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The Dawn of Ultralight Backpacking

February 28, 2017

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ULTRALIGHT BACKPACKING GEAR might seem like a modern phenomenon, featuring the latest and lights high-tech materials, but the idea dates back to the very beginning of organized hiking in New England.

More than two dozen outdoors organizations attended the first meeting of the New England Trail Conference (NETC) in 1916. These college outing clubs, hiking and conservation groups (AMC among them), Boy Scouts, and more shared the common goal of creating and maintaining “a system of connecting trails in New England.”

Further meetings and projects followed, including the establishment of an annual census of New England’s rapidly expanding trails: 1,072 miles of trail in 1920 grew to 2,697 by 1929. The group began publishing educational pamphlets, with early titles including “Standards of Trail Construction” (1921) and “Sign Painting” (1923). Then, in 1924, NETC released its first pub- lication targeting the general hiker, “Going Light,” by AMC’s councillor of topography and exploration, Arthur Comey.

“Maximum comfort with minimum weight is our goal,” Comey wrote. Remarkably, he managed to break down his needs for a one-to two-week trip in a 10-pound pack, complete with an ax and extra matches for smokers, although modern-day standards, such as a stove and sleeping pad, were notably absent. Comey’s carefully crafted list, while not stripped of all nonessentials, calls to mind the ounce-cutting obsession of modern ultralight hikers.

Comey’s concluding remark should also ring true to that crowd: “Camping, and particularly camping on the hike, is an art.”


Images seen here appear courtesy of the AMC Library & Archives. Duplicates can be ordered for a fee. Funds support efforts to preserve the club’s historical collections. Call 617-391-6629, visit outdoors.org/library, or e-mail amcarchives@outdoors.org for details.


LEARN MORE

For the latest advice on packing, check out AMC’s Mountain Skills Manual.


 

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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour is the senior editor of AMC Outdoors.