Does it apply at all?

The Lightweight Backpacker in the High Latitudes

You’ll have heard the argument many times: UL is fine and dandy in predictable, mild environments like (the example goes on and on) the US southwest. Such argument is usually a way of saying it doesn’t work anywhere else with a rougher climate. It may look like basic nay-saying but it may undermine your UL plans when visiting such a place as Iceland1.

It’s happened to me before. Back at the time I hiked the Nordkalott there was little info for this route anywhere on the web and no mention whatsoever to a lightweight approach. I needed a leap of UL faith to show up in the arctic with a summer quilt, a frameless pack and low cut shoes. It worked.

While I understand the idea behind the conservative advice above, I consider this a very narrow view of the lightweight paradigm.

The Lightweight Paradigm, revisited

UL is not about certain gear items or any target weight figure. UL is about optimization of gear and technique, weight figures are a side effect. UL is about careful analysis and being ready to challenge conventions. As such, it works anywhere.

UL in Iceland will be different from that in California in the actual gear and the final weight figures but it’ll be exactly the same about the analysis process and the whole idea behind it: don’t pack your fears. Try to avoid packing your lack of skills –if at all possible, get the skills instead. Never pack your reluctance to step off the beaten path.

Call it Lightweight if you prefer. In the particular case of my (as I write this) recent trip to Iceland, my base weight was roughly 6 kg which is indeed far from ultralight standard figures, California flavor, if there is such a thing as a standard. It was the same 6 kg in Lapland along the Nordkalott back in the day. 6 kg base weight is about 25-50% higher than I’d take in a milder, more predictable environment.

Let me use the Iceland trip gear for a face to face with the classic UL:

Shelter

I carried a fully framed, sort-of-proper tent to Iceland. This is hardly ever my case. Most often I use some kind of tarp, shaped tarp or frameless single-wall. I’m sure it can be done in Iceland too but I didn’t think it was the best idea. Iceland is very exposed and unlike the mountain ranges where most of my hiking happens, in Iceland there is no valley to come down to in case of harsh weather. It’s like camping on high ground all the time.

No valley to come down to

Sleep system

Iceland is rather cold compared to the mid latitudes but you don’t need to climb high to aim for wilderness so the hiking is commonly done in relatively low altitude. Night time temps as I found them were very mild compared to those typical in alpine environments. I used my usual summer+ sleeping bag and mat and I was never cold.

Summer bags

Pack

A 6 kg base plus the need to carry at least 7 days worth of food is not the best scenario for small packs or those made of very thin fabrics but a minimalist design is perfectly fine. I took the pack I currently use for any major trip. It’s a bit sturdier fabric and it’s got a minimal frame vs. the frameless that I used to carry before but this is mostly due to current personal preference, not to the relevant trip location.

The simple pack

Shoes

No matter how northern or how volcanic, the walking I did in Iceland was just walking. It could be done in lightweight shoes with all the usual, known advantages. Don’t go to boots just because it’d feel daunting otherwise.

Will you let us in…

Clothing

I reinforced the waterproof section of my clothing kit by going to full head-to-ankle protection. I think it’s a sensible thing to do in a place where you know it will rain. I may go more minimal when hiking in a dry place but I’d always have some rain gear with me anyway.

The rest of my clothing was the same as usual. The major difference with an alpine kind of trip is that I wore more clothes, more often as the temps were consistently low. Not much t-shirt weather. This is actually good for your carried weight.

Same as usual: relevant paper maps, a proper compass and a GPS set for a backup.

Poles

Same as usual.

Stove & fuel

Same as usual.

Anything else

Same as usual.

The bottom line is it all comes down to trust. Trust your instruments, trust your skills and the information you gather before the trip about the place you’re gonna visit, apply the lightweight paradigm and enjoy the ride. It will work.

  1. This article was written after a summer thru-hike across Iceland