The media, through the years, has successfully made the judgment that lightweight backpackers are survival freaks waiting for an accident that will put them into a state of hypothermia forever. Another way of putting it: lightweight hikers provide great search and rescue targets. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, lightweight hikers tend to study and practice more advanced outdoor techniques.
—Ryan Jordan, ultralight backpacking expert
What are the best ways to maximize my safety and survival in the backcountry? What is the relationship between pack weight and backcountry safety? Is a traditional or a lightweight approach to backpacking inherently safer, all else being equal? Are things like knowledge, experience and skill much more important than the items carried in your pack?
Many interesting issues and criticisms can be raised about the lightweight backpacking movement: expense of lightweight equipment, undue influence by gear manufacturers, record setting competitions, fanaticism by advocates, elitism, reduced comfort levels bordering on masochism, not having essential emergency and survival items. However, the last issue of safety and survival is often foremost for hikers and backpackers as they contemplate the lightweight packing philosophy. The tension between pack weight and backcountry safety is the focus of this article and of this debate.
The issue of maximizing safety and survival in the backcountry can be approached in many ways. The various articles in the Safety and Prevention section of this website deal with it in the context of risk prevention strategies. The Emergencies section of this website focuses on dealing with emergencies when and if they arise. This current article deals with safety and survival in the context of two contrasting philosophies of backcountry travel: Ultralightists vs. Traditionalists. Even though there is a whole continuum of lightweight and heavyweight packing, I will use the following working definitions for this debate: Ultralight = 10 pounds or less base pack weight; Traditionalist = 20 pounds or more of base pack weight. Base pack weight does not include consumables or items worn while hiking.
To put this debate into a realistic context, I offer some starting assumptions. First, assume that both the Ultralightist and Traditionalist are experienced and knowledgeable in the ways of backcountry travel (i.e., not beginners). Also, assume there are no special circumstances that would dictate carrying more and heavier gear for either participant in the debate (e.g., young children present, leader of an inexperienced party, winter like conditions, climbing gear needed). One unique context that is hotly debated, but is not explicitly dealt with in this article, is the “fast and light” alpinism crowd. Finally, assume that the target audience for this debate is not aboriginals or highly trained survivalists who pride themselves on being able to survive with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs.
. . . remember that real pleasure [in the mountains] demands, above all, gear that has enough reserve strength (and sometimes reserve items too) to tide you over those inevitable occasions when Murphy’s Law—If things can go wrong, they will—exerts its stern way. Perhaps this is the nub of the issue. A very experienced all-weather backpacker who works for a leading mountain shop said to me recently “Yes, I’ve played the ultralight game—and backed off a ways. For a week’s trip, now, I’m generally back at fifty pounds, or close to it. The trouble is, as you go lighter, so the chances of failure increase . . . . What matters is the danger of being let down in the field. Soon that risk grows too big.
—Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker III, page 30
Upon taking a closer look at this “safety-in-the-wilderness” issue, I started with the assumptions that most Ultralights would agree they are compromising safety for other higher values: more freedom and flexibility, more time in the wilderness, more fun and enjoyment, etc. I was quite surprised to find Ultralightists who also claim the high ground on the safety issue. In the words of Ray Jardine:
The bulk of advertisements and articles in today’s outdoor magazines are telling us . . . that we need a wide selection of the very best in heavy-duty gear in order to survive out there, let alone to have a good time. These ads use a common tactic: they attempt to arouse your fears of nature, and then they rescue you with the company’s wares as the ultimate weapons against the big, bad, natural world . . . . Accidents do happen, but they are more related to overconfidence and inattentiveness than to lack of heavy-duty gear . . . . I am not promoting minimalism, but simply a reduction in what is not necessary. And I have found that this reduction, when thoughtfully and skillfully done, actually enhances both our safety and comfort.
—Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking: Guide to Lightweight Hiking,
pages 12 and 17-21
The stage is now set. We have the opening salvos from both sides. Now to the details. (Yes, the devil is always in the details.) In this article, the details are made explicit in a dialogue and debate format with a sequence of “arguments,” “replies” and “counterreplies.” During the debate, I will state the strongest positions possible on both sides of selected issues, attempting to walk in the boots (or trail shoes for the Ultralightists) of each philosophical position. I will make the dialogue as realistic and as objective as possible, saving my own conclusions for the end of the article.
Traditionalists Argue for Having Proper Essentials
Traditionalists, like Fletcher, imply that a backpacker must throw out many of the “ten essentials” or “reserve items” to get lightweight packs. He believes that to achieve these low weights (10 pounds or less base pack weight), it is necessary to seriously compromise safety and not be able to adequately deal with emergencies. As an ultralightist, I want to reply to this critique on several levels.
1st Ultralightist Reply—The Essentials Are Relatively Light: Going light is not going without the necessary equipment. It is finding lightweight alternatives and taking gear that will serve more than one function. Going light is questioning whether seldom or never used items are really necessary and essential. Most experienced backpackers, of whatever philosophy, carry emergency gear, most of which is relatively light (e.g., knife, first aid, map, compass, sun glasses, fire starter, flashlight, signaling items). The heavy stuff for which the ultralightist seeks serious reductions are things like boots, pack, tent, sleeping bag, water, cooking gear, extra clothing. We can argue about what kind of knife is necessary, about how much first aid to carry, what kind of flashlight to carry, and so on. Even on these relatively light items, the Traditionalist often goes overboard, weightwise. For example, a razor blade of some sort is usually quite sufficient for a sharp edge rather than a large hunting knife. Regarding the potentially heavy items mentioned, the issue is mostly a matter of comfort, not safety. The need for extra clothing, as a matter of safety, will be addressed in a later context (hypothermia potential).
Traditionalist Counterreply To “Essentials Are Relatively Light”: Ultralightists obtain their low pack weight only by cutting corners on everything possible. The issue is not any one item but the cumulative impact of the whole kit. In emergency situations all carried items become important. In addition, “comfort items” often become safety gear.
[Note: The full version of this section (see below) contains four(4) more Ultralightist Replies and corresponding Traditionalist counterreplies to this argument about “essentials.”]
The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 19 pages) available as a free download. Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
Traditionalist Argue for Having the Proper Essentials
Traditionalist Argument About Gear Failure
Ultralightist Argument on the Adrenaline Rush
Traditionalist Concerns About Hypothermia