Have you been on a really long streak of whittling down your gear list? Have you tinkered every gram of your pack to perfection? For some hikers, getting to a lower base weight is a relentless process of upgrading gear to cut weight. Most approach it incrementally, replacing a few gear items at a time, inching closer to the arbitrary 10-pound “ultralight” mark.
But what happens if you never stop upgrading and dropping weight from your pack? While a seven- or even four-pound base weight is possible, cutting this far will land most hikers in the “stupid light” category. While stupid light doesn’t have a set definition, most take it to mean selecting gear that isn’t comfortable, safe, or appropriate for the trip, or eliminating crucial equipment to the same end. Unless you’re trying to set a speed record, you probably want to be comfortable on trail AND in camp. Going stupid light can prevent both.
There are some classic mistakes that can easily land you in the stupid light category. While it’s OK to try new things and test your limits, you can hopefully save yourself some misery by avoiding these objectively bad decisions.
1. Not Adjusting Your Packing List for the Season/Environment
You’re probably quite familiar with the climate of your hometown. You’re also probably not very familiar with the weather patterns 40 hours away on the other side of the country. While it’s tempting to assume that you can use the same packing list for a November trip to the Sierra as you used on an August trip to the Appalachian Trail, this is a dangerous line of reasoning. Your packing list needs to adapt with the weather and terrain. The same packing list can be ultralight in one set of conditions and stupid light in another simply because they have different challenges that require different gear.
Some trips require specialized gear as well. You might need snowshoes or skis for a winter snow hike or a helmet to tackle that scary Elk Range 14er. Leaving these behind in the name of weight is irresponsible to you and the SAR team that might be coming to get you.
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2. Sizing Your Pack Without Considering Consumables
It’s standard advice to choose your pack last when purchasing backpacking gear so you’ll know what size to get. One way to estimate gear volume is to pack all your equipment into a cardboard box, cut it to size, and convert the volume of the box to liters (or cubic CMs). If you’ve done a good job of picking compact gear, you might come out with a stellar number like 20 or 30 liters.
One mistake that can happen at this point is then going to shop and buying a 25-liter pack without considering the consumables you have yet to pack. Just as your base weight doesn’t account for food and water, your base volume doesn’t factor in that five-day resupply of chips and Sour Patch Kids. The number of fastpack-style bags I’ve seen with a food bag wonkily strapped to the outside is insane.
How much extra volume to add for food and water will depend on where and when you’ll be hiking. Appalachian Trail? You probably could get away with one water bottle pocket and enough room for 3-4 days of food. Pacific Crest Trail in a high snow year? You better leave some room for long food carries through the Sierra and big bottle pockets for the desert.
3. Not Learning the Skills That Go with Your New UL Gear
You’ve probably owned a freestanding dome tent at some point and marveled at the ease of setup. All the poles are bungeed together, the body always attaches with ease, and you don’t even have to stake it in if you are feeling extra lazy. Ditching the freestanding tent is one of the most effective ways to drop multiple pounds off your LighterPack list. But using your new trekking pole tent won’t be as easy as that Big Agnes Fly Creek.
Most trekking pole tents and tarps are going to require much more skill to pitch successfully. Your model might be more sensitive to flat ground, good staking soils, or require knots to use guylines without LineLocs. Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions or watch their videos before using. If you are going all out with a flat tarp, learn some basic knot skills and learn different tarp pitching methods.
This goes for all your gear: tightening the right straps on your backpack, how to cook and ration fuel on an alcohol stove, and more.
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4. Modifying Your Gear Into Dysfunctionality
While cutting off unnecessary junk from your purchased gear is a time-honored UL tradition (looking at you, half toothbrush and clothing tags), there is a point where you start to remove the features that make your gear functional in the first place. The ever-popular HMG Southwest can be reduced by 6.5oz or more, but you’ll end up with a floppy mess that can’t be compressed or loaded to full capacity without making your back and shoulder sore. You could also replace the beefy hip belt strap with a much thinner and narrower version, but then you’ll no longer be able to effectively transfer weight to your hips.
In every gear category, someone has found a way to reduce the weight with a custom mod. It’s worth taking a step back before feverishly slashing with the utility knife and considering if the weight saving is worth the utility price.
Classic examples and their pitfalls:
Cutting a toothbrush in half: Makes it hard to brush your teeth well (hello, cavities).
Replacing cords and straps with thinner versions: Might not hold that sleeping pad or chip bag securely anymore, and that ribbon hipbelt might not actually transfer weight.
Removing LineLocs on tarps/tents and using knots: The fabric loop against the guy line is more likely to fail after repeated friction (best to have some sort of plastic or metal interface).
Choosing inflatable sleeping pads with ultra-thin fabrics: Pop too easily and put you on the ground regardless.
5. Using “Toughness” and “Grit” as Stand-Ins for Proper Gear
A popular criticism of ultralight hiking is that UL’ers aren’t tough enough to just carry a heavier pack. Being stupid light might mean you need to be even tougher, though. If you don’t pack the things you need to be warm, dry, and comfortable, there’ll be some rough times making it to your next town. In contrast, with a 20-pound base weight comfort setup, it’s hard not to feel like you’re living in luxury (when your pack is off).
I met a hiker on the CDT who carried a 40-degree quilt the entire trail, even in southern Colorado when temps were consistently in the 20s and 30s. He selected this underrated quilt solely to cut weight. When I asked him how he kept warm at night, he replied, “If I get too cold to sleep, I just have to get up and start walking in the dark until it warms up enough the next day to get some sleep in.”
I am simply not tough enough to deal with that strategy, and I bet most hikers aren’t either. During that same cold stretch of trail, I doubled my sleep system weight by switching from a 22-degree quilt to a zero-degree bag. I like to be asleep when it’s dark, and I’m not willing to give that up to save eight ounces. I doubt many people can consciously decide to be cold at night, but doing so is definitely stupid light.
Gear decisions that deliberately make you uncomfortable also often put you in hazardous situations. Being wet, cold, and having to hike in the dark? No thanks, I’d rather wait it out in a tent. Not packing yourself any margin of error is firmly in the stupid light category.
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While no individual piece of gear is always stupid light, there are endless ways to make it stupid light by pulling it into the wrong situations. Packing is more than a base weight number at the end of a spreadsheet, so use what’s between your ears to make sure you have the right stuff before your next trip.
Featured image: Photos by Alexander “GPS” Brown. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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