It’s Time to Shit-can the LW, UL, SUL, and XUL Labels

2014-01-27 Shit Can Labels

If you have been reading my website for a while, you probably know that LW, UL, SUL, and XUL are backpacking categories for base weights. Base weight is the weight of your backpack and contents minus any consumables such as water, food, and fuel.

Most people define these as:

  • Lightweight (LW) = base weight less than 20lbs.
  • Ultralight (UL) = base weight less than 10lbs.
  • Super Ultralight (SUL) = base weight less than 5lbs.
  • Extreme Ultralight (XUL) = base weight less than 3lbs.

I do trips in each category and sometimes heavier. It all depends upon the trip. But it doesn’t matter. Actually, it is silly. Base weight means little to your body, only the total weight of everything you are carrying makes a difference to your body.

And what is worse, these categories have morphed into labels.

The labels persist. And worse than labels, many people define themselves as LW, UL, SUL, or XUL backpackers. Often I detect a hint of elitism from these folks. I thought that most had decided that UL or its derivatives are actually skill-sets or a mind-set approach to backpacking, but apparently not. In 2012 I wrote, in The Death of Ultralight Backpacking,

For me ultralight is a mindset. The ultralight backpacker relies on experience, skill, and knowledge. His gear is pared down to eliminate all unnecessary items, and each piece of gear is carefully selected based on the requirements, expected conditions of the trip and the hiker’s skill. Weight is a prime consideration, based on what the gear needs to do.


misc packs

One must be concerned with the total weight in their pack to include the consumables. Some people reduce their base weight by removing items from their pack and carrying them in their walking shorts or pants – just to say they have attained some arbitrary weight threshold. This is ludicrous.

Some people get their base weight so low, that a fragile pack is required to meet the weight category, and their fragile pack cannot carry much in the way of consumables, meaning they must re-supply frequently. I call this boutique backpacking.

I think backpacking is about being self-sufficient in the wilderness with everything you need in your pack. On longer trips, if one needs to constantly re-supply, this means they must leave the wilderness to obtain supplies from some sort of civilization outpost. To me, this defeats the purpose of backpacking if the hiker cannot carry more than a few days of food and extend the time needed to re-supply.

Some defend the categories by saying it is a mind-set or philosophy. Phooey. They are still throwing out the base weights. Total weight is most important. Base weight means little, if anything at all. I don’t know where this came from or how it started, but for a few years I communicated my base weight. No more. I used to call this website “Nick’s Excellent Camping and Ultralight Backpacking Adventures.” Well I just removed the “Ultralight” in the header of the page because it is time for us to remove the backpacking labels. My gear hasn’t changed; I am just getting tired of LW, UL, SUL, and XUL.

Is there a use for base weights? Maybe. Others can look at your gear list and analyze it, I suppose. On the other hand, there is not much to be learned from gear lists – real learning takes place on the trail, whether it is from experience or mistakes. By looking at someone’s gear list, you cannot learn how that hiker integrates his or her gear into a cohesive, integrated system. At this is what reducing gear weight is about.

If you are a backpacker, and you want to communicate your base weight, then just state it in pounds and ounces. And don’t declare or infer it is LW, UL, SUL, or XUL.


There is nothing wrong with definitions, per se. But what happens is that many people make a definition their goal, or try to define themselves or others by the definition. And we then lose focus on the journey; the hiking.

Instead of managing our inventory of gear, I would like to see more people manage their inventory of recreational days and talk about that. I enjoy reading blogs of folks who are out in the wilderness a lot, even if they have full time jobs and other commitments. These are the people who truly cherish the outdoors and place a high value on spending as much time as possible do it.

Can’t we once and for all shit-can the labels and just be backpackers?