Ultralight Gear?

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I love watching thru-hiker gear reviews (two of my favorites are Darwin onthetrail and Homemade Wanderlust). After hiking literally thousands of miles and trying out many different products, these thru-hikers really know their stuff. As helpful as their knowledge is, though, it is important to realize that walking the Camino is almost nothing like a thru hike.

  • Thru-hiking means taking everything one needs to live on their back, but Camino walkers end each day at an albergue providing them with room and board.
  • While the average daily distance covered may sometimes be similar, thru-hikers are often in very steep and / or rugged terrain, while Camino walkers are often on gentle paths or even flat roads (which come with their own challenges!).
  • Thru-hike distances are calculated in 1,000’s of miles, while the Camino’s longest established route is 500 miles.
  • Thru-hikers often spend six months on the trail compared to Camino walkers who spend typically max out at 6 weeks.

So, although both activities involve carrying a backpack over long distances, the two activities are really worlds apart – and so are their gear considerations.

Gear Weights

Thru-hiker gear is extraordinarily light resulting in base weights (= total carry weight minus consumable items like food, water, or fuel) getting down into the single digits. But there is more to the story: thru-hikers need to carry quite a bit of equipment and supplies with them, and so their total pack weight increases much faster than Camino packing.

For example:

  • Sheltering: Thru-hikers bring a tent, poles, ground cloth, and stakes.
    Camino walkers need none of this.
  • Sleeping: Thru-hikers bring a  3-4 season sleeping bag, liner, and pad.
    Camino walkers need only a lightweight sleep sack / bag.
  • Eating: Thru-hikers bring a stove, fuel w/ bottle, pot, and multi-day food and water supply.
    Camino walkers only need each day’s snacks and water (which can be replenished often).

Thus, while a thru-hiker’s collection of ultralight gear may have a truly impressive base weight that is quite a bit lower than that of a budget Camino walker’s, there may not be much difference in total carry weight in the end. This consideration can dramatically affect costs.

Gear Costs

Ultralight hiking gear is very expensive compared to its standard-weight competition. At a certain point every pound (or ounce!) saved dramatically increases costs. Such gear is an understandable investment for for thru-hikers. For the Camino walker, however, any gear within reason is likely acceptable because the total number of items needed is so much lower. The ounce-per-item concern lowers with each item one does not carry. Therefore, one can achieve a total weight comparable to an ultralight thru-hiker’s without spending nearly as much money lowering the base weight.

Case Study

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For example, consider the ever-popular Osprey Exos backpack with the thru-hiker favorite, the Zpacks Arc Blast. Both packs are 55L, but there are significant differences in features – the most obvious being that the Exos is 2x heavier. Also, the Arc Blast is built with waterproof fabric, whereas the Exos requires an additional rain cover for waterproofing (which also adds to the weight).

The Arc Blast might seem to be the clear winner. However, the Exos is over $100 less, is more comfortable with its wider and heavily padded strap system, has a great on-the-go trekking pole storage system, and offers more modular packing options. Some would say that is a lot of money to spend and features to lose to shave off only 21 oz. in weight (about the equivalent of a large coffee).

ultralight packs

Now, Camino walkers don’t need a big pack because they don’t carry any of the largest and heaviest thru-hiker gear. So, we really should compare the 38L Osprey Exos with the comparably sized Zpacks Nero. Now the packs even out price-wise (about $200 each including the Exos’s rain cover); however, the Exos is now almost 4x heavier. (Still, we’re talking about an overall difference of less than 2 lbs.).

For thru-hikers, the backpack is only the beginning of a complicated set of weight and expense considerations (because its purpose is simply to carry more ultra lightweight gear!). Since the Camino walker won’t be carrying as many weighty items, either pack would do just fine, and the backpack is practically all that is needed as far as lightweight gear is concerned.

Conclusion

The Camino doesn’t require a walker to carry a tent, cooking gear, days worth of food and water, or much of a sleep system. That means pilgrims can save a lot of money on gear while maintaining an “ultra light” total carry weight. Despite the fun of gram geeking, for Camino walkers the weight saved with expensive thru-hiker gear won’t make that much difference – and the money saved could make for a much better pilgrimage!

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