Ultralight backpacking and why Canadians aren’t paying attention.
Words & Photos :: Mins Savela
Every outdoor enthusiast knows that as soon as they buckle their backpack straps and head out the door for an adventure that some element of suffering is in the foreseeable future. Leaving a trailhead often has us wondering how long it will be before the real sufferfest sets in. The culture of suffering is rooted in heavy packs, blisters, and aching joints, as well as other cons that we have rationalized as worth the suffering to reach our objectives. It’s all worth it when you reach that high alpine lake to set up camp under towering peaks. It’s all worth it to watch the sun set, casting intoxicating colours through the sky above.
As Canadians make their way along our world-renowned trail systems, they are seen hobbling to camp with packs rising high above their heads, ankles shaking as duct tape peeks out from the tops of their sturdy boots. The extensive straps on the outside of their packs secure dangling items that clank together with every heavy step. Walking into any big outfitter such as MEC or Atmosphere will have you trying on packs with endless pockets and organizational features, boots that will last you a decade—while taking equally as long to break in—and checking out a full cook set with everything you need to craft up a gourmet meal. After fittings, upgrades and time spent on the trails, it seems as though the volume of your pack defines your outdoor experience. We see this evidenced as older hikers can be found donning 90litre packs and cooking exquisite meals from their fold up chair at camp. Seems nice, doesn’t it?
What if the comforts of camp didn’t have to bring the aches and pains that getting there requires? The culture of ultralight backpacking has begun to sweep the trails in the United States while remaining largely unknown in Canada. Ultralight backpacking is rooted in the philosophy that lightening your load from head to toe allows you to hike longer, faster, and with less prospect of injury. In basic terms, the philosophy of ultralight backpacking encourages hikers to bring the base weight of their pack down to less than 15 pounds. This includes the full weight of your pack, clothing, cook set, filtration system, and any accessories you will carry before food and water. Think of it as a trickle-down theory. As your gear becomes lighter and more compressible, you won’t require as large of a pack. The lighter your pack, the less frame and suspension is required to support the weight. Less weight requires less ankle support in your boots. Lighter shoes allow your gait to change and your body to move more freely without being restricted by heavy gear. Sounds like a solution to the inevitable hiker hobble.
Ultralight backpacking is remarkably common in the long-distance backpacking world—think Great Divide Trail. The true history of ultralight culture is relatively unrecognized, but many pay homage to the philosophy of Ray Jardine and his 1992 book Beyond Backpacking. Originally titled PCT Hiker’s Handbook, the 1992 release discusses Jardine’s philosophy in lightening up his gear from his pack and shelter all the way to the type of shoes he was wearing.
His ideas were widely disseminated in the long-distance hiking and ultra-running communities encouraging hikers to start making their own gear from durable lightweight materials different from the standard materials that were ruling the backpacking industry.
As ultralight backpacking took off, small makers launched brands and have become functional businesses often referred to as Cottage Brands. These small brands are crafting products that are not found in big stores like MEC or REI. Many of the ultralight backpacks use a simple design with one main compartment, roll top closure, and some mesh outer pockets. Shelters tend to use a design that relies on trekking poles to support the structure in an effort to avoid carrying two sets of poles. Through visibility and online presence, these brands were able to reach an audience outside of the long-distance hiking community. Weekenders and infrequent backpackers in the United States have now swept up ultralight gear in an effort to eliminate the possibilities of a sufferfest and start enjoying backpacking without the aches and pains caused by traditional gear.
So why don’t we see ultralight gear in the Canadian wilderness? It comes down to cost and the lack of visibility both on trails and in stores. Consumers like to see a product before buying, try it on, feel the fabric, set it up, and really see the dimensions in front of them. So, without ever seeing ultralight gear, how are backpackers to be encouraged to switch over? Scott Matson co-founder of Northern Ultralight says, “the obvious obstacle that comes to mind is the potential high cost”. By hand-making packs in Nelson, BC Matson has been able to eliminate some of the overwhelming shipping and duty costs that aspiring ultralighters face. While much of the ultralight world exists in the hands of cottage brands, the option to return a product isn’t really possible. Without visibility in big box stores and even local outfitters, it is hard to make the ultralight commitment without knowing if you will really reap the declared benefits of this type of backpacking.
When asked his perspective on what prevents ultralight backpacking from flourishing in Canada, Matson says, “[…] there are very few domestic manufacturers of ultralight gear [in Canada]. I would encourage hikers to first adopt an ultralight mindset and ethos by getting rid of redundant and unnecessary gear before purchasing new equipment”.
This advice is vital for those who are hoping to suffer a little less and explore a little more. Ditching your 60L full frame pack for a 40L that looks more like a school bag than a piece of gear seems outlandish. So, maybe start by detaching the lid to cut some grams. Adopting the ultralight ethos involves finding items that are multi-use, simplifying your gear and making your set-up as versatile as possible.
Sure, the vast Canadian backcountry is a little more rugged than some of the areas the ultralight philosophy is derived from, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
The sliding scale of what defines ultralight moves with fluidity from entry-level to extreme. It’s possible that everyone can find some degree of comfort and durability within that scale.
So why are Canadians bypassing this style of backpacking? Why is this unspoken cure all to the aches and pains left out of the Canadian backpacking scene? The lack of visibility is a big factor. The more you are exposed to large packs and heavy gear being toted about by experienced backcountry users, the more likely you will dive into that market when investing in your next pieces of gear.
“The more exposure ultralight philosophy reaches the Canadian wilderness, the more likely hikers will begin to consider lightening up their load”.
Don’t be pressured into buying a pot scraper when your spork does the same job. Don’t feel like you need a plate and a bowl when your cookpot is just as much a vessel as anything. Start simplifying your kit and see what it feels like on your back. Grams add up and they turn into pounds before you know it, so by minimizing your kit, you’ll find out how little you can remain comfortable with before investing in specific ultralight gear.
If you’re able to adopt this philosophy and slowly evolve your backpacking gear list into something that is more closely aligned with ultralight backpacking, you might find yourself actually smiling up a pass and scrambling up the neighboring peak while your cohorts collapse on the switchbacks behind you.