Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Superlight, Ultralight, Super-Ultralight and Very, Very Light Indeed

I confess. I am a staunch abuser of The Scales. I am a gram-counting fruitcake. I cannot help it. I was turned to the almost religious fidelity by a forum which will remain nameless. In the UK, this approach is treated with a modicum of scepticism by some and the debate rages as to how light is too light. Trail has published articles on it - I recall a fabulous article by someone I admire greatly, Simon Ingram, with a snap of him putting an enormous Ajungilak inflatable mattress into a Vaude Hogan. He rightly makes the point that is incontrovertible: we all travel at a level of comfort appropriate to ourselves so long, I would add, as we can deal with any eventuality on a hill. We must be comfortable and we must be safe. I would venture to suggest that you pack as if Mountain Rescue does not exist. indeed, I often wonder what view Mountain Rescue take of the ultralight debate given the less we take into the hills, potentially, the more dangerous a position we are in should it go wrong.

The catalyst for my post is a recent post in PTC’s blog regarding shoes vs boots and I thought it was the right time for me to comment myself on the Ultra-SuperUltra-NanoUltra debate. In short, let me say this - his point is a good one. Some folk simply have an unreasonable conservatism which makes them opposed to change for no discernible reason. The advent of new fabrics, for example, has meant that a lighter pack requires a less complicated frame (or no frame) and back system than would have been the case years ago, yet many still heralded the arrival of the Osprey Exos as a messianic event. Perhaps at the advertised 856g, it might have been such an event given Osprey’s ability to produce packs that contour a back rather like a Forumla 1 car cornering, but to then add another 150g to that simply placed it in the ranks of the ordinary. I have not used it, but what was wrong, then, with the Talon? I address rucksacks in a separate post but it bears some general comments here - as materials and other kit diminishes in weight, a less rigid pack is required for a snug and comfortable fit. A sub-8kg overall pack weight does not, in my view, require a framed pack which immediate reduces the weight of the pack itself.

Further, lighter materials mean that shelters get lighter every season - the Laser Competition is not in any way, in terms of weight, spectacular anymore and a sub-800g dual-skin tent is going to appear soon. Add to that the movement towards tarp camping in the summer - I know the author of blogpackinglight and Martin Rye (Summit and Valley) are both keen on the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid - and there you have an even lighter shelter weight. Personally, I am sceptical about tarp camping but, in the summer, would very much want to try it. I do not use trekking poles, so I would need a tarp with some sort of aluminum pole as well. Gossamer Gear do something I would like to try. The Scarp 1 is very interesting. A genuine 4 season tent, as billed, that sits rather like an Akto but with more space at the upward sides and with the option of an additional stronger, weather-appropriate poleset, it weighs only 1275g - a significant disparity with the Akto.

Sleeping bags are getting lighter and warmer and packing smaller too. I would much rather have a 0C 3-season bag and supplement it with down clothing to suit the temperatures concerned. For example, I have a Western Mountaineering Summerlite at 525g (manufacturer’s listed weight), a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover and Divide and Conker meriono leggings. All three together weigh 930g, which is the weight of a lightweight, lower-rated bag but which does not give you as much flexibility. I am considering, for example, using the Nano Puff instead of a fleece and not taking another mid-layer and taking a second base layer instead.

Other kit is getting lighter too and it is here than the derision at those who subscribe to the ‘chopping your toothbrush in half’ principles is ill-advised. Saving the 2g you’d save from chopping off the end of your toothbrush is pointless per se, but it’s about attitude. Taking the covers off your maps, as Trail recently advised for the same reason, is an overall approach rather than effect because of the cumulative effect of that attitiude. Integral Designs eVent shortie gaiters, coupled with Sea to Summit ultralight drybags, alongside an MSR Titan kettle for boiling water and drinking tea from, using re-hydrated meals and having clothing fitting more than one purpose all, cumulatively, end up reducing your pack weight considerably whereas, alone, they achieve very little. A reduction in pack weight may mean very little to some but to most, it means an easier, more comfortable day in the hills.

I do not, at this stage, subscribe to the Superultralight theories espoused by Ryan Jordan and some of the people running BPL in the US (i.e. a sub-2.25kg base pack weight). I can see the logic in the principles but, as Ryan himself admits, pushing himself and being out of his comfort zone is what challenges him: "Our goal is simply survival, using the lightest pack to achieve the greatest physical performance (maximum miles per day traveled and longest distance without re-supply and without dying). Physical comfort and psychological well being are not factors we consider. We are so habitually prone to suffering when we backpack, that we think it's the norm - hardly worth mentioning." To some, that sort of challenge is simply not enjoyable. To others (and I might actually be one of them) it has the potential to be. That said, his
introduction to Backpacking Light is seminal and worth a read although you may need to join to get the full article but as Carol Crooker, one of his colleagues summarises in her article “Can A Sane Person Truly Enjoy SuperUltralight Backpacking?”: “Let me be the first to say that I am happy that Ryan and Alan have the requirement of "without dying," when they throw physical comfort out the window. What I'm driven to understand is, in what conditions, if any, can SuperUltralight backpacking - pack base weight under 5 pounds - be enjoyed by the sane among us?” Her article on that point and the ensuing debate in the forum is worth a look but, in short, a lot of it has to do with weather and conditions - you can get away with more in the summer on a trail where the weather is less likely to do something unexpected than in the hills approaching Autumn or in Spring.

I think PTC’s point is that people need to try new things to advance and experience. It’s the nature of the human race to advance yet so many of us are opposed to change, probably because it’s also human nature to be afraid of the unknown - it’s a basic survival instinct. I am not a fan of using trail running shoes in the hills as I simply don’t think I have the skills yet to use them - but I am not far off and would use them in the summer in some situations. You cannot rule anything out - you need to be open to new possibilities - which is why I am often a little confused by people who brag about having used a particular piece of kit for 30 years. It may work for you, but perhaps something else will work better? Isn’t it worth a shot at least? And how often have you checked your rucksack and asked whether kit you've taken is really necessary?

7 comments:

  1. "I often wonder what view Mountain Rescue take of the ultralight debate given the less we take into the hills, potentially, the more dangerous a position we are in should it go wrong." - I reckon they would have some views. Teams in the Lakes had maned check points last summer asking what kit folks have. I would have told them they were not looking in my pack. Reason why is not the kit but my objection to the emphasis kit makes us safe. The message is kit can be cheep and do the trick. I as a kid had PVC waterproofs, airware boots and wore jeans in the hills. I had many a fine walk as a kid dressed in that up on Kinder in the mist. Why I was fine was the skill on navigation my dad had. His hill craft came form the Army. The kit was what we could afford. I always had a warm wooly jumper and survival bag in the rucksack. The emphasis should be on skill and fitness. Not light kit is unsafe. Fell runners blaze up the hills in not a lot of kit. Mountain rescue teams would be better offering lessons on navigation and covering difficult terrain than checking kit. And out of that contact then talk about kit selection. Hills should be accessible to folks of all ability and not kit carried.

    On the tarps. I hate them in the UK. I did a long bit on why I don't use them. Thing is some people think I am totally against them . Not true as I have said in some places like abroad I would use one. Or even a summer night. The Duomid is between a tarp and tent for me. It is a great bit of kit. Not as stable in the wind as some folks are making out, A very well know backpacker the other day emailed me and as part of the discussion they said that their observations on DuoMids in use that they were not that stable in the wind. Good but not bomb proof like a Scarp 1 which I have and rate highly with the new flysheet.

    New skills are there to try. I went to trail shoes, and am giving single skin shelters a go. I am up for trying new stoves and have tried my own esbit home built one in the past. All good fun. Have fun trying new stuff on the hills. Saying that mastering navigation, river crossings, off path walking and the like is good to. On what is necessary we could be all night. Hamish Brown did not take any sleeping pad. We are soft by comparison. great and thought provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Martin, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with your thoughts in respect of kit. I think we place too much emphasis on kit instead of skills - that's one of the reasons I am getting QMD's in so I can take the Mountain Leader training course at some point - not only do I want to be properly skilled both in the UK and hillwalking abroad but I rather like the idea of leading and teaching others. I also thought about taking another hillwalking course during the time I build up QMD's to ensure I am consolidating and embedding the right skills. There are some good companies in Snowdonia and the Lakes that caught my eye.

    As far as tarps go - I'm not against them either, per se, and I'll only be able (like you) to have an opinion once I've tried them. In the end it's all about being comfortable and safe. Waking up to the sunrise over Llyn yr Adar in the Moelwyns is why I do it, but I'd rather not freeze my butt off in the process...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Maz, a (belated) welcome to the blogosphere. I've just caught up with your blog after coming across your musings on the Vaude Power Lizard posted on Robin's site. It was rather timely as I was just weighing up the Vaude v Laser Comp issue myself but after seeing both at the backpackers exhibition I plumped for the Comp which recently had it's first outing by Llyn Edno, not too far from your VPL's first camp in the Moelwyn's.

    I recall my first wild camp some years ago replete with a 2kg pack and similarly weighted tent, sleeping bag. Lugging it all through the unforgiving Rhinogs was bloody hard work but I didn't know any different and presumed that was just how it had to be - the pain to be endured in order to derive the benefit. A year or two later and the internet, and in particular the rise of blogging phenomenon, offered ready access to information and more importantly other's experience and was instrumental in opening my eyes to the breadth and depth of kit out there, it's suitability in differing scenario's and the rise of a more lightweight and open-minded philosophy. Of course with anything there are some who will take it to the extreme, the gear junkie, as well as the traditionalists - a mix which makes life so much richer! Who'se to say who is right - we all are in our own way!

    I, like others, have found that I have a natural level of comfort/convenience that I'd likely not forgo just for the sake of weight. Personal preference and even simple shape/fit are other factors that mean one persons ideal is not everyone's. And a good job too otherwise we'd al be traipsing the hills in identikit gear - though if we did the higher volumes would at least keep the price of the kit down!!

    Looking foward to reading more of your musings and your continued journey.
    Nigel

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for the post, Nigel. I agree completely - take a look at the article I have just finished called "UL and SUL" which I hope will help newcomers like you and I once were to realise what is out there for them. Whilst they were good learning experiences, I wouldn't wish some of my harder walks on anyone...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Nice post this Maz (slowly working my way through your, already impressive quantity of, posts. It was an article by Andrew Terril in TGO that first got me looking seriously at simplfying my kit (I say simplify rather than lighten deliberataly because within limits thats important to me). Andrew described something of the joy of moving through a landscape unimpeded by the trappings of the modern backpacker that struck a chord with me. He said somthing like, "the number is irrelevant as long as the load doesn't get in the way". As a kid getting around with 20kg was part of the challenge. Now I want to be out without noticing my gear (in as far as that is possible). There's no right and wrong here, as has already been said we all have to find our own balance between weight and functionality and the tipping point depends on so many things. Terrain, physiology, mentality, expectations all play a role. I've done a lot of tarping, overseas and in the UK, and for short duration summer trips with high level camps it's fantastic. Give me a very wet forcast, set the timing at early spring, autumn or winter, or put me in an (abnormaly dense)cloud of biting beasties and I'd choose a tent every time. My choice would be more about comfort than safety though. I can get by and keep dry in a tarp but the discomfort starts to interefere with the fun. Unless I was somewhere where aborting would involve more than a days walk I'd say my safety was more dependent on my ability to make the right decision than on what I pack. The knowledge of when not to venture out or when to turn around is the most important thing any backpacker can pack.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I hope reasonably good quality posts as well as impressive quantity! I think that backpacking necessarily involves a degree of hindrance and it is balancing that hindrance against the joy of moving more freely than you would otherwise. I agree that there is "no right or wrong" and I think I've been at pains to point out what really is a truism. We're all different and thus our views on lightweight backpacking will be different. For me, at the end of the day, it's all about the feeling I get from stuffing my pack full of my kit and going somewhere new. It is not always about hills or trails - sometimes, I am enthralled just as much by seeing cities in countries I have never been to, as well as countryside. Backpacking to me is independent travel as well as hillwalking and thru-hiking - but lightweight principles apply to both. In the end, for both of us, it seems it's more about fun than pushing ourselves to a limit we may never need to test.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Maz, a (belated) welcome to the blogosphere. I've just caught up with your blog after coming across your musings on the Vaude Power Lizard posted on Robin's site. It was rather timely as I was just weighing up the Vaude v Laser Comp issue myself but after seeing both at the backpackers exhibition I plumped for the Comp which recently had it's first outing by Llyn Edno, not too far from your VPL's first camp in the Moelwyn's.

    I recall my first wild camp some years ago replete with a 2kg pack and similarly weighted tent, sleeping bag. Lugging it all through the unforgiving Rhinogs was bloody hard work but I didn't know any different and presumed that was just how it had to be - the pain to be endured in order to derive the benefit. A year or two later and the internet, and in particular the rise of blogging phenomenon, offered ready access to information and more importantly other's experience and was instrumental in opening my eyes to the breadth and depth of kit out there, it's suitability in differing scenario's and the rise of a more lightweight and open-minded philosophy. Of course with anything there are some who will take it to the extreme, the gear junkie, as well as the traditionalists - a mix which makes life so much richer! Who'se to say who is right - we all are in our own way!

    I, like others, have found that I have a natural level of comfort/convenience that I'd likely not forgo just for the sake of weight. Personal preference and even simple shape/fit are other factors that mean one persons ideal is not everyone's. And a good job too otherwise we'd al be traipsing the hills in identikit gear - though if we did the higher volumes would at least keep the price of the kit down!!

    Looking foward to reading more of your musings and your continued journey.
    Nigel

    ReplyDelete