Does Ultralight Backpacking Have an Elitism Problem?

In defense of the hiking world’s black sheep.

Photo: Mint Images via Getty

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There’s a tired joke about ultralighters that I’ve heard several times over the years: 

“How can you recognize an ultralight backpacker? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

That generalization illustrates the growing sense among “normal” backpackers that the ultralight niche of the sport is populated by elitists and snobs. And to be fair, if an unsuspecting visitor descends on an online ultralight hangout like Reddit or Backpacking Light, they could certainly be excused for coming to this conclusion. Rather than share pictures from their most recent trip, ultralighters like to argue over the merits of different waterproof-breathable fabrics. The most common posts you’ll see are called “shakedowns,” where one member shares the gear they plan to bring on a trip while other ultralighters ruthlessly critique their choices. In short, the community doesn’t feel overly welcoming.

As someone deeply entrenched in the ultralight backpacking industry, however, I can’t remember the last time I met a hiker who rattled off their Lighterpack gear list unprompted. And as the resident ultralight columnist for Backpacker, I feel obliged to come to the defense of my gear-obsessed comrades. What comes across as elitism is often enthusiasm, passion, and a healthy dose of gear obsession. And when they can stop thinking about their baseweight for a few seconds, I promise that they enjoy backpacking, too. 

If there is judgment from the ultralight faction, remember that they’ve been seen as the weirdos of the hiking world for decades. The rise in industry-wide ultralight fever is akin to a nerdy high-school glow-up. The next time you see an ultralighter give your 70-liter pack the side-eye, remember that someone else has probably told them off for heading into the backcountry with only a daypack. Ultralighters are accused of mooching for food and water, because the assumption is that they never carry enough of either. Old-school hikers who are still rocking external frame packs call them wimps. Worst of all, ultralighters are told that, because they like to hike fast, they aren’t backpacking correctly.

That doesn’t detract from the criticisms that other hikers have of the ultralight realm, though. One of the downfalls of ultralight backpacking is that it’s almost exclusively based on gear. After all, ultralight backpacking without a self-imposed weight limit is just backpacking. Sure, there is something of an ultralight philosophy, and carrying only the bare essentials means that most ultralighters are experts at selecting a good campsite, pitching a shelter, and conserving food and water. But other ultralight hiking norms—like hiking 30 miles a day or eating cold beans for dinner—aren’t really tied to pack weight at all. In its most basic form, “going ultralight” is about buying and using lightweight gear. So it stands to reason that ultralighters are going to obsess over their kit, especially when they’re first trying to lower their pack weight. 

As the niche world of ultralight backpacking grows, that focus on the material aspects of hiking is only getting stronger. With more brands to choose from, finding the right tent, backpack, or sleeping bag is more confusing and time-consuming than ever. Because of this outsize focus on gear, there certainly seems to be a number of ultralight hikers who have a full gear closet without the accompanying real-world hiking experience—people who treat collecting gear, rather than hiking, as their hobby of choice. 

There’s nothing wrong with collecting gear, but I do think there is some danger in using gear, rather than experience, as a way to define your abilities as a hiker. In my estimation, the vast majority of ultralight hikers tend to “get the message and get out.” That is, they learn enough to lighten their pack, and then they leave the gear discussions behind. The people who are left—especially in online forums—are the ones who can’t get enough. That population will always include a few elitists, know-it-alls, and contrarians. 

The larger truth is, antagonism between different cliques isn’t unique to backpacking. It’s all over the outdoors. As outdoor sports become more popular in general, there’s a growing urge to define ourselves by increasingly narrow labels, rather than by catch-all terms. It feels good to be part of a community and perhaps even better when that group by definition excludes someone else. Rather than being content to be called nature-lovers, we see ourselves as hikers versus bikers, skiers versus snowboarders, thru-hikers versus weekend warriors, or ultralighters versus traditional backpackers. 

At least, that’s how it can feel on Internet message boards and Facebook comment sections. I’ve personally found that once we all hit the trail, most of these petty disagreements seem to melt away and we see each other for what we are: people who love to get outside. Sure, I’ll admit that ultralighters are inherently critical about gear. That’s because it’s at the crux of the culture. They might be able to rattle off the R-value of a dozen different sleeping pads, but that doesn’t mean they’re judging you if you can’t. In the end, there’s a simple phrase that rings truer than any joke about pack weight or how much ground you can cover in a day: Hike your own hike.