RENO, Nev. (AP)
For Glen Van Peski, a pioneer in the field of ultralight backpacking, even the excess weight in a toothbrush handle is too much for the pack.
So he ditched the tiny travel-sized toothbrushes many backpackers carry for a handle-less style supplied to prisons. It’s a bristled, rubber cone that fits on the tip of an index finger provided to inmates because it can’t be turned into a weapon.
It’s also just four-tenths of an ounce, maybe a third of the weight of a standard toothbrush with travel case.
“You start thinking about everything in your pack,” said Van Peski, a longtime backpacker and founder of Gossamer Gear, a company that makes ultralight backpacks and other supplies. “A couple ounces here, a couple ounces there, it starts adding up.”
Ultralight backpacking, which generally refers to making overnight trips with less than 10 pounds of base weight compared with 20, 30 or even heavier loads many distance hikers haul, is a minimalist movement that got a big boost in 1992 with the publication of the book PCT Hiker’s Handbook by rock climber and hiker Ray Jardine.
Jardine wrote about through-hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail three times and the methods he used to whittle his pack weight from 25 to 9 pounds.
At the time, major manufacturers sold heavy gear that was too clumsy for a minimalist such as Jardine, so he made his own, including the backpack.
The spike of interest in ultralight gear caught the eye of bigger companies that sought to capitalize on the trend, said Will Rietveld of Durango, senior editor of Backpacking Light magazine. But with no true definition for ultralight, some of the newcomers used the word to promote products that wouldn’t necessarily pass muster with purists, he said.
“They will just add that extra adjective to a tent that has been lightened up a bit,” said Rietveld. “It deceives a lot of people.”
Many who consider themselves true ultralight backpackers say 10 pounds of base weight is the maximum load that can qualify for the designation, but even that standard is getting pushed further down.
Van Peski rarely takes more than 5 pounds, in addition to food, on his backpacking trips. On a recent overnight trip to a series of lakes and peaks in Tahoe National Forest, Van Peski demonstrated ultralight gear and techniques for a small group of hikers.
The education started before the group even departed from Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, when Van Peski reworked the load of one hiker who arrived with nearly 11 pounds of clothing and gear, not including a tent, sleeping bag or cooking supplies.
By the time Van Peski was done, the pack weight was down to about 6 pounds even after adding a shelter and sleeping bag.
Jettisoning extra clothes and swapping out an old Camelbak pack for a one-pound Gossamer Murmur pack was easy. Other modifications included replacing a travel-sized toothpaste tube and standard stick of deodorant with a tiny vial of organic, peppermint Castile Liquid Soap that can replace both. A few squares of sturdy tissue could be stretched by supplementing them with soft leaves that are easily obtainable along mountain trails, Van Peski said.
Even water isn’t spared. Ultralight hikers often ditch the big bottles in exchange for a small filter or purifying solution then refill a smaller canister from streams or lakes. Carrying items that have multiple uses – such as trekking poles that can prop up a tent or a canister that can be used for cooking, eating and drinking – also is key.
“Everything weighs something,” Van Peski said. “That is the first rule.”
To the average hiker or backpacker, some of the pare-downs may seem more suitable to people who consider themselves extreme minimalists or even daredevils.
But people who have made the transition say going ultralight can actually make backpacking more accessible to a broader range of participants.
That’s because it’s a lot easier to make more miles and cross demanding terrain with a pack that weighs about as much as a laptop computer than one that weighs more than a full set of golf clubs.
Rietveld, 71, has been backpacking for 56 years and said in the 1970s he routinely carried about 30 pounds on a typical trip.
“I was stronger then, the weight didn’t seem to bother me all that much back then,” he said. Cutting back to an ultralight level means he can keep doing extensive backcountry trips he enjoys.
“I can still hike up and down the mountains and hike off-trail,” he said. “Carrying a lighter pack just makes it a lot easier.”
Barriers to ultralight backpacking remain, however. Cost is a big one.
Rietveld said building a complete ultralight kit can cost $1,000.
Other barriers include comfort, or at least the average person’s acceptance of it.
Liz Thomas, 28, an Appalachian Trail speed record-breaker who has more than 10,000 miles on her hiking résumé, said reducing to an ultralight style poses some challenges, particularly for female backpackers.
For example, the idea of switching shelters from an enclosed tent to an ultralight tarp that’s open at the ends takes some getting used to, she said.
“Women tend to prefer full shelters,” said Thomas, who has experimented with hammocks, tents and tarps.
But people who enjoy it say it’s addictive because once backpackers walk with a lighter pack, they don’t ever want to carry more again. That drives ultralight backpackers to question everything in their packs and their own ideas.
Even Van Peski acknowledged that switching a standard toothbrush with the prison-style model that can’t be turned to a weapon goes against the notion that multipurpose items are better than those that serve just one use. He considers it a worthwhile exception.
“I could take a titanium shiv and that toothbrush and still be lighter than your toothbrush,” he said.