This is the first post of the Defining Ultralight Series. Read the next post HERE
Ultralight- adj. – Extremely Lightweight
The backpacking crowd would define ultralight in black and white terms as a 10lb or less base weight. A base weight, for those not familiar, is the weight of everything in your pack that is not a consumable. In other words, the weight of everything inside or attached to your backpack that isn’t food, water, stove fuel, and maybe toilet paper or spare batteries depending on who you ask. This is the accepted definition of base weight across the backpacking industry and culture and is always defined the same. There are a couple bad hunting sites out there defining it differently to post extremely low base weights, but their claims are a distraction of false advertising.
Base weights change and gear lists change with the seasons. Anyone who says they have only one gear list that never alters either only spends time afield in one season, one place, or both. Changes from season to season may be small and minute, but they affect pack weight, comfort and safety in way that range from small to extreme.
The obvious of ultralight philosophy is that a lighter pack makes hiking and moving across whatever landscape you find yourself in easier physically. The flip side can be that the comfort of hiking with a lighter pack can mean the trading of comfort in camp or on the trail. In my opinion comfort is mental. You are comfortable with what is normal and status quo for you. Either way you slice it though, a lighter pack gives up some convenience and comfort in exchange for comfort on your shoulders.
I have some friends that I got into backpacking that are extremely lightweight backpackers without even really realizing it. The reason is that I set up their gear list, taught them how to use it, and they never knew any different. They often may not even realize that a heavier, more comfortable/durable option exists, and they just use what they know.
When it comes to hunting, I found myself striving towards ultralight gear in order to achieve an end. At some point along the way I realized that I, like all of you, had a set of priorities. Mine had killing animals in the backcountry at the top of the list and comfort at the bottom. I don’t claim that this is either right nor wrong, but rather point it out so that you can asses if you fall into the same line of thinking or not. I am also not attempting to make an argument that lighter gear is the only way to kill animals. That would be a lie as well.
Why ultralight? In a nutshell it has put more options on the table. It has given me the ability to not only set a base camp, but to hunt with all my gear on my back just as easily. It has lessened my fatigue on long hikes and allowed me to access spots with a camp that would have otherwise ran my energy low physically. It has made carrying more food for longer trips more feasible, as I can afford more food before the weight of my pack becomes too heavy. Like I said, in a nutshell, I can do more in varying situations.
What is Ultralight?
As I mentioned above, most of the world would define ultralight as a sub 10lb base weight. For the sake of hunting this is nearly impossible. I have put together one list in the past that would do this, but it’s nearly impossible without making your own gear. Backpacking at sub 10lbs contrarily, is quite easy in my opinion. You can immediately cut two or three pounds at a minimum from the weight of your backpack alone, not to mention game bags, optics, tripods ect. In my opinion, a 15lb base weight for hunting is fairly equivalent to a 10lb backpacking base weight (excluding your weapon).
When it comes to hunting, not only do you have the challenges of extra gear, but you immediately assume that most of the time will be spent in the shoulder seasons of the year. Temperatures are colder and weather is much more likely. Both of these factors play large factors in the decisions around clothing and sleeping insulation, which in turn will add another pound or two in comparison to a summer trip.
So, in short, I don’t know if it is my place to define “Ultralight Hunting”, but to me it floats somewhere around a 15lb pack before adding your weapon, food, and water. A 15lb base weight for hunting is fairly difficult to achieve considering that your pack will most likely start at a minimum of 5lbs empty. I will also tell you right now, that if your pack is over 6lbs, you’re most likely not making it under the 15lb line. This line is imaginary I know, and its not like this is a pass or fail grade. 16lbs is obviously lighter than 24, and so on.
How I’ve Went About It
All is not fair in the game of numbers. If you’re a big guy, all your stuff will weigh more. Your clothes are bigger, your sleeping bag is longer, and everything gets heavier when you total it all up. However, big, strong guys also have the advantage of being able to carry more weigh comfortably. You don’t pick the pony to carry the big load for a reason.
What I found for myself though was that I was at my best with 15% or less of my body weight on my back. For me that meant around 25 pounds of less was what I wanted on my back while hunting. This also meant if I wanted to use a bivy type style of hunting that I needed this 25lbs to include whatever food and water I was carrying.
Getting my pack down underneath this mark took me years of trial and error. Often times products that advertise awesome lightweight gear that seems to light to be true, in fact is to good to be true. I spent money, broke products, had gear fail, and went back to the drawing board. On top of this came the sort of philosophy and game planning for my entire kit. To achieve ultralight pack weights all your gear has to function seamlessly. You need most items to achieve multiple tasks, and not have double coverage in areas where you find yourself carrying an extra item. The easiest and cheapest way to cut pack weight after all is to just leave something at home.
The problem with this though is that you must put absolute faith in one product to do a job, and trust that it will not fail. For some small things you may be able to get by with a failure, on some of your main gear pieces though, this can mean coming off the mountains due to safety or efficacy issues.
So I started at the top and went through every item in my pack, and I mean EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. First I had to determine if I needed that item or not. I repeated this task for years after every season by going back through what I had carried and if I used it. I tried to analize and get creative with my gear as well. I searched for items that I hadn’t heard of by trying to figure out if there were pieces of gear that combined two things into one. For example, the Vargo Bot. The Bot is a cook pot that is also a water bottle. This piece never made it into my pack as the ability to store water while cooking was important to me in the end, but I think you probably get the idea.
I scoured the internet for hours per week, for years on end, analyzing, testing, reviewing, and then repeating. Some things stuck, some things didn’t. Often I would find a product I really liked and then seem something that seemed better. After spending more money I would find myself a few months later back with the previous piece of gear ending up back in my pack.
This refinement process continued for several iterations and gradually it became a list that I felt was heading towards perfection. Along the way I tailored it to my style of hunting for a perfect fit. Often, I have bought brand new gear and taken scalpel blades to them to cut out features I didn’t need. At first, I was slow to do this, but later on, once I was 10 years into the process, it became easy as I knew exactly what I wanted.
How I hunt
When it comes to ultralight hunting, gear needs to be tailored precisely to its use so that it can provide the exact function it needs with minimal to no extras. In order to give you an idea as to where I am coming from I feel like it is important to describe my hunting style and approach. On the large scale view, I am mainly a high elevation elk hunter in the fall, and spot and stalk black bear hunter in the spring. Sure I do other hunts and things throughout the year (every year in fact), but these are the hunts that my gear was heavily tailored to fit.
As I have grown as a hunter and outdoorsman, I have ventured in to more seasons and species which has required more gear to keep my system lightweight. However, it mostly started with September archery seasons at treeline, and black bear hunts in May in the nastiest river canyons I could find. If you are a guy that does a lot of hunting in a lot of seasons you will either already know or will quickly realize how expensive it gets to have the lightest weight setup for each hunt. After all, an ultralight setup in September shouldn’t utilize the same shelter that another setup would use for November. The added weather protection is just wasted space and effort in the early season.
Narrowing in on style, I knew early on after trying it that I wanted to be a bivy hunter a large majority of the time. I didn’t enjoy the big campsites next to the trail, and I felt like the hiking to and from camp was a waste of time. I don’t mean this in the literal sense of using only a bivy sack for shelter, although I did do that for about 6 years early on. Rather I mean it in the sense of carrying my camp with me throughout the day in a fast and light type of mentality.
Looking back now its been one of the best decisions I could have made personally. Not only has it been pretty successful in terms of hunting, but it has also led me to the style that I find most enjoyable. I don’t know if there is a term for it exactly, but I would describe mostly as midrange hunting. In my mind my style of “midrange hunting” and “bivy hunting” sort of blend together on the timeline. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg conundrum, I don’t recall which exactly came first.
Essentially what this describes is hunting along the mid-slope of a mountain or canyon. I realized at a very young age that animals typically were not in the bottom, nor were they on the ridgeline most of the time. When you sit back and think, I’d imagine that you will realize the same in your experiences. I didn’t know how to do it starting out, but basically, I just set out to hunting these areas. It took me some time to build the skill set to do this (which is a discussion for another time), but bivy hunting was an integral part of the strategy to make this style work. Mid slope sections are often more tedious and slower to traverse and provide less total glass able country from the hunter’s point of view. What I quickly found though was that the glassing angles I did get were incredibly unique and only visible from some of the places I found myself in.
This technique is less viable for deer hunting, but for elk and bears, it puts you in the ideal habitat with great medium distance vantage points into their world. The glassing is often broken, and it takes a lot of time and effort to work the angles effectively, but the hunting is thrilling and fantastic (or at least it is to my brain). With the effort involved to get in and out of some of these locations, and the timing needed to make situations work, I wanted to camp in locations that were less than conventional at the least. Often these were in deer or elk beds tucked under or behind a tree.
This is where tailoring the gear to my needs really began to take shape and direction. For example, a tent to me was useless because often I didn’t have a viable place that was big enough to pitch it. Bivy sacks and tarps became my standby and go to. The rest fell in place behind that over time.
I don’t mean to say that ultralight hunting only applies in this type of situation, or that the gear I use only applies for a certain type of hunting. On the contrary, using and testing so much gear over the years has helped me understand how variations in different products suit them better to differing applications. In the end it all boils down to field time and experience to recognize and implement these differences, but people with high levels of field experience and gear exposure can often point you in the right direction if you can adequately predict and describe the scenario of use.
If you’re still reading this after the previous 2300 words, there’s a good chance your trying to lighten your pack up or get involved in backpack hunting at the least. Gear lists are fine and great, and you can find a link to mine at the top of the page in the main menu, but to simply regurgitate good gear is a disservice to the process and the skill of ultralight backpacking. Nothing causes a pack to grown heavier than fear, and nothing can cut more weight than applicable knowledge. Those statements are true for most everything you can carry with you on a hunt.
The skill set and fieldcraft can often be tough to describe, because many of the things I have learned along the way feel more like instinct than they do conscious thought, however there are a few general guiding principles that I can point you towards as you start on this journey. Several of them have been mentioned throughout the previous portions of this post, but I will sum them up here.
· Never carry two items that performs the same job.
· Never carry an item for convenience when you can complete the task without it.
· Leave unused gear at home on the next trip.
· Find or tailor gear that does what you need it to and nothing more.
· Make sure your entire kit works together and integrates with at least one other item in your pack.
· Prepare for the average, carry just enough to survive the worst.