Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: backpacking

Ultralight and whatever

I don’t usually feature quest posts in my blog as the focus is on “my personal views on all walks of outdoor life”. But occasionally you come up with something so great that you want to share it. This is one of those cases. This a “ghost post” by a man who I greatly respect. A man with insight, passion and close connection to nature but who does not blog. There are many non-bloging outdoor enthusiasts out there (and more often than not they are literally out there) and it’s great to give them a venue to share their views with the world. This time the views are especially about UL backpacking and going light in a different way. Enjoy!

– Jaakko Heikka

(The photos in the post are added by Jaakko Heikka. All text by Huck.)

Ultralight and whatever

A few weeks ago I visited the ‘‘Neandertal museum’’ near Düsseldorf in Germany. The museum tried to explain the life of our ancestors and also a bit how things developed from there. Most amazing was that:

1. After 16 years of learning (i.e. when reaching fertility age) people knew what they needed to know to ‘‘run’’ a family.
2. People worked about 4-5 hours per day. (This includes preserving food for the winter!)
3. People also got old, though life expectancy was relatively low due to bad work-safety.

In the late Stone Age lived the famous ‘‘Ötzi’’, who’s lifestyle made him spend a lot of time in the Alps. His gear list was relatively short (check it out: http://www.iceman.it/en/clothing-equipment) and covered all his needs, including getting food and killing enemies. The gear was certainly suitable for his needs.

Most UL hikers start off with the realization of carrying too much. They reduce, re-equip and rethink ‘‘their’’ system.

But how does the evolution go?

Living in Finland, I get to see a lot of (Swedish!) Trangias. When people go hiking with their Savotta framed packs, they always have to take the good old trusted Trangia. Eventually somebody starts to rethink and builds a lighter version of it and in the end it’s a Jetboil or catstove or whatever.

So is evolution. But what was before the Trangia?

Ask Ötzi & co; Fire! As simple as that.

So my approach to ultralight hiking starts the other way round.

Well; do not go naked, but do go ‘‘stupid light’’.

In the Finnish survival guild’s ‘‘outdoor safety’’ course I was allowed to take:

– Clothing: long trousers, T-shirt, woolen jumper, forest jacket, rain jacket, shoes, 2x socks, long underwear, sun hat, head net, woolen hat, work gloves
– Gear & food: a plastic bag (sturdy, 40L), 3m paracord, 1m webbing strap, 1x rescue blanket, 1x film canister of salt, 7x glucose pastille, flint& striker, Trangia (!) mess tin, 5m fishing line, 2 hooks, 3 weights, 1m wire, 1 compass & 1 map for three people, 1 mora knife for three people, pen& paper, toothbrush (no toothpaste!), 0,5L ziplock bag, 1st aid bandage, 1,5L water bottle, whistle
– No: phone, watch, flashlight, spare cloth, sleeping bag, tarp, tent, mattress, backpack, stove, tenkara fishing rod, spoon, fuel, food…

In seven days we hiked over 85km and only ate some fish (not every day), some berries (which are energy-input-output-stupid) and 2 mushrooms.

In one night the temperatures went below freezing. The rescue blanket we always used as a roof. We build a shelter for three people (spooning) out of two blankets.

I never wore my long underwear, because I wouldn’t take it anyway when hiking in early September in Finland.

After 2 days in the hike I had a frame for my bag, made of natural string and branches. For tea I had a piece of chaga mushroom and for a bog crossing we build some kind of snowshoes.

Ok. This was a survival trip focused on moving. The comfort level was very low but it got me thinking. I do not know how heavy our gear was. But for seven days it was surely light. We were lacking food and comfort when sleeping. But we got to sleep. We slept mostly during the night but also during the day.

After this trip, I looked at upgrading the main things that made this trip ‘‘hard’’.

Evolution:

– a slightly more comfy backpack,  >40L, which had to be light, sturdy and simple
(I chose the Fährmann ‘‘balance’’ and often use the Golite Breeze).
– toothpaste, soap
– better 1st aid kit
– AA-based headlamp
– some cheap cordage
– summer sleeping bag or quilt when hiking alone in summer. Otherwise spooning.
– tarp (rayway cut or 3x3m ‘‘Erätoveri’)’
– short isolation mattress
– when hiking alone: own knife, compass, map
– some food when longer than a few days (chaga tea is great)
– maybe a cup
– maybe poncho instead of rain jacket or rain trousers/chaps in addition to the rain jacket
– maybe a spoon
– Phone?
– Binoculars?
– A book?

The above list would allow almost anyone to go very simple and light while being pretty comfy, specially when hiking in a small group.

Thinking backwards, this is still far away from the hiking skills of our ancestors. With my over 30 years of age, I am still lacking over 14 years of education to ‘‘run’’ a family in the environment that I was born in (near Düsseldorf, Germany).  Replacing gear with knowledge is a big key and taking your time can be another. If you know where to find good natural shelters, you do not need to carry one. If you know about natural foods and medicines, you can carry less food. If you know how to make all the gear that you need from natural materials (this might require the skills of a group), you can once again carry a lot less.

The approach from starting ‘‘stupid light’’ and then slowly going heavier until you reach an acceptable level of comfort is very appealing to me, since I know that I went with less once before and I was okay.

Before finishing this little text, I would just like to explain my motivation of going light. It is not any more the possible distances.

I am motivated by the possibility to go silent. Tiptoeing through thick bush with a light backpack is already exhausting enough. I also like my gear to be in natural colors (camo), a bit more robust and cheap. In practice that means that I do a lot of my own gear and use some surplus-army stuff (which is often surprisingly light).

Best regards,
Huck

PS. Human brain: about 1,5kg (80% water)

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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.