How light is too light?

To some, obsessing about every gram of weight in the pack isn’t just a means or a hobby; it’s a way of life. This is no alternative. It’s cutting straps off of packs, pulling stickers off packaging, trimming unneeded corners off maps, sleeping under a tarp, and eating dry granola for breakfast. To me, that’s not backpacking. To some, it is the very definition of backpacking.

I like to pack light. We all do. I don’t know anyone who purposely throws extra weight into their backpack just because they enjoy the power of the Earth’s gravitational field pulling down on them. Everyone wants a lighter pack, but there are limits. This lead me to the question “How light is too light?”.

In my eyes, everything you carry should provide two things: safety, and comfort. If you’re cutting weight, and you start to reduce either of those attributes, you’re defeating the purpose of carrying those items in the first place. What’s the point of carrying the extra weight of a sleeping pad if it’s not going to make you comfortable once you reach camp? Are you not simply making yourself less comfortable since you’re now carrying extra weight that doesn’t really help you sleep? Is a tarp going to protect you from a surprise storm that could blow through  sideways, or is it going to leave you soaked, cold, and covered in mosquitoes? This, to me, is when you cross the line.

For this reason I carefully inspect my pack contents before and after every trip. I remove anything that isn’t going to help me survive, keep me warm, dry, or help me sleep better. Most of my pack weight, I’ll admit, goes to a good night’s sleep. A lux sleeping pad, sleeping bag rated 10 degrees below my expected lows, and an 8 ounce down pillow (the Kelty Luxory pillow) that would send chills rolling down the spine of to any ultra-lighter as they rolled up dirty socks and a jacket for a headrest. Wadded up clothing is not comfort and I’ll never resort to such desperation, but I’ll let it slide because there is no extra weight involved in re-purposing something you’re already carrying into something else.

Kelty Luxory Down Pillow

So, the next time you’re cutting a foam sleeping pad in half or leaving your pillow at home, consider this; is what I’m packing enhancing my experience, or hampering it? Is leaving that 3 ounce pillow at home going to help me more than a good night’s sleep, or am I instead going to collapse from lack of rest before I hit camp on day two? Of course, the answer to that depends on the individual, and that’s the beauty of it.

In the end, do what works best for you. Hike your own hike, and step away from my ridiculous pillow. I’ll see you in the morning.



6 thoughts on “How light is too light?

  1. Good story on ultralight. I went this route so much that I spent a week in a tarp that was next to impossible to get in or out of, my feet hung out, bugs got in and I got a miserable nights sleep. All to save a pound! Got a screened SD 1 person tent, and no more bugs and some sleep. Same for air mattress. I went back to ISO canisters from messy dangerous alcohol stoves. Good hot food, and just a bit more weight.
    I learned a lot from ultralight adventures. The best way for me to cut weight is to cut pack size. I carry 30 liters for 2 night, 45 liters for a week. If it don’t fit, I don’t bring it!

    1. It’s certainly a learning experience. All you read online is how to go lighter and lighter, but few of those articles will mention the sacrifices you have to make while doing it. I’d much rather have a slightly more challenging pack weight, with a solid nights sleep and reliable protection from the elements.
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  2. Meh. Comfortable is perspective. Good planning is key. The more experience and trial and error the better decisions you can make. Some say XUL is dangerous even. But in the hands of an expert , they will enjoy the trail more than someone else packing all these “comforts.”

    1. I can certainly see where your coming from. I pack as light as I can so I can still move once I hit camp, but I do try to find a happy medium. I pack around 15 pounds base weight, but I still have luxury and space to camp. It’s doable with the right selection.

  3. Agreed. If a particular ultralight shelter or sleep system leads to a poor night’s sleep it really is a false saving in a sense. We may be carrying 300grams less during the day, but we pay for that in another way during the night. Comfort is indeed subjective and some hardy souls can lay out in the open air on a thin closed cell foam mat and sleep deeply through the night, undisturbed. Others of us are continually woken at the slightest wind caused flapping of loose material on a shelter. Discovering what our individual levels or endurance and comfort needs are, seems to be trial and error. Each time I go out I’m learning (often the hard way, it has to be said) and it has in several cases that has meant going ‘back’ to heavier gear either for comfort or durability, yet other items in my kit will be far lighter than years ago. I love the journey of slowly but surely perfecting ‘our’ individual system and kit. It’s just a shame that it often involves some very expensive mistakes which looked / sounded great but the flaws show up with consistent usage of them.

    1. Thank you for the very well written reply.
      I completely agree. I’ve found myself moving back to some heavier gear as well, namely shelters and sleeping pads. Most other things I’ve found that I can keep shedding weight with little penalty, a backpack included assuming the pack weight is low enough.
      Thanks for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful and enlightening comment. I’m very grateful to have you as a reader!

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