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.
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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.

Yea, though I walked through the valley with a heavy pack on my shoulders, I did not crumble. My boots and hiking staff supported me. My topo led me to green meadows where I pitched my tent among the mountains and wild animals. But then I went hiking with an ultralight pack, and it was better. I went faster, farther, and didn't get any blisters. Here is the true story of one man's conversion.

Last fall, we invited readers to participate in Backpacker's first Challenge The Editor event. The experiment: Send diehard overpacker Jonathan Dorn on a weeklong hike toting ultralight gear selected by our readers. Almost 4,000 of you voted at Backpacker.com, assembling a load weighing only 19 pounds 8.5 ounces (see "Jon's Gear List"). More concerned about his meager food allowance than your refusal to let him carry a change of undies, Jon packed up his gear–it didn't take long–and headed for California.

A 10-ounce poncho was a poor choice for a place like this. California's Lost Coast is notorious for its fierce winter storms, yet here I was bending into the teeth of a late November gale without proper raingear. I was wet, I was cold, and it was only the second day of our trip.

Since breaking camp that morning, we'd been hiking south along a crumbling coastline as 30 to 40 mph gusts flung sand, sea spray, and sheets of rain against us. Water ran in rivulets down the length my body, having blown between the buttoned sides, up the nonexistent sleeves, and under the wildly flapping skirt of my poncho. Only a belt fashioned from scavenged rope kept it from blowing away entirely.

Then, to add indignity to discomfort, a fist-size rock tumbled from the cliff beside me, skipping twice off the rubble of a previous landslide before bouncing up and hitting me in the butt.

That night, my left cheek still sore from the cursed rock, I attempted to dry three layers of rain-soaked clothing by wearing them inside my down sleeping bag. Another bad choice by a guy who should know better. The feathers absorbed the moisture, and the bag almost instantly went limp. Around 3 a.m., shivering and sneezing, I began to wonder what "ultralight" really meant. Light on fun, perhaps. Light on comfort and convenience, too. Clearly light on common sense.

Funny how a warm, sunny morning can change your perspective. I didn't notice what time the rain stopped, but I felt warmth spreading through my body as the sun burned through a light dawn mist. Within a few hours, my clothes and bag were dry, my belly was full, and all was right with the world. I even dived into the surf, which had calmed from the previous day's raging boil.

The swim felt like a baptism. I'd started this hike a skeptic, full of doubt regarding the ultralight gospel. The storm had only intensified my worries. But sun and surf washed them away, and I emerged from the salty waves a different man.

Blue skies and long stretches of beach walking quickly revealed the benefits of hiking light. On the wide, sandy flats, I walked faster and more steadily than did my heavily laden partners. Watching them plod along was like watching a 90-year-old man hobble to the restroom. There was the stooped posture, the neck bent and eyes cast down, the unsteady, shuffling stride, and the pained expression.

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.

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.

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

Jon's 2002 Gear List

Equipment 7 lbs. 6.1 oz.

ShelterIntegral Designs Sil Poncho: 10 oz.

Groundcloth/tarpIntegral Designs Sil Tarp: 8 oz.

PackGVP G4: 12.5 oz.

Sleeping bagMarmot Never Winter: 32 oz. (size long, 30°F down)

Stuff sacks (2)GoLite Pouch: 1.6 oz.

PadCascade Designs Z-Rest 3/4: 11.5 oz.

StoveSnowPeak Giga Power: 3 oz.

Fuel1 butane/propane canister: 13.4 oz.

CookwareSnow Peak Mini Solo Cookset: 5 oz.

HeadlampPetzl Zipka: 3 oz.

Water treatmentMcNett AquaMira: 2 oz.

Cameradisposable: 5 oz.

H2O bladderCamelbak UnBottle: 7 oz.

Toothbrush generic toothbrush (cut in half) andand powderEcoDent powder: 2 oz.

UtensilSnowPeak Titanium Spork: 0.6 oz.

SunglassesCébé Athlon: 1.5 oz.

Clothing 4 lbs. 10.5 oz.

Microfleece zip-TSierra Designs Apex Zip Mock: 13 oz.

Long john bottomsMountain Hardwear eXtend Tight: 8 oz.

Swim trunksgeneric: 8 oz.

Fleece jacketBeyond Fleece B1 Jacket: 22.5 oz.

Synthetic fill vestWild Things Primaloft Vest: 14.25 oz.

Fleece hatGoLite Frost: 1.75 oz.

GlovesSealSkinz Waterproof Gloves: 3.5 oz.

SocksSmartwool Ultra Cushion Mini Crew: 1.75 oz.

Patagonia Capilene Liner Socks: 1.75 oz.

Food 7 lbs. 7.86 oz.

Total Pack Weight:19 lbs. 8.46 oz.

Trailwear 4 lbs. 2.15 oz. (not in pack)

Rain hatOutdoor Research Seattle Sombrero: 4.5 oz.

Long-sleeve shirtMountain Hardwear Synergy Shirt: 6.75 oz.

WindshirtPolo RLX N2S Zip-T: 11.4 oz.

Long pantsPatagonia Talus Pants: 10.5 oz.

UnderwearPearl Izumi X-Sensor Fitted Boxers: 1 oz.

Trail running shoesHi-Tec Perpetua (size 13): 32 oz.


Total Trail Weight:23 lbs. 10.61 oz.
Ultralight Do's and Don'ts

There's no magic formula for hiking light. What matters most is good preparation and troubleshooting, not the gear you pick or any one method of shaving ounces. As you experiment with it, you'll learn to make choices that suit your hiking destination. Everyone needs a place to start, though, so here are a few lessons I learned in my first 50 miles.

Do:

  • Pack a large garbage bag or two to safeguard your gear against rain. Since you're carrying fewer clothes, it's more important that they stay dry. My worst-ever night of sleep came after the second day, when every last stitch of clothing got soaked. With no dry spares to change into, I had to sleep-dry soggy clothes.
  • Pack less food. I'm a big eater, so I was worried about getting by on fewer calories than usual. My menu on this trip included 2 cups of mashed potatoes and hot cocoa for breakfast, 1 package of noodles for lunch, 1 cup of nuts and 10 dried apricots for snacks, and 1 cup of soup, 1 box of couscous, 4 ounces of smoked salmon, and 1 cup of cocoa for dinner. That's less than I usually carry, but because I was expending much less energy, my stomach never growled.
  • Watch your step. With a light load, you're less likely to suffer an ankle sprain, but any injury could pose a problem when you're carrying less survival gear.
  • Be ruthless. If you aren't certain you'll use a piece of gear every day, don't pack it.
  • Pack a hat and gloves, but leave the extra fleece at home. You can always cook from the warmth of your sleeping bag.
  • Consider taking a rest day if the weather gets fierce. Better to catch up on your sleep under shelter than get your gear wet moving out into the storm.
  • Wash your socks and underwear midtrip, or carry a spare set. Unless you're hiking solo and can't smell a thing.

Don't:

  • Saw your toothbrush in half. I cut mine too short and couldn't reach my back molars.
  • Skimp on raingear or shelter if consecutive rainy days are common where you're hiking. You're most vulnerable in extended stretches of cold or wet weather.
  • Depend on a single lighter or Piezo stove ignition. Always bring a backup lighter or waterproof matches.
  • Get so fanatical about food weight that you pack boring meals. Bring tasty treats: a tin of smoked mussels, some fancy cookies, or a bottle of Tabasco.
  • Assume you'll immediately double your daily trail mileage. Walking for 8 to 10 hours still takes a toll on the body, especially feet clad in light shoes. You'll get up to 15 or 20 miles soon enough.
  • Forget your chocolate. I did, and I was jonesing for a Snickers by day 3.
  • Ridicule friends carrying big loads. Be kind, and they might leave you the scraps from their gourmet dinner, or share a tent when all hell breaks loose.