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Debunking common myths about ultralight backpacking

Members of Montana’s Venturing Crew 2001 are traveling along the crest of the infamous Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. To our left, 1,000-foot cliffs drop off sharply.

We are on the ninth day of a two-week expedition. When our trek began, our packs weighed about 50 pounds on average. And, yes, we were practicing ultralight backpacking techniques.

Two weeks’ worth of food and fuel amounted to about 28 pounds per person. We also carried packrafts — inflatable solo whitewater boats (with paddles, life jackets, helmets, repair kits and dry bags) — that let us cover more than half our trip along rivers. The packrafting kit weighed less than 10 pounds. So the base weight of our personal and shared group gear (camping, cooking and more) was only about 12 pounds each.

It’s true: You and your Scouts can do more — and go farther — with less.

Ultralight backpacking lets you do so much more with gear that is light, functional, comfortable and safe. But often this technique is met with skepticism. Turn the page and learn how to debunk common ultralight-backpacking myths.

Myth No. 1: Ultralight backpacking is for experts only.

Some think ultralight backpacking is for otherworldly expeditions, not weekend trips in your local woods. However, ultralight style isn’t just
for experts!

My son was 12 years old and 78 pounds when he completed his first 50-miler — an eight-day traverse across Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. We trekked at altitudes up to 12,000 feet across talus, snow and trail with six other Scouts. Our base pack weights (not including food and water, but including group gear) averaged less than 13 pounds.

With the right training and preparation, even the youngest Scout can benefit from ultralight backpacking — a lighter pack will serve him well during long- or short-distance treks.

Myth No. 2: Ultralight backpacking is uncomfortable.

Some people believe hunger, wilderness survival, and pain and suffering go hand in hand with ultralight backpacking. That’s simply not true.

Advances in materials, technology and equipment have dramatically increased a person’s equipment choices. High-performance ultralight gear is widely available. There’s no need to sacrifice comfort.

For example, a down sleeping quilt with 3 inches of loft (and a 30-degree temperature rating) can weigh as little as 16 ounces. Compare that to the 5-pound synthetic bags that dominate the shelves of your local sporting goods store.

Of course, the best proof that ultralight backpacking can be comfortable: 20 pounds on your back as opposed to 40 — especially when you’re faced with a 3,000-foot mountain hike and you’re an 11-year-old Scout (or a 50-year-old Scouter!).

Myth No. 3: Ultralight backpacking is expensive.

Make no mistake: Ultralight gear can be expensive! It’s not hard to drop several thousand dollars on a complete kit by buying new gear made with state-of-the-art materials. (Thousand-dollar sleeping bags and $500 backpacks are not uncommon.) However, that’s not necessary.

Find a list of new ultralight gear at budget-friendly prices at the bottom of this post.

In most cases, the difference between spending a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars on a complete kit can be measured in ounces, not pounds.

Challenge your Scouts to do their research. Consider function first and encourage them to take the lightest
possible item that will do the job. Discuss the cost savings compared to weight savings.

Save further by shopping at thrift stores in towns with an outdoor recreation industry or sales at outdoor equipment retailers and outlets. You can even buy used gear through online hiking forums.

Myth No. 4: Ultralight backpacking is unsafe.

With such a light pack, how can you have enough gear to be prepared for adversity? This is hands-down the most common misconception about ultralight backpacking.

Managing risk requires a well-planned, comprehensive program that starts as much as a year in advance of a trek. The program should go well beyond the weight or quantity of gear taken on a trip. It’s just as important to know the limitations and appropriate use of gear, get advanced skills instruction and practice, carefully plan your trip, be physically fit and have qualified supervision.

Practice makes perfect. You can’t weather a storm in a light tarp without having mastered this skill first. Solicit experts to teach these skills in a safe environment, and
then practice them ruthlessly until you have mastered them enough to teach others. Once you build your skill set and have practiced in a variety of inclement conditions, you’ll be ready for bigger and bolder expeditions.

RYAN JORDAN, an Eagle Scout, is the program director of the Montana High Adventure Base and the chartered organization representative of Venturing Crew 2001 in Bozeman, Mont. He is a licensed wilderness skills instructor and guide, and the founder of


Backpack: Jansport Katahdin 40, 1 lb., 12 oz. ($80 or less, as this is a closeout item)

Sleeping bag: Vaude Sioux 400, 2 lb. 8 oz. ($80)

Sleeping pad: Gossamer Gear Nightlight, 5 oz. ($24)

Rain jacket and pants: Frogg Toggs DriDucks, 5 oz. jacket/5 oz. pants ($22)

Gas stove: Etekcity Gas Stove, 4 oz. ($14 or less on sale)

Cooking pot: Open Country 2-Quart Kettle, 9 oz. ($15 or less on sale)

Water bottle: Empty Gatorade 32-oz. bottle, 2 oz. ($3)

Shoes: Asics Gel Venture 5, 22 oz. for the pair ($65 or less on sale)

Tarp shelter: Oware USA 10-ft.-square FlatTarp 3.5 (shelter for three), 18.5 oz. ($150)

Read the Seven Steps to Lighten Your Pack.

Be prepared and pack light using these gear-planning tips. Plus, author and ultralight backpacking expert Ryan Jordan shares what’s in his pack.

Your crew or troop will dream big and hike far using these ideas shared by Crew 2001 of Bozeman, Mont.