Thinking ultralight challenges the doctrine and the doctrine inevitably strikes back. The following is about some of the usual arguments thrown on the ultralight style (I bet you’ve heard them mentioned before)
Myth 1: it’s expensive
A summer sleeping bag worth 300 Euro?
Some gear items are more expensive in their lightweight version than in the standard one. Some aren’t. It may be that the lightweight version is even cheaper.
It’s true that sometimes there’s a lightness price tag but the financial investment is not the only way to get lightweight gear, not even the main way.
When the lightweight version of a certain item is more expensive than the standard one, it’s often due to the use of high performance materials that are inherently lighter or more resilient -so a lesser amount of raw material is needed- and have a higher base price.
Sometimes the lightweight version is so because it’s just simpler. In such instances, the price may be similar or even lower than in the standard version. It’s common that the outdoor industry didn’t even bother to produce a lightweight version but it can be found in other fields like work clothes (I’m thinking waterproofs here but there are other examples). It may very well happen that the lightweight version is ridiculously cheap.
In summary, as far as lightweight gear prices go, you can find anything. It’s not correct to think a lightweight kit is necessarily more expensive than a standard one. If price is a factor, it is certainly possible to build a lightweight kit on the cheap. It may not be the most optimal lightweight kit but it’ll still be true to the idea and it’ll surely be lighter than the equivalent, standard kit.
Money is not the barrier.
Myth 2: it’s exclusive
Specific lightweight gear items may be exclusive but the idea is not. It belongs to everybody because everybody may find it useful. There’ll be those who try to kidnap the idea. Don’t let them. Don’t rule yourself out either.
You don’t need to go on a polar expedition to look for the most optimal gear. It’s useful also on a weekend outing in your local recreation area.
Myth 3: It’s only due in high level activities
Not at all. Carrying less weight is always useful. As a lateral effect, it may be the factor in taking your activity to a higher level, if that’s what you want.
Any activity, at any level benefits from a carried weight reduction. It’ll be up to you to decide what to do with the return: climb higher, walk farther or just taking it easier. It’s true that fringe activities are a key motivation to turn onto the lightweight styles where they may be an utter must to go through but you may get to the lightweight styles any other way: because you heard about it or you have a natural tendency to get off you comfort zone and try new things. They’re all valid.
The ultralight philosophy is useful beyond the realm of the outdoor activities: office work, transportation, cooking or dusting at home, anything may benefit from a simpler approach.
It becomes a life philosophy. Take what you want from it but above all don’t resign because you think it doesn’t belong to you.
Myth 4: Lightweight gear is fragile
If it doesn’t weight, it’ll break.
It’s true that one valid strategy to cut gear weight down is to skimp on thickness or amount of the raw materials which yields an increased fragility in relative terms. Not necessarily in absolute terms because the effect is often compensated by the use of better performing materials.
It’s also true that some ultralight gear takes this cutting very far, maybe uncomfortably far. The same as with the price myth, this is a valid weight saving strategy but it’s not the only one, neither the main one. A simple design often saves more weight than a fringe build.
Current trends in ultralight gear favor sturdiness over pretty weight figures. Such trends look for weight the savings on the design, not so much on the construction.
Lightness and sturdiness are confronting but not strictly opposing factors. Lightweight gear is only good if it performs its function without breaking.
Myth 5: lightweight gear is uncomfortable
Backpack that trashes your shoulders, sleeping bag that will guarantee to keep you alive just to be cold one more night, handkerchief sized tarp that only works when there’s no actual need for one, shoes that leave you feel every pebble…
It’s true that lightweight gear requires compromises and it’s down to everyone’s good judgment and skill to find the right balance. It’s not true that the lightweight philosophy requires any suffering. Comfort is a subjective thing and so it’s difficult to evaluate. That said, lightweight gear does not require any sacrifices in comfort as a starting point. What it does require is a careful re-evaluation of our needs, an honest analysis of what’s really important and what’s not.
The comfort issue is very personal. As far as the ultralight philosophy goes, it’s worth remembering that it’s about carrying less weight and this is a great starting point to get more comfortable, not less.
Myth 6: using lightweight gear is dangerous
Lightweight gear use forces us to rethink about travelling strategies. If you don’t resort to the “throw everything in just in case”, you’ll naturally tend to rely less on each gear item and more on a kit that works together and your skills to make it work. This leads to increased conscience and increased sense of responsibility. As an immediate consequence, your relative security level improves.
Myths: price, fragility
Waterproof/breathable clothing is itself a bit of a myth with every new generation promising the very same things, somehow assuming previous promises were not fulfilled. Every new iteration of said promises costs the consumer extra money. If low weight is part of the set, it’s often taken as an additional capacity and we’re charged for it. Sometimes, it may be fully justified: it may be that producing a lightweight version is more expensive than making a standard one.
When the weight reduction is due to a simpler design or less fabric, the lightweight version should be cheaper, marketing strategies notwithstanding. There’s indeed such cases where the lightweight version of a garment is cheaper than the standard one.
An inherent problem in thinning fabrics is the durability: of the garment and particularly of the waterproofness part. In such cases, the item is fragile, somehow fulfilling the prophecy. There was some truth to the myths after all.
A very interesting option that requires some out-of-the-box thinking is the use of waterproof, non-breathable garments: simple and cheap construction and durable waterproofness. If high performance fabrics are used, the result can be outstanding in a combination of weight (low), price (average) and durability (fair).
Using non-breathable garments may seem inadequate when there are breathable ones available but considering all the pros and cons objectively, it doesn’t feel so inadequate. A non-breathable version may work very well with the right skill set.
If you look for your lightweight waterproofs in the high tech end, they’ll come at a price. Low tech is very valid though and opens up a whole lot of choices.
Sleeping bags show a rather linear relation between quality and price, i.e. the more expensive, the better. Put the other way, quality has a price. Marketing spin effect is quite limited in this market.
A lightweight, high performance bag is expensive but it is so not because it’s light but because it’s a quality item. This is what allows the bag to be warm (in relative terms) and light at the same time. This is easily understood by the public regarding the thick, winter bags but it seems difficult to accept for the thin, summer bags. Many tend to think the high price is due to the lightweight feature, as if there was some kind of lightness tax on the bags and there is not. We’d be paying for quality, which is actually a worthy cause.
Myth: price, security, fragility
Shelter systems are a great example of an item that may get lighter and cheaper at the same time for a given functionality. As usual, the answer is off the beaten path.
Within the classic tents world (fully framed tents with curved lines), it’s quite true that the lighter, the more expensive. Shaving weight is usually achieved by using high performance materials and the production series are usually smaller.
There’s a whole world beyond the classic tents: flat tarps, shaped tarps or pyramids all stand up over straight, vertical supports. It’s an extremely simple setup that it’s inherently light. It’s inherently cheap too.
Once off the beaten path, production series are short so prices go up, partially making up for the simple design and manufacture but not so much as to make these simple shelters more expensive than traditional tents of similar performance. We may get a product that’s certainly lighter and most likely some cheaper than the mass produced classics.
It is to be expected that such unorthodox shelters feel sketchy to potential takers. It’s all about the skill to use them well and the confidence that builds after repeated success stories. If you trust your instruments, all is well. Truth is shaped tarps and vertical supports can build extraordinarily strong structures that may perform just as well as traditional tents for a fraction of the weight. Lighter is not necessarily less safe.
Myth: uncomfortability, danger, exclusivity, fragility
The lightweight shoe issue has been historically hot in the hiking/mountaineering community. I’m aware the amount of controversy may vary depending on the locale but I’m sure you’ll have heard before something like what follows…
Up until not too long ago, using low cut, lightweight shoes on anything but a well groomed trail was considered bordering the irresponsible. Low cut shoes were a necessary evil in applications tangential to the user’s main activity, i.e. approach shoes that need to be carried in the pack during the core activity time.
Long distance hikers have been regularly using lightweight shoes for some time now but it’s a small community unable to generate a trend. Then it came trail running with all its glamour and with the need to use lightweight shoes: it’s very hard to run on heavy boots.
If low cut, lightweight shoes were good for running, they must have been good for hiking too.
The benefits of lightweight shoes are easy to fathom if we think of running. It applies the same to plain hiking as far as the actual benefits go: less effort needed, less energy expense, much easier on the feet and more freedom to the body to work as it’s designed to.
Lightweight footwear also has some psychological benefits: it provides a more direct contact with the ground and it hence encourages a better connection with the environment.
Both benefited sides, physical and psychological, promote increased security, contrary to popular belief that high cut, rather rigid shoes are needed for security.
The one footwear-related myth that’s rather true is about the fragility. Heavy boots are more durable on average. Current offer in simple, low cut shoes has widened enough to find items that focus on durability at the cost of (some) weight.
Footwear issues are very complex anyway. Feet are a very personal thing. It’s common that what works for some doesn’t work for others. What better reason to step off the beaten path: just because it might work better.