Editor’s note: we received a handful of emails in response to the article titled, ‘Big Pack or Bust — Why Canadians Have Yet to Go Ultralight.’ Ian was one of the individuals who wrote to us, expressing his concern with its condescending tone. After some constructive and thoughtful dialogue, we invited him to contribute this piece to GGG’s online magazine as a response.
Inclusivity is a value we hold near and dear here at GGG, and we apologize for furthering a narrative around how people should experience trail.
For Christmas 2011, I gifted my wife the book 50 Places to Hike Before You Die. It featured numerous beautiful trails, but one of them captured our imagination: the Rim-to-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon.
While I had hiked on and off for years, I had only completed two overnight backpacking trips in my life. That was about to change. We spent February and March researching, buying guidebooks and maps, planning, booking and preparing for a week-long trip to the Grand Canyon. The trip was highlighted by a two-day backpack down the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, returning via the Bright Angel Trail.
Heavy hauler on the way to Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon
Our equipment was quite a collection of odds and ends. We purchased a new pack for Laura, but had an ancient daypack with no hip belt for my younger daughter (Siobhan, age 13) and a borrowed pack for my elder daughter (Emily, age 15). I had a mid-1990s pack that my sister, five inches shorter than me, had used to tour Australia and New Zealand. Our tent was a late-1980s car-camping model that tipped the scales at almost 10 lbs. Laura wore well-worn light hikers, while the rest of us hiked in running shoes. Despite our motley assortment of gear, we had a fantastic time.
Our tent at Floe Lake. Note the plastic tarp under the fly to ensure waterproofing.
A decade later, my hiking experience has grown astronomically, and every hike has been unique. My longest trip was 14 days southbound on the GR20 in Corsica in 2018; the shortest was last summer, 16 km over two days in Yoho NP with my 13-year-old dog. I have two packs in my closet for backpacking, one an 85 L and the other 58 L. The choice of pack and accompanying weight depend on the trip I’m planning. On all these hikes, though, one thing has remained constant: I’ve always considered myself a backpacker.
Volcano refuses to perform for the camera, my Zpacks Duplex tent and Bear Bag plus my dinner rehydrating in my 1100ml Toaks pot
In light of that, I’ve been dismayed in recent years at the rise of a snobbish sort of elitism in the backpacking community embodied by the article “Big Pack or Bust – Why Canadians Have Yet to Go Ultralight.” Both online and on the trail, self-described experts pass judgment on people who hike differently from them, grading them on a scale on which, inevitably, their own techniques receive highest marks.
I’ve heard stories of people being offered unsolicited advice on the trail due only to their appearance or their gear. The backpacking community takes on an "us vs. them" mentality, where the latter are always wrong. Whether it’s hike length, gear choices, or food prep, someone will come along to tell you condescendingly that you could be doing it better. The ultralighter community especially has become increasingly represented by (what I hope is) a vocal minority who view anyone with a heavy pack as ignorant and inexperienced, not a “real” backpacker.
My wife and younger daughter enjoy backpacking but do not get out as often as I do. On a two- or three-day trip with them, I carry the bulk of the gear in my 85 L backpack and I usually quit weighing my pack when it goes over 65 lbs. I’ve never had a problem carrying this much weight. By taking a heavier pack, I’m able to bring my family out in the wilderness, when they might not otherwise have enjoyed the experience. Sure, by dropping more money, I could cut a few pounds—but I don’t see the need. On short trips, I carry some fresh food, wine or beer for a treat and lots of little extras so that everyone has a good time. Frequently I have my dogs along and I have to carry all supplies for them as well.
Wine and chocolate at Fish Lakes, Banff NP
In counterpoint to my heavyweight hikes, sometimes I trim down my pack. For our 10 days on the Great Divide Trail last summer, I hit the trail the first day carrying eight days of food in a pack that included seven lbs of camera gear. My backpack had an initial weight of just 45 lbs (we did overestimate the food, which is not the worst problem to have, but one that won’t be repeated). The difference in pack weight wasn’t because I was a different kind of backpacker, but simply because it was a different kind of trip.
Beginning our GDT hike carrying eight days of food. Much slimmer than the Grand Canyon Heavy Hauler. On my left are my camera tripod and Frosty Paws, my stuffed cat that comes on all my adventures.
On the trail, I receive numerous inquiries about my equipment, mostly my distinctive Zpacks Duplex tent. I’ve even kitted myself out with some lightweight gear, including Toaks cookware, a Six Moon Designs umbrella and Versa Flow inline water filters, and I’m always happy to talk gear with those who ask. Sharing gear information is a classic campsite conversation — I’d never tell anyone to stop! But there’s a difference between sharing knowledge among curious hikers and lecturing someone on gear choices. I can afford to upgrade my equipment on occasion, but not everyone can or wants to do the same, for any number of reasons.
Last summer, Emily and I completed a 10-day hike on the Great Divide Trail. During our evening at Tumbling Creek CG on the Rockwall, a group of four older women rolled into the campground. By the measure of an ultralighter, they were doing everything wrong. Big boots, big packs. They had wine with them and their tent was massive, a car camping tent with heavy metal poles.
Nevertheless, they were carrying on like a bunch of teenagers, talking boisterously, laughing and having a great time. How can you criticize them for not ultralighting? They were hiking in a beautiful place, laughing and making memories with friends. They didn’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a lightweight tent to enjoy the splendor of the backcountry. And just like every ultralighter in the campsite, they’d carried everything up there with their own two feet. That makes them backpackers in my books.
The Rockwall is a 50-km (30-mile) hike end to end, a nice, relaxed three- or four-day trip. If you’re motivated to do longer mileage, you could smash it out in a couple of days. So which trip is superior? The long one, or the short? The question, of course, is of little importance. The type of trip a person chooses is a completely personal decision. What matters is getting outdoors.
As people who love the backcountry and all that it offers, we should embrace the wide variety of backpackers, not separate ourselves into value-based categories. The last thing we want is to drive people away from the very activity we cherish. Everyone has a right to enjoy the experience without being judged.
Continue Hiking with Backpacker Ian ...
Thanks for the great article. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in carrying my preferred bulky gear. Everyone has their own style and should not feel put down by the lightweight enthusiasts.
Several years ago, The Hubs & I were out for a day hike. We encountered a group – two adults, two teenaged boys – hiking in to the same lake. Among the group, the woman was the only one who had “typical” hiking gear. One boy was carrying a bundle of firewood in a hand and had their car-camping tent strapped to his back. They had a hodge-podge of gear they carrying in their hands and on their backs. We were day hiking & carrying nothing, so we volunteered to carry a few things. Once relieved of their awkward burdens, they were actually faster than we were. We left the firewood & the tent at the pre-arranged spot near their destination and it looked like they were already enjoying themselves.
Later, I told The Hubs that my guess was that dad’s new girlfriend was a hiker, and I hoped that everyone had a good enough time that there would be a bunch of new gear for holiday presents that year. In the future, they’ll all laugh about that time they carried lawn chairs & a cooler on a backpacking trip.
Hike your own hike.
I backpacked the GC in my mid 60s and most recently 4 years ago when I was 74. This last time was North Rim to South Rim and it was a lot tougher than the first time. And yeah. this last time I had even lighter gear, as in UL and SUL gear.
Guess I should have trained a bit more. Still we did it in 3 1/2 days so we survived. My buddy was 72 at that time. I called it “The Geezer Hike”.
Now I have a Tarptent Notch Li (DCF fabric) and go even lighter. BTW, on both GC trips I used ESBIT for cooking, including actually cooking spaghetti and sauce. The last time I used ESBIT I had a Trail Designs Sidewinder ti cone stove and mating 3 cup pot. This system used less fuel and, when conditions permit, it is my favorite stove and fuel combo.
Great article! By the way, you’re a beast for carrying that heavy hauler, go you!! I recently wrote a bit tackling the same subject. My pack, aka Meg, usually comes in around 30-32 with food for 4 days. She’s got a mix of ul gear and ‘comfort’ gear. I like the challenge of carrying her, to me that’s part of the experience! I know I can walk whatever distance, walking is something I do well. But carrying the pack too? Well that’s where the fun comes in. It’s just a different perspective.
My dogs carried a backpack I as well, but then they got old. When she was 12 1/2 Volcano did a 3 day 45km (27 mi) trip and I thought it appropriate that I carry her supplies so that I could enjoy the trip with her and my daughter.
We backpacked with a dog who wore his own pack carrying his food and bowl.
Totally agree that anyone who gets their butt out on trail is a backpacker. Folks who comment on anyone’s gear that’s not their own could have an insecurity or two. And I’ve been both the source and beneficiary of the “booze carry” and very grateful for it. Light, heavy, whatever. As long as we pack out our trash, it’s all good.
As long as you have safety covered, who cares. I do love hearing about how a piece of gear works for an individual to guide my own choices.
Having hsd a friend fracture in front of me, being 2nd responder to a broken leg, a friend who broke an ankle that slipped 14 inches (this person has hiked / baclpacked more miles than anyone I personally , know), I do lecture on the 10 essentials. Usually by breaking out mine. Nobody plans to get hurt or have to wait 6 hours for a rescue, but it happens.
Steve / pearwood
Well said. When I hit the AT next year for birthday number 72 I will carry a mixture of old and new, light and heavy. The Svea 123 will probably come along. I’ll go light where Ican since I be carrying my classic Argus C3Brick with “Brick” camera and film. I havv been a computer geek for most of my 70 years so I am going as low tech as possible.
MICHAEL J PAYNE
Yes, many people have strong views on what makes for an enjoyable trip. When it comes to traveling overseas, I prefer no checked luggage and only a carry-on that does not have to be crammed into the overhead compartment.
While building my house a few years ago, a friend started asking me about the distance I was building from the road. He became quite adamant that I should build farther from the road. His suggestions came after the house was framed. Turned out he was right; we get more road noise than we would like. But even had he turned up sooner, I still would have built in the same place, due to many other considerations. He wishes his house was farther from the road and is trying to help others.
I started my backpacking journey 47 years ago, and never had a pack under 50 pounds. As I have changed my technic, the weight keeps falling off. During my John Muir Trail hike, we resupplied at Red’s Meadow, and at the JMT Ranch, where my pack hit its heaviest; 32 pounds.
With my planned weight, the salesperson at REI assured me that my plan to use a new pair of Merrell Moab hiking boots was not the best idea. She said that I would have to replace them halfway through. The boots did fine, both on the JMT and several other hikes. My next pair will be a lighter trail runner.
My experience is that some people have a life-changing event, and now they want to share it with everyone. Sometimes it’s easier to just thank them for their wise counsel, and continue on your path. Many times despite the blast of their passion, they have a bit of advice that may save you a few aches and pains or something worse.
On the other hand, those of us who have found the “Solution” may just want to turn the volume down a notch or two.
Well put. It’s no surprise that the self-righteous fundamentalist attitudes in backpacking come from Americans, except those that hike in rabbit ears, of course.
This is a great follow up. I’ve recently started training for the JMT, while I’m enjoying researching all the new gear that is out there it is crazy to think people are judging others. I’m trying to keep my gear light but I also want to enjoy the experience in as much comfort as I can. HIKE YOUR OWN HIKE AND BE KIND. Happy trails!
Yay! Get outside! Fun to hear about your adventures and agree that people have different ways of making it happen. As long as we all pack out what we pack in, we all will have great experiences!
Agreed! Smiles not miles and comfort is important too. Lighter I guess means further but I like travelling slow…
Agreed. Get outside however you can. It’s all about having fun!
Well written and some great points. Thank you for commenting.