The Final Word On Ultralight Hiking Sunday January 13, 2013

When I first started hiking I dismissed claims about modern optimised fabrics and their expensive benefits. They were indeed expensive and I felt some resistant pride when I wore lambs wool jumpers and thick army socks because I detected a hype factor and people trying to exploit me. That’s the basis for my ruminations about “light” or “ultralight” hiking. The fact that it’s even designated as such, given a cool identity label, substantiates my suspicions. Just carry less stuff, and buy lighter stuff. That’s all there is to it. So why then have there been such fierce fights taking place across the internet? It substantiates my point: such matters are like football team affiliation and correspondingly ridiculous. And like gossip about one of these shiny fools who are “celebrated” – the rich people, film people, music people – it makes no difference whether the tone of it is attacking or cooing because it’s all publicity for buying gear.

Get a grip. Carry less stuff, buy lighter stuff, and stop the nonsense. Or don’t, and insist that you need your heavy boots and portable DVD player for the evening, but stop the nonsense again. I have had such conversations, though amicable. In the Pyrenees a couple of years ago I met a chap from London wearing big leather Scarpas. I was dancing along in my wonderful sandals as he plodded with all that weight. In fact that’s not entirely true. He was a far quicker walker than I was, partly because he’d been doing it for weeks undertaking the entire Haute Route and partly because of his build. His legs, I noted, made mine look like pencils. If I had that amount of muscle to drive me forward I would also walk faster. I don’t. I walk slowly. And this is one reason why I like to optimise and lighten my gear: I can’t carry a great weight.

I think there’s a competitive machismo which gets attached to “ultralight” whether for or against. I couldn’t be macho if I tried. Think Woody Allen rather than Bruce Willis. But chaps being chaps, and we mostly are chaps in the outdoors, I wonder if weight designation is subliminally associated with boxing weight. “I’ll whip yo ass fella, coz I am super-extra light.” “No way, sandal-boy, coz I is light but fast optimised light, see? – I am the greatest, I am the best! Bring it on!” – as he shuffles and shadow boxes on the summit of Great Gable. It’s only chaps who indulge in heated exchanges about weight. The ladies presumably avoid the topic of weight for their own reasons and choose instead to argue about best colours. “Pink is the new black.” “What do you mean, pink is the new black??” I tell you, pink is the new black because Patagonia say so!!”

The benefits of modern lightweight gear are substantial and remarkable. It is far more efficient walking in light sandals rather than mountain boots. It is a myth that you need the latter, which traces back to alpine mountaineering tradition. You may feel more secure with the latter and that’s important but shouldn’t be limiting. I felt this myself for years. When I handled a soft pair of Brasher Supalites and flexed the bendy sole my immediate reaction was “oooh, no!” and conveyed this to the chap in the store. My reaction was more about psychology, habit, and perceived comfort zone rather than the facts of mountain walking. There are situations where heavy boots are significantly better such as descending scree. In my old Scarpas I would crash down hard, the impact making it more secure and the speed of travel much quicker. It’s good fun because you get down nasty scree very quickly. Slightly dangerous of course, as you want speed but not momentum, and I endured a slight gash. But it was manly; yes, manly. Whereas with sandals you have to pick your way carefully and slowly. Similarly with snow, ice and more technical terrain a rigid boot has advantages: you can kick holes, attach substantial crampons, and use the boot as a secure platform across tiny horizontal ridges because there’s no lateral flex. Everyone’s walking is different; I rarely encounter such conditions and never for an extended time.

Similarly with rucksacks, there is no need to carry a heavy pack any more. I started with a Go Lite Jam then changed to a ULA Conduit which is even better (slightly lighter, more comfortable, better features). Before I understood the subject I nearly bought an Arcteryx model because I was impressed with how robust it was. Massive hip belt, thick fabric, reinforced, cushioned, rubberised, it was very comfortable in the shop but before I bought it – and it was expensive – I decided to research the subject more fully on the internet. I found people discussing weight which I’d never seen before, and shortly after bought my Jam.

There is a need for education as my Arcteryx experience shows. The store assistant confirmed my ideas, agreeing that the extremely heavy pack was a good choice because it was robust. But the point about education (or proselytising) is where some of the fights start. ‘A’ says go lightweight. ‘B’ says feck off I like going heavy. ‘C’ says you can’t tell people to go light. ‘A’ says yes I can and does more of it – and when you research it further it’s pretty clear he’s doing it for commercial interests. Yap about it, people will come. Take a stand, others will disagree which generates publicity. Make friends with a gear company then really start yapping about it or give well attended lectures about go-iiing light…weight…phwoooaarr as with a prophylactic – to establish yourself as Mr Ultralight. And so on.

Look, stop the nonsense. It’s simple and obvious. Go light – it’s more efficient. Or disagree if you wish, which is also fine because you walk your walks, not me. It’s not difficult finding relevant conversations on the internet and learning this stuff. Tents – Tarptent, Trailstar, Duomid. See what the craic is. Feet – Inov8, Brasher, Keen sandals (excellent). Cooking – pepsi can stoves and meths or most of the good gas stoves have minimal weight. Rucksack – Go Lite and ULA. There are others, but you will find them debated if you search for those brands. Shelter, footwear and pack are the main weight considerations and everything follows the same way with all aspects of kit: find out how much it weighs and balance this with its features and cost in terms of your needs and preferences.

Then you can make dual use of items like a head torch for example, which may serve as a tent light. You can compensate for a lighter sleeping bag by wearing day clothes when you sleep. Dried food is much lighter; you can buy it or make your own. You can buy expensive water filters which are also heavy or use two small bottles of chemicals which combine to produce chlorine dioxide. Or if you think it’s worth it, the tiny Steripen is fast, light, but expensive. Heavy jackets are still being sold in shops, by people who don’t understand the principle of going light so can’t advise you about it. It’s not rocket science. Just pay attention to the weight of everything you buy and balance this against cost, durability, comfort, safety and protection, which in turn relates to the conditions of your walking: where you go and when.

That’s about it, folks. Can’t be bothered giving specific details about grams, web sites etc because all that does is set myself up as a gateway towards stuff which you can find for yourself, which you will evaluate for yourself, then hopefully go for a walk and forget about it. Carry less stuff, buy lighter stuff.

Then a week later see another debate kicking off about (ta daaa!) The Future Of The Outoor Industry as if that future is melded to yours and you can’t enjoy the hills without that future. The “industry” only consists of certain companies at a certain time. Some will still be here in ten years, some won’t, in which regard no one can talk of “the industry” in any sensible fashion nor is there anything to worry about as a hill walker because someone will always service our needs and make a profit from it. I think prices are excessive and this is why street and internet stores have attractive sales two or three times a year: the piss take prices can’t be sustained for all twelve months. And this is further why I object to “ultralight” nonsense because it generates heavyweight prices. I wonder too how much further “innovation” is possible, because existing developments have been so extensive. I suspect what will happen is we will see more extreme ideas, such as Cuben fibre, which as some are now correctly saying: how long will this stuff last, so do I want to pay a large sum for it, when the weight saving is not so huge?

My future is years away with my sandals (only had them six months), years away for my HiTec boots (they don’t wear well but I only use them in winter), years away for my base layers (two silk tops, two merino wool and a nice Paramo shirt all in good condition), maybe a new jacket when I see a lightweight eVent model I like but otherwise it’s not a big deal using my North Face Paclite a little longer: not the most breathable fabric but last year in the Pyrenees for example, I only wore it a few hours when I was walking for nearly three weeks.

Poles? My carbon Lekis are brilliant, but difficult to pack so I may consider fold up rigid poles having realised I rarely if ever adjust pole length which is one of their features and the fold-ups are lighter. Optimise – see?? Tarptent Rainbow, pondering another model better in wind but balancing this against how much wind I ever encounter – it’s not very often to any serious degree. Caldera Cone – brilliant, best meths system there is and I’ll be using it for years. Trousers? North Face. Don’t know what they’re called. They’re brilliant. Sorted. Slightly ripped, don’t care, good for a few years.

Sure, a few more bits and bobs but can’t be bothered going on about it because my “future”, actually, concerns great days in the hills and photographing their beauty, not tiresome yapping about kit.

Lake District





Peak District