Ultra-light gear test in TGO

I have always been interested carrying as light a backpack as possible. It was while preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2002 (Journal) that Liz and I started getting into what’s now known as ultra-light hiking.

The summer before that trip, I took part in a test of ultra-light equipment for TGO Magazine (The Great Outdoors). The deputy editor John Manning carried his usual weekend backpacking sack of about 32lbs while I carried equipment that largely came from the company Chris Townsend, was the gear wasn’t then right for UK conditions.

Last October the same team decided to re-create that test with a three day walk through Moidart. Since 2001 John and I have, separately, walked the PCT and developed our interests in light-weight gear. I’ve also got into mountain marathons. The April issue of TGO Magazine is out now and Chris Townsend once again studies what’s changed. In short, there is now plenty of ultra-light gear suitable for UK conditions.

If you want to read exactly what gear each of us carried then I'm afraid you’ll have to buy the magazine (under £4 - bargain). John and I were invited to give our own assessment of what we took and our current attitude to hiking. I had to confess; sea-kayaking now dominates my sporting pass-time.

Equipment In the five years since our last ultra-light test, John has clearly shed more pounds from his pack than I have, but then he had many more to loose. Surprisingly, my shelter, waterproof jacket and pack were all heavier, but that’s because they’re far more suitable for UK conditions.

Shelter Using the GoLite tarp in our first test I was fortunate not to have been eaten alive my midges, so I reckon the extra 340g for the GoLite Trig 1 is a small additional weight to keep those beasts at bay.
Jacket The Squall jacket shrugged off June showers in 2001, but the Phantom is a much sturdier proposition for year-round heavy rain and only 188g heavier.
Pack The 2007 version of the OMM pack is 200g more than the discontinued GoLite Breeze but is simply the best ultra-light pack around. Light-weight gear is finally catching up with the demands of its users.

Trousers Some gear combinations proved particularly successful. Running shorts worn under the soft, waterproof fabric of the OMM Kamleka pants, even when it wasn’t raining.
Footwear Knee-length SealSkinz socks worn with Inov-8 shoes kept my feet dry, light, with excellent grip. I now regularly use this combination on winter hill walks below the snow line and, although my feet sometimes feel clammy, they stay dry.

Sleeping Bag Shivering in a 250g down sleeping bag as the temperature fell close to zero, I knew I’d pushed the ultra light approach a little too far. I use it on Mountain Marathons but this was different. And yet, Nietzsche’s philosophy of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly applies to this sort of hiking - you only find your limits by pushing yourself to the edge. Hopefully stop and peer over, rather than plummet.

It’s obvious when you think about it. Two mountain marathon competitors, sharing a very small tent after a day spent running through the hills, radiate enough heat to melt lead. One person, rattling around inside a large tarp/tent after a day hill walking, cannot generate anything like the same wattage. Even a superb 250g down sleeping bag like the PHD Minimus, which is ideal in the first situation, is not going to be warm enough in the second. All this came to me in a flash of realisation as I pulled on every stitch of clothing and shivered as the mercury fell.

With hindsight, I’d have taken on this walk a GoLite Feather with 400g of down or a PHD Minim. That said, I was warm enough in the 250g down Minimus a few weeks later on the Original Mountain Marathon in Galloway.

When writing for magazine it’s easy to make oneself sound like the cool, experienced outdoorsman when the truth is, we all make mistakes.
I was doing what I’ve encouraged others to do, pushing myself to go a little lighter but with safety margins. I was walking with two other people; there were escape routes; it wasn’t going to snow; and I had plenty of gas if I really needed to warm myself. All this meant I could approach my comfort edge without dropping over it. I am genuinely delighted at the range of ultra light kit now available as there’s something suitable for almost all British conditions. What’s needed is the experience to choose the gear that’s right for you, where you’re going and what you’re doing.
You have to dare to find your edge.
Attitude to BackpackingWhen backpacking, I used to feel like a contented snail. All I needed, I carried on my back and, although I moved fairly slowly through the world, I saw details many other people failed to notice. I could stop, start and journey when and wherever I pleased. For me, this was always the pure appeal of backpacking.

While being one of the world’s great backpacking challenges, completing the Pacific Crest Trail in part corrupted this purity in backpacking purpose. I was on a well-established trail, marched by hundreds of people before me. I was on a relatively tight schedule dictated by the availability of water in the desert, the clearing of snow in the Sierra, and the onset of winter. Hiking became a job. Once I completed the PCT, I rarely went backpacking for two years. Read our Journal.

Instead, I discovered sea kayaking. I found a form of escapism which backpacking seemed to have lost, for me. Scotland’s west coast is a world-class sea kayaking destination, yet there are no crowded summits or rutted footpaths.
No one ever left a footprint on a wave.

Involvement in Team TGO, to compete in the 2005 Hebridean Challenge adventure race, saw me shouldering a rucksack again. I’m slow, but I can navigate. I tried mountain marathons and took to them like a goat to rock. I've written about the 2006 Original Mountain Marathon before and after the event, and I recorded a Podcast for TGO-Magazine here.

So once again I found myself spending nights camped in the mountains. Except something had changed.

Now there was good, ultra light equipment, suitable for UK conditions, and I had the knowledge and confidence to use it. I’d always kept my pack-weight down, but suddenly it was halved. Sometimes I walked, sometimes I ran; my pack was light enough to allow me to choose. Our honeymoon was going to be a two-day walk and run from Glenfinnan to Loch Sunart but we moved so swiftly we completed it in one day.

My approach to Backpacking has definitely changed. Once my ultra-light pack is on my back, I now have even more freedom to go where I please, because I can move so easily and quickly. Lightening up isn’t a one-off event, it’s a continuous process which should respond to conditions, location, ability and available equipment.
The world’s wild places are a great place in which to learn.

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