The Lightweight Camping Movement

Chris Ord — 27 October 2011
Is shedding weight a good idea? Or does it compromise performance?

You wince at the memory of the feeling: the soles of your feet tenderised black and blue, straps cutting into your shoulder blades, your hip belt rubbing you raw, sweat pulsing down your back and a hernia feels like it's a rabid alien in your side. Should have left that bottle of wine at home. Okay, two bottles. And extra chocolate. And that laptop with a solar charger.

There is another way. Lightweight trekking - also called ultralight hiking - is the methodical slimming down of gear (sometimes to a maniacal degree).

People have been roaming the Earth with superlight loads since Ugg was a cave boy roaming the prairies with nary an animal skin and a spear. Even in more modern eras where we tend to think of cumbersome backpacks, heavy cooking equipment and kitchen sink-packing predilections, there were still those who carried a different philosophy to the track.

American Emma 'Grandma' Gatewood was 67 when she first hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail in 1955. In tennis shoes. Carrying nothing more than an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain, which she carried in a homemade bag slung over one shoulder. It was a determined approach, simply because she didn't have access to better gear.

So she is quite literally the grandmother of the ultralight fraternity, a leader in inspiration, if not in technical equipment.


The ringleader is usually quoted as Ray Jardine, first renowned for free-climbing the west face of El Capitan in Yosemite and then inventing the first spring-loaded camming devices for climbing. But while his climbing exploits invited high praise and admiration, his approach to the trekking life raised conservative eyebrows and opinion columns of the long-distance walking mob. He advocated going faster along tracks like the Pacific Crest and going lighter was the way to achieve it.

Discussing ideas in his first book, The Pacific Crest Trail Hikers Handbook, Ray promoted the idea of using homemade gear, a tarp instead of a tent, a blanket instead of a sleeping bag and taking just the bare necessities. It went against the "Be prepared" dictum of the time, where loads were to be willingly suffered on tracks for the benefit of staying warm, dry and safe.

Ray is still a living prophet of the lightweight movement, his book having morphed into Trail Life and regarded as the ultralight bible.

Trekking gear philosophies the likes of Ray's have spawned a relatively small, but dedicated, bunch of lightweighters - the type who measure pack weight in milligrams, not grams. There are no official specifications, but the term 'lightweight trekking' commonly refers to a base pack weight of about 9.1kg. Base pack weight refers to all the essentials, except food and water (which change according to trip length and nutritional requirements). 

The term 'ultralight' is regarded to be in the vicinity of 4.5kg base pack weight. There even exists a super-enthusiast crowd who dub themselves super-ultralight adherants; their ideal base pack weight is closer to 3kg. Try getting a sleeping bag, backpack and some form of shelter to come in at that. This compares to standard base pack weights of around 14-27kg.


So if you've made the decision that it's time to lose the pounds, what is your aim if it's not to boast to friends about how you conquered the 5kg barrier, blogged about it and henceforth floated along the Larapinta Trail? Put simply, it's to enjoy your trekking that much more with the effects of gravity considerably lessened by your weight-watching regime.

Trekkers adhering to the principles of lightweight camping typically say they feel freer and closer to nature. The drain on energy reserves is much less, allowing you to feel stronger and more refreshed, experiencing less fatigue and soreness even after long days on the track.

" a lovely way to live - simple, efficient and needed," says Beau Miles, an adventure guide with 12 years' experience and a lecturer for the Bachelor of Sport and Outdoor Recreation program at Monash University. "It removes luxury and want from the packing list. Going lightweight says a lot about how we live our lives - or should - but there are traces of high-finance approaches by gear junkies that can tarnish the simplistic ethic.

"There are various scales of lightweight as, in a regard, all forms of trekking should be relatively lightweight...It can cost a fortune, or not, depending on who you speak to. A superfine breathable fabric jacket, for example, can cost in the high hundreds and needs considerable justification for most users," he says.

At the same time, a rudimentary online search turns up numerous DIY ultralight fanatics whose techniques are mostly inexpensive.


"Weight can most often be cut from food choices, toiletries and extra clothing that needn't be carried," Beau says. Going lightweight can simply be a case of better packing, not lighter gear.

"Leaving deodorant, a large toothpaste and four extra pairs of socks is a more effective way of cutting weight than spending $400 on a jacket that weighs 100g less. So better economy is achieved by making sacrifice, not spending up big. Nearly my entire pack of goods could be exchanged for a lighter item, but not at a cost of several thousands of dollars. I am yet to drill holes in my toothbrush handle or spoon, yet I know plenty of people who have. I like the idea, but think that the psychology of it (thinking you are trimmed down to bare-minimum)is worth more."

In terms of packing food, avoid high-moisture content, and as a rule 700-900g a day for a sizable or active day in the bush is fine. Beau also says that getting strong and "bushwalking tough" overrides the nitpicking of going lightweight. For those who do venture into the high-tech world of the latest ultralight products, there remains one caveat: "Lighter gear inevitably means more delicate gear and it needs to be treated appropriately," says Sea to Summit's chief design guru, Roland Tyson. "Sometimes customers don't understand this subtlety."

User expectation and the inherent hardiness of the materials and gear Roland designs is a constant balance. He says the search is not over for the next big thing in lightweight. "Customers will always be searching for greater comfort and convenience with less weight so the challenge for us is to keep developing products that meet those needs. We always try to keep in front of customer expectations; we get quite excited when we come across a new material or product idea that we might be able to turn into a viable product."

Huw Kingston, the owner and chief guide of adventure operator Wild Horizons - who once trekked, skied, cycled and paddled 25,000km across Australia between each of the state capitals - agrees that technology has taken the load off the average trekker, although he disagrees with the notion of a lightweight 'movement'.  

"The lightweight trekking 'movement' is more a construct than a reality," Huw says. "Without doubt there is lighter equipment available nowadays, but this has been a function of technological availability as much as some esoteric movement. In the '80s and '90s there were huge advances in materials that allowed for lighter gear. Keeping a pack weight at 20kg 30 years ago meant a fair bit of going without. Now you can either decide to use lots of lightweight gear and do without and carry 15kg, or use lots of lightweight gear and add fine wine and cheese and still carry 20kg."


From the mid-1980s until 2000 Huw worked as a design and marketing consultant to numerous outdoor brands in addition to a stint as marketing manager for Paddy Pallin. He says trekkers perusing the latest lightweight fad should do their homework, as today's bit of kit may not always be better than yesterday's.

"People need to be very careful with outdoor gear selection these days. A combination of the availability of technology to produce lighter gear, the outsourcing of manufacture (such as to the Far East), the involvement in the industry of venture capital beyond pure passion and the marketing-driven (rather than function-driven) nature of today's world has, without doubt, reduced the quality of outdoor gear in the past 10 years or so," Huw says. "Even the supposed 'top level' gear is generally stitched less well and uses lower-quality zippers than say 10 to 15 years ago. I refer to clothing, tents, footwear and the like, not so much stoves, lights and certainly not climbing gear [which is better and safer than ever]."

Huw also cautions the weight-watcher against selecting gear purely for how easy it is on the scales. "As well as the inherent reduction in quality there is a temptation to take gear that is selected for its weight rather than its fitness for the conditions likely to be experienced," Huw says. "Obviously, this is less of an issue in warm or dry conditions but can be [an issue] when the blizzard blows or the wind howls. The more extreme the conditions the more you need to be able to rely upon the gear. Obviously this is of primary concern for such things as mountaineering and ski touring rather than 'trekking', but it certainly can have a role to play in more remote trekking journeys."

Like Huw, mountaineer Tim Macartney-Snape - most famous for the first ever sea-to-summit trek of Mt Everest (after which the Australian outdoor gear brand is named) - also has the perspective of many years, many expeditions and many treks. He, too, has seen the change that even non-specialist gear has undergone over the years.

"I first went backpacking and ski touring more than 40 years ago," Tim says. "By comparison, our gear was heavy and uncomfortable. Today even 'heavyweight' gear is light by comparison and truly lightweight stuff is amazing, allowing you to go faster and use less energy. But at some stage - it is different for each individual - there comes a point where the quest for lightness crosses a boundary of discomfort."

Tim advises a bit of logistical overview and trial and error to achieve the ideal lightweight. "To best get a handle on what you need and don't really need, on the next trip make a note on every bit of gear that you take and whether it was used or could have been done without or could have been substituted with something lighter - then you can weed out the unnecessary stuff and refine what you pack."

One trend among lightweight trekkers has been 'fastpacking' - going not just light, but as fast as possible along the track. "Fastpacking is dead," says Paul Karis, outdoor manager at True Alliance, which overseas The North Face and Teva brands.

"It was a term coined by Americans and it's pretty much got zero traction these days. Yes, we all want to carry a lighter pack, which equals more fun out on the track, but we don't all want to move faster through the wilderness. To truly lighten your load, you have to be very disciplined in doing so. Everything that goes into your pack needs to be scrutinised, weighed and decisions made if you need it or not. If you tackle it in this fashion, you can cut a 20kg pack down to 10 or 12kg which is great, but also probably a bit overzealous for most of us."

While some high-achieving, competitive types (who may or may not be part of a movement) may be counting the milligrams to get a sense of satisfaction in being uber-lean on the track, most of us should just be that little bit smarter in the way we pack in order to be that little bit more comfortable out in the wilderness.

And of course, the more we actually get out there and trek, the more we'll be shedding the kind of kilos our doctors would really prefer us to lose.


lightweight packing how to guide camping trekking skills hiking