Going ultralight

"Light is right — speed is safety."

You've probably heard these maxims applied to traveling in the outdoors before. For many outdoor pursuits, reducing the time spent exposed to mountain environments and darkness, as well as lessening the mental and physical fatigue that creeps in at the end of a long day can increase your margin of safety. It can also mean the difference between completing your objective within a planned allotment of time, or exhausting your resources and suffering the consequences.

Another way to think of this is, "everything comes at a cost." For example, taking a waterproof shell on a long approach has an obvious benefit—it will protect you and keep you dry if the weather turns bad. It also comes at a cost. The jacket is extra weight and takes up valuable pack space, which limits space for other items and potentially requires a larger than necessary pack.


Other factors come into play when determining the benefit of a piece of gear relative to its cost. One way to evaluate this cost/benefit relationship is to consider: 1) the likelihood of a situation occurring, and 2) the consequences of it happening. If the likelihood of getting caught out in a storm is high, and the consequences are a matter of safety and survival, then the benefit of having a waterproof shelter or jacket is likely well worth the cost.

Most experienced outdoor practitioners will analyze external factors such as weather, terrain, and their objective and weigh this against their personal fitness level or the capabilities of the group. In the end, this amounts to an educated guess—some might call it a gamble. After all, there are no guarantees in the mountains. 

Gear selection

Most of the time, reducing the weight in our packs and being better physically prepared can make outdoor adventures more enjoyable, mitigate risk of injury and allow us to cover more terrain. Experience, skill and knowledge all play a role in determining what sort of gear you should take on a given outing. Your goal should be to take the minimum about of gear needed to undertake your objective within an acceptable safety margin. This will be different for everyone, but here are some guidelines to assist you in planning.

  1. Think like a minimalist. Bring only the equipment, layers and nutrition you need for the trip. If you find yourself carrying a piece of gear that you consistently don't use, try leaving it out of your pack. Exceptions to this for most people are a medical kit, headlamp and a knife or multi-tool.
  2. Be Fit. Few things will help you to move faster in the mountains more than being in good physical shape. If you have a big objective or goal you are trying to accomplish, be diligent about your training and realistic about your abilities. 
  3. Do a "recce". If you're venturing into an unknown area with a big goal in mind, do a light and fast reconnaissance mission well in advance of your target date. This might involve fast hiking or running a trail to get familiar with an approach, or scrambling the easy first section of a multi-pitch objective to scope out the route. You'll have a better idea of the effort required and be more mentally relaxed when it's go time.
  4. Consider items with multiple uses. Related to minimalism, think of ways your gear items can be repurposed to serve more than one function. For example, if you're already carrying trekking poles, these can be used to support a shelter, for first aid and probing snow or water crossings.

For most people, finding the right balance of too much versus too little gear is often a process of trial and error. Continue to work towards gaining greater efficiency in the mountains on each outing. When you can pack for an overnight trip in a 35 liter (or smaller) pack, be comfortable and not overly exposed, you are on your way to moving like a pro.