In my earlier years of backpacking and spending time in the outdoors, I was all about the gadgets and gear. I wanted to have a tool for everything, and I wanted the biggest and best of everything. When I planned backpacking trips, I wanted to have the ability to do all sorts of outdoor activities, ranging from rock climbing to water sports. I was also younger and had a lot more energy and strength, so the weight of all that gear didn’t bother me as much as it does now.
I have definitely seen an evolution in my style of backpacking over the last ten years. Even just a couple years ago, I was in this accumulation phase of buying new gear and gadgets whenever they came out. I had storage bins full of different gear options for different backpacking trips. Rather than accumulate lots of different gear choices to bring along, I am now downsizing my gear bins. I am selling things that I no longer need on eBay and Craigslist. This is a shift in my mindset towards a more minimalist approach. To me, being minimalist or ultralight or lightweight can all mean the same thing – basically, backpacking with as little weight and with minimal gear on your back.
There is one obvious benefit of ultralight backpacking – less weight. And it is an amazing benefit. Carrying heavy loads on your back for many miles on uneven terrain can quickly sap your strength and morale. But there are also hidden benefits of backpacking light that might not seem as apparent on the surface. Let’s delve into these hidden gems as well as dispel some myths about ultralight backpacking.
Without being burdened with heavy loads, you will be more able to focus on why you are in the outdoors to begin with – enjoying nature. Honestly, past experiences with super-sized backpacking rigs have taught me that they quickly hamper your ability to observe your surroundings. This can not only reduce your ability to enjoy your time outdoors, but can also be hazardous to your health (tripping and slipping, missing turns, wild animals). I remember more than a few hikes where all I could think about was just trudging a few more miles so I could get the pack off my back and rest. This mindset is all wrong and defeats one of the principle purposes that I backpack to begin with.
Another hidden benefit of ultralight backpacking is that you will be better able to give attention to the people you are hiking with. Carrying on conversations while on the trail with huge packs is often more of just a distraction or coping mechanism rather than an enjoyable conversation. I have found that lightening the load has allowed for more meaningful interactions with friends and family, and not just as a way to pass uncomfortable time.
Knowing Your Limits
Planning a backpacking trip can take a lot of time and coordination. You have to map your route, plan your stops and campsites, figure out the makeup of your group, and decide which gear to bring. That last part – deciding on your gear choices – can be laborious if you have mountains of gear options available to you and a high weight limit. Going into this planning phase with the knowledge that you will be limiting yourself to ultralight gear will simplify your options. It is important to realize that you might be limited on certain types of extended-stay trips because of your ultralight load-out, and this is especially true with the amount of food you can carry. But because of the above benefits of backpacking light, you will get more out of your trips even if they are condensed.
Having a minimalist approach will simplify the entire planning process. And as an added bonus, if you are good at improvising and have some Bear Grhylls bush-craft skills, you might be able to extend your stay without starving yourself by setting snares for food, fishing with small kits, and foraging for wild berries and edible plants.
There are some notable obstacles to ultralight backpacking, but a lot of them are overblown exaggerations. This is especially true with newer technology surrounding the outdoor market. One of the loudest complaints of ultralight backpacking is the loss of comfort. Several years ago, this complaint had a lot of pull, and for the most part, was an accurate depiction of minimalism in the outdoors. For example, the weight of your sleeping bag determined the warmth it provided. Twenty years ago, these new innovative micro-fibers that were lightweight and super insulative just didn’t exist in the marketplace. But with newer technology and innovation in outdoor gear design, the comfort factor is still there even at the micro-weight level, and the prices continue to become more and more affordable.
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Another complaint of minimalist backpacking is that you are limited with what you can do on your backpacking trip. This used to be my mindset when planning my trips and pulling my gear together. I never wanted to limit myself to a certain set of activities and therefore be less free; rather, I wanted to be able to do everything on every trip. I wanted binoculars to be able to glass for wild game. I wanted a fishing pole to be able to catch dinner. I wanted fancy cookware to make delicious meals. I wanted a chair to sit on at base camp. I wanted changes of clothes and shoes for lounging. And on and on. But what I found is that if I packed something and brought it along, I felt like I had to use it, or I carried it all that way for nothing.
I started to see that the reality of my mindset was not of freedom to do what I wanted at all. Instead, I felt like my plans were locked in and I had no room to improvise. Part of the allure of being in the outdoors is getting away from set schedules, routines, and day-to-day activities. But backpacking trips are all about planning and coordination (and when it comes to being safe, healthy, and getting home in one piece, rightfully so). In going ultralight, however, I have found it is easier to stay away from the drudgery that can sometimes find its way into the backcountry.
I understand that ultralight backpacking is not for everyone. Ten years ago, it wasn’t for me. But I have seen my ways evolve over that time to embrace the benefits of backpacking light. If nothing else, it is an interesting concept. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to minimize your gear and free your mind and body to better enjoy nature and your company? Give ultralight backpacking a try. Here is a great article on getting started with ultralight backpacking.
What are your opinions of ultralight backpacking? What merits do you see in it? Let us know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading and for adding to this community!