Going from a Traditional Hiker to an Ultralight Backpacker

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It’s been almost three years since my first backpacking trip out here on the East Coast. I had been living in DC for almost two years with not much exploration of nature beyond the Beltway. Being from the Northwest I had initially kind of (unfairly) dismissed the hiking and backpacking opportunities available here in the Mid-Atlantic.

Well, after so much time working a desk job and with the flying back and forth to Seattle a few times a year, my need to reconnect with nature was reawakened. I had a couple of other friends from Washington State living out here and we had done some day hikes in Shenandoah, but no overnighters.

So we researched trails online and settled on a circumnavigation of the Trout Run Valley (27 miles) over a three-day weekend.

This past weekend Mike, from DC UL Backpacking, and I had gone back and done this same loop and I realized the dramatic difference in my backpacking over the course of three years. Certainly, there has been a progression in my general fitness but my gear evolution has changed most dramatically.

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On my first go-around with Trout Run Valley, I must have had at least 35 pounds of gear—I’m not positive as I didn’t weigh for that particular trip (I did weigh my pack with most of the same gear on future trips though).

At this point I was carrying the REI ASL Cirque 2 tent (5 lbs), I had a Big Agnes Encampment 15 degree synthetic bag (3 lbs 4 oz), and my pack was a Gregory Z65 (4 lbs 3 oz). I had an MSR Pump Filter, used heavy generic boots, didn’t use trekking poles, and probably carried lots of little doodads and excess/random clothing layers that go far beyond the normal day hiking gear or essentials.

Perhaps my only decently light items were a Jetboil Flash cook set and a closed-cell foam pad.

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On my trip last weekend back to the Trout Run Valley, I realized my gear is now 100% different from what I used three years ago. And while I’m by no means the lightest, nor do I use the most innovative gear, I have cut my base weight by well over 50%.

These days I’m carrying a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar (five-sided tarp) as my shelter (1 lb 8 oz), a Marmot Plasma 15 degree sleeping bag (1 lb 14 oz), and a Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet (1 lb) as my backpack.

Beyond that I’m now using a Steripen (UV light) for water filtration, trail runners instead of boots, utilize trekking poles (Gossamer Gear LT3C), got the titanium version of the Jetboil Sol stove,  a slightly heavier but more comfortable sleeping pad, and have further lightened, streamlined, or reduced other pack items.

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I could easily drop  another couple pounds from my base weight by replacing a few key pieces of gear:

  • The Trailstar could be replaced with a smaller tarp,
  • The 15-degree sleeping bag could be replaced with either a cooler weather 30 or 40-degree bag or a sleeping quilt,
  • The Jetboil could be replaced with an alcohol stove or similar,
  • The Neoair All Season should be replaced with the lighter three-season pad.

These changes taken together would drop pounds off my overall weight and also allow me to use a smaller pack like the Mountain Laurel Designs Burn (which I already own).

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None of these changes came about dramatically. It was more of a gradual evolution over time. This gradual change was not only due to my resistance to shelling out more money on new gear, but also indicative of my changing perceptions of ultralight backpacking.

I was hesitant or skeptical of ultralight backpacking initially. I mean, you should have full-on Gore-Tex hiking boots, a sturdy, framed backpack with ample padding, and so forth, right?

I was lucky in that I found a group of local backpackers (DC UL Backpacking) that fully embraced the light is right mantra, and that through my regular hiking with the group I was able to see the full gamut of not only different ultralight backpacking gear, but also the differing attitudes and styles employed by all types of hikers including the fully loaded traditional backpackers.

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On that first trip through the Trout Run Valley, it was me, my friend Evan, his girlfriend Kendall, and their two dogs. We were all heavily laden with gear, in fact, I think Evan had an even larger and heavier pack than me. We covered basically 9 miles on each of our three days.

We took frequent breaks (to relieve our aching bodies) and were even caught short of our intended campsite on day two because of our slow pace and had to make camp just off the trail. I ended up limping off the trail on the third day—it’s a miracle I didn’t forsake backpacking right then.

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This past weekend Mike and I covered the same loop, and actually covered a bit more ground because of an out and back to the vista at Halfmoon Mountain that we skipped on that first trip, but in a much faster and enjoyable manner.

We started out Friday night in the dark by covering two miles (we didn’t want to car camp), and we covered 20 miles on Saturday (we still arrived hours before sunset and also included a few lengthy breaks at streams and a vista), and then Sunday we woke up early to catch the sunrise from the top of Big Schloss and covered the final 5 miles.

We were off the trail early enough for an awesome breakfast at the Apple House and back to DC by noon. Having cut the weight on my back by more than half has dramatically increased my comfort level on the trail, and remarkably my comfort while in camp has actually increased as well with a more spacious shelter and more comfortable sleeping pad.

It is difficult to imagine going back to the gear and backpacking style that I once used in the Trout Run Valley. But I find it good to hike old, familiar trails every now and again, because while you may know the route and the views may be similar, your perspective may have changed altogether.

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Trail Details

27-mile Circumnavigation of Trout Run Valley hiked clockwise beginning at Wolf Gap Campground. High points and vistas include Tibbett Knob, Halfmoon Mountain, and Big Schloss. Map and details available from MidAtlanticHikes.com.

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Going from a Traditional Hiker to an Ultralight Backpacker virginia, trip-reports, backpacking


Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 3

  1. Nice trip and pics! I started backpacking again about 11 months ago and since then have slashed about 40% of my base weight. Doing so has definitely made it more enjoyable for me as well and I find I’m able to turn up the difficulty levels as I get more comfortable with my lighter gear and fitness levels.

    1. Post

      Hey Mazzachusetts, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! It’s amazing how much better backpacking feels when you start dropping the pounds off your back. It makes me wish I would’ve made the transition earlier on!

      I made it up your way for the first time earlier this year for some ice climbing in the Whites. There is some truly spectacular nature up that way, and I’d love to get back and just do some hiking at some point.

      1. Yeah the Whites are great, really the only place I backpack and the weight really makes a difference on all the vert out there. Check out the Bonds or if you have a couple days and you’re up for a challenge, a Pemi loop is a good way to see a number of peaks and mixes in some above treeline. Lookin forward to your 2013 posts!

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