I was an instant convert to ultralight backpacking when I first heard about it maybe seven or eight years ago. I felt I was an instinctive ultra-lighter - making my own ‘packraft’ from a beach inflatable - which worked brilliantly until I pranged it on a submerged tree stump in the River Wye.
Just recently I read about Roman Dial’s first (legal i.e. permitted by bureaucrats) descent of the Grand Canyon in a packraft. Ultralight mountaineering and ultralight sailing are growing in popularity too. Why is the ultralight concept the way forward in exploration? For many reasons, but I will outline a few that occur to me.
Firstly exploration, like any outdoor activity, runs the very real risk of being submerged in gear. I love gear as much as the next geek, but I also hate the strangle hold it can wield over you, a strangle hold magnified by gear mags and sites that get free gear to use and then write nice things about it that imply you too must buy it. Top sea kayak explorer Audrey Sutherland- now in her 80s- reckons on making or adapting 90% of her kit- only buying 10%- this is the woman who pioneered inflatable sea kayaking when everyone said inflatables were beach toys. I digress.
The main point is, when you are ultralighting you are going as simply as possible so there is no room for excess baggage. Ultralighting means refining the means of exploration, which in turn, turns up new possibilities for future expeditions. Just as fat tyre bikes have made crossing the Egyptian Great Sand Sea possible (we’ll find out for sure this December) so, too, taking as light a selection of gear changes where you can go and what you see and do when you are there. Then there are new combinations- the bike/packraft combination could be very intriguing- especially as both are now ridiculously light in weight.
Ultralight exploration also means an exploration of your own capabilities - how inventive are you in devising simple and lightweight alternatives? Somewhat low on the list of great outdoor inventions I must place my own ‘wet shorts’ - cut-off over trousers that protect your thighs from all that dumped water sliding off a raincoat. The calf is protected by your gaiters. Then there was the one mess-tin for everything cook and drinking system. Or my current favourite (which I didn’t invent) using windblown ‘tumbleweed’ found during the afternoon section of a desert walk to fire up a volcano kettle to make that first cup of tea. In a place devoid of wood it’s a great feeling to steal fire from a rolling dried up weed.
Inflatable catamarans seem to me to be a way forward in island and seacoast ultralight exploration. I’m thinking a cat that is so light you can carry it on a plane to a remote place where you simply inflate and sail. There are about ten mainly European inflatable cat makers out there. The Czech Easysail is the most intriguing - big enough to take six adults it has actually crossed the Atlantic (though I believe the one used was a tad larger - not totally clear from pix). Though at 96kg it's getting heavy. The one that looks silliest - and therefore slips best under the radar (I'm talking about getting past busybodies who want to stop you and the more 'pro' you look the more attention you will get and the bigger the headache) is the American SeaEagle 14 - and at only $1500 - a bargain. It also weighs only 40KG. Maybe a more flexible solution is a lashed frame that links two inflatable sea kayaks together.
Making is always better than buying - as long as it works. For our Fatback fat tyre bike exploring I am already thinking of a bodge to make wheeling the bike easier. Maybe some kind of handlebar frame that enables you to wheel the bike without bending down- which is the killer for mega-long wheeling sessions. Also I am thinking ahead to a way of using the bike as a trolley/rickshaw/cart for most of the time and only riding on easy non-sandy surfaces (which must be 50% of the desert). That way you mentally get used to mainly walking and riding is just a bonus. The purpose being – to enable you to carry a 100+ kilos of gear on a pushbike/trike. Mountain triking - now there’s an idea… ...
Back to the ultralight idea. Why it’s compelling is the way it brings us back to walking. The lighter the gear the more fun the walking and the further you can walk. And walking in my opinion is the essence of exploration. To explore is to walk through a landscape. Not fly over it, not drive through it, not even sail through it - walk through it. The rivers I walked against the current towing a canoe I feel I know. The one's I shot down I kind of saw like on television. I feel I know the short sections of the Zambezi that I helped line a raft up or portage better than the hundred or more kilometres we shot down having a blast. And when you talk to walkers they know about birds and animals and plants. 4x4ers and whitewater rafters don’t in general - and this isn’t meant to be critical - I enjoy both - it’s just that walking is closer to the nub of it. When I drive in the desert it’s when I stop and start walking around that I feel I am exploring- even if the car got me to that point. DIY exploring and ultralight exploration intersect at many points - but mainly where cheaper costs are involved. There is less to steal, less to be observed by border policemen, less to go wrong. Ultralight puts you under the radar, into the temporary autonomous zone of travelling. When I took my inflatable beachboat down the Nile I was supposedly breaking the law - but no one interfered - even the police and soldiers waved at me as I went by. They just didn’t ‘see me’ - I was too unserious to be taken seriously. If exploration is about finding freedom in the wilderness or even the quasi-wilderness then ultralight ideas can only benefit it. And the original ultralighters were the 1930s, 40s and 50s explorers Bill Tillman and Eric Shipman - wearing only one set of clothes (each...) and eating and drinking out of a one pint mug. Tillman's mountain and sailing books are a great reference and inspiration for ultralight exploration today.