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Backpacker Magazine – August 2001

Ultralight vs. Ultranormal

How light can you go? Six friends face off to determine whether carrying less gear makes you half as macho, or twice as smart.

by: Andy Dappen

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6

At the parking lot, the quips begin when we unload Steve Fox's tiny pack, a 30-pound bundle (including climbing gear and cold-weather clothing) that feels no heavier than a peak bagger's daypack. We are embarking on a 5-day trek along the DaKobed Traverse, a North Cascadian high route following a spine of peaks in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness. The route combines 20 miles of trail, 25 miles of cross-country travel, and about 7 miles of glacier travel. And it offers enough extremes in temperature, terrain, and weather that the limitations of Steve's lightweight kit could become apparent.

"What do you have in there?" asks Marc Dilley, the one among us who's spent the most time in this nook of the Cascades. What he really means is, "Just what have you forgotten?"

The next pack out of the trunk is Marc's, and it takes two of us to hoist the 65-pound monster. "Holy hernia!" Steve grunts. "You stuff your mother-in-law in here?" Marc shoulders it casually, finding nothing abnormal about the weight. In truth, this is a load many would haul over this route. "If the weather turns nasty," Marc retorts, "I won't get blown off the mountain."

The gloves are off. In one corner we have Steve and me; we think packing light is not only a smarter, more enjoyable method of travel, but a safer one. In the other corner are Marc, his wife, Margareta, Seattle Times reporter Chris Solomon, and photographer Tom Kirkendall, all traveling with "normal" loads that are twice as heavy as ours but, they believe, necessary for being properly prepared and comfortable on this trip.

The Weigh-In
Our trip is designed as a showdown, which is why the scales come out at the trailhead. A rule of thumb is that the load on your back should be no more than 25 percent of your body weight. Here's how our crew stacks up:

The heavyweights

  • Marc's 65-pound load is 36 percent of his body weight.
  • Margareta will be carrying 43 pounds, which translates to 32 percent of her weight.
  • Chris is Mr. Average among us; his 50-pound load equals 25.5 percent of his weight.
  • Tom, with all his photo gear, takes the prize; his 75-pound load is 41 percent of his weight.

On the light side
  • Steve's 30-pound load is 19.5 percent of his weight.
  • My 31-pound load is 16.5 percent of my weight.

These percentages (calculated before we don hiking shoes) still don't tell the whole story. If you believe a pound on the foot equals 5 on the back, then the approach shoes Steve and I wear (2 pounds 2 ounces per pair) are an additional 10- to 15-pound savings over the leather boots (4 pounds 8 ounces to 5 pounds 8 ounces) the other four use. With the boots factored in, even Chris carries twice the lightweights' loads.

The four Heavies are skeptical about our provisions, but downright worried about our low-cut approach shoes, which resemble heavy-duty trail runners. Margareta wonders whether we'll slip on the steep heather slopes we'll be traversing. Chris thinks we'll turn an ankle or two. Tom believes the shoes are unsuitable for glacier travel. My experience tells me that footwear is one of the most misunderstood pieces of hiking equipment, though, so I'm willing to let the results speak for themselves. "We'll find out," I grin, taking my first feather-footed step down the trail.

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star


Star Star Star Star Star
Feb 14, 2013

Less weight = less calories burned = less food needed.

Less weight = better = funner

If you hike for 8 hours, go light, I run circles around my friends and they are more in shape than me!

Sep 25, 2008

i never knew people packed so much crap. in my 20 years of backpacking (i'm 28) i've never carried more than a 25 pound pack on 3-4 day trips in the high sierra, grand canyon, etc. - but as a girl who gets cold, i say don't skimp on warmth, skimp on food. i've never carried a stove or all the gear associated with that. so, i'd suggest skipping that for sure.

Sep 18, 2008

two words. soccer shorts. light, dry fast, look more acceptable than boxers, and most of all, don't hold odor like boxers do.

juan lopez dungog
Jul 16, 2008

more than 15 years ago, i have insisted that trekking should be done as light as possible, today it is still a matter of how much money to spend on this ultralight

greg richmond
Apr 21, 2008

I'm 59 and just did the Grand Canyon (South Kaibab and Bright Angel) with a 42 lb. pack. It was very tough for me at 195 lbs. I will go light.


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