Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Lightweight Backpacking Trend

The more time you spend reading about, writing about, and generally immersing yourself in outdoor culture, you will begin to see trends. I, for example, have noticed trends recently occurring in a couple of major directions. One major trend is a branch of running called Barefoot Running which I recently wrote about. Another trend is in the climbing world where Slacklining has taken fans by storm (it's fun, try it). The last trend I will mention here is Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking which I will be discussing in some detail here.

In the last five years I have personally made a very rapid transition from hobbyist outdoor enthusiast to majoring in Outdoor Education, authoring a blog on outdoor activities, and testing all sorts of outdoor gear. As a poor college student I approach almost every situation weighing cost and benefit very closely. Something that seems to be a mystery to most outdoor consumers these days. My own perception of backpacking gear has been that a shift has taken place where people are more wrapped up in, and willing to invest in, new hyped up trends. Such as ultralight backpacking.

I've done some digging around and I think that you'll see these data trends reflecting some of my suspicions. Data for the following was taken from's Press Kit, as well as Outdoor Foundation's Research Participation Topline.

According to, "traditional backpackers" spend much less money on gear than ultralight hikers.

  • 62% of lightweight backpackers spend >$1000/year on gear
  • only 12% of traditional backpackers spend >$1000/year on gear
These ultralight backpackers also have a relatively high household income. Of lightweight backpackers, 58% have higher than $70,000 annual household income.'s research also suggests that lightweight backpackers influence other buyers by having a high participation in online gear reviews and being more likely to participate in face-to-face gear talk. Lightweight backpackers also have a tendency to shop at highly specialized retail stores. These stores (in my experience) have poor selection, biased staff, and highly inflated prices.

The recently released 2011 Outdoor Foundation's Research Participation Topline is rating hiking as the 5th most popular outdoor activity among people age 25+, with 22.8 million people participating in the US. With such staggeringly high participation, it's pretty obvious that outdoor lightweight specialty brands, products, and retailers have a lot to gain (your money) by keeping the newest, most expensive model of lightweight hiking gear hyped up for consumers to purchase.

Remember, do your homework before you buy. You can almost always find a better deal on gear online than you can if you walk into a store. Be careful who you talk to and what store employees suggest. Their interest is in your money, not your products. As a frugal shopper, and poor college student, trust me when I say it pays off to shop smart.


  1. really interesting post, kind of makes sense, thanks!

  2. As an older fellow (44) who just got into hiking last year, I've been reading a lot and it seems to me that the ultralight camp is a lot like high-end geekery for computers. Last year my 40 pound pack for a five day trip was easy enough to handle. It seemed fine. Would I spend another grand to drop that weight even 10 pounds? I don't think so. I think back to the canvas and wood-frame packs I see at Green Mountain Club's walls and realize they were also toting cast iron and who knows what else. If they can do it, can't we? Are we some how less? Bragging rights doesn't seem to belong to the ultralight/cash fluid hikers, but those who can haul a good heavy pack over those trails, just as their forefathers did.


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