Ultralight Backpacking Lightens Loads for Better Enjoying Nature

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A man relaxes under a tarp in a mountain in Kanagawa Prefecture. “It makes me feel a deep connection with nature,” he said.

Mountain climbing and hiking enthusiasts are embracing lightweight equipment to reduce the burden on their knees, back and other body parts. Called ultralight (UL) backpacking, the concept allows hikers to focus more on enjoying nature.

A company employee from Iwate Prefecture was relaxing in mid-May at a tent site in the Tanzawa mountains in Kanagawa Prefecture. He was not lying in a tent. Instead, he was under a tarp, which shelters users from the sun and rain like a roof.

“I gaze at the stars, feel the wind blowing and hear animals’ footsteps. It’s rather simple, but I find the extraordinary fascinating,” he said with a smile.

The campsite is located at an altitude of 600 meters. The temperature was slightly less than 15 C, and the man was comfortable in cold-weather clothing, he said.

When he started climbing mountains about five years ago, he carried a 15-kilogram backpack and walked with his head down, always out of breath.

Unhappy with the experience, he switched to lighter equipment such as a large backpack with a simple design that is made of a thin fabric and a tarp instead of a double-layered tent. Doing so reduced the weight of his baggage to five kilograms, including necessities like food and cold-weather clothes. He now enjoys his three-day hikes better.

Courtesy of the man in the photo
The man’s equipment for a three-day mountain hike includes only the bare essentials such as rain gear, cold-weather clothes, headlamp, first-aid kit, cooking utensils and sleeping bag. The load weighs about five kilograms including water and food.

“If your load is light, you have more flexibility,” he said. “It also reduces the risk of injury.”

UL backpacking started in the United States around the 1990s as way to hike thousands of kilometers along nature trails said Tomoyoshi Tsuchiya, 51, the owner of the Hiker’s Depot outdoor goods shop in Mitaka, Tokyo, and the author of “Ultralight Hiking” published by Yama-Kei Publishers Co.

The concept places importance on blending in with nature by reducing baggage loads as much as possible, Tsuchiya said.

“Many hiking and mountaineering enthusiasts like the style. It’s a minimalist approach that appeals to people who enjoy having only the bare necessities.”

In a 2021 survey by Yamap Inc., a company in Fukuoka that produces a mountaineering map app, 35,000 users of the app were asked about problems during hiking, and answers included knee pain by 44.5% and fatigue by 41.8% of the respondents.

UL backpacking is also effective for those who get insufficient exercise as a way to reduce the burden on the body and walk comfortably on mountain trails.

A target weight for equipment including a tent is 4.5 kilograms or less, excluding water, food and fuel.

When Tsuchiya opened his shop in 2008, he was sometimes criticized for promoting UL backpacking, which some considered dangerous.

“Your load becomes lighter when you only carry necessary items like food, rain gear, cold-weather clothes and a first-aid kit,” Tsuchiya said. “It’s not ‘lightly equipped.’ Rather, it’s ‘making baggage lighter.’”

With sufficient mountaineering experience, loads can be reduced by carrying less cold-weather clothes — which are often overpacked — on trips based on a record of temperatures and altitudes at which one felt cold and wore such clothes in the past.

Pots and portable gas stoves are unnecessary when not cooking in the mountains.

A backpack made of thin fabric that has few pockets also lightens the load.

Products based on the concept of UL backpacking have been developed and put on sale.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Wallets by Minimalight are lightweight and easy to use during mountaineering and similar activities.

Minimalight, a company established in Kyoto in 2016, sells a small wallet called Play Wallet for ¥4,400 as its flagship product. The trifold wallet is 9.5 centimeters long and 6 centimeters wide, and it fits in the palm of the hand. It weighs only 15 grams.

The company also sells a simple backpack suitable for day trips and a small cross body bag that holds a map and water bottle.

“I hope my brand will be a gateway to the UL concept and encourage people to use lighter things in their daily lives,” said Minimalight designer Shingo Haneji, 41, an avid hiker.