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Ultimate Ultralight: Can You Go Backpacking With No Gear At All?

Just how much pack weight can one hiker cut? Our editor performs a far-out experiment in minimalism.

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I needed my camp chair. That was what doomed my initial efforts to lighten my load. Because once you concede to carrying a chair, it’s awfully easy to justify a book. And camp shoes.

Sure, I could save a few pounds by splurging on titanium cookware and a silnylon shelter and 900-fill down, but all ultralight experts agree: Any serious attempt to cut weight starts with simply taking less stuff.

So after my first few failed attempts, I determined to embrace the “less is more” ethic. When I decided to see just how light I could go for a summer overnight on the Appalachian Trail, the first thing I did was spread all of my gear across the living room.

It’s amazing how much a determined comfort camper like me can cram into a 65-liter pack. That’s a lot of stuff, I thought. Where do I even start? But of course it was obvious: The camp chair was first to go. I wasn’t so attached to my little luxuries that I’d lost the ability to distinguish between need and want. Naturally, the book and camp shoes followed. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all. I jettisoned the other low-hanging fruit: “packable” pillow, camera, coffee press, notebook, just-in-case layers.

As the reject pile grew, I was inspired to add to it. I looked at all the gear I normally pack and assessed each product with a new zeal for minimalism. Who needs extra clothes for an overnight? And what about all the other extras that seemed so important just an hour earlier? I could part with the repair kit, which always seemed smart to bring but rarely saw use. And my toiletry bag, small as it was, suddenly seemed extravagant. My dentist didn’t have to know. Some might argue that ditching the first-aid kit was rash, but I was on a roll. Ditto the map and compass, but this was Pennsylvania, where, in truth, you’re never far from a road.

But even added together, those accessories didn’t amount to much. If I intended to make a meaningful dent in my load, I’d have to consider the big stuff. My tent weighed almost 4 pounds. The forecast was for dry, warm weather, and I was only going for one night. Why bother? I tossed it onto the reject pile. Then I considered my sleeping bag—a 2-pound sack I knew I’d simply end up sleeping on top of in the July heat. The bag joined the tent. I felt a surge of adrenaline, like I was breaking a rule I hadn’t known existed. The feeling prompted me to ditch my inflatable sleeping pad, which weighs a pound. I never used a sleeping pad when I camped as a kid. Did I really need one now?

This was fun.

I turned my newly skeptical eye to my kitchen kit. A hot dinner was easy to part with, but I had to pause at the thought of a morning without coffee. Ouch. But I couldn’t stop now. Out went the stove, fuel, cookware, and mug. Come to think of it, John Muir famously headed into the wilderness for days with only a few crusts of bread. No one starves in 24 hours. A couple of energy bars would suffice.

“I fell asleep easily on my soft bed of moss. But a few hours later, I woke up a little chilled.”

I stood back and assessed my new overnight kit. I had a backpack and not much to put in it. So the pack went onto the reject pile as well and I vowed to go hiking with only what would fit in my pockets. Sorry, Ray Jardine, there’s a new ultralight king in town.

No-load hiking really speeds things up at the trailhead. I hopped out of the car and started up the trail, my chocolate lab Sadie in tow. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, with a thin fleece tied around my waist (my concession to extra layers). In my pockets: granola bars, a headlamp, a small water bottle, water-treatment tabs, a flask (some things are sacred), and a sandwich bag of dog food.

The trail weaved through a maze of boulders under a hardwood canopy that provided welcome shade. I had to resist running as the route rolled up and down along a miles-long plateau. But despite the effortless travel, I admit it was hard to get comfortable. I couldn’t help feeling a little naked, like I’d ordered dinner at a nice restaurant and then realized I’d forgotten my wallet.

The feeling was not alleviated by my encounter with an AT Ridgerunner. These good Samaritans patrol the trail for days on end, dispensing advice about backcountry safety and low-impact camping. So when I passed a solo Ridgerunner—a bearded guy in his 30s—going the opposite direction, I was a little cagey about my plans. No sense inviting a lecture about the 10 essentials. He assumed my camp was nearby and I said nothing to disabuse him of the idea.

An hour before sunset, I popped out on a clifftop overlook, where I could gaze out over the green tunnel instead of being in it. Ten yards from the edge, I found a moss-cushioned hideaway as level and large as a twin bed. I set up camp, which is to say I put down my water bottle.

Reclining on my perch, watching the light fade from the golden sky, I felt that, given the right conditions, extreme ultralight backpacking might just catch on. Sadie was not so sanguine. She’d been camping plenty of times, and even had her own custom sleeping pad my wife had made from closed-cell foam. It didn’t fit in my pocket. She nosed around for more than a few minutes before curling into a ball with a sad-eyed look that seemed to ask: This is it? She ate her dog food with less-than-normal enthusiasm.

By 10 p.m., the humid summer air had dropped into that neutral zone that feels neither hot nor cold, like what I imagine the water in a sensory deprivation tank feels like. I fell asleep easily on my soft bed of moss. But a few hours later, I woke up a little chilled. The temperature was still above 70°F, but even moss-cushioned ground sucks the heat right out of a motionless body clothed only in summer layers. And that moss, soft as it was, had nothing on the 2-inch-thick pad I’d left behind. I tossed and turned, trying to alleviate the pressure on my hips.

In the morning, I felt victorious despite my fitful night’s sleep. I’d survived no-load camping. But hiking out was not as satisfying as I’d expected—something just wasn’t right. I should have brought the coffee.

The Verdict: FAIL 

Taking less stuff is smart; taking nothing is dumb. I could have packed my bag, pad, and kitchen kit in a daypack and still carried less than 10 pounds—a light enough load by any measure.

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