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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.

Weight Loss 101
Long-distance hiking expert Chris Townsend weighs in on the best methods for trimming unwanted pounds.

Going ultralight may sound hardcore, but veterans say it's easier than old-fashioned load hauling once you get the hang of it. For expert advice on getting started, we interviewed Chris Townsend, world-famous solo trekker and author of The Advanced Backpacker: A Handbook For Year-Round, Long-Distance Hiking (Ragged Mountain Press, $18.95).

BP: Chris, what's your philosophy for slashing pack weight: baby steps or cold turkey?
CT: I found it easiest to go ultralight in stages. I started with footwear and over many years reduced the weight of other items until I found that my basic load was half what it had been. My style evolved rather than changed abruptly, which makes for fewer unpleasant surprises.

BP: What's the best way to get started?
CT: The key is to think about what's essential and what isn't. Do you need two pots? A spare shirt? A candle lantern? Many backpackers could reduce the weight of their loads significantly simply by leaving nonessential items at home.

Here are the first five steps I recommend:

1. Weigh every item of gear. This helps you understand what's heavy and what's light inside your pack, which in turn helps you identify essentials and nonessentials.

2. Decide which items you can do without and put them aside.

3. Identify items that could be lighter and start replacing them. For instance, replace your tent with a tarp, heavy raingear with a lightweight shell, or your multitool with a minitool.

4. Look at your heaviest items and consider modifying or replacing them. Cutting the handle off your toothbrush or leaving a spare T-shirt behind will save ounces at most. But replacing your tent with a tarp can save pounds. Removing the frame and lid pocket from your pack can save a few more.

5. Think weight all the time. Make it your first priority when selecting gear. If there's a choice between two items of gear or food, always choose the lightest.

BP: Where's the first place you'd look to cut weight?
CT: Footwear. The old adage that a pound on your feet equals 5 on your back is true in my experience. So reducing the weight of your footwear by 2 pounds is equivalent to taking 10 pounds out of your pack. Also, going ultralight is about being able to move more freely through the wilderness, and it's much easier to do this with light, flexible footwear and a standard load than with an ultralight load and stiff, 5-pound boots.

BP: Chris, you've hiked more than 20,000 miles in your life, and probably made your fair share of mistakes. Tell us what mistakes to avoid when going ultralight.
CT: Don't leave behind vital items. Reduce the weight of your first-aid and repair kits, but don't leave them at home. Replace your flashlight with a LED one, but don't go without any light at all.
Don't be too ambitious. Go for a few overnights in familiar country before setting out on a long hike or into unknown terrain.
Don't set out with gear you haven't used in your backyard or local park. Trying to pitch a tarp for the first time in the dark in a storm is not a good idea.
Do make sure that your ultralight gear is suitable for the likely weather conditions. The same set of gear isn't appropriate everywhere at every time.
- J. Dorn


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