Tuesday 6 November 2012

The end for ultralight hiking?

While I was away it seems that ultralight hiking took a bit of a bashing from some bloggers, Martin RyeAndrew SkurkaDave Chenault, among others and to various degrees. At the time I was out on my Coast and Moor hike so didn't get involved because, as we all agree, actually hiking is far more important than just talking about it! Since returning I've had time to read it properly and some good points have been raised, some I agree with... others, not so much. I've been an ultralight hiker since 2000 but its not something you will find mentioned much in this blog. It's just a label and not really relevant in the real world. Hendrik of hikinginFinland.com fame asked me, and a few others, to contribute towards an article he was compiling in favour of ultralight hiking for his blog. I was happy to do so. I recommend you read the full article but I think my thoughts on the subject are important enough to be published alone here.

From the day we are born we are set targets. A baby, if not of a certain weight, is classed as at-risk and nurtured until it reaches its target weight. Throughout school, and beyond, we are set targets through tests and exams. Athletes aspire to reach a certain target and when they do that target is moved that bit further away. As an engineer I'm often given a specification, or target, for my designs. Targets are what drives us to innovate, learn and progress. Without targets laziness and stagnation takes hold. Ultralight hiking is no different and if we don't set ourself goals, or targets, then little progress will be made. Even worse it's all too easy to take small backward steps that, over time, become giant leaps.

The problem with ultralight hiking as it stands today is the under 10lbs label, or target that has to be reached. This weight and classification as ultralight is meaningless to many because we all hike under different conditions and have different needs. Many trips carried-out in more demanding environments could easily be classed as ultralight that involve carrying more than a 10lbs weight. I've never been happy with this label and have always said that we should hike with the gear, and weight, that works for us. Yet, we should not sit back and be lazy about this. Set your own realistic target, if that's under 10lbs then fine but equally 15lbs or 20lbs could be just as right for you and the conditions. The important part is to have a target and keep moving it lighter until you reach that personal sweet-spot. That way progress will be made. You will know when your sweet-spot has been reached after you go past it and that will mean making some mistakes, or traveling "stupidly light" as it is now know. That's what quick overnight test hikes are for. Every ultralight hiker has done this and that's how we learn. You go back, adjust and try again. 

For many years my target weight for long hikes has been under 4kg (8.8lbs). I didn't choose that weight to be labelled an ultralight hiker, it chose me. Over 7 long years of testing I found that to be my sweet-spot that gave me the protection and comfort that I needed without carrying useless additional or over engineered gear. I've tried lighter weights but always come back. At 4kg I find few compromises have to be made on most Europe and USA 3 season hikes. Now that I'm hiking full-time my kit choices have changed and I'm likely to carry something more substantial than a flat tarp, often a gas stove over esbit, an airbed over foam and even a pillow has been seen recently in my gear list! My target weight hasn't shifted though. To keep within my sweet-spot I've had to think more and be creative. That's why I make more and more of my own gear. Without a target I would be carrying an additional 1-2 kg or more by now. Is that weight important? I would argue it is. Target weights are relevant and important.

Ultralight hiking may no longer be fashionable, which is a good thing, and hiker categories with set weights aren't helpful and have little relevance in the real world. However, the principle of minimalist hiking using the lightest and simplest kit for the conditions, comfort level and experience of the hiker have been here since the earliest days and will live on long after we've all hung-up our trail shoes. Don't be afraid of targets, used properly they can only be helpful.