– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

The Death of UL and Feeble Assumptions

The big debate in the outdoors blogosphere at the moment seems to be the dying ultralight backpacking. Is it dead? Is it dying? Or not? Here is my rant on the topic…

The latest debate started probably from Andrew Skurka’s “Stupid Light” post . Some interpreted the post as the obituary of ultralight backpacking as the guru himself said that light(est possible) ain’t always right.  In my opinion the post only stated the pretty much common sense point that “lighter is better” mantra isn’t a highway to happiness and better outdoors experiences. Martin Rye fueled the debate on his “Bye bye Backpacking Light” post that was actually more about the BPL than UL backpacking in general but the comments and discussion soon led to people questioning and defending the ultralight backpacking. The next take on the topic came from Dave Chenault (“Ultralight is dead”) who wrote that “Perhaps this is the first and largest hurdle for ultralight backpacking to generalize, demystify, and become merely smart or deliberate backpacking”. And next I’m waiting for UL evangelist Hendrik Morkel to comment this on his blog.

Been there, done that.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first debate over the point of UL backpacking. In early 2011 one of the big names of UL scene, Ryan Jordan, wrote about the “Futility of going ultralight for ultalights sake” pointing out the obvious: “Ultralight, simplicity, minimalism – these are not the goals.” And I tend to stick with Ryan here: There is no point in going UL for the sake of going UL. I guess most agree with this. It’s just as pointless as mastering the skill of hiking walking backwards.

Most of the people hiking on the lighter side claim that with lighter kit you will get more out of your outdoor time. This is the core of the major argument in a way or another. With lighter kit you will have more freedom, deeper and closer connection to the nature, aesthetics of simplicity to enjoy and so on. When discussing about gear choices (online) someone usually pops up and tells you that there would be a lighter option for something. And it would naturally be better as it’s lighter. (I’m probably as guilty to this as all the others…)

But guess what? It ain’t so. And it’s simple to prove: If lighter is always better, leave ALL your kit home. Go for a hike naked or with only your clothes on. No burden to carry, totally undisturbed connection to nature and ultimate simplicity. But I bet you won’t make this a habit and start preaching for it as the superior way to experience the outdoors. Or will you? I dare you to give it a try.

The counter argument is of course along the lines of “That’s silly. The point is to have just enough kit to make the experience comfortable and safe and thus better.” If it’s so then it’s a subjective matter and it’s pretty ridiculous to say that someones outdoor experience would be better if he would carry less than 4989,5 g load. How can you tell?

On the other extreme there are the traditional backpackers who say that the weight doesn’t matter and a bit of extra won’t hurt.  The arguments range from extra comfort and security (take doubles) to wider variety of options (take a bomb-proof mountain tent and a tarp, you can have both!) and to claims that a bit of extra weight is only good training for the big future hikes (that rarely tend to happen). Form this point of view heavier kit doesn’t affect your outdoor experience. At least not in a negative way.

And again: It ain’t so. My challenge here would be to replace all you tent stakes (assuming you are carrying some) with 20kg kettlebells. They do really good job anchoring your shelter’s guylines. (I’ve tried that. Don’t ask.) The function is same but I bet your outdoors experience will be different and probably a bit worse than without the 200+ kg of cast iron on your back…

And from here we get back to kit being needed to function in a certain way but not getting on the way of our experience. And that is hell of a subjective matter!

Not UL but does it really matter?

As a disclaimer I have to say that I have never done a true UL trip so maybe I just haven’t understood the point of carrying UL kit. I have used and do use some UL gear and techniques but I try to have a relaxed and somehow rational approach on kit. Gear matters hell of a lot, but only when we are on the very edge of our capabilities. That edge is where the modern UL was born and has been mostly developing: thru hiking serious distances in short time, adventure racing through hell of a terrain, climbing seriously difficult routes and so on. But to be honest, how many of us push our limits to point were kit is decisive factor? Some do it but many don’t. Maybe we should. I’m quite comfortable claiming that in most cases it doesn’t really matter if your kit is a kilo heavier than it now is or could be. Most likely you will still enjoy your outdoor experience about just as much.

From my point of view ultralight backpacking and other styles are tools and means to do things – not goals, religions or numbers. You want to do something and to get it done you need proper skills and tools. The important thing is to have something that you want and like to do – and pursue it.


20 responses to “The Death of UL and Feeble Assumptions

  1. Antti Rantanen 19/10/2012 at 15:34

    Good post Jaakko!

    I enjoy finding lighter options as they are usually very handy, but I’ve never categorized myself being UL or any other weight category. I don’t even own any scale for measuring grams:) For me is just important that the gear works for me and is suitable for the coming trip. And of course I cannot afford all I want so the gear list is full of compromises:)

    I think mr. Skurka said once that is about the goal of your trip, if it’s more competitive and goal orientated, you need gear for getting that job done and in many cases lighter options are then preferable. In the other hand there’s the more leisure way of backpacking and camping, where the gear might not have similar needs and the weight is less important factor. I agree with this as my trips usually are hiking a certain route in limited time, when too heavy burden is slowing me down.

    Have to read the links you mentioned.
    Mukavaa syksyä!

  2. Yeti 19/10/2012 at 17:26

    Your post is spot on. Myself I haven’t even bothered to follow the debate, since I find the whole thing a non-issue. Of course you want the gear to be light, but there are other aspects as well. Common sense should suffice, though.

  3. Helen Fisher (@HelenJFisher) 19/10/2012 at 17:58

    I pretty much agree with what you say Jaako. I’m just a bit bored with all the labeling of weight categories which I can’t really see a need for (bragging rights? Why?). Different environments, fitness and skill levels need different kit – it’s different hiking in Norway to the UK for instance, and vastly different to the States, so it’s not a level playing field to start with.
    I say, take the main tenets of the philosophy with an ample dose of common sense 🙂

  4. Mikkel Bølstad (@mikkelsoya) 19/10/2012 at 18:19

    Good post, Jaakko. If someone wants to nitpick over their equipment, go ahead. Skurka goes ultralight because he needs to go fast. Going ultralight for a short overnight is something else, but if the person enjoys the experience, why not.

    Some people can make a competition out of anything, though, even the weight of their backpacks. Who cares. I just like to get out – sometimes to relax, sometimes to have fun, sometimes to challenge myself. I’m packing accordingly.

    I guess ultralight isn’t dead, but I’d love to see the ridiculous elitism go away. By the way, who measures an expeditions success on the basis of the pack weight? 😉

  5. Toni Lund 19/10/2012 at 19:48

    Great writing Jaakko. For me, I would echo the sentiment “don’t go stupid light”. We have seen many times, especially winter adventures, to fail because of broken gear, and usually ultralight is more susceptible to break. Also, some ultralight quilts doesn’t fare well in extreme cold conditions. But having said that, there are certainly gear where ultralight works really well. Like others have said here, just use some common sense.

  6. korpijaakko 19/10/2012 at 19:54

    Thank you all! Good discussion here. It seems that all/most are very unanimous on labelling and elitism being unnecessary but UL having something to give. This is the common sense approach and I was mostly expecting it.

    But it’s a complicated topic in some ways. I feel that the important question is: What can you get from lighter kit and different technique to make it worth for you? As acquiring new skills and gear requires investments (time, money, etc.) there should be returns. But if one is already happy with the style he does things should he be told about other ways to do it? I think so. But should it be preached and his current style downgraded? Of course not. And this leads me to think if the majority of hikers is even intersted in adopting a different (UL) style of hiking. From my experience, most likely not. In their opinion a lighter pack would be nice but the kit they have works well enough.

    PS. I feel that I don’t really have a good idea about the philosophy of UL. Could someone enlighten me a little bit here?

    PPS. Mikkel: Rune Gjeldnes defined a successful expedition in nice way: 1. Getting to the destination. 2. Having fun on the way. 3. Getting back home. Importance in reversed order. No mention about the weight of the gear (on that time he had around 120kg of kit).

  7. Jake W. 19/10/2012 at 20:10

    Nice post. I agree with Helen almost word for word. I just take issue with anyone claiming that the discussion is over while other parties are still talking. For example, Soccer(football) is the most watched sport in the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s best. So if you told me it was best and that the discussion is over, it would just show arrogance. I’m involved in helping some Boy Scouts lighten their packs. I’ll just say they’re barely started, and far from finished. LW and UL principles are just becoming mainstream. As far as the the title of UL, who cares? It’s just an easy way to teach new hikers.

  8. journeymantraveller 19/10/2012 at 22:35

    Actually this was brewing long before Skurka’s post – I asked the question way back in December 2011 and a great discussion ensued. This is nothing new and frankly the “hike your own hike” mantra has been peddled for so long now it’s almost cliched. I still think keeping a keen eye on weight is a good thing but that’s because I don’t want to carry a heavy pack – that’s the reason for UL in the first place. Then it became a fanatical discipline of its own rather than a set of principles to apply to kit selection. As unsaid back in 2011, UL hasn’t become stagnant, not has it died. We’ve just become too complicated and our priorities have become skewed.

  9. korpijaakko 19/10/2012 at 23:27

    Jake W.: I think what I’m trying to say is that one should first think what he wants to do or archieve and then choose to act accordingly. There is nothing wrong in carrying a 8,4kg cast iron cauldron with you (Just read about a guy who does!) if it does the trick for you. A titanium pot probably wouldn’t do the same things even though it would be a lot lighter. Lightening up is not an universal solution, especially if there is no problem to be solved. (Though I think teaching UL principles to Boy Scouts is a very good idea. Should be teached to wilderness guides as well!)

    journeyman: I must have missed your question back then (was doing dog sled guiding in Lapland). As I said “The latest debate”. (Should’ve maybe been “the latest round of the debate”?) And before your question there was Ryan’s post and there must have been many others before that. I too think about weight when purchasing and choosing gear but that is because I feel that I can do more things that I want with lighter kit. But at the moment I feel that I don’t really need truely UL kit, not so speak SUL level stuff (wouldn’t work for my style). I don’t know if we have become too complicated. I think that we have always been.

  10. Ginger Davis Allman 21/10/2012 at 06:29

    We are most certainly not UL backpackers. But we do try to keep our gear simple and as lightweight as we can reasonably afford. A typical shoulder season pack weight for a three day trip would be around 25lb plus water. We’ve debated between ourselves about going lighter, lighter. But bottom line we want to have a good experience. We don’t go long distances. We backpack just far and long enough to get away from people and noise and into the woods. And we spend a lot of time around a fire or contemplating our navels. Therefore we pack Thermarest chairs and a good book. We’re out during warm spells in winter and spend long hours in the tent wrapped in our bags. We have a 3 person tent because it’s our home away from home. A 5 lb pack weight would make us miserable and what would we gain? Like I can’t carry 25 lb a few miles? Pshaw.

    There seems to be a pressure in the UL crowd that if you don’t do things the “right” way then you’re wrong. Period. And it’s really easy to get down on yourself and feel that you’re not doing it right. Recently we read a thread on BPL about hiking speeds and found that our pathetic 1.2 mph is appalling compared to the race-speed pros doing 4-5 mph. We wonder how they see anything on the trail at that speed? We stop a lot and take pictures. We turn over rocks. We stop and talk about things we see. We follow side trails. We’re sloooooow. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    So no, UL isn’t dead. And nor should it be. But it should be a tool. If I’d not read all the UL information I wouldn’t know about all the little tricks that do save weight. I would have been so bogged down with the traditional methods that getting out there would have been a chore and I wouldn’t have become such an avid backpacker. I owe my favorite hobby to the UL movement! And let’s not forget that new hikers are coming along everyday and they need to learn the principles, too. Because of UL principles the knowledge makes me the master of the gear rather than the gear mastering me.

  11. Maz 21/10/2012 at 08:20

    For me, Ginger, 25lb would usually be too much for a 3 day trip. But that’s the point – for me. Not for you. The problem with all the bandwagon junkies adopting UL when it was “fashionable” was that they suggested it was their way or the highway. You were UL or you were wrong. Back in 2010 when I started my blog, I took the view that you traveled at a level of comfort appropriate to you and nothing more, nothing less. If that was UL, good for you. If not, even better. If you are happy carrying 25lb then that’s all that mattered. Some said I was wrong to hold that view, that somehow I was not a UL backpacker if I thought that. I couldn’t be included int he elite club. That was the problem with the UL guys – their elitism. I still apply UL principles and I’m glad the fashionistas have gone off to find something else to bleat about so I can do so in peace. Enjoy your time in the outdoors, Ginger, and thanks for a great comment. UL is a tool, or as I said recently, a way of thinking. It cannot die – it was never alive. It just was. And always will be.

  12. Mark Roberts 24/10/2012 at 09:45

    A well-balanced response, Jaakko, and nice that you were able to do it without making thinly-veiled personal attacks on people (which has sadly also played a part in this whole debate – sometimes to the point that I think that’s the real issue reading between the lines).

    I still think there is a place for ultralight as a principle or methodology for change – if you want to change. Sometimes it takes going to an extreme to come back from it and find your comfort zone. Most of the people writing about the death of ultralight have already been ultralight adopters, so it’s as easy position to step back from.

    The two people I met last weekend carrying 27kg (60lb) packs, neither of which included a tent, but both of which included a great deal of tupperware pots and pewter shot cups, were carrying a lot more than I would consider smart or healthy. They were complaining that they were getting too old for this. If they were to lighten up they would probably feel more comfortable hiking for many years to come. That is not a matter of carrying necessary gear. There is such a thing as stupid heavy as well as stupid light. I suspect, here at least, there is a certain competitiveness and pride in the idea of carrying a heavy pack – people often smile when they tell you how heavy their packs are.

    I agree that the term “ultralight” is perhaps not the best. Jorgen’s “smarter backpacking” and his other book which addresses the matter specifically for those over 50, is a better way of framing the concept.

    Certainly ultralighters shouldn’t consider themselves “better” than others. Elitism goes both ways though: we shouldn’t consider ultralighters necessarily less prepared than others. We should all be able to choose for ourselves what we carry, and most importantly make it appropriate for the conditions.

    These days I worry about shaving off the ounces far less, but then I’m already in a good position to not to have to worry about it as most of my gear is lighter than average. If you’ve already lightened up, it’s easy to add in a few hudred grams or a kilogram here or there because the point from which you are starting is already low.

    For where I live, I don’t want to skimp on items that will keep me warm, dryer, and safe, and I think that’s an issue too. In warm summer climates of the States, it was easy to be very light indeed. In Lapland, there are a lot of “just in case” considerations to make, and I was happy to be carrying 10kg on my recent short trip. It was comfortable. It was okay. It was light enough.

  13. korpijaakko 24/10/2012 at 17:08

    Andrew Skurka clarified his views on labelling packweight on his recent post. A good read with few very good points like the orientation of one’s backpacking and the fact that “lightweight” versus “heavy” is a actually false choice. Go check it out:

    Thanks for commenting! To me 25lb (including food and fuel) sounds like a decent load for a weekend trip. It’s actually pretty light and at least won’t wear you down if you’re not chasing high miles. And if the kit makes sense to your hiking orientation and conditions: Great! You’ve succeeded!

    What is kinda pitty is that it seems that many people who do not go UL/SUL/XUL seem to have a need to “defend” their (heavier) gear choices. I don’t mean that there would be someone questioning them but for some reason it has become a build-in mechanism on “the lighter side” even though there really shouldn’t be any need for that. And again, I’m as guilty as anyone…

    A thoughtful comment, thanks. I don’t know if it’s the fashionistas to blame or something else but I feel that something is/was wrong in the “UL movement”. I don’t really know what but there was something bugging me…

    Thanks for the lengthy and very good comment, Mark! I appreciate it.

    You have few very good points in your post. One is the obvious thing that lightening up can help a lot of people and it’s just fair to make that option also available but it can be a fine line between sharing information in friendly way and preaching in a bad way. It’s hard to tell how people will react…

    I also like Jörgen’s term “smarter backpacking”. It’s a very good term in my opinion and shouldn’t necessarily involve lightening the load at all but making it better suited for ones needs. Ray Jardine called his style the Ray Way and suggested it was “Beyond Backpacking”. Not a bad choice either and well suited for what it was meant for (thru hiking long US trails). Skurka named his book the “Ultima Hiker’s Gear Guide”. Again no mention about going UL, but a pretty illustrative name for his style of backpacking.

    About people going light already writing about the death of UL/etc: Isn’t it just how it should be? I mean it would be pretty weird if people with very heavy traditional basecamping style approach on hiking would go around shouting that UL/etc is dead? 😉

  14. Aleksi Kallio 24/10/2012 at 21:10

    To me this seems like a social question, most of all.

    In the early days of leisure hiking equipment was heavy. There was only one way, the heavy way, if you wanted to have all necessary gear with you. And when people are forced to deal with unpleasantness, they develop some sort of culture. At least in Finland there used to be strong culture for hauling heavy loads. Big backpack was an achievement. If you had a smaller one, you had to have some excuse for it.

    Materials, equipment and trail food improved. There was no real need to go heavy any more. But of course the culture did not go away overnight. Now those who realized that you didn’t need to carry 30 kg loads any more were faced with the established culture that still favored heavy hauling. Of course what happens next is the development of counter-culture. UL people were logically right, but they also needed an environment where they can feel like being right. And to balance the irrational aspects of the heavy school, the ultra light school developed equally powerful irrationality of their own.

    Today things are balancing out. There’s all sorts of good and affordable gear available out there. Maybe the time of big schools is over and we are heading towards “post modern time of hiking”. Many small marginal groups will emerge and people realize that trying to force your own way of thinking to others is getting more and more silly. For example, people drooling after retro gear are a good example of the sort of groups that we might have many more in future.

    I agree that rationally speaking this is a non-issue. You take the gear that is best fit to your hike. “Best” is always defined by many different criteria, meaning that we are looking for the best compromise. It would be surprising that the best compromise is found from the extreme of one particular aspect, weight. Or to that matter, any other extreme.

    However considering the discussion as pointless misses the real beef. We are humans and we have our social structures. It takes time and effort to change them, and that’s exactly the sort of work that is being done right now. After some thousands of forum messages and blog posts repeating the same ideas over and over, maybe we will end up with a bit more balanced idea of hiking gear and the world will be a better place.

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  16. tonyhobbsflight 27/10/2012 at 17:58

    I’ve gone UL 😉 downloaded Kindle to.phone and bought same book on kindle.for phone as one I’m reading. So saved 350g on book… Not sure I can do it for all my books though lol.
    The only thing I can say is it doesn’t bother me what people call it. I’m lightish but not SUL lol but having a bit of MLD kit helps 😉
    I’ll pack for comfort first. Weight second. Price third 😉 something like that 🙂

  17. madde 29/10/2012 at 09:46

    To me it sounds like UL or weight optimisation in general is a way to extend hiking hobby to everyday life just like some people spend their dark winter evenings by reading maps and planning future hikes. I find it interesting and fun to read and learn about new (and lighter) gear, compare features and consider if they would suit my purposes. Lately I have been able to do maybe a 1 week long hike/paddle (weight not an issue) and 5-8 weekend hikes/paddles a year. Actively following news on new gear, blogs etc. I can extend the hobby to my regular Monday morning just before leaving for work and spend a lot more time with my hobby. What do you think?

    (when renewing gear weight is an important attribute in making purchase decision, but I carry fresh veggies and wine for weekend trips)

  18. korpijaakko 29/10/2012 at 21:32

    Nice to see that the discussion is still going on. I’m not sure if it’s necessary but it’s nice anyway.

    Aleksi: “post modern time of hiking”. I like that and it sounds about right, it’s not anymore about one way, or two ways but several ways.

    tony: I beliebe most people pack function first taking into account the compromise usuallyforced buy money. Weight is just part of the function: a 0,001kg sledge hammer is a crappy sledgehammer. 😉

    madde: What you point out is also true. Gear can turn into hobby of it’s own (or an extension to the hobby itself) but I’m not sure if this is a good thing. With the hours I spend online mulling on gear I could easily do a little stealth camp overnighter to the backyard enjoying the starts, fresh air and sun rise in the morning. Instead, I often sit here with the keyboard… Not necessarily good.

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  20. LightDan 16/01/2016 at 01:26

    I’ll leave a new response to an old post.
    I think most debate between lightweight hikers and those who prefer more traditional gear is missing the target.
    Both of the sides in this debate have usually already found their sweet spot regarding packweight.
    For some hikers under the correct circumstances a packweight of 60 pounds or 10 pounds can be equally “correct”, or rather give the best way to fulfill their respective plans.
    The objective for more minimalist hikers should be how we can reach the vast majority of people who actually don’t know that you can have a packweight lower than 50 pound for a weekend trip.
    The labelling as LW/UL/SUL/XUL is more or less meaningless, unless for personal goal and should, IMO be of very marginal significanse in trying to give people a little less strain on the trails.
    The futility of these labels is easily seen in a drop of let’s say four pounds in your BPW. For a hiker that started with 18 pound, and ende up at 14, they are still LW. For somebody with sub 7 pounds, and going down to sub 3, they have actually crossed two of these arbitrary drawn lines.

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