If you follow trends in backpacking you are aware that ultra light backpacking is what many hikers are trying to achieve today. To accomplish this, hikers bring the lightest possible backpack equipment so they can journey longer and faster. As a result, backpacking equipment is made from lighter materials and hikers often use tricks to take weight from their packs such as drilling holes in the handles of their forks and making stoves out of soda cans. Today people work extremely hard and go to great expenses to earn the designation of being an ultra light backpacker. Looking to the past, it is interesting to see that people moved about the world as ultra light travelers without quite so much expense, planning, and preparation as we do today.
One example is Otzi the Iceman who was an ultra light traveler from Europe. He crossed the Austrian Alps but was killed on his journey by other travelers in the area. In 1991, his 5,300-year-old body was discovered on a glacier by some hikers. Otzi’s gear included a few tools and weapons, a piece of fungus on a leather string (his first aid kit) and two birch bark containers. One of these containers was blackened inside and had the remains of items that had been burnt. This was Otzi’s charcoal, which he carried around with him so he could easily start fires when he set up camp each night. Otzi traveled across extremely difficult terrain with only a few items carried on his belt and across his back because that is all he really needed to survive. The only expense for these items was the time and effort he put into crafting them.
One of my favorite ultra light explorers is Ernest Shackleton. His story is one too amazing to be believed. He and 27 men left for Antarctica the day after World War I began. Their ship, The Endurance, was trapped and later crushed in the Antarctic ice and they were without any communication from the outside world because of the war. To rescue his men, Shackleton and his crew sailed to Elephant Island where he left most them under the care of his trusted friend, Frank Wilde. While these men were left at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of the men sailed 800 miles across the ocean to South Georgia Island. They went there to find a whaling station to acquire a ship large enough to rescue the men left on Elephant Island. However, once they reach South Georgia Island, they landed on the opposite side of where the whaling station was located because they had survived a hurricane the previous night in their small boat. After setting up a makeshift camp, Shackleton and two of the five men, left at 2:00 a.m. and made a 36-hour journey across the island to reach help. They traveled ultra light through crevasses, up and down mountain ranges, and endured extreme cold because they were too exhausted to carry much and were nearly out of supplies. In the end, they repelled down through an icy waterfall to get to the area where the whaling village was. On this short but grueling journey Shackleton and his two companions only brought a pickax, a small stove, a logbook, a rope, and some powdered milk. This incredible ultra light adventure has not gone unnoticed by climbers and adventures today. A few teams have attempted to humbly recreate the lifesaving journey that Shackleton and his men took. They were successful but had to use a lot of climbing equipment to make it.
Another traveler, John Muir always comes to mind when thinking about ultra light backpacking. When he took off across the country, he put bread, tea, sugar, and a tin cup in a blanket and set off. Muir mainly ate bread on his hikes, which he dried so it would not get moldy. He never brought a gun on his wilderness excursions and did not hunt so he often hiked with a calorie deficit. Today the trail that John Muir often hiked is 210 miles long and has an elevation change of 80,000 feet. This would not be a journey to be weighed down with too many supplies, however Muir’s provisions seem a bit scanty.
In today’s busy world, looking to the past gives us critical insights as to how we could be more minimalist and ultra light in our lives. Many people from long ago did not plan out carefully what they would have with them on their daily journeys, they simply used what was available to them and they survived. Technology and inventions are wonderful but sometimes the best option is to grab what you have, put it in a blanket and enjoy an adventure.