Long-Distance Ultralight Hiking

Surveying the trail ahead while hiking across Iceland

On my first long-distance hike, I set out on the Appalachian Trail with a 50 pound pack. It was arduous and the first fifty miles felt like the hardest miles that I had ever done. It took me almost a week to do those fifty miles. I was sore, tired, bruised, battered, and completely worn out. My boots were killing my feet. Some days I struggled to do 5 miles. A few years ago I went back and hiked the trail again. Those fifty miles seemed like some of the easiest miles on the entire Appalachian Trail…and they only took me a little over a day to complete.

Ever since I started to employ new practices in hiking, I receive countless strange looks and questions on the trail. People think that I am just out for a day hike, while I am hiking nimbly past them and they are trudging miserably with their eyes focused on the ground. But in reality I am covering large distances, by using a new approach to hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

Ultralight Backpacking

A freshwater lake in Sweden provides a natural resting point

There is a small but growing contingent of ultralight hikers and backpackers in the United States. Overseas, especially in Europe, there is a strong tradition and heritage of wearing heavy hiking boots, carrying big, heavy packs, and hiking from hut to hut with more stuff than they really need.
The ultralight or lightweight movement is all about simplicity. Simplicity comes in three main ways: 1) minimizing what you are carrying to only what you really need, 2) having the gear you need be functional and generally without a lot of bells and whistles, so that it is lighter in weight, and 3) carrying less lets you move faster, farther, and more comfortably therefore possibly allowing you to enjoy your wilderness experience even more.

The Basics

The basics of ultralight backpacking are for your “big three” (shelter, sleeping bag and pad, and backpack) to weigh in under 10 pounds. This provides a good goal to get your overall pack weight down. It is key to not add frivolous items into your backpack. The simplicity of ultralight backpacking also inherently provides stimulus for your imagination.

For example: How can I not carry a pot stand for my alcohol stove? Maybe I can rig it so that my tent stakes go through my windscreen and support my pot. Can I set up my shelter using my trekking poles, so that I have versatility and don’t need a separate pole? Am I comfortable enough if I use my backpack as the lower half of my sleeping pad so that I can only carry a half-length pad? These are just to name a few.

Another positive that people don’t even consider with ultralight backpacking is that it is much cheaper to outfit yourself. Certain items might be a little bit more expensive, but others will save you hundreds of dollars. An ultralight pack might only cost $100, whereas a pack that is built to support more weight has a complex framesheet and can cost $300 or more.

You do need to be aware of what you are doing with your equipment and care for it properly. Ultralight gear is durable, but more fragile than heavy-duty equipment because the fabric deniers are lower in number, in order to save weight. If you treat your lightweight gear well it can still last for a lifetime. I have hiked over 10,000 miles using the same backpack!

By saving energy, you can better enjoy the beautiful scenery - photo taken in Iceland

Covering Large Distances

Once you have lightened your load you will naturally walk faster, be more agile, and be able to cover more distance in a day. With less weight on your feet (from wearing lighter weight shoes or trail running shoes) and less weight on your back, you will exert less energy to cover the same distance than someone who is carrying more weight. As a result, without even improving your level of fitness, you will be able to move farther each day.

As your fitness improves and you get used to wearing a pack and walking for hours at a time, you can start to increase your daily mileage. It is crucial to do this slowly and not to increase your mileage too fast, or else you will be asking for trouble and potential injuries. If you are used to doing 10-15 miles per day, start off doing that mileage. During the first couple of weeks of ultralight backpacking take a day off, or a “near-o” (a very low mileage day close to zero miles, to let your body recover). Once you feel good and strong the following morning, and are comfortable doing your base mileage, wait a week or two. Then you will know that your body is completely ok with doing that amount of mileage, you’ll have your calluses on your feet, and will be ready to start upping the distances. Add a few miles on some days, no more than five miles over your base mileage, and do a few less than your base on other days. This will help your body recover. After you feel good with the increased mileage days then you can start doing that mileage every day.

Soaking in a sunrise in New Zealand before hitting the trail

Stay at that level for a couple of weeks, and then do the same routine to increase your mileage again once you are ready to do so. Your body will get used to each level of daily mileage and when you go out and start a new trip you may not have to go all the way back to your initial base mileage. As I mentioned, NEVER overdo your mileage increments or daily mileage until your body is ready for that distance. I can now start a trip doing 23-30 miles per day right off the bat, without even having hiked for the entire winter. It’s amazing the muscle memory that your body has!

Finally, since you are carrying less equipment and have less gear to contend with, all of your daily actions become faster. You can pack up your pack faster, take your shelter down faster since it is smaller and less complicated, and even put your shoes on faster. Your breaks will be shorter since you have less stuff to dig through and pack back up to get your snacks or lunch out. The lightweight or minimal approach allows you to have more time of the day hiking, fishing, relaxing, or doing whatever you are out in the backcountry to do. Once your body is ready to increase the time hiking and the daily mileage, this proficiency in your daily routine will allow you to hike longer and farther.

Conclusion

I truly think that more people would get out and enjoy backpacking if they embraced a lightweight approach. It dispels all of the preconceived notions people have about backpacking. It makes backpacking painless, comfortable, and pleasurable. Whether you are doing it to push more miles on your weekend trip, for a thru-hike, or just to get to a great spot quicker and more comfortably, ultralight backpacking has many core advantages over traditional backpacking. It is natural and almost instinctive to increase your daily mileage by adopting a lightweight approach.

Approaching Key West on the Eastern Continental Trail, and enjoying the warmth after hiking through the winter

Justin Lichter earned his unique trailname, “Trauma”, during one of his first hikes in Utah, when he experienced several traumatic-but-comical experiences during a short timespan. He is sponsored by a number of great outdoor companies, including: Granite Gear, Montbell, Icebreaker, CAMP, Garmont, Leki, Larabar, and SteriPEN. Learn more about Trauma and follow his adventures by visiting his web site.

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7 Trackbacks

  1. By Simplicity in Wilderness Travel on January 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

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