April 06, 2024 5 min read

By Chris Roberts


While we can obsess over grams all day, asking “why” reveals something else entirely.

In a vacuum, our decisions don’t often stand out or even seem consequential. It’s really when we have to get along with other people that our decisions and beliefs become apparent. I was recently on a trip with a large group of other guys. It was a diverse group - backgrounds, upbringings, different levels of outdoor experience and fitness. Among all the differences, though, there was one difference that stuck out above all - how we packed. Specifically, I noticed just how little I packed. While other guys seemed to fill up the truck with multiple duffels, backpacks, tents, an awning for this, a Dutch oven for that, my single bag comfortably rode in the passenger seat the whole trip.

Now, this wasn’t a backpacking trip. We were car camping. And that Dutch oven did deliver up some welcomed cornbread. But still, I wondered, what was I doing?

When backpacking, ultralight makes sense. The lighter I go, the farther I go. Even the maximalist can respect that. But here I was with my ultralight backpacking setup - ultralight quilt, pad, freeze-dried meals, and basically the clothes on my back for a weekend at a campground with showers and a coffee machine in the lobby. Why did I insist on going as light as possible when it really doesn’t matter? Why, on a trip when I could bring as much I could ever want, did I insist on going as ultralight as possible?

My first thought was habit. Maybe I am just used to traveling lightly. After all, it feels like after a while ultralight becomes a state of mind. It follows you around in your everyday life. It lurks in your daily decisions. Those little ultralight ticks (do people still snap their toothbrushes in half?) become the default way that UL folk end up organizing their lives.

But, it’s not just habit. It’s not just convenient or the way we do things. No. Ultralight is the way we see things.

Ultralight as Antidote

I think of ultralight backpacking as an antidote. Much like nature itself, it fights against those aspects that plague the “rest” of my life. Abundance and extra. The barrage of social media. The bombardment of ads and opinions and ideas. The feeling that my inbox is an impending air raid. All that extra junk that piles up in my garage; All that extra junk that metaphorically piles up in my head. We want to push out the noise and take the essentials. Go light. Go easy. Is this where the ultralight mindset comes from? The shedding of excess?

The world operates on efficiency. There is some necessity there, I suppose. But we are not making cars. We are not operating banks. We are taking our lives into the outdoors. We are seeing how far we can get on foot, on bike, or on a raft. We are hunting for meat. We are testing ourselves against the beauty and harshness of the natural world. Ultimately, I think, we are looking to make sense of the world's turmoil, not by fleeing, but by moving through it with the least impact possible.

When I pack for a trip, I am not escaping from the excess of the world, as much as I am finding a new way to navigate it. This is why the ultralight mindset starts to infiltrate even what I carry in my pockets. There is a desire to focus on the essentials - to not obstruct the journey we find ourselves on. A backpacking quilt that weighs just a few grams is only a small example of this - but that doesn’t change its significance.

Yvon Chouinard said it best: “The more you know, the less you need”. We are those who know, and therefore we are those who do not need. Isn’t this the same as taking only what you need? Isn’t this the real call of the outdoors and of being human?

When we move through our environments simply, we leave room for the others. We leave room for the environment to be what it is. We leave room for experience, for excitement, for the unexpected.

What we really want is to move the unnecessary out of the way. We want to simplify because we know that the less we carry on our shoulders, the less we carry in our heads. As our bags drop in weight, so do our expectations and beliefs. We are suddenly free to experience whatever comes our way.

Whether you hunt, bikepack, hike, paddle, or van camp, you know the importance of this simple mindset shift. The realization of needing less leads to wanting less. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ultralight Math

Now, I don’t mean to leave out that group of ultralight enthusiasts who see things a little less philosophically than I do. I have a backpacker friend who is also a Medical Physicist. For the life of me, I don’t understand exactly what he does for work, but I know it requires a lot of degrees and a lot of calculations.

He comes at this slightly differently, and his point of view is fair. He loves the details (i.e. math) - whether from a solid piece of gear he bought or something he made in his garage. The calculus of grams. The methodology of oz. The feeling of satisfaction when he hits that ideal base weight. When he is packing, he becomes Will Hunting solving that unbeatable theorem on the hallway blackboard. He’s figured out the code and beaten the system.

The two viewpoints are not all too different, though.


Ultralight as Sustainability

At the heart of ultralight is the idea that the small things matter. Every piece of the puzzle makes the whole.

Every tiny decision you make when packing is what adds up to your base weight. The more you know about how to pack and what to pack, the less you’ll actually need. Katabatic believes this affects not just what gear you stuff in your pack, but how that gear is made.

Cheap gear that’s made to be tossed after a few uses is still easy to come by. But, we know we’re not operating in a vacuum, and it’s crucial that the gear we take into the wilderness not spoil the wilderness. When we look at the bigger picture, we can see that all those little decisions we make add up. Every little decision we make toward more sustainable practices has a growing, positive effect. This is how we should approach gear.

That’s why Katabatic’s philosophy of ultralight doesn’t just include the weight of our gear. It includes making gear that moves quietly through the world.

That’s why their down quilts are made from Pertex Quantum ECO, a recycled yarn product specifically designed for extended durability.

That’s why all their fabrics and down suppliers are bluesign® approved so that you know their products are free of the harmful chemicals that destroy the environments that we cherish.

That’s why all their down is RDS® (Responsible Down Standard) Certified from Allied Feather and Down

That’s why the electricity for their shop in Salida, Colorado is 100% sourced from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Connect program.

The nuances of how each piece of gear is made are crucial to its functionality and its sustainability. We know the world doesn’t need more stuff. But the stuff we do need should enhance our time here on Earth without leaving a trail of debris behind it.

So, then, what was I doing packing so light? I was staking my claim to the idea that the less stuff I bring, and the better those few items are made, the better off we all are. Investing in fewer, more sustainably made pieces of gear lessens my impact on an overstrained environment. But, it also frees up my mental capacities to experience the world a little more simply.

Even as we traverse the world, our footprints are small.