When Rich Colfack first started backpacking, he'd load a propane lantern, bulky sleeping bag and heavy dome tent into an external frame backpack, shouldering the 50-pound load slowly over short distances.
"I didn't want to hike more than a mile at a time," he says.
Then came the epiphany. If he carried less, he could go farther, faster and more comfortably. He pared down what he stuffed into his pack and traded out heavy gear for lighter-weight alternatives.
Today, his friends might poke fun at his obsession to go ultralight, but they're no doubt envious when he zips up grinding mountain passes as unburdened as a day hiker.
Colfack, 39, an estate project manager at Freescale Semiconductor Inc., is part of a growing community of backpackers who eschew cumbersome equipment, aiming for a base weight — all their gear except food, fuel and water — of less than 12 pounds.
Some go farther, whittling off ounces until they're carrying 5 pounds or less, including pack, tent and sleeping kit. Compare that to more traditional backpackers, some of whom carry 40 or 50 pounds, including 5 to 8 pounds for their empty pack alone.
A cottage industry of companies has popped up to cater to the growing ultralight crowd. Among them is Austin-based Gossamer Gear, which sells everything from backpacks that weigh only 8 ounces to one-person tents that weigh a single pound and fixed-length, carbon-fiber trekking poles that check in at just 2.5 ounces each.
"There's every reason to go lighter," says company president Grant Sible. "It just feels completely different. It's more like walking and less like being a pack animal."
Sible says it's possible to get the big three — sleeping bag, tent and backpack — for a total weight of only 3 pounds. Do that, he says, and you can splurge on luxury items. "I get the biggest sleeping pad — an air mattress that weighs 1 pound," he says.
Ultralighters have to strike a balance between comfort and minimalism, and that line is different for everyone. The most extreme ultralighters swap a tent for a bivy, a waterproof bag that encases a sleeping bag. They drill holes in their toothbrush handles, use leaves instead of toilet paper and even (yikes!) eat calorie-packed olive oil instead of solid food.
The art of ultralight backpacking is evolving, too. Carbon- fiber tent poles, titanium eating utensils, LED flashlights and polyolefin ground cloths that look like plastic wrap have replaced their old-school counterparts. Materials like siliconized nylon are waterproof and light, although some say they're not as durable.
And it's not exactly cheap to switch out all your gear. Experts say it costs between $300 and $1,000 for an ultralight setup.
Colfack shed the excess weight for good while planning a backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail in California in 2008. "I'm a technical geek anyway, but we had 13 days to go 200 miles," he says. "I knew we had to get 15 miles a day, and there was lots of elevation."
Colfack's backpack, an unstructured mesh bag with no internal frame except for a pair of carbon poles, or ribs, weighs just 18 ounces empty. He stuffs an 18-ounce sleeping bag, 9.5-ounce sleeping pad and 30-ounce tent inside, then fills its stretchy outer pockets with necessities such as a cigar-sized SteriPen to purify water, a disposable toothbrush the size of a Chapstick and a miniature stove that folds up to about the size of a deck of cards. His base weight is less than 9 pounds.
Even on a week-long trip, he travels with just one pair of pants, a single shirt and one pair of underwear. His LED flashlight is the size of a quarter, and all consumables, like sunscreen and hand sanitizer, are repackaged into tiny plastic bottles. He carries just a pound of food for each day, and it's all dehydrated or dry. And he doesn't cook, so the only pot or pan he needs is a cup to boil water.
The payoff? He doesn't get bruised hips from carrying too much weight in his pack, and he can hike more quickly. He can ditch heavy high-topped hiking boots for lightweight trail runners, too, because his feet take less pounding.
Naysayers say ultralighters scrimp on safety, noting that tarps or bivy sacks aren't as rain- or wind-proof as tents. Sible, with Gossamer Gear, disagrees, saying that ultralighters take all the same safety items — clothing, sleeping kit, shelter, water purification system and first-aid — but it just weighs less. "I would argue the opposite. If I'm 20 miles back in Yosemite, I'm a lot less likely to fall and hurt myself (if I'm ultralight)," he says.
Others say ultralighters short themselves on creature comforts. Again, Sible takes issue.
"I'm not shorting myself on anything," he says. "Because my gear is so light, I can bring other things."
But there's a limit. Don't skip safety gear or essentials like a first-aid kit and water-treatment supplies. And don't try to ultralight in certain conditions.
"You need to be very aware of where you're going and what you're doing," Sible says. "Some of the gear we make wouldn't work on a high-altitude climb in the Himalayas. It's made for developed trail hiking, not expeditions or high-altitude mountaineering."
As for Colfack, it's worked so far for him. His only miscalculation?
"On the John Muir Trail, I had planned five squares of toilet paper a day, and I ran out."
Want to go ultralight?
Start by weighing all your gear with a scale. Create a spreadsheet, listing the weight of each item you plan to carry, including your pack. Then start paring stuff out, asking yourself which items you really need. Shed the rest.
Get a copy of ‘Lightweight Backpacking 101: An Introductory Manual for Lightening Your Load Today,' by Ryan Jordan, or subscribe to the online newsletter www.BackpackingLight.com.
Don't buy all your new ultralight gear at once. Transition gradually, buying the gear first and a pack that fits it last.
Check out the Tips and Tricks section of the Gossamer Gear web page at www. gossamergear.com .