UL/SUL

Ultralight and Super-Ultralight

I posted on this topic in June 2010, as a debutant correspondent, following a post from another blog I follow. It seemed to me, shortly thereafter, that a permanent page introducing the principles of ultralight and superultralight backpacking and hillwalking would be of benefit to beginner hillwalkers happening upon my journal. Please, however, bear in mind that these are my observations only and not professional advice.

It seems to me that we all travel at a level of comfort appropriate to ourselves so long as we can deal with any eventuality on a hill or on a low-level trail. Put another way, we must be comfortable and we must be safe. I would venture to suggest that you may want to pack, especially when still assessing your skills and experience, almost as if Mountain Rescue did 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, so I would always invite MR members to comment, constructively, on my journal.



Introduction to UL Principles

Ryan Jordan, perhaps one of the most famous advocates of the UL principles, puts it eloquently (and humorously) in his article introducing the topic “Backpacking Light 101”:

“Ultralight backpacking, contrary to proclamations by Those That Carry Heavy Packs, is not practiced by that crazy fringe segment of wilderness society that derives their calories from obscure edible roots and their shelter from two twigs and a waterproof handkerchief. Well, at least, it’s not practiced only by that crazy fringe. Rather, it’s a way of backcountry travel that has permeated virtually every outdoor sport: day hiking, trail running, horse packing, packrafting, backcountry hunting and fishing, mountaineering, mountain biking, and adventure racing. The Ultralight Ethic no longer stands in the shadow of conventional backcountry theology that proclaims “more is better”. An increasing number of people, including elite Alaskan alpinists, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, parents with children, and even aging baby boomers are entering the wilderness with an astounding level of self-awareness rooted in a simple ethic: Less is better. Lighter is better.”

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. I have addressed rucksacks in separate posts and a search under the ‘GEAR’ label will prove fruitful, but I’d say this: as materials and other kit diminish in weight, a less rigid pack is required for a supportive and comfortable fit. A sub-8kg overall pack weight does not, in my view, necessarily require a framed pack which immediate reduces the weight of the pack itself. Thus we begin to re-evaluate our attitudes. A reduction in base pack weight may mean very little to some but to most, it means an easier, more comfortable day in the hills.



Implementing Change

So, we need to start understanding how much our kit actually weighs. As soon as you start weighing, accurately (i.e. digitally), your kit, you will being to understand what proportion of your pack weight is potentially, and safely, discardable. It is a balancing exercise between the luxury of having what you would like and being able to go further, see more and climb higher.

Also, you must plan according to the terrain you are going to be travelling on, the hills you will be climbing and the weather you will most likely be experiencing. With the Met Office Mountain Forecasts and the Mountain Weather Information Service, you can get a very good idea of the likely weather to come for a trip you are planning and you can adjust your kit the day before. We often drive to our hill walks taking almost all our kit so we can adjust what we pack right up until the last second.

As Ryan continues:

“Ultralight backpacking requires that you rethink your equipment list. Most backpackers think they need more than they really do. Example #1: “I need a stove”. Reality: you may only need a cup of hot water for a morning drink and evening bowl of soup. Result: a one-ounce titanium alcohol stove and an aluminum foil windscreen can save a half pound or more on a canister or white gas stove kit. Example #2: “I need a tent”. Reality: you may only need an overhead shelter for the remote possibility of a brief rain shower on a summer hike in the desert. Result: an eight ounce silnylon tarp serves this function as well as even the very lightest double-wall tents on the market, and saves you pounds to boot.”

Clearly, in the UK we are not blessed with very many deserts, but the principle is important. You need to ask yourself what you actually need, and also, what you can take which would serve dual purpose. Ryan separates these into two principles but I would respectfully suggest they are inextricably intertwined. A good example is the use of an insulation layer for wearing when resting, taking breaks or at camp, but which you can also wear in your sleeping bag when it gets much colder. Another might be drinking from your pot directly rather than having a separate mug.

Further, lighter materials mean that shelters (among other things) get lighter every season - as of 2010, the Laser Competition is not in any way, in terms of weight, spectacular anymore and a sub-800g dual-skin tent will inevitably appear soon (if it has not already). Add to that the movement towards tarp camping in the summer (part of both UL and SUL principles) and there you have an even lighter shelter weight for appropriate conditions.

Sleeping bags are getting lighter, warmer and packing smaller too. I would much rather have a 0C-rated, 3-season, bag and supplement it with down/primaloft clothing to suit the temperatures concerned. For example, I currently have a Western Mountaineering Summerlite at 525g (manufacturer’s listed weight - mine weighs 575g without stuffsack), a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover and Divide and Conker merino leggings. All three together weigh 960g, which is the weight of a lightweight, warmer-rated bag but which does not give you as much flexibility. In really cold conditions, you could add down/primaloft trousers.



Eating and Drinking Differently

Cooking is also another issue. Meths stoves can be obscenely light. The Evernew DX system is a pot stand, meths burner and heat exchanger all in a neat 84g package that also acts as a wood burner. It has been expertly and comprehensively reviewed at the Backpackinglight.co.uk website by Bob and Rose - there is even a video and a search on YouTube will also yield two or three good videos. I find it needs a windshield but I make that out of cooking foil, doubled over, and a paper clip and it weighs 5g and works perfectly. Meths is also quite light - 200ml in a cheap, plastic bottle is c.180g. All of that is much lighter than the equivalent gas stove set-up. It all fits neatly into the MSR Titan Kettle (114g) which can be used as a mug and pot.

Re-hydrated food is much better than it used to be too. Both Real Turmat and Be Well make great food, the latter is cheaper but still tasty, which weigh between 130g and 180g for a main meal and which provide 500-800kcal. It requires only 500ml of water and some time to re-hydrate this food so, immediately, food weight is diminished considerably as you only need boil water. They also make lunches, but I find the extra meths, time and effort in the middle of a hillwalk is not worth the weight saving for a sandwich, some trail bars and a jaffa cake or three.

Water filtration has changed enormously since the days of my 450g Katadyn Hiker filter - Drink-Safe systems have revolutionised, in my humble opinion, the market. The in-line filter for a platypus, the Travel Tap bottle or, as has been recently reviewed by terrybnd’s blog, a filter straw at 40g! Add to that last a 330 or 500ml Evian bottle at about 5-10g and you have instant, superultralight clean water. Boiling water and purification tablets will eradicate most cooking water issues as the straw would be impractical for getting cooking water. The Drink-Safe website is worth browsing.



Expense

I do not suggest for a moment that everyone has the ability to simply dispense with a vast amount of purchased equipment and go and buy newer, often more expensive, equipment. As I have noted, the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, available for $180 in the US (£120 at current exchange rates) costs £170 in the UK from the only supplier importing it. It might be slightly cheaper to import it from the US yourself, but would obviously take longer. That said, £170 or £120 for a 45 litre rucksack compared with £110-120 for a 60-70 litre Osprey Aether, which is a class act but for other purposes (I use it by way of example), and one can see that the cost of ultralightweight kit becomes prohibitive for some, particularly if they already have perfectly serviceable equipment. However, Ebay is a great option for getting rid of older kit and liquidating assets - final sale prices are generally good after an auction as demand is often reasonable. The more comprehensive the description and better the photos, I have found, the more interest in your listing.



Super Ultralight

The debate does not end with Ultralight, so we then move on to even more radical principles which bear some cogitation. As Ryan Jordan puts it:

“The ability to carry a pack that is not just "light" (12-20 pounds base weight, 5.5-9kg), or ultralight (6-11 pounds, 2.6-5kg), but ridiculously light (< 5 pounds, 2.25kg), and still maintain a level of comfort and safety suitable for hiking in the high mountain ranges of the lower 48 U.S., requires a bit of innovation, some compromise in durability, and, most importantly, an advanced set of backcountry skills that allows you to remain warm and dry in inclement weather with a kit of gear that offers little margin for safety.” [metric measurements added]

I should say that I do not, at the moment, subscribe completely to the Superultralight doctrine espoused by Ryan and some of the people running BPL in the US. I can appreciate 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. Pushing yourself has its place and some people enjoy the challenge but safety is critical and I would respectfully suggest something with which I imagine Ryan Jordan would concur - only with experience and time in the hills can you really decide how much you want to, and are able to, push yourself.

As Carol Crooker, one of his BPL 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 low-level trail where the weather is less likely to do something unexpected than in the hills approaching Autumn or in Spring.



2.25kg BPW

So, what do they mean by Superultralight and how is a 2.25kg base pack weight even possible when the ‘big three’ (shelter, sleeping bag and rucksack) usually take up that weight alone?

At base weights as low as 2.25kg, every single item has to be completely functional, fulfill a role as part of a system, and be dual use. There is inevitably going to be a sacrifice in comfort which means it will not be suitable for some, but the prospect of carrying a pack weighing 3.5kg in total, with food and water, will be hugely appealing to others. In reality, it simply requires us to challenge conventions and pre-conceptions but always with personal safety and a critical assessment of our own experience in mind.

Shelters are often, if tarp camping is feasible, used also as a rain poncho thus obviating the need for a rain jacket. Light showers are countered with a lightweight windshirt like the Montane Lite Speed or Featherlite Smock. Add an ultralightweight groundsheet made from silnylon or cuben fibre (more on that material in a post), a breathable, waterproof-base ultralight bivy (such as those offered by Mountain Laurel Designs) and the whole system could easily be less than 500g.

As tarp-camping is more likely to be done by most people in the summer months at lower altitudes, it may well be that shorts are taken rather than hillwalking trousers and a wicking t-shirt rather than long sleeve base layer. A lightweight, DWR insulating layer will be enough at night when camped and, later, inside your 3-season, 550-600g bag improving the rating of what will already be a 0C bag (in the summer, an even lighter bag may be possible, although most of us do not have the disposable income for 3 bags).



The ultralight kitchen relies on extremely lightweight cooking - boiling water to re-hydrate meals through the use of alcohol or esbit tabs using an ultralight stove system such as a MYOG Mini-Pepsi stove with wire pot-stand (10g).

Then, it is case of wielding a sharp axe and chopping away every last vestige of luxury in favour of what is absolutely necessary. It is a minimalist approach which promotes speed and distance above all else (but never, as I have been at pains to point out, at the cost of safety).



Backpacking Light US

BPL has all sorts of gear lists for UL and SUL and I urge at least a look. It requires a subscription but, if only for a year, there are articles galore and the material can be incredibly interesting. As there are people paying for the service, it would be wrong of me to reproduce material from that site and I have sought their kind permission to quote in the way that I have. For those simply planning a trip to the US for some trail-walking or hillwalking, I would commend it to you, and for those wanting a more comprehensive resume of the SUL principles and forums to match, BPL is essential reading.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, given the fuss about ultralight safety on Peewiglet's blog, I'm amazed no one has commented on your article.

    To me, it seems that the two essentials, gear-wise, for British conditions, are the best waterproof suit you can afford and footwear with a decent grip. I have tried barefoot in the Highlands and fell over on the first patch of mud. More positively, I was able to sleep in the rain, while waiting for walkers to check-in, with just a good set of waterproofs and some comfortable heather for a bed. Any UL gear list for Britain should probably be founded on getting multiple uses from an eVent suit which doesn't flap in the wind. Or Paramo, if that is your bent.

    The other two essentials are enough fitness to get yourself back from wherever you encounter difficulty and a clear mind for thinking your way through any novel situations.

    Francis Tapon's rant about quoted base weights is well worth reading.

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  2. I agree with all of that - you'll see two kit lists for me - a "dry" one and a "wet" one. A lot can be achieved by checking the weather and, if you can, taking all your kit and seeing what the weather is immediately before you leave. Clearly, wet weather gear weighs more than dry weather gear but UL and SUL principles do not displace personal safety. Fitness is also a key issue - it impacts on my prime directive - know your limits. If you push yourself beyond them, which I think you should sometimes do, then you'd better have the kit to deal with the fallout.

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  3. Thanks Maz - an interesting article and a useful primer for someone such as myself coming to this topic afresh.

    As someone who has always been stuck in the "more is more" mentality when it comes to hillwalking (and all sorts of packing), adopting the UL principles are going to be a challenge. However I think the approach that we instinctively pack more than we need is generally true and even if you don't fall under the specific UL and SUL weight categories, using the priciples to improve comfort and strain on your back should make for a more enjoyable journey and open up distances and routes that may have been inaccessible or unnecessarily taxing in the past.

    I particularly like the approach you commented on of choosing flexible items, such as the sleeping bag example and a combination of clothing layers to suit several occasions, as well as the upgrading of kit that weighs less but still functions perfectly well for what it's intended purpose is (e.g. in the case of a stove essentially boiling water).

    I admit though I do have a way to go to change my mindset, especially when travelling in a group, where I often pack for other people just in case anyone forgot anything and I could present a spare and 'save the day' - but this article is a good place to start.

    Sounds like I need to investigate this further. Anyone have any articles on UL they'd like to recommend?

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  4. Do you know if the modern no-framed rucksacks are suitable for those of us who suffer from back problems, or by the nature of its design does this sort of pack put more strain on the lower back to carry the load, rather than a frame to redistribute the weight?

    I presume that I could use something like the Gorilla (nice review btw) with no problems, as long as I ensure that I don't overload the pack in terms of weight and perhaps make more liberal use of the hipstrap to keep the pack positioned correctly.

    You talk about the "back system" on modern rucksacks. Could you explain this a little more for the less educated (i.e. me)? I'm guessing it's the "curved aluminium stays" that you talk about in your Gorilla review.

    Any advice on for better posture/technique of carrying the pack would also be most welcome.

    I'm wondering given the improved technology in terms of the fabrics used, if there are any situations where a framed pack would still be useful? I'd be interested to hear your (and anyone else's) comments on this...

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