Backpacking Gear: Is Ultralight Tech Worth It?

Dear Gear Team,

I’ve been backpacking for a few years and am thinking of buying some ultralight gear, but I’m worried about cost and comfort. Are the trade-offs worth it?

—Weighing My Options

This question is all about aspiration. I remember the first time I saw an ultralight-equipped hiker like it was yesterday. I was exploring Oregon’s Cascades with an overloaded pack and had just slogged a mile up 1,000 vertical feet, pausing before the valley that would lead to a cirque, when Ms. Ultralight swept up silently behind me wearing minimalist trail-running shoes and a teensy pack. A quick hello escaped her lips as she passed, and then she floated over a talus field like an apparition, disappearing into the woods beyond. When I arrived at the base of the cirque an hour later, there she was at the distance, a hammock slung between two trees, with the best possible view of the iridescent blue lake before us. I slowly set up what suddenly felt like a totally overwrought camp, jealous of her compact accommodations, her defined quadriceps, and her next-to-nothing pack. Could I be like that one day?

It turns out I could. In the years that followed, I backpacked more and carried less. I pinched pennies to buy a lighter tent, sleeping bag, and stove. I whittled down my packing list and built up my mileage, which toned my quads. I knew I was in deep when I sawed off half of my closed-cell foam pad to curtail my load. Yet, one night as I lay upon that half-pad, the mosquitos gnawing at my cheeks (I’d taken to leaving my tent behind when the forecast was good) and my belly rumbling because I hadn’t brought enough food, I decided that I’d had enough.

On that night I asked myself: Why do I backpack? The verdict became clear to me as my cheeks swelled with insect saliva: I do this to get away from people and enjoy nature—“enjoy” being the key verb there. I don’t do it to spend a small fortune on wispy gear, only to curl up in the fetal position with half my body against the unforgiving ground.

So ask yourself the same. Do you want to experience wilderness at a reasonable clip—and enjoy a few comforts while you’re at it—or push yourself to the limits equipped with only the bare necessities? Neither is wrong, but your answer will reveal your truth. And that’s crucial amid today’s divisive gear world, a place full of holier-than-thou rhetoric and proclamations from magazines like this one, internet forums where many will tell you that ultralight is the only way, and enough featherweight models on the market to keep you researching for years. If you’re about to hike thousands of miles, you should probably dive in and read the reviews. But if you’re a weekend warrior squeezing in a few longer trips each year, all that fretting over grams is probably for naught. Your quads will look better with the extra weight anyway.

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