Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reaching out to The Limit: My First XUL Trip, Part 1

The limit, as some say, cannot ever be reached.  The quest to feel and understand the limit is what defines and enriches what lay before and beyond the limit.  And so I challenge myself again.

Semantics, of course, must be dealt with.  If Ultralight is backpacking under ten pounds (4.5kg) of base weight, and Super-Ultralight is backpacking under five pounds (2.27kg) of base weight, then the next (last?) step for the dedicated backpacker is Extreme Ultralight, or XUL.  The few people that dabble in these realms of traveling through the great outdoors sometimes squabble over what constitutes XUL.  I have read several different definitions, but the one I found the most logically appealing to follow UL and SUL is that XUL is under five pounds with base weight of your backpack plus any items carried or clothing worn--meaning that literally everything you take with you minus consumables (food, water, fuel).

I have found that most times of the year I go UL, but for an extended season from late spring to early fall go SUL, and for the past few years now I never go above UL standards and have not felt the need or inclination to either.  You can read about my first (intentional) SUL trip here, in case you are curious to see what brought me down this path which perhaps some backpackers might call insanity.  In this part, I will go over the gear, planning, and rational behind my trip, which is scheduled for next week.  After the trip I will have a full report with obligatory pictures, the pictures kindly taken by some friends going along with me on the trip (though I am the only one going XUL).

Before I explain why I am about to embark on such an extreme, you are probably curious just what items would make up my XUL gear list.  You can examine the nifty geargrams list I recently put the finishing touches on (4.99lbs / 2264g total, excluding food and water) to see it on paper, but I took some pictures as well:

Above is my backpack with the gear and clothing I will be taking with me, with a few small exceptions that I forgot to add.  Not included are a map (15g), and some pocket items like my bus card (12g).  

(EDIT: I noticed the weight on the scale and the weight listed slightly don't match, with a difference of 8g.  This was an error on my part by not removing a spare pair of socks that I was thinking about taking when I weighed everything.)  

But you get the picture.  A lot of traditional backpackers have sleeping bags and kitchens that weigh more than my entire set of gear and clothing.  Now on to some more detail...

Here is the packed backpack (Zpacks Zero xsmall cuben fiber pack) and the clothing.  Nothing too special about the clothing, really--boxers, t-shirt, running pants, lightweight sneakers, socks.  I will only have one water bottle for drinking, a recycled half-liter plastic bottle that fits nicely in the shoulder strap pocket of the pack.

 For back support in my pack, and for a minimal torso sleeping mat, I have a trimmed piece of cheap but effective foam padding, which is the green rectangle poking out of the pack.  

I plan on having a campfire in the evening (so long as it is not pouring rain), so having a fixed blade helps a lot to process fuel, not to mention an excellent all around tool.  This is a bit controversial in the lightweight backpacking community, as many opt for tiny folding knifes, razor blades, or no knives at all.  Here in Sweden, however, having a campfire is a more viable option for backpackers, because campfires are allowed in nearly all places (so long as there are not dry conditions).  I also put knives to good use when I camp, like cutting food and making grill sticks for cooking for example, so I usually opt for a good, sturdy blade.

My water purification is a squeeze filter, along with a roughly one liter bladder for raw water, which I can also use as an additional store of water, as well as a pillow when blown up with air and placed under my sleeping bag.  I can have a total of 1.5 liters on me, which is more than enough, especially considering the many good sources of water that we will encounter.

To the right of my knife and water system is my shelter kit, and below in the middle is my first aid kit, ditty bag, and clothing bag.  A detailed list of all the contents of my FAK and ditty bag can be found above on my geargrams list--it covers all the essentials and/or needs.  Below in a cuben stuff sack is my sleeping bag, a wonderful synthetic summer bag.  Again note that my map and a few small pocket items are omitted from the photos but will be included for the trip. 

Here you can see the knife out of the sheath (the string is for hanging around the neck), a long sleeve synthetic base layer shirt for night/sleeping, a windbreaker jacket, and my shelter kit opened up.  My shelter is a Zpacks Hexamid solo tarp, and in a cuben stake bag are 8 titanium stakes.  For a ground cover I will use a garbage bag, which is folded up next to the stakes.

I had originally planned on taking advantage of natural shelters, such as sleeping under a big pine tree (which I have done before), but I made some adjustments after keeping and eye on the weather.  There has been massive amounts of rain this summer, with some areas close to me having issues with outright flooding.  So yeah, there is a chance of very heavy, pounding rain.  Adding the shelter, I decided to remove my bug head net and baseball cap.  I will be careful about what location I make camp in to avoid the bugs.  I went on an overnight trip last week and switched from one location to another in making camp that effectively removed the bug problem, with one location more open to allow for breezes to blow annoying bugs away.  Plus a campfire keeps the bugs at bay too, unless of course it is pouring rain, in which case the rain keeps the bugs away anyhow.

It should be obvious that I will be taking ready-to-eat foods only, such as granola bars, fruit, nuts, chips, etc.  If the weather looks like a low chance of rain, I will bring food I can cook over the fire without any kind of kitchen, like sausage and red bell peppers (nomnomnomnom).

Now why go XUL?  For one, because I can.  I would suggest that XUL (and to a lesser extent SUL) is for experienced backpackers to take advantage of, and in doing so, also opens up some added possibilities.  For one, a very low weight translates into having more energy; and this means you can not only hike longer and on more difficult terrain, but you can also do fun stuff along the way that you otherwise would not want to tax your energy reserves on.  For example, say you pass a nice swimming spot, you can stop and jump in with little concern.  

As such, the trip I have planned has a 18-20km hike the first day, and a 16-18km hike the next day.  This is a more remote trail (along with some off trail fun as well) that is full of wonderful views and beautiful scenery to enjoy and explore.  Also, berry and mushroom season has begun here in Sweden, and I plan on gathering a bit of both along the way.  The more isolated patch of woods you explore, the more bounty there will be to harvest.

Yet this trip is not just about pragmatic elements that justify such a extreme/unique style of backpacking.  As I touched on in the introduction, there is also the quest to challenge both limits and one's own self.  My experience in going UL and SUL has exposed me to an amazing alternative to going out and temporarily living out in nature, one that has really improved my journeys; physically, mentally, and emotionally.  And I was able to break through limits I was not only unaware of, but also did not think possible to achieve.  I hope that by going XUL, I can continue this exploration.  In short, my travels into the woods has brought me much closer to both myself and to nature, and this is simply another means to travel with new limitations but with new potentials.

My thoughts somehow remind me of the words of a man I admire and whose films I take great inspiration from: Werner Herzog.  I cannot say that I understand or agree with everything he says in the monologue he gives below, but much of it resonates with me, especially the last part of it.  So I leave you with Herzog, and look forward to my trip next week and writing about it.

Here is a link to part 2, the actual trip report.