Reducing your world to what you can shoulder and spending a few nights under the stars is a sure tonic for the harried soul. But when the pounds on your back approach even a quarter of your body weight, this exercise in escaping life's burdens can become a burden in itself.
A lighter load lets you focus more on the outdoors and less on the weight you're hauling. So we put the ultra-light philosophy to the test for four basic backpacking items. To narrow the field, we sought advice from retailers, backpacking magazines and ultra-light enthusiasts. Then we spent eight days and nights in the Grand Canyon with our choices.
Here's our take on gear that will help you reduce your load before you sling it over your shoulder and hit the trail. (Note: Weights, sizes, capacities and prices are as listed by the manufacturers.)
-- Ed Rossi
Technical features like adjustable suspensions, external pockets and extra lash points may add comfort or convenience, but they also add weight. Today's lightweight backpacks are essentially rucksacks that support the load with a simple internal frame (often a thin plastic sheet or single aluminum stay), or that rely on the items you put into the pack to give it structure.
ONE GOOD CHOICE: Granite Gear Vapor Trail ($150, 218-834-6157, www.granitegear.com).
WEIGHT: 2 pounds.
WHY WE LIKE IT: The Vapor Trail's spartan but sturdy suspension ably handled 35 pounds of gear, food and water and stayed comfortable even on steep descents where lesser packs tend to sag. The Vapor Trail comes in short, regular and large torso sizes.
Many sleeping bags are filled with synthetic materials that keep you warm even when they've gotten wet. But the synthetics tend to be heavier than natural fibers, and science has yet to match the insulating properties of goose down. So if you're looking to keep your pack weight to a minimum while staying warm, a (dry) down bag is the way to go. And the higher "fill power" rating, the better.
ONE GOOD CHOICE: Western Mountain-eering's Megalite ($280, 408-287-8944, www.westernmountaineering.com).
WEIGHT: 1 pound 8 ounces.
WHY WE LIKE IT: The Megalite is stuffed with toasty 850-fill goose down and is rated to 30 degrees. Its generous 64-inch shoulder girth is heaven for larger folks or those who toss and turn -- and it compresses smaller than a football.
You gotta eat. And at the end of a long day on the trail, an energy bar and jerky aren't going to do the trick. You can indulge both the ultra-lighter and the gourmet in you by going with titanium cookware. It's expensive, but it's as light as it comes.
ONE GOOD CHOICE: Mountain Safety Research's Titan two-liter pot ($69.95, 206-505-9500, www.msrgear.com).
WEIGHT: 8 ounces (includes lid, separate handle and stuff sack).
WHY WE LIKE IT: The Titan product line offers cookware in four sizes, so you're covered whether hiking alone or with a group. After our water filter broke early in our trip, this pot spent a lot of extra time on the flame purifying drinking water. It emerged no worse for the wear, even after a couple of accidental drops onto slick rock.
A sleeping pad insulates you from the earth, which robs you of body heat. Not to mention that it's one of the most versatile multipurpose items in your pack: camp chair, card table, sun shade, wind screen, splint for broken limbs, etc.
ONE GOOD CHOICE: Therm-A-Rest ProLite 3 ($69.95, 206-505-9500, www.thermarest.com).
WEIGHT: 13 ounces.
WHY WE LIKE IT: One of several offerings in Cascade Designs' Fast & Light series, the short ProLite 3 (20-by-47 inches) inflates to an inch thick, providing all the insulation we needed. And it packs very tight.