Ultralight backpacking may be the biggest change to hit Scout backpacking since the development of the hip strap. While still slightly contentious among some traditional Troops, Ultralight is increasingly accepted as a viable alternative to carrying the entire equipment list developed by traditionalists. Many experienced backpackers have already made the transition and Ultralight principles are showing up in popular basic backpacking courses and in many hiking groups.
Ultralight practitioners promote the idea that a Scout can lower his pack weight by purchasing newer and lighter equipment, eliminating potentially unnecessary items, sharing equipment among the group, and using things for multiple purposes. It’s not unusual for an advocate to get their pack weight down from the traditional 40-50 lbs to as little as 15 pounds by carefully weighing each item and continually seeking improvement. Their goal is to maintain the same level of comfort and safety at a significantly lower pack weight to improve their hiking experience.
Ultralight backpacking is a continuing commitment. Packs are designed to carry minimum weight, tents are replaced by tarps, sleeping bags might be just a blanket or quilt, boots become light trail runners, and clothing is limited to the bare minimum. Food is often eaten cold to save on fuel weight and many will even cut off the handle of their toothbrush or the straps on their backpack to save half an ounce. (These people are called ‘ounce counters.’)
Since the heaviest items are the most expensive, initially many Scout backpackers try to lighten their loads by counting ounces on smaller cheaper things in their pack. Or they try leaving extra clothing, food, and equipment at home. This is a nice idea but you can’t make a big weight difference with small sacrifices. The only way to significant lower your pack weight is to replace your backpack, tent/shelter, and sleeping system – often called the “Big Three of Backpacking” and pay the price at the cash register.
The “Big Three” accounts for a lot of your pack weight, but not all of it. If you want to minimize your load and move towards Ultralight, here are some additional rules for lowering what you carry:
1. Weigh everything
2. Take less stuff
3. Choose equipment carefully – Emphasize multi-use items
4. Know the difference between wants and needs
5. Continually try new and lighter things – experiment on practice hikes
6. Load lightening is a gradual process of trial & error so set goals every year and meet them
There are lots of groups and web sites that cover the subject. Possibly the most comprehensive is BackpackingLight.com. They publish a newsletter, review products, and act as a clearing house for information. As an added bonus, the editor is an Eagle Scout.
Some adult leaders have not totally embraced the concept of Ultralight backpacking due to the initial cost. There is also resistance because Ultralight means the margin for error is reduced and the risk of encountering problems might be higher. Difficulties are created when traditional (heavy) equipment is integrated with an Ultralight system. For example, you can’t, in an emergency, ask a hiker with an Ultralight pack to carry a heavy tent or sleeping bag that belongs to someone who is not also Ultralight. There is also an argument over footwear. Ultralight footwear is more like tennis shoes than boots (trail runners), built for speed but not ankle support. Many adults think that teenage boys need the support of regular boots to protect against sprains.
Despite the opposition from some quarters, most Ultralight concepts are here to stay. Equipment is getting better and lighter. Adult training is more enlightened and the boys are much less inclined to push themselves by carrying super heavy loads on their backs. As a result, the best advice for new backpackers is to start thinking about pack weight early in your hiking career and invest in the best and lightest equipment possible, even if you have to purchase it used off Craig’s List or EBay. The lighter the load, the farther you can walk every day.
For lots more information about Scout backpacking, visit 50Miler.com.and/or request a free copy of “Backpacking for Boys.”
Mike Dubrall writes about backpacking, snow camping, and other high adventure outings at 50Miler.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can be connected through the “50miler.com Outing Resource Center” on Facebook.