Dear Gear Team,
I’ve been backpacking for a few years and thinking about buying ultralight gear, but I’m worried about cost and comfort. Are the trades worth it?
—Weigh my options
This question is all about aspiration. I remember the first time I saw a hiker equipped with an ultralight like it was yesterday. I was exploring the Oregon Cascades with an overloaded pack and had just traveled a mile up 1,000 vertical feet, stopping in front of the valley that would lead to a cirque, when Ms. Ultralight swept silently behind me wearing minimalist running shoes and a teen backpack. A quick salute escaped her lips as she passed, then she floated over a scree field like an apparition, disappearing into the woods beyond. When I arrived at the base of the circus an hour later, she was there in the distance, a hammock suspended between two trees, with the best possible view of the iridescent blue lake in front of us. I slowly set up what suddenly looked like a totally overworked camp, jealous of his compact accommodations, defined quads, and nearly empty backpack. Could I be like this one day?
Turns out I could. In the years that followed, I backpacked more and carried less. I pinched a few pennies to buy a lighter tent, sleeping bag and stove. I reduced my packing list and racked up my mileage, which toned my quads. I knew I was in deep when I sawed off half of my closed cell foam pad to reduce my load. However, one evening, while I was lying on this half-cushion, the mosquitoes were biting my cheeks (I had taken to abandoning my tent when the weather was good) and my stomach was growling because I didn’t didn’t bring enough food, I decided I had enough.
That night, I asked myself: why am I backpacking? The verdict became clear to me as my cheeks swelled with insect saliva: I do this to get away from people and enjoy nature – “enjoy” being the key verb there. I don’t do this to spend a small fortune on vaporous gear, only to curl up in a fetal position with half my body against the unforgiving ground.
So ask yourself the same thing. Do you want to experience the wilderness at a reasonable pace – and enjoy a few comforts while you’re there – or push the boundaries with only the bare necessities? Neither is wrong, but your answer will reveal your truth. And that’s crucial in today’s divisive world of gear, a place full of holier-than-thou rhetoric and proclamations from magazines like this, internet forums where many will tell you that the ultra -lightweight is the only way, and enough featherweight models on the market to keep you looking for years. If you’re about to travel thousands of miles, you should probably dive in and read the reviews. But if you’re a weekend warrior who makes a few longer trips each year, all that worrying about grams is probably for naught. Your quads will look better with the extra weight anyway.
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