Can the Camino be done following ultralight backpacking standards?
Is it a good idea?
The goal of lightweight backpacking is to get one’s carry weight down so that hiking long distances becomes easier. Minimalist travel is more important for thru-hikers (backpackers that travel long distances over longer times) than for “weekend warriors” because they cannot resupply often, and so must carry more than a few day’s worth of food and water (and fuel + stove for cookers).
Ultralight backpackers get their base weight (backpack plus non-perishable, non-worn gear) below 10 pounds.At the more extreme ends of the spectrum, hikers will ditch gear that many typical backpackers would consider essential (e.g., sleeping pads, tents, and stoves). Super-ultralight backpacking drops the base weight goal under 5 pounds. (Yes – five pounds!).
Now the nice thing about the Camino is that some of the more weighty backpacking gear simply isn’t needed. Therefore, Camino pilgrims can easily approach lightweight standards just by virtue of what they won’t be carrying in the first place. You don’t have to worry about the weight of gear that you don’t bring!
Consider the “Big 3” gear items in most backpacking situations:
Camino walkers usually stay in albergues or hotels – not tents. That means no ground cloth, pole(s), stakes, ropes, or . . . tents! So right off the bat, the Camino walker is ahead of the game. That’s a savings of at least a pound even if you have a UL tent (examples) – and many pounds if you are the typical car camper.
Sleeping will likewise be done in albergues or hotels, so no need for an elaborate sleep system. Pilgrims can expect to be provided with at least a bed and perhaps a pillow or blanket.
Although a sleeping bag / quilt is still a good idea, it need not be a heavier “four-season” bag as would be needed at high elevations or in winter. A light three-season sleeping bag is fine (some pilgrims bring only a sleeping bag liner).
Because Camino pilgrims aren’t bringing the above items, they can also get away with a smaller pack than a weekend backpacker will need. While a 40 liter pack is near the bottom end of the ultralight backpacking range, it is near the top of the Camino range.
Now let’s talk about sustenance.
Food & Water
The point of calculating base weight is to see how you’re doing before you add in perishables – nearly all of which concern eating and drinking. But guess what? Pilgrims will do most of their eating “off trail” and certainly don’t need to cook outside. That means no stove, no fuel, no bear can, and very little in the way of groceries (e.g., snacks).
Water is less of a concern on the Camino than on most trails – but, oddly, more of one compared to others. A river or creekside trail provides its own water, so very little need be carried. This is offset by the need for filtration gear – but that’s barely comparable to the weight of water itself (a small coffee from Starbucks weighs a pound!). Most pilgrims don’t carry filtration systems (although I am seriously considering it given some of the stories I’ve heard), and there is water available along the way and in towns.
Ultra/Super-Ultra Light Camino
The “Rule of Thumb” you’ll see on many Camino websites and forums is that you should carry no more than 10% of your body weight. This is a near-useless guideline.
So if you weigh 175, they say your pack weight should come in at about 17 pounds. But note that this figure includes everything you carry (i.e., it is not a base weight measurement). Consider that just a regular-sized Nalgene bottle full of water adds 2.6 pounds!
I don’t worry too much about this kind of folk wisdom. One issue I have with it is that if you are overweight (not that I would know anything about that…) you are “rewarded” with more carrying capacity when you should have less! (In other words, if you’re in bad shape, you should not carry more on your back.) If you’re going to use the 10% rule, figure it off of a healthy weight (especially if you go over).
My current setup comes in at 17.5 pounds. That’s almost certainly more than I’ll actually carry because so far I’ve just been adding anything that seems useful and not worrying about the weight. After a serious gear shakedown I will pare it down a bit and ditch some luxury items. My goal is a base weight at or below 15 pounds – but just for fun, I thought I’d see what an ultra and super-ultra light setup would consist of if I (mostly) used my present gear. Here’s what I came up with.
Without buying new UL equipment, I managed to get to a 9.8 pound base weight and so qualify as ultralight.
I had to leave out some important items to get down to this. I did not bring a Camino rock (although that’s only for half the trip), a camera, guidebook, warm jacket, rain pants, sandals, or a waist pack.
Note that clothing that is worn doesn’t count toward base weight, and I did not count trekking poles even though they might be pack carried at some point. I won’t quibble over whether glasses / phone count because I have .2 lbs. to play with anyway, so close enough.
Trimming my UL list down to get under 5 pounds was more painful. I got down to 4.9 pounds but I had to both lose and buy some gear. For this thought experiment, I stuck with gear that is realistically within my budget.
In addition to what I left out above, I also lost power backup and, more significantly, a second set of clothes. Sorry albergue neighbors – but I got nothing to wear at night during laundry time!
As to purchases, I imagined trading in my Osprey Exos for the Zpacks Nero. They’re both roughly the same carrying capacity, but the Nero weighs only 11 oz. – a full 30 oz. less than the Exos. The Nero is also natively waterproof, so no need for an additional pack cover.
Second, I’d also imagined going with an inexpensive Aegismax down sleeping bag to get the weight down. I am still tweaking my sleep system, and I have a cheap sleeping bag that is only a pound heavier than the Aegismax – but to get under 5 lbs. every ounce counts!
Third, I imaginary added back in some sandals for a backup – the super lightweight Xero Z-trails (instead of the Tevas I actually own – they’re just too heavy for backups). Why not leave the sandals out as I did on my UL list? Because I had to leave my entire second set of clothes behind! I figured when I finally broke down and had a laundry night, I’d only be in my long johns, so I’d want something for my feet besides my hiking shoes (also shower shoes are recommended on the Camino).
There is a lot to say for getting pack weight down on long hikes. I think that a 10 pound base weight for the Camino is doable if one is willing to go pretty (but certainly not extremely) minimal. For me, this would mean losing some important personal items and being a bit more careful about some of my gear. Not a huge deal.
Super-ultra-lightweight is going to be out of the question for me or the typical Camino walker who wants at least a backup change of clothes / shoes each night and relies on the use of technology. Not only would I lose even more gear that I wish to have, I’d need to spend another $360 to drop those last 5 pounds. That’s not worth it for me. (I could do better just getting in shape and losing body weight for free!)
If you’re anything like a gram geek, I strongly recommend getting both a food and luggage scale to weigh your stuff and then use websites like GearGrams.com or LighterPack.com to keep track of it. It’s difficult to accurately gauge weight just by heft, and once you have reliable data recorded, you can easily create and compare packing lists.