Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Going lightweight

I was just reading an old blog post on Peewiglet's blog about lightweight backpacking. At first glance lightweight backpacking makes sense; if you are having to carry everything up and down mountains then a few kilograms can make a world of difference. Yet I am fairly uninterested in the topic.

First, some definitions. Lightweight means a base weight (i.e. excluding water and food) of 20lbs (10kg); Ultra-leightweight has a baseweight of 10lbs. Sounds like a lot? Well, that weight has to include tent or tarp, sleeping bag, mat, cooker, spare clothes and the pack itself, along with other essential and non-essential odds and ends.

My favourite tent, the Northface Westwind (see right), has a weight of 3kg (6.6 lbs). As can be seen, this is major part of the weight budget. Yet I have carried this tent for thousands of miles up and down hills and have slept in my Westwind for over seven nights in a row. After a couple of nights it starts to feel like a home. As it is a two-man tent there is plenty of room inside for me and all of my kit, and I can sit up to get dressed with ease. It is also exceptionally weatherproof (NASA used it in Antarctica), so I can sleep through storms without worrying about it being blown away. Yet the price of this comfort is weight.

One of the best backpacking tents is the Hilleberg Akto, a one-man affair weighing only 1.5kg (3.3 lbs). This is half the weight of my Westwind, and that 1.5kg could make all the difference on the hills. The Atko is rightly popular, but experience shows me that it is too small for frequent use. My other tent is a Jack Wolfskin Gossamer (shown right), a one-man tent that is about the same weight as the Akto, and the dimensions are roughly the same (if not the exact arrangement). I can easily spend a couple of nights in summer in the Gossamer,  but any more and the lack of space and comfort gets highly annoying. It is also much colder than the Westwind, as even a slight breeze sweeps under the fly and through the mesh inner.

However, the main problem is that I am well over six feet tall. If I want to get dressed, then I have to shuffle half-out of the tent in order to easily pull my clothes on as I cannot sit up. It is too small for my rucksack to fit in alongside me, so that has to stay outside. These may seem like minor things, but they really matter when you are footsore after a week of walking. This will be a problem that is common with the lightweight tents (aside from tarps, which have other issues).

I prefer to take the extra weight and be able to sleep and live comfortably. After all you spend about ten hours a day walking, and the other fourteen in and around your tent. Getting a good night's sleep is so important. The biggest problem with my Westwind tent is a fairly non-obvious one: it is bright yellow, and hardly unobtrusive for wild camping!

Likewise, little luxuries help. I read a little too quickly for books to be a sensible thing to carry, but I am addicted to listening to MP3 music and podcasts as I stroll. A camera is also a must for me and, if I am out in the wilds, a hip flask of whisky to keep out the chill. All of these are worth their weight in gold, especially as I do the vast majority of my walking on my own. I could camp without them, but the trip would be soulless and boring. It is surprising how the simple act of listening to a favourite song can really lift me out of a low funk.

Lightweight clothing can also be bought. But again, comfort is important. It is little good having the latest lightweight coat if it does not adequately keep out the weather. If you can get comfort and light weight then all well and good, but comfort has to come first. After all, although it may not seem so at times, you are backpacking for enjoyment.

So when it comes to tents, comfort beats weight for me. However, I am not totally against reducing weight where possible. Years ago I swapped my faithful Trangia for an MSR Pocket Rocket, a gas canister burner. This is far lighter (especially as I have no need to carry a bottle of meths around with me). There are disadvantages, however; it can be quite hard to get stable on rough ground, and with a large pan resting on top it can be a little like an upside-down pyramid, tottering in the wind. Over the years I have replaced many heavy items of kit with lighter ones, with varying degrees of success.

I have also just ordered a new sleeping mat - a Thermarest Neo Air mat, which has had rave reviews. Not only is this lighter than my current mat but it is thicker, better insulated from the ground and should be much more comfortable. I spent a night out in my Westwind last week, and realised that my current mat slowly deflates during the night. A replacement was needed, and the Neo Air looked like an ideal (if expensive) replacement.

This morning I have been packing up my rucksack ready for my first backpacking trip of the year (indeed, my first for two years); the weight is currently 20kg, including enough food to last me a couple of days. My clothes alone are 5kg. Lightweight? Certainly not. Comfortable? Certainly. That weight would allow me, with regular replacement of food, to be out on the hills for weeks.

As with everything in life, it comes down to compromise. Weight, comfort, practicality and cost all swirl together to provide the walker with a near-infinite range of choices. Weight undoubtedly matters, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the backpacking experience.