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OGExperience: Ultralight Backpacking Q&A

ultralight backpacking question and answer session

In honor of his upcoming attempt to do the Long Trail in 10 days, Chris Reamer—our very own ultralight backpacking OGExpert—sat down to field some of your Instagram questions about going ultralight. If you’ve ever wanted to take the plunge into gram-counting, toothbrush-cutting, weight-weeniedom, these are the answers you’ve been looking for.

Q: What trails have you hiked?

A: I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015, the Long Trail in 2016, and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. Next week I will be hiking the Long Trail for the second time!

Q: Why should I go ultralight?

A: There are a few reasons to go ultralight in my opinion. For long trips in particular like the AT, LT or PCT carrying less is going to put less wear on your body. Think of hiking a section of trail as part of a weekend or overnight, then think of doing it with only a day pack. You will feel a lot better and have a lot more energy at the end of the day. Another thing that I enjoy about going ultralight is being able to hike more miles per day. I get a kick out of seeing how many miles I can do in a day, when my pack is lighter my mileage is higher. With that, if I’m hiking more miles per day I’m usually spending less time in camp and can carry less creature comfort items. A big question I ask folks about wanting to go ultralight is do you want to be comfortable while walking or while at camp. If you want to be comfortable at camp, you may have to sacrifice a few ounces but for many people it’s worth it.

Q: What are your recommended packs for ultralight backpacking?

A: The most important thing with picking any backpack is comfort. A few ounces won’t help you if the pack doesn’t fit right. Also, having a realistic expectation of your load and the pack’s ability to carry that load. A UL pack should be one of the last parts of your ultralight kit, a 2 pound pack doesn’t do any good filled with 40 pounds of gear. That being said, I love my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider that I used on the PCT. There are plenty of other great options such as the Granite Gear Crown 2 60, the Osprey Levity/Lumina series, the Osprey Exos/Eja series and the Gregory Optic/Octal series. These are my go-tos for folks that come into the shop trying to keep it as light as possible.

Chris holding a hyperlite mountain gear windrider pack

“A UL pack should be one of the last parts of your ultralight kit, a 2 pound pack doesn’t do any good filled with 40 pounds of gear.”

Q: How about cook systems?

A: With cook systems, I feel canister stoves are the way to go. They are reliable, fast and easy. My stove, the Optimus Crux, was one of my first pieces of gear and I have never thought of replacing it. It will be the only piece of gear to triple crown with me! Other options like the MSR Pocket Rocket or Snow Peak GigaPower are great too. Jetboil makes some good options but I can go lighter with my Optimus and a small Titanium pot.

Q: What’s your preferred shelter?

A: On my AT and first LT hikes I used my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2. I’ve had it for going on 5 years now and with a proper tight pitch never had any condensation or moisture issues. On the PCT I used a Duplex from Zpacks, which is a cottage company making Dyneema shelters, and I did run into some condensation problems. My fiancée and I are planning for the CDT in 2020 and thinking of making the switch to a Big Agnes Copper Spur.

Q: Just how durable are most ultralight tents? Any stand outs?

A: As with all gear, it depends how you care for them. Don’t store them wet or compressed for long periods of time and they will last. I have used my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 for close to 300 nights at this point and it wasn’t until very recently I had a pole break. I used my Fly Creek for the entire AT and LT, rarely staying in shelters, and it never let me down. Big Agnes tents are not inexpensive but they are for sure my brand of tent.

Q: What about sleeping bags?

A: For sleep systems, I am a huge fan of quilts. I started using a quilt on my first Long Trail hike and I was sold. Thankfully quilts aren’t just being made by cottage companies now, with options like the Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt, the Sea to Summit Ember quilt, the Nemo Siren and the Therm-a-Rest Corus. For those not sold on the quilt life or those looking for something a little warmer I love the Sea to Summit Spark (which I will be using on the CDT 2020), the Marmot Phase 20, the Western Mountaineering Ultralight, Sierra Designs Nitro 20, and a lot more—but this is already a long response. Also I think down insulation is definitely the way to go. Most bags are using hydrophobic down which takes away the worry of getting it wet but with proper precautions your bag shouldn’t get wet anyway.

Chris with a sea to summit Ember Quilt

Quilt life.

Q: What’s your favorite inflatable sleeping pad?

A: I personally love my Nemo Tensor Insulated pad! It worked great on the whole PCT for me, at 3 inches thick it was super plush and plenty warm.

Q: What kind of trip is my Osprey Kestrel 57L pack best suited for? 3-4 day trip, 7 day trip, etc?

A: It really depends on what your setup is. With a compact sleeping bag and a lightweight tent, tarp, or hammock, you could definitely fit 7 days of food in a 57L pack. On the PCT I used a 55L and there were a couple of occasions that I needed to carry about 6 days of food and had plenty of space left over. Also, a great upside of a light pack usually means more miles a day so less days between resupplies so less food to carry and ultimately a lighter pack!

Q: What are those shades you were rocking for most of your PCT thru hike?

A: Those sweet shades were made by the brand Goodr and the model was Donkey Goggles. They treated me really well and were great for crossing the snow fields in Washington.

Chris wearing his goodr sunglasses

A good pair of donkey goggles are essential for any thru-hike.

Q: What’s the first thing to try to go lighter on the trail?

A: When I started the Appalachian Trail, I had a 53 pound pack. It only took a few days to make me realize this was not the way to do it and decided to start shaving weight. When I finally had enough, about 150 miles in, I went into town and dumped everything out of my pack and if I hadn’t used it since I started then I sent it home. I did this again a few weeks later and eventually got my pack down to about 35 pounds with food. Still not ultralight but it was comfortable. So my best advice for getting started with weight savings is to take a look at everything in your kit, is there something you haven’t used on your last few overnights? Try going out next time without it. Clothes can be a big thing that a lot of people can overpack. I just bring one set of clothes for hiking, one set for sleeping, a lightweight insulating layer and a rain shell. You will get stinky but embrace it, it’s fun! That being said, if you haven’t used your first aid kit thats a good thing but keep it with you. Also, dress for the weather. I keep my clothes to a minimum but if there is a chance the temps can drop it’s ok to bring an extra layer or two.

Chris with a 53 pound pack about to start the AT in 2015

Chris about to start the AT in 2015. Heavy gear, sans beard.

Q: PCT, AT, or LT?

A: If you’ve got a short time window, the Long Trail is great. It can be completed in about 3 weeks on average or less. I’m trying to complete it in under 10 days starting next week. The LT has some really amazing forest, great views and some really cool shelters in the north. The Long Trail definitely holds a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons which is why it’ll be my first repeat thru-hike. Now if you’ve got some more time, the AT and PCT are both awesome. The Appalachian Trail has a super established social scene, goes through some truly beautiful places and is a little more forgiving in terms of being able to bail off the trail and get into town. While the AT has some absolutely incredible views, I feel in order to really love it you have to appreciate the forest. Hiking the AT completely changed my life and it will always be my first love of the outdoors. The PCT is definitely the trail to do if you are looking for huge open views, but don’t go expecting much more solitude than the AT. On the PCT you will see a great variety of landscapes all beautiful in their own way. With these vast varying landscapes, you are further from civilization so there is a little less room for error. That being said I love them all for different reasons, I don’t think I could pick a stand alone favorite.

Q: How do I grow a beard as majestic as yours?

A: Just let it grow! If it’s patchy just fight through the awkward phase and it’ll fill in! Mine was a little patchy at first but luckily I was on the AT and didn’t see my reflection for weeks!

Q: Related: How do you keep your beard so dreamy?

A: I actually don’t do much to maintain it. Just brush it semi-regularly, wash it when I shower and make sure I don’t leave food scraps in there for too long.

Chris on the PCT, bearding out

A majestic beard demands a majestic view.

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Published:August 9, 2019

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