“Ultralight” is a new category of gear centered around carrying the most lightweight and simplest equipment, typically while on a thru-hike.
In theory, ultralight sounds delightful. After all, lugging less weight around on the trail allows for speedier travel and longer days in comfort.
But sometimes scrimping to shave off pounds doesn’t work out. Whether this trend of taking gear that is as light as possible is a good replacement shouldn’t be taken for granted.
On a six-week hike across (and over) the European Alps this summer, we put the key components of an ultralight thru-hiker’s gear to the test. With plenty of rain, snow, sheer ascents and descents, we soon found which lightweight pieces were troublesome, and which were worth it.
We initially opted for just a simple groundsheet with a flysheet for our shelter. To save on carrying tent poles, we propped up the flysheet with one of our hiking poles, which seemed an ingenious way to save on weight.
However, within a few days, the groundsheet had ripped open due to the prodding of the pole, accompanied by the unavoidable shuffling and wriggling in the shelter. Plus, without the inner tent, we were privy to an abundance of insects that disco danced the night away across our faces.
Big Agnes does an exceptionally good lightweight tent with all the trimmings: the Fly Creek HV2 Platinum. Not only does this tent provide peace of mind in a midnight storm (kit will stay dry without having to pile it all in the center of the tent to avoid storm splash-back), but it’s also got the inner tent so you can still stargaze on a clear night (and stay protected from an insect invasion).
Verdict? A tent may weigh a little more than a tarp, but it’s well worth the extra weight – especially when this Big Agnes model weighs so little.
Hiking boots are traditionally befitting of Alpine terrain. But they’re bulky and cumbersome to put on, and it takes more energy to move at any pace when weight is lumped on your feet rather than your torso. In addition, carrying clodhoppers on your feet in the summer heat leaves socks swimming in a pool of sweat.
Lightweight, low-profile hiking shoes on the otherhand, like the Salomon 2 GTX, are simply brilliant as they are lightweight and nearly perfectly waterproof. The only time my feet were wet was when wading through a summer storm-fed river. Best of all – no need to break these in as they’re instantly comfortable from the word go.
Verdict? Lightweight hiking shoes all the way.
We sculpted an old beer can to construct our own DIY cook setup. It lasted about a week before we caved in and bought a regular camping stove.
A DIY stove is great if you have a consistently stable camp and lush weather. However, this was the Alpine summer – it was often raining and our camp spots were perched in precarious places. Hence, lighting pure alcohol on fire in a flimsy tent to cook was not at all ideal. Often we were left hungry after hours of hiking whilst stuck on Alpine ridges, days and ways away from supplies.
We bought a regular gas stove from a store en-route, and carried the extra gas bottles. This was certainly heavier, but reliable regardless of the weather.
Verdict? Pick up an Optimus stove. Offering the reliability you’ll need but with less of the weight. The Crux Lite weighs only 72 grams.
I invested in a super lightweight shell jacket, which was perfect to pack away and light as a fairytale.
Yet it sadly did not withstand an Alpine storm, let alone a constant drizzle, and I was left with soggy mid-layers. Take something a little heavier that can offer the best protection against a rampant rain deluge.
Verdict? Stick with something durable to keep the rain out. The Norrona Falketind Gore-Tex Jacket is a great waterproof jacket, designed for serious mountaineering, which is still pretty darn light too.
Debating between a sleeping bag or a quilt? I opted for a quilt, and it was an utter dream.
First up, quilts are substantially lighter, since you’re missing the bottom part of the bag. This eliminates what you don’t always need. After all, when you lie flat on the bottom part of a traditional sleeping bag you compress it, rendering defunct the insulation and loft.
You can also starfish/sleep in any position you want, which is ideal for sleepers who aren’t a fan of restricted leg movement. And if you like to feel snug, you can strap the quilt under your sleeping pad, keeping you toasty even with snow on the ground.
Verdict? Lightweight Enlightened Equipment quilts all the way.
We opted for super-light packs – although we soon wished we hadn’t. Sacrificing the traditional back support saved weight, but meant that the packs sat really awkwardly.
They also caused a lot of pain when oddly packed objects stabbed into our backs due to the lack of frame. Traditional backpacks may be heavier, but they have the support, which for long hikes is just essential.
Verdict? Trek with a traditional pack for the frame setup. Try Osprey’s Aura AG 65 – still light but offers excellent support.
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