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Ultra-light or Ultra-dangerous

Thick canvas. Heavy wool blankets. The exposed metal of an external frame Jansport backpack. Gone are the styles and materials of traditional backpacking and its ideologies too. The door has opened for futuristic-sounding fabrics like X-Pac, Dyneema Composite Fabric, or Silnylon. Along with backpacks, shelters, and sleep systems that are often sub-two pounds, this now mainstream backpacking-style is dubbed Ultra-light.

To loosely define ultra-light backpacking it is, “a base weight below probably like 10 pounds,” claims alumni Bennett Fisher, “everything you’re carrying besides fuel, food, and water. It’s just a way to move faster and lighter in the backcountry.”

Fisher has successfully hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, totaling around 6,000 miles, which is an exhausting feat to even ponder. But, this style of backpacking is often seen as niche and expensive, which is valid. Sometimes though it is just about creatively cutting out the things you think you need like more clothing, toiletries, that extra shirt, etc: substituting most gear for versatility and a layered clothing system. For example, “You don’t need to bring Chacos… $5 Walmart flip-flops will probably do the job for a third of the weight,” states Fischer.

Naturally, moving through the woods in this style poses some safety questions and problems. “You can get into trouble following these Reddit accounts that have the perfect gear list.” Pages like these can often be misleading and lead to dangerous situations due to cutting food or getting rid of a shelter just to save weight. Fisher shared a prime example from a fellow through hiker, “who wanted to curl up under his tent because they didn’t bring rain flies and it was raining really bad, and it was super cold.”

Another common way backpackers cut pack weight is by ditching items like the pre-made first aid kits; however, not having a first aid kit, in general, seems extreme.

“It was on the Uinta Highline trail,” USU sophomore Rockwell Cooper recalls. The trail itself stretches around 107 miles from east to west in Utah’s Uinta Mountains and is known for its jaw-dropping views, mountain passes, and an unusually large number of wildlife sightings.

“We were going over this pass called Dead Horse Pass. We were all kind of hiking together; there were only four of us so we were just kind of taking it easy. It was more of a chill day cause’ we had killed ourselves the first two. We started descending and I don’t know exactly what happened. He [Cooper’s friend] was right behind me, but he just stepped off a small ledge, like six inches, and just collapsed…”

A summer backpacking trip gone all too quickly awry with what would later be diagnosed as a broken ankle. Luckily Cooper, who has been doing similar outings since he was 15, had a dialed, yet light, first aid kit including what would be the saving grace - a Sam’s Splint and some Ace Bandages. After the incident, quick-thinking Cooper added “I wanted to figure out where the nearest trailhead was, and how we could get out as fast as possible. We ended up bailing out at the east fork Bear River Trailhead that was 8 miles away. It was crazy. I was just super worried he was going to lose his foot if he didn’t have circulation.”

At the trailhead with cell reception, Cooper was eager to call an ambulance, but his friend without insurance was eager to find a ride to their car at the other trailhead. They would find someone able to drive them to their vehicle, and they made it to the hospital safely so the story goes.

Now, Fisher and Cooper are backpackers with different needs and mileage; however, their two stories intertwine in a quest for lighter backpacks and, come to find out, a commonality of broken-ankle-stories. At, “mile 1,011,” of the PCT Fisher stepped into a snowy tree-well.

“This time my heel caught and didn’t let me slide and my ankle just went down… and with the whole weight of my backpack, we had just re-supplied for 5 days, just pshhh [falling noise]. I heard it pop.” Despite Fisher’s ankle, “swelling up to the size of an ostrich egg,” he hiked 20 miles the next day into town and then more after, thinking it was just a torn ligament from an old football injury. He would eventually have to get off the PCT.

Both of these examples worked out for the better; that will not always be the case though. This begs the question where’s the line between safety and aiming for an ultra-light setup while backpacking?

The main thought to consider is trip length, style of hiking, how many people are in your group, weather, location, and most importantly, what works for you as a backpacker. You are not a gear list found on the internet. Fisher says, “You pack your fear in your pack,” which is why he brings Imodium for stomach relief. A good rule of thumb to consider, but not go overboard with, as one puts together their first aid kit or purchases a safety system. Cooper and Fisher both listed off some first aid, safety, and rescue items that would fit into that middle section of the Venn diagram that is ultra-light and traditional backpacking.

Now, as to not scare anybody off, backpacking is great fun. However, it comes with responsibility in the backcountry that coincides with what you pack in as a participant in earth’s great wilderness.

“It’s so freeing. You don’t have to worry about anything. There’s no clocking into work. There’s no turning in assignments. Every day you know what you’re doing. You’re working towards this huge goal. When you achieve it, it feels amazing.” Fisher said.

Check it out at Highlander Mag:

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