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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.

Toward the end of day 4, as I searched for a sheltered spot to hang my tarp, I realized that the real challenge of going ultralight is not in picking the right gear but in making the right choices when using it. On the stormy mornings, I would've been wise to stay low and avoid getting soaked. And I should have searched harder in every case for a windless campsite. When you're not packing spare clothes, extra food, or a bombproof shelter, every choice you make on the trail carries more weight. The consequences of screwing up tend to hurt more and stick with you longer. I didn't expect this, but I discovered that going light requires more common sense than ever.

The good news: If you use common sense, you'll find out how liberating ultralight can be. The greatest difference I noticed was in comfort. Over the course of 10- to 12-hour hiking days, there's usually a fair bit of pounding and soreness. I certainly expected the lightly padded shoulder straps on my pack and the minimal support in my trail-running shoes to leave me hurting. But at day's end, I still had some spring in my step and sensation in my shoulder muscles. You know that feeling when you take off your pack, and suddenly your body feels light as a feather? I felt like that all day long, without any residual aches or morning stiffness.

Periods of rain interrupted the last 3 days of our hike, but none approached the epic onslaught of the second day's gale. Happily, I found my raingear adequate for light to moderate showers. My mistake was in judging the lightest of ultralight raingear–a poncho–during monsoon conditions. Not fair. If I were to hike the Lost Coast, or some other moist location, again, I'd pack the lightest waterproof/breathable jacket and pants I could find. To offset the added weight, I'd leave behind one of my fleece tops, which was overkill during our mild evenings in camp.

For a wet-weather environment, I'd also pack a tent rather than a tarp. Even a 3-pound minimalist tent would provide a drier, quieter place to sleep, read, and pack. If I were hiking solo, I'd haul a first-aid kit and an extra day's worth of food. Otherwise, I'd make few adjustments to my gear list. For hikes in milder conditions, like those you'd find during summer or fall in the Sierra or Smokies, I'd stick with the tarp and poncho, possibly adding a packable umbrella if the forecast looked iffy.

So, am I a convert to ultralight? On my Lost Coast hike, I experienced both the risks and rewards, but I definitely saw the light. More than anything, I can't get over the notion that wilderness backpacking can feel as easy and unburdened as an afternoon stroll in the park. Sure, I'll pack heavier for some winter outings, plus family hikes, mountaineering trips, camera-intensive treks, and bigger backcountry adventures. But for most three-season hikes, I'll lighten the load considerably.

If you haven't carried an ultralight load, it's worth a try. Just check the weather forecast before you go. And beware those bouncing rocks.

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