The Backlash

Listen carefully to the undergrowth. The rustling is un-mistakable and the volume is on the rise. It is the sound of the anti-lighweight brigade. The fight back has begun.

So much has been written, and said, about lightweight hiking and backpacking, over the last couple of years, that some kind of backlash was inevitable. But I’m surprised by the strength of the vitriol that is around at the moment. The new lightweight retailers are a fair target. Thrack! Lightweight enthusiasts are also clearly fair game. Biff! And the biggest villains of all? Why, it’s TGO, the magazine that is pioneering – and championing – the cause of lightweight backpacking.

You don’t have to search very hard to experience the backlash. It’s not worth naming names – or indeed – pointing you in the direction of the culprits. But here are just a few examples from the recent TGO Challenge, the annual coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands of Scotland. First off Colin Ibbotson – the man with the lightest base weight on the Challenge – was told, by a senior backpacking person, that he was ‘irresponsible’ in promoting a lightweight approach to long distance walking. Next, I was told – and this was quite un-solicited – that only 40% of walkers were ‘with you’ and 40% were ‘absolutely anti’. Bob Cartwight, for his podcast series, interviewed the skipper of the ferry that crossed Loch Ness. Bob was confronted by one old timer and told that the highlight of the crossing was the commentary that the skipper gave to the passengers as the boat sailed across the water. Because he’d been interviewed by Bob the skipper had forgone his commentary and this had ‘ruined the whole experience for the rest of us’. Bob’s sole crime was to ask somebody to for an interview; he was no doubt granted it because the skipper recognised the value of free publicity targeted at a specialist audience.

At the end of the Challenge I asked for an interview with Hamish Brown, the writer and broadcaster on hiking and mountains, and the man who ‘invented’ the concept if the TGO Challenge. Hamish declined telling me that he had never once given and interview and he wasn’t going to start with some upstart like me (actually the last bit is mine – he didn’t actually say that!). For some time Chris Townsend has been suggesting that I interview Hamish for a podcast. When I described this experience, Chris thought for a while and the told me that he could never remember having heard an interview with Hamish, so, perhaps it’s right that he never gives them. Perhaps, Hamish is a genuinely shy man. But later, the fact that I was denied an interview was sited as an indication of how ‘many in the walking world are opposed to this lightweight crap’. Astonishing.

Now, it is important that these incidents are nothing to do with the Challenge itself. Increasingly those taking part in the Challenge are aware of new, lightweight options – like all hikers and backpackers. Packs are getting lighter. Most people you meet happily talk about their kit (as ever) and show you how their new replacement gear is lighter than that which came before. Take tents. Read any account of the Challenge you’ll see lots of comments to the Hilleberg Akto – the solo tent of choice. But this year it was pretty clear that most new, replacement, solo tents, were Terra Nova Competitions – a two skinned, solo tent, that weighs less than a kilogram.

The problem – I suspect – is one of age, of an established ‘generation’, not happy to pass the torch on to others. In some ways I can understand this. After all, hiking was the ultimate, egalitarian, outdoor activity. You didn’t need lots of specialist kit. And that which was needed was rugged and robust. You could expect your pack or your boots to last for years. This is how it’s been since the days before the Kinder Trespass and there is no reason for it to change now. Today’s lightweight hikers do, to be fair, inhabit a very different world, utilising different kit for different conditions, rather like you would do in any other leisure or sport.

So, I can understand people not being comfortable with what we are doing>; what does surprise me is the bitterness that runs through this criticism.

I’m currently editing a podcast that I’m producing about ultra, or super, lightweight backpacking, which asks the question ‘is this applicable this work in the UK and Northern Europe?’ To help me with the podcast I’ve conducted, extensive, interviews with two friends who have been exploring ultra lightweight at the same time.

Listening to these interviews, a lot recently, I’l struck by how utterly responsible these lightweight hikers are. They are genuinely concerned with safety. They’ll pick their gear to match weather conditions. If they don’t know the terrain they’re walking through they’ll be more conservative in their choices first time out. And they are insistent that there is a learning curve to be followed when using lightweight gear. This is specialist stuff and you need to be comfortable, and competent, in using it.

The other thing that comes across in the interviews is how these lightweight hikers compromise for others. One of them loves walking in the Alps, which he does with a friend who doesn’t appreciate minimalist weight. So, choices are made accordingly and our hero carries more weight than he would do so himself precisely because he is sensitive to the concerns of his hiking buddy.

I hope to have this podcast finished within the next week, and you’ll then be able to judge for yourselves. But I’m confident that the lightweight hikers featured will come over as considerate, considered, thoughtful and sensible. These guys come over very differently to the luddites – or biggots – that seem to feel the need to stick the boot in so much.

Ultimately we should all be concerned about the views of hikers in general, rather than those of specialists in particular. But we should be downright suspicious of those critics who’ve clearly never tried out these techniques, and this gear, for themselves. And if they’re simply just old biggots then nobody should worry about standing their own ground in return – avoiding senseless and meaningless confrontation of course.

Time progresses and time passes. Hill walking is not immune from change. But maybe those of us who advocate the move to lightweight need to be a little more articulate and a little more thorough in making our case.

Ultimately, lightweight is the way to go. The trend is now mainstream, witness the way in which mainstream, volume, producers of gear, are now trumpeting their new lightweight brands. Going lighter makes for a better, more comfortable, experience in the hills. Maybe we need to concentrate on this more often than simply rabbiting on about new gear, something of which – I confess – I’m just as guilty as anyone.

But for you heavyweight traditionalists out there, let’s have a debate and discussion. But let’s keep in sensible and friendly. Good humour and comradeship are the marks of our chosen pursuit. Let’s keep it that way.

Comments

  1. Miguel Marcos says

    > Maybe we need to concentrate on this
    > more often than simply rabbiting on
    > about new gear

    I think that would do a lot of good. I’m also guilty of gear lust and love hearing about something useful or lighter or multiuse. But the fundamental reason for it all is to have a better experience. Thanks for all the good reading and listening, Andy.

  2. Robin Evans says

    Some people don’t like change or anything that’s different to “their” way of doing things. The best thing to do is to ingore them (in a polite way). For me, I’m transitioning from an average 12kg base weight to somewhere around 8-9kg. Colin very generously has given me lots of help and advice. How far I push the weight down depends on foregoing some level of comfort and over-cautiousness, but I’ll get there. As long as we remember to enjoy ourselves and appreciate the landscape we’re walking through (and the people we meet). Lightweight kit is only a means to an end. However, going lighter must make it more enjoyable and (to a certain degree) is actually safer. In the end all you can do is to show people the potential choices they can make and leave it up to them. I shall continue to enjoy your kit observations!

  3. I wonder when the backlash from the mainstream gear retailers/manufacturers will start? The ones who all stock/make approach shoes, and work with hi-tech materials to product lighter packs/clothing.

    I suppose Harris Tweed and canvas makers will be rubbing their hands in glee. Okay, in extremis, but you get the picture.

    And as to recording podcasts – maybe a sign of the ‘digital divide’? Some people haven’t got used to Web 1.0, and now we’re starting on Web 2.0 – no wonder they get snippy. Allowing people to listen to an interview about a hobby/sport? Witchcraft. Or it’ll be on an inhouse exclusive TGO podcast soon?

    Or you’ll be blamed for not asking properly, or going through a PA, etc.

    In the end, this negativity puts people off organised events, purchasing gear, buying magazines, joining forums, and otherwise participating in hiking, wild camping, Munro bagging, or whatever aspect of outdoors life they enjoy.

    The media (old and new) needs to grab people and invite them into the world-wide community of (hikers et al), and show the neophyte what’s available, what’s on offer, that they aren’t alone. If all they see is bickering and destructive criticism, they’ll just stay away and the only winners are the local gear shops – one of which tried selling a 70litre rucksack to a weekender (maybe the canvas tent needed the space?).

    Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I’ve got my kit, my style, and am happy with it. If someone thinks that tarps are the work of the devil and anyone sleeping under one is likely to wake up dead, then that’s their opinion.

    The fewer people who go out hiking, the more likely I am likely to get the hills to myself.

  4. A thoughtful piece Andy, whatever views the reader holds. And if it challenges our preconceptions then great, I’m all for that.
    I’m a lighter-weight rather than a light-weight or ultra. But i’m still happy to think and learn from others views.
    As for the bitterness, there seems to be a rash of that at the moment, which is a pity because disagreement is a normal state, but sometimes it can go too far and ignore the rights of the other person to hold a different view.

  5. Podcast Bob says

    Would you believe I had a conversation today with someone who related the opinions of one very well known individual person Graham Thompson, (6th most influential person in the Outdoor Industry apparently) who seems to be on a personal vendetta to eradicate the notion that lightweight considerations are in fact a benefit, more a big risk. He deliberately wants to cause turmoil so the story was related. (How true I don’t know – he keeps running away when asked for an interview)

    The TGOC like OM does have numerous people who are embedded in ‘their’ sport and ‘their’ trip, and as one person said to me, they don’t like the idea of me spoiling ‘their’ walk by ‘jumping out of a bush and shoving a microphone in their face for an interview’.

    Trail Magazine does seem to have a negative comment every month at the moment about ‘lightweight’ being too miserable, too hard, too dangerous, too whatever. Is this a backlash against TGO, or possibly an indication of the total lack of experience they have in that arena? Certainly if the UTube videos are anything to go by, they are displaying an apparent lack of grasp of being professional about their approach, and so one wonders about the rational behind the sphere of influence they represent.

    Either way I don’t think any of us know a single lightweight backpacker, who has been irresponsible about their approach? All the one’s I’ve met seem in the Colin ilk, very measured and cautious in their approach. And fully aware of comfort v weight v risk.

    The one’s who seem to have the most problems are the luddites who berate Colin openly for his ‘irresponsible approach’ and then have an accident based on carrying too much weight and fail (once again) to complete the TGOC.

    Ah well. We all have to take our pleasures how we can 😉

  6. Copyright by gear page Francis Tapon:
    “Many years ago, heavier was better. After all, if you can haul over 50 kilograms, you must be a real man. Now people are more likely conclude that you’re a real idiot. Except for a few macho Neanderthals who are still not extinct, most backpackers are trying to minimize pack weight. Today there is an inverse relationship between pack weight and coolness: the lighter your pack, the cooler you are. Therefore, some are taking some extreme measures in an effort to be cooler than Paris Hilton.”

  7. O.k. the previous posting is meant as a satire (or does anyone really likes to be like Paris H.?). But is has some truth in it. The first reaction towards change for almost all people is resistance, followed by denial.
    And going lightweight means a personal change in your hiking style. Accepting that something lighter fullfills the same purpose or even has dual use compared with traditional gear is tough, sometimes costly and in most cases never stops – each year I think: Now that’s the perfect kit and the year after I’ve modified the list again. I would consider myself not an ultra-lightweight hiker but I’ve already come quite a way and it took me some years to gradually move from the more traditional approach to what I’m currently using.
    I think we should give everybody the time to discover the alternative and that is one reason why Andy and others are blogging about it. Some people will be open, some will never consider it but I find it unfair to stigmatize lightweight hikers as irresponsible the same time as I wouldn’t call a heavyweight backbacker a Neandertaler. Each to his own. But it is all about choice and people can try out the kit we are talking about deciding on their own about their personal mixture of things. And yes you should try and use your kit before you leave on a hike but I consider that true for everybody regardless if they are carrying light- or heavyweight kit on their shoulders.
    Hike your own hike!

  8. Andy, Hamish Brown is not anti lightweight, indeed he has for at least 30 years advocated keeping pack weight down, a fact Chris Townsend mentioned in a recent TGO. Read Hamish’s book “Hamish’s Mountain Walk” if you wish more information. His pack weight did not exceed 30lbs (food, fuel & books included)pre 1978 on a solo trip over all the Munros. You will also learn a great deal about Scotland if you read this classic book. Some of us old hands are as you suggest, at times aggressive but whilst I and others enjoy many of your articles / blogs on occasions we find your tone and that of some other lightweighters confrontational rather than persuasive.

  9. Some good points here Andy. Criticism of lightweight backpacking isn’t new though – I’ve been called irresponsible since I first recommended trail shoes 25 years ago. And just think of Hamish Brown’s first ever round of the Munros back in 1976, begun in early April. No hat or gloves, no insulating mat, a single-skin tent, a pack with no hipbelt or frame. For once section he even used a solid fuel stove. I remember one reviewer of his book, Hamish’s Mountain Walk (highly recommended) criticised him for not having an ice axe.

  10. Robin Evans says

    Ian, I think you make a good point about lightweighters sometimes being confrontational rather than persuasive. I am reminded of this with the current Inov8 debate and the parallels with the Paramo debate a few years ago. For me, I love Paramo and wear it most of the time. However, it doesn’t suit everyone and there are times when I take a hard shell instead. For me Inov8s don’t work. That is not to say that trail shoes don’t work. For me, Montrail and Salomon are just much better. I also prefer some level of ankle support/firm heel cup carrying something heavier than a day pack. I have nothing against those who prefer Inov8s or don’t mind getting wet feet, but they’re just not for me. We all have different trade offs between comfort and weight. We also have different shaped feet and metabolisms, so what suits one person is not necessarily going to suit another. I’m happy to read the experiences of others with different kit and combinations but at the end of the day, it’s down to individuals to make their own selection and I’m not going to criticise them for doing that.

    I also think it’s up to Hamish as to whether he wanted to be interviewed. It’s his prerogative to decline, however disappointing it may have been.

  11. John Hesp says

    I have other interests where lightweight is good. I don’t think we have seen a real backlash yet. I think we might see a real backlash when it becomes more common to overshoot the mark (I mean ridicoulously lightweight), and when lightweight becomes so commonplace that gear failures become increasingly common.

    I liked the confrontation remark, and would also add that any tendency towards “my pack is lighter than yours” is not healthy.

  12. simon pemberton says

    Andy,some people will never see the light,let them plod on with knackered knees mate and just accept that there are plenty of knob heads out there who havnt got a clue what they are taking about

  13. Ian,

    I didn’t say that Hamish was anti lightweight!

    I simply said that it had been suggested to me that he was – by one of those who definitely was. Quite an important distinction.

    I have no ideas about Hamish’s view at all! I suspect the person I was quoting had no idea about them either

  14. John Hesp says

    Nice one Simon 🙂

    That took away the Monday morning blues. I like your style.

    John

  15. I must disagree with John & Simon’s comments above – certainly people should be free to express their views on anything, including the weight of their gear, but there is absolutely no need for rudeness! I think more heed should be payed to the earlier comments on being persuasive rather than confrontational.

  16. simon pemberton says

    I have no problem with people expressing their views but what i dont like is sopposed experts telling me i am being reckless when going ultralight,even though i have everything in my pack that i need to stay warm/dry and safe,just because i use a tarp and a lot of my kit serves more than one use does not make me reckless,i choose equipment according to the trip and the expected weather,just because i go light does not make it wrong,my winter kit comprises an akto and heavier sleeping bag etc but still comes in at about 5.5kgs base weight,as Glen van Peski would say,”come to the light side,whats the worst that can happen,right?” and to be honest,if you dont,there will be more space at the head of the trail for the enlightened ones,ta ta.

  17. Steve Perry says

    You should certainly give Hamish’s book a read Andy if you haven’t already, it will certainly change your opinion of him. Like Chris says he was a minimalistic backpacker for someone back in the 1970’s. I mentioned to Bobcast a couple of years ago about asking Hamish for a podcast, it’s a shame he wouldn’t do one because I’d love to hear him talk about his years of backpacking. Maybe Cameron could ask him I’m sure they go walking together occasionally, they certainly have in the past..read Cameron’s book – The Munros on the Cairnwell description.

  18. I don’t have an opinion of Hamish Steve – other than being rather respectful of him! I suspect he’s a rather shy man. I really don’t think he does interviews at all! Sensible really as you have to go and read the books!

  19. Steve Perry says

    He’ll be knockin’ on a bit now, does he still look relatively fit Andy?
    I know he’s meant to spend a lot of time in Morocco and the Atlas.

  20. Knockin’ on a bit! Is that any way to talk about one of our heroes!

    He is a bit and probably carrying a bit more weight. He was talking very knowledgeably – and affectionately – about Morocco. I’d love to talk to him about all of that for a podcast.

    He was out and about on the Challenge in his camper van, dispensing tea to Challengers near Tomdoun, Somebody I met even had a meal with him in the Tomdoun hotel!

  21. I really dont see the problem if you want to carry a 4kg pack or a 14kg one, at the end of the day we are all hikers and should be more focused on protecting the environment and the hills and country side we love so much. I am a light weight boy and not found any of my light weight gear to be less safe than the heavy gear I use to lug round europe, but who really cares its a matter of choice if you wnat to carry a 200 weight flece rather than a down gillet thats up to you. As long as your doing it safe, the only thing light weight has helped me with is my bad ankle (motor bike accident cut it off) carrying 3.5kg base weight has kept me going up a few more hills.

    Like i said its down to choice and looking at options all i say if you a heavy gear boy try swapping one or two things at a time and see how they perform, if they dont work swap back, tarps and foam matts arent for everyone, but laser comp tent and bozman pads might help you save a few kgs without losing any performance.

  22. Steve Perry says

    Paul B I totally agree with you, It’s your own choice. Also some people just can’t afford to suddenly change all their old gear for new lighter products and at the end of the day if it’s doing the job they ask of it there’s no rush for them to do so.
    Andy, there must be at the bare minimum 2 great podcast subjects there..Hamish’s time out in Morocco and his years backpacking around Scotland. I wonder if Cameron told him how much people wanted to hear about these subjects whether he’d agred to do them.
    For now here’s one of Hamish’s features on Morocco, written for the Scottish Mountaineer.
    http://www.mountaineering-scotland.org.uk/nl/64d.html

  23. Steve,

    I’m sure you’re right. I want to develop the podcasts a bit and am quite interested in talking to people about their lives as walkers – as opposed to just the one book or the one walk. For example, I hope to be up in the Cairngorms in October and have arranged with Chris Townsend to have a longer, face-to-face chat about his career and life as a gear tester!

    Mind you, I shall be doing some work in Carlisle over the summer. Perhaps I could stop off and do a longer piece with a certain Steve Perry !!!

  24. Oh Steve,

    On Hamish. I think I will get in touch with him and see if we can’t have a longer chat about Morocco or something. Do you know where about in Scotland he’s based?

  25. Steve Perry says

    I always thought he lived in Fife Andy, I’m sure Chris T knows for certain.

  26. John Hesp says

    “I must disagree with John & Simon’s comments above – certainly people should be free to express their views on anything, including the weight of their gear, but there is absolutely no need for rudeness!”…..David

    I must apologise. Because of the previous remarks about antagonism from the pro lightweight side I thought Simon was being ironic, I didn’t realise he was in earnest.

  27. Hamish podcast available now:

    http://www.tgomagazine.co.uk/podcasts/

  28. Ah ha, so he lied to me 🙂

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