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Unpopular Opinion: Ultralight Backpacking Is Way Less Fun

The advent of ultralight backpacking and gear has changed things. It’s a rite of passage now to be passed on a trail by a tall, thin guy wearing the shortest shorts and the tiniest backpack imaginable. He’s just booking it, and even though you’re on the same trail, you’ll never see him again. At your next break, you might look at your reasonably-sized pack and get a little jealous. You might think your setup’s no good. I’m here to tell you not to worry. Even though that guy, (who is probably very nice,) is an ultralight king, you’re doing it right by not giving in to that side of things. Your pack should be a little bit too heavy. You should bring a few things you don’t need. Ultralight Backpacking is just a little less fun.

An Ultralight Amount of Context

As a thru-hiker, I have been a part of the ultralight backpacking community for years now. I’m not trying to say it shouldn’t exist. Of course all of this ultralight gear is useful, cool, and it has its place. I have a fair amount of ultralight gear, but I never got to the far end of the spectrum. I’ve always packed a little heavier. Some of my best friends are ultralight backpackers, there’s just a few things about this subculture that get to me.

Read more about the debate between lightweight vs ultralight backpacking.

Ultralight Gear
Photo by Hendrik Morkel

Don’t Be Gatekeep-y

I knew I had gone too far when friends who aren’t particularly outdoorsy would ask how to get into backpacking, and I would instinctively start talking about base weight. Talking about pounds and ounces is not the way to encourage engagement with the outdoors. It’s not even fun from inside the ultralight community, let alone outside of it. There are other aspects of backpacking that act as better entry points. If you’re trying to have your first real wilderness experience, let’s talk about places to go and goals we want to meet, not how light your pack should be.

Besides that, let’s talk money. If you’re trying to get into backpacking, ultralight gear is not the way to go. This stuff is expensive. They’re good investments to make after you know you love it, but it’s unrealistic to make purchases like that for your first few trips. Borrow gear from family and friends. Put on a heavy, bombproof backpack that your dad used in the ‘80s, fill it far too full, then walk into the woods and figure it out.

Backpacking Group
Photo by Matt Heaton

Can We Go From Ultralight to Ultra-Durable?

Ultralight gear isn’t always flimsy and breakable, but it sure can be. I had one tent that ripped the first night I set it up on trail. It was a windstorm and partially my fault, but hey, I’m looking for a shelter that’s windstorm-proof and me-in-the-middle-of-the-night-proof too. My backpack has been through its paces in the three years I’ve owned it, and it has started to fray at the top of the shoulder straps. Before you ask, I’ve been very careful about picking it up properly. I really appreciate the intersection of durability and ultralight that most gear companies are shooting for. I almost wish, though, that durable gear was prioritized over gear being lightweight. What happened to those old packs that would last a lifetime? I might go looking for some antiques.

Backpacker
Photo by Danka & Peter

Okay, But What About the Fun Part?

Two words for you: luxury items. There’s a classic adage among thru-hikers that you can only have one luxury item, (an item you don’t need,) in your pack. Now, I have lived by this rule. I have given this advice. It’s not a bad rule for new backpackers who need to edit their gear lists.

However, if you already have a grasp on what you need in the outdoors, you should let yourself start ignoring this rule. I went that way after thru-hiking for a while. One day, I’m mailing my harmonica home, and months later, I’m buying packs of Magic: The Gathering cards with my hiking buddy at a Walmart, backpacks on.

What’s a good luxury item then? Playing cards, fairy lights to string up in your backpacking tent, up to two books, extra socks, lightweight camping chairs, camp shoes, hammocks, heavy cameras, french press mugs, and more. Have fun with it. Edit your packing list down to only the bare necessities, and then toss a little bit of fun back in there.

Ultralight Backpacking
Photo by Diogo Tavares

Two Things are True at Once

Ultralight backpacking gear is both convenient and unnecessary. I’m definitely going to buy more ultralight gear in the future, though selectively. I think I’ll prioritize gear that I know will last and prioritize repairing what I already have.

In one way, ultralight gear can improve access for people who find themselves intimidated by a too-heavy pack. On the other hand, it also seems to be one of the bells and whistles that can distract us from our actual wilderness experience. If we’re not careful, the prestige of having the latest gear, the competition to have the lightest pack, and other things that are simply a part of backpacking rather than the heart of it, may distract us. Our tools to get out into the backcountry are just that: tools. If you love the latest, greatest, ultralight gear with all your heart, I hope it’s a good avenue to get you outdoors. I hope once you get there, you forget all about it and find yourself immersed in the trees and the mountains and the birds.

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  1. Johnny two Keys

    Great article thank you for reminding us all that backpacking camping and hiking, is for being in the outdoors, and having fun and enjoying life, not for competition with others ,and buying equipment that’s cheap in quality very high in price , durability is mostly the way to go .Hike your own hike. John Smith, Ottowa, Illinois..

  2. William Farrell

    I’ve thru hiked roughly one half of the PCT in my time, starting with ultra durable Kelty pack and lately with a roomy two-person tent, Jet-boil stove, comfy mattress pad, and spongey pillow. Packed and enjoyed “War and Peace,” “Origin of Species,” and “Ulysses.” Have noticed that ultralight packers RARELY have a smile on their faces, even through the most spectacular scenery.
    Yes, they can count off 25 miles in a day to my 20, but is that really worth it?

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