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Backpacker Magazine – May 2002

I Saw the Light: Jon Dorn's Ultralight Conversion

Going ultralight may be the ultimate get-out-quick scheme: It took me all of 60 minutes to shop and pack for a 5-day hike and all of 10 minutes to pitch or pack up my simple camp.

by: Jonathan Dorn

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(Photo by Steve Howe)
(Photo by Steve Howe)

Ultralight 2.0
Help Jon fill his pack for an upcoming 2009 ultralight adventure.

My posture, by contrast, immediately changed. I enjoyed a comfortable upright position and my stride lengthened, both a direct result of hauling less weight on my back. My legs swung easily, my back stood straight and shoulders relaxed, and my hands rested easily in my pants pockets. With no pack banging the back of my head, I could even look up and around. I may as well have been strolling in the park, except that I was still carrying shelter and food on my back, completely self-sufficient and capable of making camp in a remote wilderness.

When we came to river crossings and high tides, my advantage increased. I tiptoed across logs without toppling and sprinted around jutting cliffs where my slower brethren got splashed. I scrambled up headlands, outran rogue waves that caught them waist-high, and didn't sink 6 inches deep into wet sand. I moved more quickly and confidently across cobbled shorelines, with less fear of bone-snapping missteps. To a super-slow-mo kinda guy who's always worried about twisting his bum ankles, the experience of feeling nimble, fast, and well balanced while backpacking was a revelation. Imagine turning a rec-league hoopster into Michael Jordan...that's how I felt.

In the afternoons, as my normal-packing partners began to flag, my legs were still bursting with energy. Since I'm not in any better physical shape than they are, and since they hogged all the energy bars, the only explanation for my increased stamina is that my light load was less tiring. Twice as we hunted for a campsite in the gathering darkness, I raced ahead to scout the next location. Of course, the value of spending less energy lies not just in one's ability to hike farther and faster. It's also being able to shift into overdrive when storms or darkness threaten, or in an emergency. When your pack weighs little more than some dayhiking loads, it's like having five gears rather than three. Usually, come evening, I'd be pitching my tent, cooking dinner, cleaning up, and doing a dozen other chores. But on this trip, I needed only to string up my poncho (did I mention that my poncho doubled as a tarp?) and boil a bit of water. No change of clothes, no messy cleanup, no fussing with tent poles and rainflies. Instead, I explored tide pools and wrote in my journal. With a small, simple load, packing and making camp is easy, leaving time for important things like relaxation or getting the hell out of Dodge when foul weather looms.

Nighttime did illuminate a few of the downsides of going light, including no change of clothes, no four-course meals, and less shelter from the elements and local wildlife. I would've appreciated dry layers at night and fresh underwear around day 4 (my partners would have, too). As well, my food choices were filling, but I drooled over my trailmates' seemingly endless supply of fresh veggies and fancy desserts. And a tarp just isn't the same as a dome tent when the wind is blowing rain and sand in three different directions, or when a few curious raccoons waddle over in search of a midnight snack. That's when I want tent walls.

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