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Is going ultralight worth it?

Is it worth it to go ultralight while hunting

Photo credit: Brady Miller

I can hear myself now. It was the first backpack hunt I had ever gone on and we were heading into camp. The whole time I was asking myself, ”How can I get this pack lighter?" Surely, there were things that I wouldn't need to bring next time or items that I could upgrade for lighter weight. Those of us that fancy the backcountry route of hunting know that, in the beginning, all of us bring too much. We pack our fears because the thought of being away from the truck with nothing more than a pack can be daunting. We've been conditioned to be in the company of things. There is always the "what if" running through our heads like a broken record. So, we over pack.

Getting ready to change hunting locations

All remaining photo credits: Josh Kirchner

The quest to get as ultralight as possible is a natural progression for most of us. Who wouldn't want to be carrying less weight? It's a no-brainer really. The less weight we are carrying around out there, the less fatigue we are going to experience. This means more energy and focus for the task at hand: hunting. Backpack hunting is hard enough on its own. Having to worry about things other than hunting is not optimal. However, as you continue down this ultralight path, you might realize something: going ultralight comes at a cost. When we gain in one area, we are often giving up in another. So, therein lies the question: Is going ultralight actually worth it?


Nemo Spike Storm ultralight tent

The first area impacted is your comfort. When we trim down our gear list, we are whittling it down to the bare essentials. Convenience is not on the top of the list here. Take shelters, for example. An ultralight one person shelter is going to have way less room for livability than a two-person ultralight shelter. If you want to cut the ounces and pounds though, you will go without the room. This might be a pain in the butt when it comes to riding a storm out and being crammed in a tiny bivy sack. People do it though and are fine. If you do go with that two-person shelter, then look at cutting weight somewhere else to make up for it.

I mentioned convenience earlier, which will affect your stove. The most ultralight stoves out there generally fall short in the wind while the heavier ones usually do pretty well in the wind. This means that you will use more fuel for boiling water and will wait longer to eat your dinner at night. Personally, this doesn't bother me, but it is definitely a factor. You could also go the route of no stove at all and just eat a dry menu, or as Brady Miller calls it, a stoveless food method. You can check out his stoveless food article here. I don't know if I am willing to give up my hot meal at the end of a long day of hunting, but I do know those who do and are satisfied. It's definitely a give and take. At the end of the day, food is fuel. That is it.

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Durability of backpacking gear

One of the first things that I noticed when I started acquiring ultralight gear was how fragile it felt. I was so worried about ripping or breaking it. This is another classic case of the give and take mentioned above. Where we gain in being ultralight, we lose in being durable. Most of these items (like shelters and sleeping bags) do feel as if they can rip at any moment and, in fact, I have actually had that happen to me. Once, I ripped a vestibule on my tent when I was merely just putting it on. Because of that, I find myself trying to be extra careful with this stuff. For instance, I don't ever go without bringing a ground cloth or footprint to put on the bottom of my shelter. The thought of a rock ripping the floor drives me crazy. I don't just throw down my sleeping pad wherever and call it good either. All of the pointy rocks and sticks will be removed from that area before putting down my pad. Also, I never throw my gear around. I really try to take care of the stuff. Most of it is not bombproof. It doesn’t matter that you paid an arm and a leg for something;  it won’t last forever. That brings me to my next point.


The cost of having ultralight gear

Here is one of the biggest downsides of going ultralight: the cost can be pretty outrageous. I remember telling myself that I would never spend X amount on a sleeping bag or on a tent. Fast forward a few years and I have done just that—many times over. The fact of the matter is, the cost is an easy way out of NOT going ultralight. Throwing money at the situation is an easy way to get your pack lighter. At the same time, is it worth spending thousands of dollars on gear? I guess that depends on who you ask. Hunting is really the only other thing that I do so dropping extra money on things is easier for me to justify. Backpack hunting, especially, is a huge passion of mine. We tend to invest in our passions. However, there are other ways to make your pack lighter. For instance, simply not bringing something is a great way to lighten the load. Do you really need to bring that phone charger with you? I can get about five days out of my phone on airplane mode. How about all of those extra batteries you probably won't use or the additional knife you packed? Think about this stuff.

The verdict

Is it worth it to go ultralight while hunting

The answer to whether going ultralight is going to vary from person to person. Some folks do way better in tough situations than others and have no problem going without. They are the minimalists of our world and need little to be satisfied. At the same time, there are others who might be claustrophobic and would not do well in a tiny ultralight shelter. You know what? That is totally OK. One of the beauties of this backpack hunting thing is that it is totally customizable to you. If you want to carry some extra weight so that you feel better back there, then do it. If you don't mind going without and want to get as ultralight as possible then do it. The important thing is that you get the gear you want, can load up your pack, and head into the backcountry. When you come out, you will be a better version of yourself. What's that worth to you?

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Evan B. - posted 7 months ago on 07-21-2019 04:01:00 pm

Very well said. You just have to get out there and figure out where your comfort zone is. And, honestly, the more time you spend in the backcountry the more you realize the things you can do without. Go on some backpacking trips in the off-season and keep track of which pieces of gear you use on the trip and those you never touched (obviously don't leave your FAK at home just cause you didn't use it).

Hands down the pieces you should invest the most in are: tent/shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and warm layers like baselayers and insulating jackets. They are the most important if you get into a hairy situation and you're not going to want to stay out there if you're cold/wet.

I think that yes there are times when going UL means sacrificing durability and coughing up more cash, but it's definitely not always the case. Hint: expand your search beyond REI/Cabelas/Sportsmans. There are a ton of cottage gear companies making great gear, they just don't sell to the big-box stores. Take tents for example. You won't find TarpTent, Gossamer Gear, or Six Moon Designs at REI. But they all make quality UL shelters that are both lighter and cheaper than Big Agnes (which is what you'll find at REI). In terms of durability, backpackers use tents from these UL brands to hike the PCT/AT/CDT/CT/JMT every year. They spend months living in these tents for thousands of miles without issue. So you shouldn't have a problem using them for a week of hunting season. Be mindful of your gear and don't handle it like an ogre. There are also many cheap and UL alternatives for certain gear. For example, tent footprints. You can buy one from Big Agnes for $60 @ 4oz, or you can use Polycro (found at your local hardware store) which comes in at ~$10 @ 1.2oz. And of course, like you said, the cheapest and lightest solution is realizing you can do without something. Which just comes from experience.

Bendrix B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-09-2018 10:12:19 pm
Rochester, MA

The best way to cut your load is to be 10-12 percent body fat; max. For a typical guy that means 20lbs... If its not worth the discomfort of controlling food intake and sticking to a workout schedule, then why waste time and money on fancy gear.

I want good boots on my feet, a warm bag and pad at night, and a dry shelter no matter what blows or falls.

Gary H. - posted 1 year ago on 10-31-2018 11:32:30 am

You can sacrifice a lot. Dont sacrifice something to sleep on or in. EVER.

You have to be able to sleep and be dry at night.

Paul E. - posted 1 year ago on 10-29-2018 02:15:26 pm
Austin, TX

Once I got rid of the sink I figured I could ditch the fridge too.

bornintherut d. - posted 1 year ago on 10-29-2018 11:26:10 am

Wow I sure can relate. 15 lbs shaved out of the pack? That’s huge. Good luck with it all!

Paul E. - posted 1 year ago on 10-29-2018 06:30:43 am
Austin, TX

Perfect timing! Opening day of 2nd rifle CO elk found me at 10k feet soaked thru my base layer with way too much in my pack for the mission profile. As my first Western backpack hunt (I was doing spike camps and then regrouping at a base camp aka my truck) I definitely had packed for my fears and it slowed me down and held me back. However there is a reason why my friends call me MacGyver but I realized that it wasn’t because I had extras in my pack for them to borrow (which they always do) but b/c I could fix almost anything in an emergency with bubble gum, Gorilla tape, JB weld and a Leatherman. I spent that night pulling everything out of my pack and re-evaluating function, purpose and weight (“borrowed” my wife’s kitchen scale for this trip). Amazing how much easier it is to critically examine each piece of gear after carrying it all day. In the end I knocked about 15lbs of extraneous gear out of the pack . Never missed it, never needed it but was still safe and prepared but most importantly lighter! Made the rest of the hunt much better and I was able to go farther.

For me the 2 biggest areas that I can drop weight from for 2019 is my own body and my rifle. I’m in shape but could definitely knock 10lbs of fat off. Swapping out my beloved Savage 99 .358 @ 9lbs loaded w scope for a something like a Kimber Montana at about 6.5lbs loaded w scope would be an improvement. Maybe I can use the savings from not drinking beer toward a new rifle while I lose that 10lbs. Talk about sacrifices!

bornintherut d. - posted 1 year ago on 10-28-2018 07:19:14 pm

Great piece. I’ve contemplated the same thoughts in the field. I’ve kind of remedied that by building an aluminum single wheel game bike years back. Allows me a few luxuries more, yet can’t go as far back.