Lightest packs versus light enough

Friday April 27, 2012

In my experience, gear selected only for ultralight weight often falls short in five critical areas in comparison to slightly heavier gear.

n Comfort: Take the internal frame out of a backpack and replace it with a stiff foam pad and you definitely save ounces. But you also risk limiting the amount of weight the pack can carry comfortably. That may make a real difference if you are going on a longer trek without resupply of food, if you have to carry water, or if you need more gear due to expected cold or inclement weather. A few ounces saved on a lighter, thinner or smaller sleeping pad may well cost you a good night's sleep on rough ground. Going without a camp chair saves weight, but means less comfort in camp.

n Safety: A Down sleeping bag, for example, is lighter and warmer than synthetic until it gets wet. Then it's not warm at all. Some hikers see trekking poles as unnecessary weight; I see them as essential safety gear on rough trails.

n Function: Sometimes, less weight means fewer functional features. One of the backpacks current beloved by the "micro-light" crowd, for example, saves weight by eliminating the top pocket. But that top pocket helps keep water out of the pack and helps you organize your gear.

n Durability: It's not always so, but sometimes the very lightest gear just doesn't stand up to prolonged use like slightly heavier models. This is particularly true in tents, packs, raingear and boots.

n Value: Typically, the lightest gear is the most expensive gear. Choosing slightly heavier gear that still functions well leaves you with gas money for another trip to the wilds.

n The Upside: The gram-counters have helped create today's wonderful selection of backpacking gear. What once was cutting-edge ultralight is now normal. No one needs to go backpacking with an eight-pound, two-person tent as we all did when I started backpacking. The days of the seven-pound backpack are pretty much over. Stoves, sleeping bags, cookware are all lighter than they once were and just as safe, durable and functional.

Certainly, if everything else is equal, lighter is better. But if you are gearing up to do more backpacking this summer (hooray for you!) just keep other factors, not just weight, in lind as you make your choices.

-- Tim Jones


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