The Abbreviated-Comprehensive Guide to Lightweight Hiking Part I
Introduction, Glossary and Technique.
A lot of this website is aimed at people who are new to hiking, and need to know the basics of what to look for when buying hiking gear. It should also be helpful for more experienced people who want a refresher, or are looking to update their kit. This particular article is written for people who have done a bit, or even a lot of hiking, but are starting to realise hauling an excessively heavy load is just not that fun. Almost all of the articles under the Knowledge and Buying Tips section are aimed at hikers generally. The recommendations here are aimed specifically at hikers and trampers wanting to lighten their load significantly.
So, what are the benefits of going lighter?
You will be more comfortable during the day, and less sore at the end of it.
You will be able to walk further and faster. This means you can do trips which you might otherwise be unable to do. If you only have a certain amount of time to get outdoors, which is most of us, it is logical to try and make the most of that time. How do you make the most of it? See as much as you can. Moving further and faster enables allows you to see more, and spend more time at the places that are worth spending more time at. For example, say there is a trip you've always wanted to do, but you only have a weekend, and the trip involves two 20km days. Along the way on both days are spectacular waterfalls, swimming holes and many potential lunch spots. If you're carrying 20kg, which even 5 years ago was not an unheard of weight for a 2 day trip, you're likely going to struggle to cover that distance, and still have time to see everything you want to. You probably won't feel great afterwards either. However, if you're carrying an 8kg pack, you will likely cover that 20km in 4-5 hours, leaving you plenty of time to explore, swim and laze around in the sun, or walk further if you want to!
You will be less likely to injure yourself while walking, and if you do trip and fall, you will probably hurt yourself less. Why? Firstly, you will be less tired and more coordinated and balanced, as more weight takes more energy to move and makes you less agile. Secondly, if you do trip or fall, more weight on your back will mean you will fall harder, increasing the potential for injury.
When all of these are taken into account, all else being held equal, being lighter will mean you will likely have more fun on any given trip than if you were carrying more.
"Being lighter is not an end in of itself, it is one way to increase your enjoyment of the time you spend in the outdoors."
Firstly, I just want to define some terms, so that when you go look at other articles and blogs you will know what they're talking about. I do just want to say though that I don't think you should feel the need to define yourself by words such as 'ultralight' or feel like being merely 'lightweight' is not okay. Being lighter is not an end in of itself, it is one way to increase your enjoyment of the time you spend in the outdoors. But, it is worth knowing what these terms mean so you know what people to talk about, and as a frame of reference.
'Base-weight' - this is the weight of all of your gear in your pack, excluding food, water, and fuel for your stove. In other words, everything that stays constant throughout the trip. This usually does not include the clothes you wear. Your food and fuel will decrease in weight throughout the trip, everything else will remain constant. Base weight is the primary measurement of the weight of your pack, and how you compare with others.
'Consumables' - food, water and fuel. These are the things that change their weight over the length of the trip.
Pounds (lb) and Ounces (oz)- you will find most lightweight literature comes out of the USA, so is in pounds and ounces. If you spend enough time researching, you will get pretty good at converting between the two. For the record, 1 pound = 453g, and 1 ounce = 28g. The best way I've found to convert it roughly in your head is: to go from pounds to kg, multiply by 4.5 then divide by 10 (e.g. 9lb * 4.5= 40.5/10 = roughly 4 kg).
'Lightweight' - very commonly defined as a base weight of under 9kg (20lb).
'Ultralight weight ' - This is commonly defined as a base weight of 9lb or under. So this translates to a baseweight of 4kg or less. Personally, given NZ is a lot wetter place than the USA (which means we have to take slightly more stuff on an average trip), I would say that if you have a base weight of less than 5kg, you're doing pretty well, and could comfortably call yourself 'ultralight', even if you have to say 'NZ ultralight'.
How much should you lighten your pack?
"How much and what kind gear you take is always a balance between weight, safety and comfort."
So, how do you lighten your pack, and how much should you lighten your pack? We'll get to the first question in a bit, but the second question is very important. How much and what kind gear you take is always a balance between weight, safety and comfort. You want to be light, because it makes hiking more enjoyable. But you still want to be safe. In New Zealand, conditions can change very quickly, so you need to be able to keep dry and warm. You also want to be comfortable; a bad night's sleep is going to affect your level of enjoyment. So the gear you bring is always going to be a compromise between these three things. Sure, a camp stretcher is comfortable, but not very fun to carry. On the other hand, carrying a foam mat cut to the smallest possible size will be light, may provide enough insulation to keep you warm, but will not be at all comfortable.
How you make this compromise will be determined by your relative skill level, and the environmentalconditions of where you are going. For example, if you're doing an overnight trip in the Waitakere Ranges in the Summer, carrying a set of thermal leggings and top plus an insulated jacket is simply unnecessary. However, NOT carrying those same items in the middle of Winter on a trip in the Kawekas is plainly stupid. A big part of lightening your pack is knowing what to take for where you are going. Trying to carry gear to deal with every scenario you can imagine ever happening to a hiker is silly. For example, taking a hatchet to cut wood into a park where open fires are banned. Or carrying a double walled tent AND a tarp.
Wait, I said relative skill level as well right? What does that mean? Well, carrying a double-walled, highly storm proof tent means you can set it down wherever you like, and you'll probably be okay. Whereas if you are using a tarp, or a single wall shelter like one that ZPacks makes, then you have to pick your campsite better; i.e. find a place that's perhaps a little sheltered. If you're going to use an alcohol stove over a canister stove, you need to know how much fuel you need, and plan your meals a little more carefully. If you're going to use a lightweight backpack, you need to understand how to pack it well, and how to keep the load light. I don't want to go too far into tramping skills here, but just bear in mind that going lightweight requires a little more skill and planning than it does when you're bringing all the gear under the sun.
So, let's get into how you can actually lighten your load. There are two basic ways to lighten your load: bring less stuff, and buy lighter stuff. Now, firstly I want to address a conception that some people have: that to go light you have to spend a lot of money. This can be true, but it is certainly not the only way and at best is only part of the solution. While it is true you can simply buy your weight down, as suggested by a Phillip Werner, who has a much better website than mine, there are other things you can do as well (I don't mean to say Philip Werner only thinks this, he has some excellent articles about how to lighten your load aside from simply buying new kit). In Part II, I discuss how to lighten your load through altering your clothing and cooking systems. In Part III (forthcoming), I discuss shelters, sleeping systems and packs.