The Obligatory Cat Photo
This is not a post about my cat. Not about anyone’s cat, as it happens, but there does seem to be a law of the Internet (not quite Godwin’s, unless we’re discussing Nazi cats… Catzis? Have I strayed far enough from the point yet?) requiring all blogs to include at least one cat photo, so here it is. As it happens, the photo is of my cat, the genuinely adorable Mrs Peel, but the rest of the post will not be about cats at all, unless I’m feline up to it. *ahem*
So anyway, yes, ultralight hiking! I knew there was a topic in here somewhere.
I cannot claim complete immunity from an interest in the material side of hiking, the kit, the gear, the gubbins etc. My wardrobe is full of the stuff for one thing, although there’s a handy degree of crossover with the gear I use when cycling to work. No point buying two lots of performance clothes, eh? I like to research something before I buy it, which does mean that my dearest girlfriend (Mrs Peel is her cat too. Damn, I mentioned cats again…) has to put up with me while I wander around camping shops, click between outdoorsy websites and pore over the technical listings in gear catalogues. The end result should be that I buy precisely the right thing for the job and don’t waste money or acquire kit I end up not using. And here’s a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.
Even so, I’m an amateur, the merest dilettante, when compared with some people, especially some of the people who like to frequent hiking forums on the Internet. On one site there was a rather sad post from a lady bemoaning the fact that such places always start off with excitement, enthusiasm and innovation but inevitably become little more than a string of enquiries as to which new gadget to buy.
In the case of ultralight hiking the shift from weird marginal extreme pursuit, the haunt only of the obsessed and the creative, to slightly less marginal pursuit with lots of commercially available products has happened pretty much alongside a similar but more pronounced shift for the Internet itself. In the late nineties the ‘net was growing, creeping into homes and offices, but not everyone was convinced and not every company felt the need to have a website. Today you really don’t need much in the way of technical knowledge in order to surf, just as you no longer need to source exotic coated synthetics and break out the sewing machine if you want to use ultralight hiking equipment.
There comes a point, of course, when the rapid innovation and explosion of ideas slows, when new gear begins to look a lot like the old gear, merely in a different colour and fractionally lighter (or even, to the horror of many, slightly heavier!). In many respects we are hitting material barriers in the pursuit of ever lighter equipment. Some incredible fabrics and materials have been found and put together with ingenious methods of construction, but really, how light do we need to be? At what point does the compromise become too great? Price, durability, complexity – pretty much everything except, say, your pet cat… Damn again – figure into the suitability of any one piece of gear for any one hiker. The numbers game of ultralight is fascinating and it’s very easy to find yourself drawn into shaving off an extra ounce or two, or even a gram, but like many people I’m less interested in the extremes of the process than I am in enjoying a nice walk and a spot of camping. For me, carrying less weight does indeed mean a much better hiking experience. I’ve had fewer injuries and less fatigue for starters. That said, I can’t say with any conviction or honesty that a full rucksack weighing nine pounds is going to adversely affect my hike when compared to one of eight and a half pounds; small differences might show up eventually, but if the difference is down to a warmer pullover or an extra bar of chocolate I’m as likely to shoulder the difference and not worry about it.
When I did my first TGO Challenge walk across Scotland in 2009 I was wearing my battered old Ventile smock and trusty cotton duck Tilley Hat; trousers were almost certainly involved as well. If the comments I heard are anything to go by then this was considered somewhat eccentric. The smock was worn every day, since it was both my windproof and waterproof outer garment. Only on one day did a relentless spell of rain overwhelm it, but for the route I took and conditions I encountered (including sleet and snow) it was excellent, as good as it has always been. Even so, I’m taking a Páramo 3rd Element jacket on the next Challenge, partly because I’m being slightly less cautious about my route and will be spending more time out of the valleys. The 3rd Element (now sadly discontinued, although that’s why I was able to buy a new one for rather less than half price) is considerably more eccentric than my smock – I’ll let you Google it to discover why – yet is greatly prized by the likes of Andy Howell and Colin Ibbotson. Colin, of course, is British ultralighting’s combination boffin and test pilot, pushing the limits on behalf of us all, but mostly because he clearly enjoys it.
Anyway, I might also carry a very lightweight windproof jacket, useful as an extra layer to trap a bit of warmth, or too help keep the bugs off on very hot days when zipping up the Páramo would be unbearable. Mine is a GoLite something-or-other, bought, like so much of my kit, in a clearance sale and consequently a particularly eyebrow-raising shade of orange. This flimsy, gossamer-thin hooded top weighs a rather astonishing 108g (bit of a sop to the metric users out there. I get complaints, you see), despite the fact that I don’t take small sizes. It folds into its own pocket to form a tiny, wallet-like pillow of nylon, yet erupts impossibly out of the pouch as though liberating itself from John Hurt’s chest, ready for action. It is by no means the lightest such jacket on the market. How light can such things get? How light do we really need them to get, indeed? Posts on the ultralight hiking forums seem to suggest that newcomers are terribly worried that their gear might not be light enough. Are they buying the right things? Will losing another half pound make all the difference? Will the big boys point and laugh at their comparatively heavy kit? In reality, it’s not at all difficult in these days of supermarket fleece jackets and tough synthetics to get a respectably light outfit together for a very reasonable amount, without needing to spend hundreds on the cutting edge. Carrying twenty pounds is a lot better than carrying thirty (unless the extra ten pounds are included for a purpose, of course: lightest possible is not necessarily lightest suitable), so why agonise in advance? It’s a wonderful thing to be able to access all of this information and opinion from one’s desk (or even ‘phone), but nothing substitutes for experience: a decent, cheap start lets you actually get out and hike, then next time you can start tweaking it all to suit your personal preferences.
My stove, of course, sits sneering at me to highlight my apparent hypocrisy. It weighs less than half an ounce and is made of titanium, of course. Get over it.