Ultralight vs. Ultranormal

How light can you go? Six friends face off to determine whether carrying less gear makes you half as macho, or twice as smart.

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At the parking lot, the quips begin when we unload Steve Fox’s tiny pack, a 30-pound bundle (including climbing gear and cold-weather clothing) that feels no heavier than a peak bagger’s daypack. We are embarking on a 5-day trek along the DaKobed Traverse, a North Cascadian high route following a spine of peaks in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. The route combines 20 miles of trail, 25 miles of cross-country travel, and about 7 miles of glacier travel. And it offers enough extremes in temperature, terrain, and weather that the limitations of Steve’s lightweight kit could become apparent.

“What do you have in there?” asks Marc Dilley, the one among us who’s spent the most time in this nook of the Cascades. What he really means is, “Just what have you forgotten?”

The next pack out of the trunk is Marc’s, and it takes two of us to hoist the 65-pound monster. “Holy hernia!” Steve grunts. “You stuff your mother-in-law in here?” Marc shoulders it casually, finding nothing abnormal about the weight. In truth, this is a load many would haul over this route. “If the weather turns nasty,” Marc retorts, “I won’t get blown off the mountain.”

The gloves are off. In one corner we have Steve and me; we think packing light is not only a smarter, more enjoyable method of travel, but a safer one. In the other corner are Marc, his wife, Margareta, Seattle Times reporter Chris Solomon, and photographer Tom Kirkendall, all traveling with “normal” loads that are twice as heavy as ours but, they believe, necessary for being properly prepared and comfortable on this trip.

The Weigh-In

Our trip is designed as a showdown, which is why the scales come out at the trailhead. A rule of thumb is that the load on your back should be no more than 25 percent of your body weight. Here’s how our crew stacks up:

The heavyweights

  • Marc’s 65-pound load is 36 percent of his body weight.
  • Margareta will be carrying 43 pounds, which translates to 32 percent of her weight.
  • Chris is Mr. Average among us; his 50-pound load equals 25.5 percent of his weight.
  • Tom, with all his photo gear, takes the prize; his 75-pound load is 41 percent of his weight.

On the light side

  • Steve’s 30-pound load is 19.5 percent of his weight.
  • My 31-pound load is 16.5 percent of my weight.

These percentages (calculated before we don hiking shoes) still don’t tell the whole story. If you believe a pound on the foot equals 5 on the back, then the approach shoes Steve and I wear (2 pounds 2 ounces per pair) are an additional 10- to 15-pound savings over the leather boots (4 pounds 8 ounces to 5 pounds 8 ounces) the other four use. With the boots factored in, even Chris carries twice the lightweights’ loads.

The four Heavies are skeptical about our provisions, but downright worried about our low-cut approach shoes, which resemble heavy-duty trail runners. Margareta wonders whether we’ll slip on the steep heather slopes we’ll be traversing. Chris thinks we’ll turn an ankle or two. Tom believes the shoes are unsuitable for glacier travel. My experience tells me that footwear is one of the most misunderstood pieces of hiking equipment, though, so I’m willing to let the results speak for themselves. “We’ll find out,” I grin, taking my first feather-footed step down the trail.

The Lightniks find out on the initial 4 miles of trail bordering the White River that small loads and light shoes make for effortless travel. On this flat trail section, the Heavies (all of whom are extremely fit) have little trouble maintaining a 3-miles-per-hour pace.

At a junction where our route begins to climb, Steve and I have yet to break a sweat, but the others are happy to take a short break. They’re also happy to flaunt deli sandwiches stuffed with sliced meat and cheese while Steve and I chomp on bagels smeared with cream cheese. We call the round a draw.
Lightniks 1 Heavies 1

Steve and I set an easy pace up the steep spur trail bordering Boulder Creek. The light pack has me pondering a backcountry skiing paradigm: Double the weight and quarter the skiing pleasure. I think for backpacking, you could argue: Halve the weight and double the walking pleasure.

Steve and I chat amiably, and while the Heavies stay with us, Marc, who is a stronger hiker than I am when the scales are even, confesses, “I’m having to keep quiet to stay with you.”

We gain 2,500 vertical feet and enter meadows thick with blueberries. Steve and I fan out for the harvest. The others enjoy a few berries, but none of them pick any that require bending to reach. They tease us about our supposedly light rations and suggest we chow down while opportunity knocks.

That we haven’t packed enough food is a misconception the Heavies will hold dear for much of the trip. True, our Sierra cups do not runneth over; the quantities are carefully planned to avoid food (that is, weight) that won’t be eaten. Furthermore, our menu won’t win culinary awards. We’re interested in items with a low dry weight that maximizes calories, not freshness maximizing taste. Nonetheless, the food we carry (1 pound 8 ounces per person per day) strikes a nice balance for big eaters. It’s large enough to satisfy the stomach, and light enough to satisfy the shoulders.

We leave the Boulder Creek Trail and follow even steeper game trails heading toward the base of Clark Mountain. The heavyweights lean into their loads, and though they make good time, there’s little doubt that they’re struggling. At a flat bench 4,000 vertical feet above the trip’s starting point, they call it a day. A month earlier, Marc and Margareta, carrying minimal packs, climbed Clark Mountain as a daytrip, a distance of 28 miles with a vertical gain of 6,400 feet. Now, with heavy packs, they’re well shy of that day’s halfway mark. Marc confesses, “Our daytrip was easier.”

Steve and I, meanwhile, still feel fresh. We could easily double the day’s effort. The lightweights take the round.
Lightniks 2 Heavies 1

The contest moves from the trail to camp. Steve and I pitch our Stephenson’s Warmlite 2R, a two-person tent weighing 2 pounds 12 ounces (3 pounds 4 ounces with ground cloth and stakes) that’s withstood rain, snow, and hurricane-force winds on mountaineering expeditions. This tent testifies that a marriage of materials and design can deliver gear that’s not only half the weight of normal equipment, but also, in some cases, twice the strength. We have no intention of bringing to life Marc’s worries that we’ll be “blown off the mountain.”

We fire up our 3-ounce Mountain Safety Research PocketRocket stove and 5 minutes later, we have water boiling. The stove is turned off, instant stew mixes (we carry a variety of one-pot meals using instant potatoes, Minute Rice, corn pasta, or instant hummus) go in the pot, and moments later, we’re dining. We heat one more pot of water for instant soup and a hot drink, to be sipped along with a chocolate-bar dessert, then crawl into our sleeping bags and keep the heavyweights company as they cook. They prepare noninstant soup, a nice pasta dish made with precooked chicken and dried vegetables, and pudding. By the time everything is ready, however, snow is flying and they’re too cold to enjoy the tastier food they’ve prepared.

An inch of snow falls before strong winds blast away the clouds. Late at night, the thermometer in our tent registers 22°F, and in our 2-pound down bags (1 pound 8 ounces lighter than those of our cohorts), we wake up chilled. We slip on coats and hats, nestle back into our bags, and sleep comfortably for the remainder of the night. Meanwhile, the Heavies all sleep snugly, without a trace of hardship. Another tied round.
Lightniks 3 Heavies 2

Steve and I leave camp 5 minutes after the others, yet we reach a pass 1,000 vertical feet higher 5 minutes ahead of the pack. Traveling cross-country over the pass, we encounter rock-hard frozen ground coating extremely steep slopes. Using hands, feet, and ice axes, we move deliberately downward: a slip here would be lethal. Noting their ungainly packs, I ask whether the Heavies want a belay, but they feel their stiff boots are edging well. My light pack gives me greater balance, but my shoes require more careful placement, meaning the heavyweights and I descend at the same pace. Steve, however, lacks my confidence and moves very slowly. Halfway down, I stop to belay him, and by the time we regroup, the others have been waiting for half an hour. The heavyweights win the round.
Lightniks 3 Heavies 3

After bagging Clark Mountain, we encounter her imposing southwestern slopes. Descending a gully lined with scree, boulders, and bands of rock is the best of several unappetizing options. Steve initially moves the slowest, but it’s technique rather than technology hampering him. “Thank God I don’t have a monster pack,” he tells me. “I couldn’t do this safely with that much weight.”

He gains confidence and is soon keeping pace with the Heavies. With my light load and sensitive shoes, I can outpace most of the group and move with greater balance and safety. Amazingly, Marc, with his massive load, also moves confidently down this tricky slope. He agrees with my comment that were he carrying my kit, he’d literally fly across this technical terrain. The ultralights take the round.
Lightniks 4 Heavies 3

We camp on heather benches overlooking the ripsaw skyline of the Cascades. The Heavies, complaining of their tired backs and weary quads, rest while they slice fresh peppers and bread for a feast. Steve, still full of energy, takes 40 minutes to climb a peaklet above camp and gaze over its glaciers. He and I repeat our cooking ritual and slam down quickly made, calorie-packed food. Afterward, we sit on sun-warmed granite slabs while the Heavies enjoy their fete. As they fry garlic and sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, then soak up the oil with plump slices of fresh bread, there is a measure of food envy among the Lightniks. “This is when the heavy pack pays off,” says Chris, saluting us with his aromatic bread. The heavyweights take another round.
Lightniks 4 Heavies 4

A long morning of sidehilling on grassy slopes delivers us to steep scree slopes leading to a col, through which we will access the Butterfly Glacier. Steve and I reach the col spilling little perspiration. The bottoms of my feet are sensitive from all the sidehilling, but my woes (from shoes I began wearing just days ago) are minor compared to Margareta’s. The stiff leather and soles of her not-so-new boots, leveraged by the weight on her back, have carved nickel-size blisters into her heels.

While Margareta doctors her feet at the col, we discuss differences in first-aid philosophies. Steve and I carry a kit that’s a third of the size of the Heavies’. Ours holds a selection of bandages, moleskin, a suture kit, and some powerful painkillers, but not the gauze, tapes, splints, wraps, and cleansers of a “normal” kit. We argue that other supplies we carry (bandannas, duct tape, Ensolite pads, dish soap) can double as first-aid supplies. Steve and I also argue that our light loads are good first aid in and of themselves: Rather than treating injuries, these loads actually prevent injuries by keeping us better balanced and putting less stress on our joints.

At the col, we all also don crampons. My strap-on aluminum crampons (1 pound 4 ounces) are a pound lighter than Marc’s steel points, yet for nontechnical travel across blue-ice glaciers or up icy snow slopes, they provide equal bite. In fact, because slips on snow cause many backpacking accidents, I contend that wearing light shoes and carrying aluminum crampons is not only lighter, more versatile, and cheaper, but also safer than heading into the high country outfitted only with stiff leather boots, as some hikers might do to “save” the weight of crampons. My shoes and crampons weigh only 3 pounds 6 ounces, considerably less than Marc’s big boots alone, which weigh 4 pounds 8 ounces.

We make a mile-long traverse of the Butterfly Glacier and, though the ice is hard and the pitch very steep, Steve and I have no trouble with our light footwear. An hour later, we downclimb glacier-polished slabs with greater ease and safety than do the Heavies, thanks to the improved balance afforded by our light packs and flexible shoes.

Late in the afternoon, we reach a ridge above Moth Lake, a glacially fed tarn where we will camp. The Heavies are feeling their extra pounds, but the Lightweights are still fresh. Steve tells me he used to pack heavy like the others, and “8 to 10 miles was a big day then.” A paradigm shift made him realize he could get by with leaving much of his load behind. “Traveling light has eliminated neck problems backpacking was causing me. It’s also made 25-mile days no big deal,” he says.

While the Heavies trudge on to camp, Steve branches off for a side trip. He jogs along a broad, scenic ridge and gradually climbs 1,500 vertical feet to the summit of an 8,000-foot peak overlooking Moth Lake. At camp, Marc drops his pack; watching Steve’s upward progress, he mutters, “No way I want to do that now.” It’s a convincing win for the lightweights.
Lightniks 5 Heavies 4

The morning is spent sidehilling steep slopes and scrambling over cliff bands blocking our progress. The light packs make boulder hopping, scrambling, and climbing simple. Steve and I scamper over boulders up which we must sometimes help the Heavies.

After lunch, we move onto the Honeycomb Glacier, a 3-mile-long river of ice, and begin climbing. The Heavies lean into their loads and frequently stare down at their boots. Steve, by contrast, is looking everywhere–up at the spires flanking us, sideways at the volcanic hulk of Glacier Peak, backward at the green lake below the terminal moraine–and snapping pictures as he walks.

At 7,400 feet, the party splits. The three hikers wearing the biggest packs exit the glacier and make a beeline to camp. Chris, with his middling weight, joins the lightweights, and we shift into high gear. Adding a few hours to the day, we climb a peak feeding this glacier, drop off the peak’s far side, and follow a circuitous return that has us reaching camp just after dark.

Some heavyweights might prefer getting to camp early and enjoying the benefits of the extra weight they’ve carried by sipping coffee, reading a book, and overlooking the scenery from their comfortable camp chairs. In the case of our heavyweights, though, it’s envy that registers. “I wanted to join you,” says Marc, ” but I was spent.” The Lightniks take the round.
Lightniks 6 Heavies 4

From our timberline camp, we follow a forested ridge that drops into the White River valley. We hope to encounter a climber’s trail cutting through the green wreath of Cascadian brush, but fail to find one. For hours, we wriggle through slide alder, crawl over deadfall, and duck under evergreen branches. The small packs Steve and I carry make all the contortions easy. Out of masochistic curiosity, I swap packs with Tom, who now has trimmed his load down to a svelte 63 pounds. Ninety minutes later, I have hips that will be sore for days, burnt quads, and a sweat-drenched back. I can’t wait to reclaim my load.

Eventually, we intersect the trail bordering the White River. Steve and I want to know how quickly we can comfortably cover the 11 miles separating us from the cars. Two hours and 15 minutes later, after combining slow jogging and fast walking, we have our answer. More than an hour faster than the closest heavy, the lightweights take the round.
Lightniks 7 Heavies 4

And The Winners Are…

The real test of this showdown would be whether the members of one side defected to the other side, and in the end most of the Heavies were swayed. Marc wasn’t sure he could halve his pack weight, but felt certain he could shed 15 to 20 pounds. Margareta was impressed with our footwear and commented, “I think light shoes were the biggest item in making travel easier. I’ll probably switch.” Chris had studied our techniques and technology more closely than anyone else, and at trip’s end announced, “I’m not going out there with a heavy pack again.”

Meanwhile, even though our route was far more rugged than the average backpacking trip, Steve and I found nothing lacking in our lightweight systems. A week later, carrying the same kit (minus 5 pounds of climbing gear), he completed Mt. Rainier’s 93-mile-long Wonderland Trail in 3 days.

See Light Loads, in sidebar at right, for the complete list of what the Lightniks carried. See Related Articles, at right, for reviews of the lightweight gear featured in this story, as well as other reviews and feature articles.

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