Big Pack or Bust — Why Canadians Have Yet to Go Ultralight

Richard Campbell
Canadian Ultralight vs Traditional Backpacking Barriers

Seasoned hikers and long-distance backpackers often dream of heading deep into the Canadian wilderness, visiting the Rockies, the coast, and the depths of the trail systems Canada has to offer. For those who have not yet experienced it, the Canadian Wilderness commonly evokes an idea of rugged terrain full of wildlife, where grizzled residents glide effortlessly along trails that wind between alpine lakes and colossal peaks. 

Canadians come across as warhorses that can tackle anything while carrying nothing. When you grew up in an igloo, you must be accustomed to travelling in the wilderness with next to nothing, right?

Not exactly ... and you won’t find veteran Canadian hikers boxing with grizzly bears either.   

What you will find on Canadian trails is an alarming number of gigantic packs, hobbling hikers, and fold-out chairs. Ten-mile days are considered huge and planning for months is something that happens.

Canadian backpackers are often seen with packs that rise high above their heads, blocking views and bringing pain. Ankles shake as duct tape peeks out from the top of their sturdy boots. The extensive straps on the outside of their packs secure dangling items that clank together with every heavy step. 

Canada Canadians Backpacking Lightweight Ultralight UL

Walking into any big outfitter in Canada will have you trying on packs with endless pockets and organizational features, boots that will last you a decade—while taking equally as long to break in—and checking out a full cook set with everything you need to craft up a gourmet meal. After fittings, upgrades and time spent on the trails, it seems as though the volume of your pack defines your experience level.

As ultralighters take on the grand trails of the Canadian wilderness, they are met with disapproval. You know, the unsolicited advice from strangers? The kind that declares, “you can’t be out here” or “you’re not prepared, you won’t make it”. 

This sentiment holds strong at camp where ultralighters slurp ramen from tiny pots and set up tarp shelters before an impending storm. But give it some time. As those exhibiting tiny packs skip up a pass, the heavyweights often shout out how desperate they are to ditch gear. 

Canada Canadians Backpacking Lightweight Ultralight UL

So, if Canadians are quick to resent their kit, why haven’t they lightened up? 

As we know, ultralight philosophy has been around since the ’90s (cheers, Jardine). Ray Jardine’s philosophy has spread wide and free among the long-distance trails of the United States, becoming a staple in the thru-hiking community. 

As ultralight gear gained popularity in the United States and cottage brands began popping up everywhere, weekenders and infrequent backpackers have swept up ultralight gear in an effort to eliminate as many aches and pains as possible. So, why haven’t Canadians done the same? Backpackers would rather scoff at a small pack than acknowledge it as a possibility, but why?

Canada Canadians Backpacking Lightweight Ultralight UL

It comes down to visibility, cost, and a lack of options. Ultralight gear is hard to find in Canada. It is rarely seen on trails, it doesn’t exist in stores, and it’s expensive to ship internationally.  Consumers like to see a product before buying — try it on, feel the fabric, set it up, and really see the dimensions in front of them. 

So, without ever seeing ultralight gear, how will backpackers be encouraged to switch over? American cottage brands appear more frequently on trails and in small outfitters, and the philosophy of going light is more widely disseminated across the United States. It’s possible this is a direct result of the vast number of long-distance trails in the United States that cross over with popular backpacking circuits frequented by weekenders. 

Canadians aren’t dismissing ultralight backpacking; they just haven’t been exposed to it. With a lack of long-distance trails and no real thru-hiking community, it becomes extremely rare to spot ultralight gear on Canadian trails.

Canada Canadians Backpacking Lightweight Ultralight UL

Most traditional backpackers become intrigued when they see hikers donning ultralight gear, and it doesn’t seem to go much further than that. Traditional backpackers will often ask ultralighters about their gear when spotted at camp or a water source. It seems as though hikers are generally interested in how a full backpacking kit can reach such a shocking deduction in size, but don’t have the resources to do so themselves.  

Let’s be honest, it takes a lot of commitment to order something you are unfamiliar with. Americans have an upper hand here, as shipping costs are more affordable, returns are nearly always an option, and product visibility is plentiful. 

While Canadians might start by adopting an ultralight ethos, there are still barriers along the road to going ultralight. If and when a hiker is ready to commit to an ultralight kit, the shipping and duty fees can be astronomical, and ordering from multiple cottage brands to complete a set up can lead to shipping fees that are so high the product isn’t worth it.

Canada Canadians Backpacking Lightweight Ultralight UL

Central shops like Garage Grown Gear can end up saving international customers on multiple duty fees, but there is still a lack of visibility in the hiking community. As the
Great Divide Trail rises in popularity, traditional backpackers will continue to be exposed to ultralight gear, and therefore begin to consider adopting an ultralight ethos. 

With enough exposure, the big pack or bust community might begin to wonder why they ever followed the big pack philosophy in the first place.

Trail talk


Jordan Milner

Jordan Milner

I live in Vancouver, BC and feel like the only piece of UL gear I’ve seen to date are Hyperlite backpacks being sold at MEC, which is exciting yet sort of depressing, as anytime something makes it into a massive corporation like MEC it usually means the products quality goes down. At the same time people like Dan Durston from Golden, BC are staying true to the cottage brand and making a huge impact in the hiking community with contributions like the X-Mid Series or his Kakwa backpack, both designed for the Canadian terrain and climate.

Aside from acquiring gear, it is also difficult to find long distance trails for hiking. Ive been trail stitching for years, making my own thru-hikes and feel it will be some time before we see longer trails being established.

All that said, I believe you can still achieve a rather affordable UL setup even with shipping cost etc, if you are willing to be inventive and patient. Do your research, spend time on the trail to understand your individual needs, rather than just gauging off of others preferences. People always approach me on trail asking about my setup and whether its worth it and I always encourage them to take that leap, as it will be well worth it in the end. I also send them to websites like Garage Owned Gear because you clearly understand the struggle here in Canada. Thanks so much!

Cam Lomi

Cam Lomi

You have exactly captured the reason why Canadian hikers generally don’t go ultralight: the very high cost of imports, and near impossibility of returns, means that we are effectively unable to shop online and pretty much stuck with whatever products MEC and Sail choose to offer us.

Chilly Bin

Chilly Bin

Swap the word Canadian for New Zealander and it still reads true, we have the same situation here!

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