My thoughts on “stupid light”

There is a term in the hiking world that is becoming more popular these days, especially as more hikers such as myself in the sul/xul world are educating UL hikers in the ways of SUL hiking, that is called “stupid light”. It is a term that is being used by very experienced hikers (most of whom I greatly respect) and by HH/UL hikers who just do not ‘get’ what sul/xul hiking is all about. The term is taking on a whole new level of meaning as those of us in the sul/xul world strive to push ourselves and our gear further to the extremes and have started educating others about it.

In all but a few of the cases that I have seen some of the worlds top hikers use the term ‘stupid light’ I have found myself disagreeing with them. I fully and completely understand that their reader audience and followers are thousands and sometimes tens of thousands more than what I and other sul/xul hikers have, so they have the responsibility to their readers, to those who they are educating, to approach things from a “99%” rather than the “1%” such as what I do. By this I mean that the xul world of hiking makes up around one percent (probably less than half of one percent) of all of the hikers from around the world. Within sul hiking that number goes up a small percentage, but for the most part, when you take the millions of hikers that have hiking gear some where in their house, those who are going out for 10+ day trips with a SUL backpack are just not that large of a percentage. So I can respect these fellow hikers with massive followings and their need to write and speak to the broader audience at large.

I think that the problem that is being faced by those of us who are sul/xul hikers and who are doing these things that others consider “stupid light” is not that what we are doing is wrong, nor is it unsafe, nor is it stupid – but rather the term itself is wrong. “Stupid light” should more aptly be termed “very experienced hikers light” or something along those lines.

Many of these guys throwing around this term over the last year, that have huge followings, have been out there using exactly the gear that they now call “stupid light” – as can be easily researched when you look at their gear lists for previous hikes that they have done. This is not me being critical towards those hikers, but rather I think it is important to point this out because it shows that “stupid light” is not about being “stupid” – it is about being “experienced” and knowing exactly what your gear is, how to use it, how to keep it in good shape, how to repair it should something happen, and how to just use your brain in general when things do not go as planned. The exact opposite of being “stupid”.

For the record, I do not strive to have a massive following. My style of hiking, and the website, is all about the sul/xul styling of hiking. I accepted the fact that I would loose 90+% of my followers when I went to only talking and educating others about sul/xul hiking, and that is exactly what happened, and I am perfectly fine with that. What it has done is it has allowed me to connect with a much larger group of hikers who are sul/xul hikers than I ever did when I was focused on UL/SUL hiking. It has also given me the amazing opportunity to help a few dozen hikers break through the UL levels of backpack and work their way down into the SUL world – and good for them!!

So here is my request to those hikers out there who are using the term “stupid light” in their course of communications: The terminology is simply not right – and most of you know that. To claim that those of us in the hiking world, who collectively have tens of thousands of miles as sul/xul hikers, are “stupid” because we have the experience to go out onto the trail with gear that the 99% have no right to be out there using, is not “stupid”. We are experienced hikers using gear that can keep us as safe as any hiker with a 20 pound setup. We are experienced hikers who are helping to revolutionize the hiking industry as a whole by seeking out new gear and new materials and new methods of approaching how to solve the problems hikers face. Stupid has nothing to do with it – it is all about experience.


19 thoughts on “My thoughts on “stupid light”

  1. I think its all about context and have never interpreted it to mean stupid in a bad sense of the word, but stupid in a way that that the benefits of the weight savings of lighter option do not surpass the utility of the heavier option, so the weight savings don’t make sense.

    Example: My day pack base weight is 5 pounds while my backpacking base weight is a little under 10 pounds. If I were day hiking and I was worried about rain and making a decision about a rain jacket and deciding between taking a 1 ounce plastic, throw away / not very durable poncho vs my 14 ounce Marmot Precip……. I don’t care about weight on day hikes and welcome more weight since I’m training, the weight savings of 13 or so ounces on the cheapo poncho is stupid light as opposed to having a more comfortable and reliable piece of gear like my precip. The cheapo poncho isn’t reliable, loud and not comfortable to wear all day and in a worst case scenario might be dangerous in cold weather should it rip or tear … the weight savings benefit does not trump the utility of having a fully functioning piece of rain gear to me in this scenario, it’s stupid light, weight savings don’t trump utility of heavier option. That is my perception though, others may come up with a different perception, so stupid light is a personal definition… like chocolate is gross, vanilla rocks … that doesn’t mean judgment is cast on people that like chocolate. Actually I’m lying …. people that like chocolate over vanilla are lame! JK.

    A better example, which speaks more to the use of the word I’m hearing you speak to: I can go with 20 gram stakes that I know will not break or go with 10 gram stakes that I have broken in the past. If we assume that stakes are necessary for safe shelter and there are no rocks or other alternatives where we will be, so broken stake equals no shelter for this example: Some users would consider taking the risk of no shelter to save 10 grams with a less reliable stake, stupid light, weight savings does not trump utility. Other users may have never had issues with the 10 gram stakes … so to them it’s far from stupid light …. it’s just right.

    The point, imho, is that it’s just verbiage used to define one user’s perception of whether or not weight savings does or not trump utility of a heavier option …. which is obviously open to interpretation between circumstances, users, gear and experience levels.

    In other words, when Skurka talks about stupid light, I get what he’s saying, even if I DON’T agree that using dyneema for guylines is stupid light… whereas in other instances, I might totally agree with his assessment. I have to be honest though, I can’t imagine being upset at someone calling one of my gear choices stupid light … I just cannot comprehend that being able to upset me. :)

    1. Hey Trace, thanks for stopping by and posting your thoughts.

      I do not follow Skurka’s articles because last time I was over at his website his website was not very RSS friendly (and I mostly keep up to date with other bloggers via rss subscriptions within google reader) and it did not seem to have a valid and working rss feed. So the only time I read his articles is when I happen to be over there from clicking a link somebody else has posted within their articles.

      That said, I did bounce over there and read his three most recent blogs to try to understand what it is you are speaking of in regards to him using this terminology.

      I think the two instances of his use of this terminology are prime examples of some of the points that I was trying to make/present in my article.

      His first usage (and I am not picking on Andrew, I am using his usage because you referenced him) of the term has to do with cordage. He stated that his preferred 2-3mm cordage is “cheap, strong enough, and easy to handle” and that the use of anything lighter weight than this is stupid. Ok, let us look at these points. First, it is not cheap. The 2.75 cordage he is recommending people buy is more expensive than the 1.25mm or the 1.5mm that zpacks sales, and more expensive than 1mm cordage that LiteTrail is selling. So failed on the first point. He says it is “strong enough”. Hmm, is that pretty much not the same thing as saying some things are “stupid light”? What is strong enough? Sorry, failed on his second point. His third point is “easy to handle”. Hmm, I have used 1.25mm cordage for over 2,000 miles (granted, nothing compared to his mileage) and only once did it knot up and that was my own stupid fault for trying to use an overtly complex knot. The 1mm Dyneema cord from LiteTrail is also “strong enough” and it appears to be even more friendly than the spectracord that zpacks and others sell. So, I have no idea the point he is trying to make with “easy to handle” but myself and thousands of other hikers have been using 1mm – 1.5 mm cordage without any problem at all, it has been easy enough to work with, strong enough, and cheaper than what he is recommending. So what exactly does he mean by “stupid light” with this other cordage, I would ask.

      His second usage of “stupid light” has to do stakes. He made the point that “titanium skewer stakes and carbon fiber stake shafts with aluminum caps” are stupid. Again, thousands and thousands of hikers around the world have been using titanium stakes for years. Are we all clueless? As for the “carbon fiber stake shafts with aluminum caps” that is a direct shot meant for Ruta Locura I suspect. In addition to myself, guys like Glen Van Peski (founder of Gossamer Gear) and a few other well known hikers use these same “stupid light” carbon fiber stakes. Andrew has used titanium stakes in the past just so folks are aware of this fact. Is he right that v and y style stakes hold a lot better? Yes. Very much so. But does that mean that if you choose to go backpacking without a v or y style stake that you are being “stupid light”? He seems to think so in the way that he wrote about it.

      Again my purpose of this article is not to attack anybody out there using the term “stupid light” and I am far from getting angry about it. It is just the opposite – it is rather comical. So many of these hikers/reviewers using this term are for all intents and purposes attacking the very heart of what UL was all about – finding ways to go out hiking with lighter weight gear.

      It is stupid for a hiker that spends less than 10 nights a year outdoors to be pushing the boundaries of their experience levels of their gear? Yes.

      It is stupid for a hiker that spends 200+ nights a year outdoors to be using gear that they have tried, tested, and found to be solid, stupid? No. It is called experience.

      I will stand by what I said in my original article: A lack of experience does not mean that others have the right to call specific pieces of gear “stupid” in any way. Just as some people like to use the term “stupid light” so too could folks who are SUL/XUL call hikers out there with a backpack (just the backpack) that weighs 6 pounds. Where do you see “stupid heavy” being used? You do not.

      Again Trace, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I hope you do not see my comment here as attacking you or anybody else. I am not. Just trying to shed some light where some people have seemly lost sight of it.

      1. That pretty much sums it up. Great article John, I was mulling over in my head a blog about it, but wanted to do it in a respectful way – you did it well.

  2. So I think maybe you’re missing something key here. In current slang, “stupid” can mean “crazy” or “extreme.” It doesn’t always mean “not smart.” Just sayin’. Love the blog, keep truckin’!

  3. It should actually be worded “Light with no comfort!” I don’t think it’s possible at least for me to be under 5 lbs comfortable. My Zpacks backpack is super comfortable with a padded hip belt, my tent is a double walled Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Platinum with special carbon fiber poles made my Ruta Locura and I have a Neo Air Large that is a little piece of heaven! I’m at 7 lbs for ALL my base weight and find it near impossible to get down to 5 lbs COMFORTABLY. I hate bugs, love a pillow and comfy sleep! But I do respect those who go under 5 lbs and its NOT “stupid light” but for sure it’s “Light with no comfort!” Haha!

  4. Excellent insight John, you said it much better than I could. I don’t know Andrew Skurka, I don’t know if he intended for it to be that way, but I have to admit I bristle a little when I hear him using the term “stupid light.” I don’t like that , it seems arrogant to me.

  5. Well said, John. My thoughts: I always find that no “thing” is ever stupid (such as certain gear). It tends to be user error or lack of experience, just like you said. And judgement on the way people decide to use their experiences to hike differently is just wrong. HYOH and all.

  6. Good information and I believe not contradictory to what Skurka prescribes. An example of ‘stupid light’ has to do with choosing gear ‘primarily’ on the basis of weight. To stuff your pack with only gear to get you to a predetermined weight barrier (SUL/XUL). Making choices based on this criteria is what could be considered ‘stupid’. For example, if you are heading to the high country where there is a good chance of mosquito/black fly problems and you only forego the bug netting/head net or tent to save weight- opting to take only a tarp/ground sheet/ and sleeping bag… cursing all night and ending the trip early because you made the wrong decision would be considered ‘stupid’ – all in the vain of keeping-the-weight down.

    Certainly, ‘stupid-light’ has nothing to do with individual choices of gear, it has everything to do with the compromise of choice in our planned endeavors. Each of us know good and well when we get back from a trip if our select gear choices have been ‘stupid-light’ or ‘stupid-heavy’. Even though my BPW is under 9 lbs. I’m still finding that most of my choices are still more heavy than light.

    Thanks for the editorial John.

    1. Hey Darren, thanks for stopping by the website.

      I do understand the case that you and others are making – I really true do, and I use to have the same stance. I have been saying it for a few years now, base pack weight should have more (a lot more) to with hiking experience than it does a scale.

      I could have easily become a XUL hiker a year earlier than what I did (what I would sarcastically call, “buying my way in”) but I did not because I knew there was a whole lot of stuff that I had to learn while I was in the 4 and 5 pound range. For me, the big struggle was going from the 7 pound range down to the five pound range. It was a huge struggle, because that is where I had to restart learning all new things about gear and layering and core temperature management, about making sure I knew my route and all of the alternative routes and escape routes should something go wrong, and the massive other aspects involved.

      So yes, I do understand the point that you are making that going out with gear that is beyond your experience as being stupid. I have said that before and I will continue to say it. For other hikers (be it me, or anybody else) to start calling out specific pieces of gear as stupid, or to go into hikers personal blogs and start calling their setups stupid, is just wrong I believe (and that is exactly what is happening.) What might be a “stupid” piece of gear for you might be perfect for me. What might be a “stupid” piece of gear for me might be perfect for you. But this blanket/umbrella term of “stupid light” that is being thrown around is just not right.

      I have made it no secrete that my use of a 0.34 cuben fiber tarp in the shoulder/winter season is stupid. I am one of only three or four guys in the world (that I know of) that use a 0.34 cf shelter and I believe that I have more miles hiked with one than anybody else in the world (I think over 2000 miles at this point). I truly do believe that *for me* it is a very stupid piece of gear to be depending on in the shoulder/winter season in the Redwoods. One pinecone that falls on it when it is raining and I am screwed. However, to say that this tarp in and of itself is a “stupid piece of gear to carry” is, again, wrong. In the summer time when I take it along it is not really all that stupid. It gives me something I can throw up if a quick rain shower comes in, or if I just have a need for something over the top of me at night. The tarp by itself is not a stupid piece of gear. I first started off using 1.43 cf tarps, than went to 0.74, than 0.51, and used it for a few years, before I ventured into the 0.34 world. Experience gained through each of those different weight materials had taught me what each weight level could handle, how tight I could pitch it, how to stake out an a-frame tarp different in different ways to distribute the weight better, and so forth. Experience allowed me to go out with this tarp and know when would be a good time to take it and when it needed to stay home.

      Again, it all goes back to experience with your gear. I am lucky in that I am able to hike as many nights of the year that I am. I also understand that these guys out there using this term are saying this term when they are talking to people that probably spend less than ten nights a year outside. Personally, I love the Montbell U.L. Super Spiral sleeping bag. It is amazingly comfortable, but it is the heaviest bag out there in the UL world of sleeping bags. It is “stupid heavy” for me to be using it, because it is more sleeping bag that what my experience level is at? Should I not be out there with a cuben fiber quilt from enlightenedequipment? My experience of hiking would be saying yes, but for me, the extra 5 through 8 ounces of weight for the MBULSS is totally worth those extra ounces.

      I suppose the point that I am trying to make is that it really is about experience with the gear that you have. I have used quilts, I do not like them. I like full mummy sleeping bags. It is all about knowing the kind of hiker I am, combined with the gear that I have, and the experience of those two put together. When you have reached that level, neither “stupid light” nor “stupid heavy” apply – rather is it called being an experienced hiker.

      My entire goal of the HikeLighter.Com website has been to educate hikers with a bit of knowledge that I have learned while working my way down from a 38 pound backpack down to a sub 2 pound backpack. From the very beginning I have stressed and taught safety and experience. This website is different from most of the other hiking websites on the internet, in that the goals here are to educate others, and not just talk about gear.

      I really do not like talking about issues such as this ‘stupid light’ issue, but throughout this whole issue it has allowed me to continue to stress the point that being a responsible SUL/XUL hiker is about being intimately familiar with your gear, about not going out on high risk hikes with untested gear, about learning as much as you can about each and every item in your backpack, of the need to be an innovative hiker, and most importantly, about not being stupid.

  7. As I can attest, getting to the UL barrier (sub 10) is fairly easy and with a combination of self-made gear and smart gear purchases isn’t hugely expensive. I respect Skurka because he has tested gear in basically every kind of weather imaginable. Most SUL people can’t say the same. Their strategy is likely highly optimized for a short trip (most people taut their SUL 3 day trips), where one can frequently get away with razor thing margins of safety. I can’t speak to your gear list, but from those that I’ve seen to drop from 10lbs down to 5, you have to drop serious money on cuben gear AND be seriously stupid some of the time by leaving behind an actually useable compass (i.e. not a little button that would be useless for off-trail trail), a actually usable knife (good lucking cutting anything in a life-threatening situation with a little razor blade), taking a barebones shelter that wouldn’t keep you dry in any sort of serious weather. Do people pack such gear (or lack thereof) and live to tell about it? Sure. Can they say that their kit will provide reasonable margins of safety and comfort in inclement mountain weather? I seriously doubt it. Again, I’m not attacking your kit or style. I just think that the general trend in SUL are these very short demo trips in highly controlled environments. Would you trust your SUL kit over a 3 month+ thru-hike?

    1. Hey Jonathan, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      Yes a rather large percentage of the SUL hikers today are not long distance hikers. At the same time, more than a few SUL hikers have done long distance trails including the PCT and AT, Warner Springs Monty being the first to hike the PCT with a SUL (sub 5 pounds) setup IIRC – though on his follow-up thru-hike of the PCT he increased his BPW almost 100% and found that the trail was much more enjoyable for him with a 7-8 pound BPW setup.

      As for Skurka, I made it beyond clear that I was not attacking him. I was responding to a comment to the article and responded directly to the issue brought forth by the person who made the comment. I too think that Andrew is one of a very small handful of people in the world who can walk into any outdoor manufacturer office and tell them exactly what is wrong with just about any item that they make – thanks to his experience in so many different zones.

      Gear is merely a tool to help you get through the days spent on the trail. Whether it hits the scales at 25 pounds or 4 pounds, going out on long distance hikes with gear you cannot trust, is not what I advocate and not what this article is about.

      I would totally trust my SUL setup on the PCT and the AT – and while I would take the same basic setup on the CDT I would be forced to use a warmer sleeping bag and could probably not remain in the SUL category on the CDT (or on the PCT in the Sierras if it was a really cold year like it was in 2011). As I have continued to say, it is about having experience with the trail, with your gear, and knowing your own skills and limitations, in the quest to remain safe.

      >>> I just think that the general trend in SUL are these very short demo trips in highly controlled environments

      That I also agree with for the most part. I attribute this to the fact that SUL is still very much in its infancy. There are not a lot of us that are sub 5 pounds that have thousands of miles of hiking logged. As more and more cottage makers are pushing out lighter weight gear we will continue to see the world of SUL hiking expand to longer and longer trips by the large masses – just as we have seen with the UL world since the early 90’s. Think about that, it has been 20 years since UL became what we know it to be today. SUL long distance hiking is only for a small handful of experienced hikers at this point. But, give it time and it will continue to grow to a point where people approach it the same way that they do the transition from being a HH to a UL hiker.

  8. You do refer, on this site, to carrying water proof over trousers as stupid. I guess this is an example of stupid heavy:)).

    It is great to see someone out in the field so much and obviously passionate about their hiking, but I think you might be taking it all a little too seriously. I would much rather see some articles about the skills you have developed, through experience, that allow you to travel with such light gear. Although you refer to this there doesn’t seem to me much detail about this on your site currently.

    1. Hey Jason, thanks for stopping by!

      Regarding trousers: First please remember that I am a long distance hiker. I rarely do day hikes, and I rarely do weekend hikes – though I do try to do some sub-24-hours when I am at home. What my hiking needs are and what other hikers needs are may differ. That said, we get about as much rain here in the Redwood forest of Northern California USA as you do over there in NZ (that is, after all, why you have your own Redwood forest in NZ – which some day I hope to be able to stand in the midst of). As I am sure you know, eventually you are just going to get wet. But beyond all of that, I tend to believe that rain pants are really only necessary in very cold weather. If you are, perhaps going somewhere that it will be near freezing temperatures and you know it is going to rain, yes, obviously bring your rain pants along as a core-temperature thermal barrier. But that, I tend to believe, is about the only time they justify the weight of them. I no more consider rain pants to be “stupid heavy” as I do a cuben fiber rain jacket to be “stupid light”. Both, when used in proper conditions by people that understand their purposes and limitations, can help to maintain a hikers core-temperature. Neither have anything to do with their weight – they are a piece of gear that serves a purpose. If two different pieces of gear can serve the same basic purpose, I suppose it would be rather stupid to go out with the heavier of the two though, eh.

      Regarding the website: Yes, the HikeLighter.Com website does not have a lot of content yet. I think there are only 23 articles at this website as of this point in time. Given the fact that the website is only around 8 months old, that is an average of 2.8 blogs a month (not bad considering I am the only guy writing articles). It is going to take time for the website to mature, and as you indicated, find out what type of articles are best suited for this particular website. I think we can both agree that I am one of the very few hikers in the world posting nearly three articles a month that are specifically related to SUL/XUL hiking – and perhaps the only one right now.

      I appreciate the encouragement to write more articles about skills and developing skills. That has been a something I have wanted to do. I think to some degree it worries me. I know there are hikers that are no SUL/XUL hikers and it would give me great concern to talk about some of the more detailed aspects of hiking SUL/XUL, in fear that hikers not at that level would take what I say and apply it to their level of hiking, and thus get themselves in trouble. I know when I talk with other XUL hikers, most of them have told me this is exactly why they have not published any articles, or stopped. I suppose it falls in line with why guys like Andrew Skurka and triple crowners have stopped recommending gear that they use – because, I suspect, that they have discovered hikers taking what they recommend and going out and buying “just because so-and-so uses it” – and it is/may be gear beyond their level of hiking experience. I hope all of this makes sense. But anyway, yes, I will attempt to start writing some articles on lessons I have learned while out on the trail with SUL/XUL setups.

  9. Andrew wasn’t being arrogant. He’s not like that. He’re what I think he means. It is “stupid” for you to care more about the weight of your gear list than what you need to be safe and comfortable on a backpacking trip. You should start with an environmental assessment of local conditions and then factor in your route and length of trip before deciding that your gear will weigh less than 5 pounds, or whatever. What you bring will depend to a certain extent on your backcountry skills, knowledge of the limits of your gear and your tolerance for risk. Having a static gear list is a recipe for disaster, unless you hike in the same place, in the same season and for the same distance every time. Every trip is different and should be treated as such.

    For example, I never bring shepards hooks for hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They bend in the rocky soil and don’t provide enough holding power in forest duff. Bringing them instead of the 9″ easton stakes I use, just so I could say I shave an ounce from my shelter weight, would be kind of silly (or stupid). On the other hand, if I camped on prepared campground sites or in places with hard ground and no forest duff, they’d be a perfectly acceptable shelter stake.

  10. Skurka’s two types of hikers (ultimate hiker and ultimate camper) brought criticism. Now he is backing off that and looking for other names and saying they are the extremes of hikers (Facebook page). There you can also find that he wants to do away with UL/SUL terms for backpacking. It’s either balls or arrogance. I choose the latter. (He may have deleted the post about UL/SUL terms).

  11. I am new to over night hiking and really appreciate guys like you taking the time to post your info for people like me to learn from!
    I can’t wait to be experienced enough to do SUL trips. I’m not even up to UL yet but I’m doing the research and spending all my money with huge enjoyment! So cheers for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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