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How to Go Ultralight Without Packing Your Fears

Going minimalist can heighten anxieties about staying safe in the backcountry. Here’s how to let some of them go.

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Going ultralight isn’t for everyone. Whittling down your pack weight requires careful planning and accepting a few tradeoffs. In general, those concessions are luxuries like camp chairs, roomy tents, or spare clothing. But sometimes, saving pack weight feels like it requires making high-consequence decisions, like paring down a first aid kit or swapping for a lighter (but less insulating) sleeping bag. But it is possible to reduce your pack weight without packing your fears along with your gear. Here are a few tried-and-true ways to test your gear and learn new skills that will lead to newfound confidence—and a lighter backpack—the next time you head into the backcountry.

ultralight tarp
An ultralight tarp under heavy snow load (Photo: Lunnderboy via Getty)

The Fear: What if my new ultralight gear doesn’t hold up?

The Solution: Plan a shakedown hike

Many times, the trips we look forward to the most are also the most challenging. If you have a bucket list trip planned, you’re probably not interested in reevaluating your gear just to save a few pounds. Why risk turning a memorable hike into a miserable slog by messing with your kit in the name of weight-savings? That’s where the shakedown hike comes in. The concept is pretty simple: Take your new gear on quick, low-consequence trips to make sure it works before you embark on the real deal. Shakedown hikes should be simple (so you can focus on your new gear rather than other distractions, like route finding or campsite selection) and short (so you can bail if your gear doesn’t work out). If you’re making a big change, like swapping from a freestanding tent to a tarp and bivy, your first shakedown hike doesn’t have to be a hike at all. Even a simple car camping excursion can give you valuable intel. Eventually, it’s worth planning a shakedown hike during inclement weather, even if it doesn’t sound like much fun in the moment. A wet-weather overnighter will give you a chance to properly stress test a new shelter or rain gear, giving you peace of mind once the big trip finally arrives. 

first aid
Stopping for first aid (Photo: warrengoldswain via Getty)

The Fear: What if my first aid kit is too small?

The Solution: Take a Wilderness First Aid course

A well-stocked first aid kit goes a long way when it comes to feeling at ease on a backpacking trip. Whether it’s pain meds or blister care, the right equipment can make or break your experience. But what about tourniquets, Israeli bandages, or SAM splints? Many hikers dutifully pack medical devices like these on every trip without actually knowing how to use them in an emergency. The best way to analyze your backcountry first aid kit is by taking a course in wilderness medicine. A three-day Wilderness First Aid course will teach you what to carry, what you can leave behind, and what you can repurpose out of gear you’re already carrying. More importantly, you’ll learn to recognize symptoms, and how to decide when it’s time to evacuate or cut a trip short. Wilderness first aid experts like to say that the most important part of your first aid kit is between your ears. With that in mind, it’s likely that the knowledge you gain in a class will yield a first aid kit that’s both lighter and more useful. 

two hikers
Two hikers on a trail (Photo: Thomas Barwick via Getty)

The Fear: What if I don’t have enough experience to handle my ultralight setup?

The Solution: Find a veteran ultralight hiking partner

For many people, backpacking is a solo pursuit. It might be that you crave the solitude of hiking alone, or simply that you don’t have any friends who enjoy backpacking. But when it comes to increasing your comfort zone with the ultralight philosophy, nothing can replace a good partner or mentor. Unfortunately, given ultralight backpacking’s niche status, it can be hard to find a good hiking partner, even more so one who has experience using lightweight gear. It’s worth making the effort, though. For one thing, hiking with others is empirically safer if you sprain an ankle or get turned around. Plus, an experienced hiking partner can change your outlook on gear. Finding exactly the right spot to pitch a less-than-storm-worthy tarp or balancing your pot on an alcohol stove can be frustrating at first. When you share the trail with a hiker who is comfortable and happy doing those things, it can give you the confidence to give lighter gear a chance, as well. 

hiker on a peak
A hiker takes a rest step (Photo: rdonar via Getty)

The Fear: I’m worried about everything

The Solution: Embrace ultralight optimism

Most people who eventually find success with ultralight gear do so because they change the way they think about a backpacking trip. In general, ultralighters are optimists. They prefer to focus on what is likely, not what is possible. Here’s an example: a traditional backpacker might prefer to wear sturdy boots because they worry about twisting an ankle on a rocky trail. Even if they find the boots less comfortable throughout the day, they are willing to sacrifice that comfort because of the possibility of injury. To an ultralighter, this reasoning is flipped on its head. They prefer to wear trail runners, which they find more comfortable in the most likely scenario—hiking all day without incident or injury. What’s more, they believe trail runners increase the odds of the most likely outcome. Since trail runners are light and nimble, they are less likely to make the kind of misstep that leads to a twisted ankle in the first place. Ultralighters make a similar calculation for most of the gear they carry. Rather than focusing on worst-case scenarios, where even the most robust backpacking gear won’t save you, they plan for an average trip where most things go as planned and their lightweight gear works as intended.

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