When it comes to hiking, there are two basic schools of thought. The traditional school focus’ on comfort while you are in camp. On the other side of the fence is the ultralight school of thought. With ultralight, you give up some camp comforts in favor of a lighter pack and higher miles.
Most people don’t fall into one or the other, but instead balance between the two types of hiking. Each has flaws and each has strengths. A lot of it depends on what matters most to you and what sort of hiking you favor. Before we can work out where you fall, you need to first understand what each is.
So traditional camping favored camp comforts heavily. In some cases, hiking safety was considered equally important. Heavy boots with high sides were the footwear of choice because they held your ankle immobile and prevented twisting. Packs were large enough to carry whatever you might need. It was not uncommon to find notebooks, camp chairs, and doubled up items ‘just in case’ all packed away. Rain gear invariably covered as much of you as possible and was often heavy duty. All of this meant very heavy packs and slow or short hiking days.
Harder hikes mean you need more food as well, but all of this heavy lifting was rewarded by the time in camp. A spacious tent with a nice thick sleeping pad under you. A comfortable seat around a fire as you pan-fried some fresh fish and read a book. Hiking was often a grueling task with pauses to rest where you would enjoy the views. Camp was the place to be, relaxing and letting your feet rest.
The more modern extreme is to hike ultralight. Everything is super light, as the name implies, so that you don’t have to work as hard or burn as many calories along the way. Huge miles are common and packs over 20 pounds are considered foolish. Low top hiking shoes are favored, relying on fit to offer ankle support. Heavy rain gear is gone, since you sweat under it anyway and instead inventive solutions are chosen. Tarp tents or hammocks are the norm, as are shortened sleeping pads. Every bit of fat is trimmed.
When taken to the extreme, camp becomes just a place to sleep at the end of the day with absolutely no frills. Plastic spoons, frequent resupply and minimalist thinking are the center of ultralight hiking. Every choice is about getting by with as little as you possibly can. If an item doesn’t do at least two tasks, it is often set aside in favor of the one that does three or more.
Finding Your Hiking Balance
Most of us fall somewhere down the middle of these two extremes. I’ve only known one person who falls so far into the traditional side that they willingly hike with canned goods just for the pleasure of the contents. Ultralight hikers are a little more common, but again I have only met two or three who take it into the supreme extremes. Everyone else I have run across seems to fall between a 25 and 35 pound pack (including water and food weight).
Finding the right balance for you means knowing what matters to you. First, some things are universal. Footwear, for example, is always going to have six times the impact per ounce as your backpack does. One pound shoes are like six pounds on your back. Light and well fitted shoes can make a huge difference in your hiking experience. Other items with a broad range of usage and weight include your cooking setup, your water treatment and your tent.
Do you favor slow hikes and medium mileage? Do you rarely set up camp until just before time to rest?Have you found yourself utterly unhappy with every variation of rain gear? These things are factors in what you will want to pack. Some comforts, you probably won’t want to give up. Others you probably don’t use all that often anyway. Several will probably fall into a gray area that you can experiment with to find the balance that is perfect for you.
Of course, once you have all your gear figured out, you might find that the pack you have is no longer the right size for you. Remember, you will generally keep putting things in a pack until it is full, so smaller packs mean you won’t keep putting ‘just one more thing’ into it. I have never gotten below a 30 pound pack myself, but I have at one time carried a 60 pound pack. Knowing what I really want vs. what I think I might need has made a huge difference in my hiking experience over the years.
Hiking Comfort Series
Not right away, but at some future point I will go into depth on gear. I will explore some of the most common options and where they fit on the scale between Traditional and Ultralight backpacks. Rain gear, water treatment and cooking tools are all likely topics. In the future, when this series materializes, it will be listed under Hiking Comfort. Until then, I hope I have you already thinking about your gear. By the time we get to the series, you will hopefully have a good grasp on what aspects of your hike matter the most to you and what gear you feel is the most vital to your sense of enjoyment.