter: tent, tarp, bivvy, or any other shelter you choose, now is the time to cut  4-6lbs (2-3kg) from what you are carrying. Your shelter will probably be your most expensive purchase, so start saving in advance.
  4. Backpack: by now you will have cut more than your share of weight from what goes inside the backpack, now it is time to lighten the bag itself. Modern internal frame bags can weigh 4.5-9lbs (2-4kg) by themselves, so moving to a 2lbs bag will make everything feel better. Aim for a smaller volume; if so far you have been carrying 70 liters of too much stuff, a 45-55 liter pack is all you needed with your upgraded lightweight gear.
  5. Clothing: this can be done in parts, but hoisting around 5 lbs of waterproofs that may or may not be used is not nice. Replace your clothing with lighter, more functional clothes and stop carrying endless sets!
  6. Everything else: at this point, you need to spend more money per weight lost – another $10 to cut another 2g off the spoon etc. Don’t go wild here despite the temptation from all the shiny gadgets, as you need to focus on the big things first.

Lightweight cooking system

Learning more

For the best step by step guide, including full explanations about the philosophy behind each upgrade, I recommend reading Mark’s “Ultralight Makeover” from Backpacking North. I think it is one of the best guides out there and it really helped me focus on how I manage my lightweight gear transformation.

If you are serious about getting into the deep world of lightweight gear (you’ve been warned, it is addictive!), head over to backpackinglight.com for the best information and discussions. You do need to register (free) to join the discussion on the forum and pay ($20 a year) to read all the articles, but it is the best authority on lightweight gear that I know of. 

The goal of ultralight hiking

That is all you need to get into the spirit of lightweight gear and hiking. No more dreaded grunts when lifting your backpack, just thoughts about how far you can walk today, how fast will you be doing so and how much you can see and enjoy.

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