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The Soul of Essentialist Backpacking: Forrest McCarthy’s Philosophy On Ultralight

Forrest McCarthy seeks big adventures in remote, wild landscapes. He learned to rock climb, eventually going on to work for Exum Mountain Guides, so he could more completely explore the Grand Tetons; he learned to packraft so he could wander the Colorado River Basin and Alaska’s backcountry; and he combines sports—alpine climbing and ski mountaineering or thru hiking and boating—so he can travel across wide open landscapes. Essentialist backpacking principles are the ties that bind his adventures together. “Curiosity has been the driving force throughout my life,” he says. “What’s that river like? What’s over that next mountain range? What’s that ecosystem like?” In order to travel to ever more distant places in a world where untrammeled landscapes have become rare, McCarthy brings only what he absolutely needs on his adventures to stay warm, dry and protected from the elements. For example, he uses his dry suit as rain gear and his throw bag, trekking poles, or paddle as hardware to put up his UltaMid. He even shares a toothbrush sometimes, though only with his wife, he adds with a laugh. And he uses the most technologically advanced equipment he can find. “Often I see manufacturers trying to out-design each other,” he explains. “They are trying to sell end users gear with too many bells and whistles because that’s what the magazines tell the end users they need. There’s a certain level of dysfunction in this. How do we educate people that they don’t need the super high-tech suspension systems? It comes back to keeping it simple.”

Essentialism In Backpacking and the Ultralight Ideal

McCarthy brings this simplicity to every aspect of his life. “From an environmental standpoint, the first way to minimize our impact on the planet is to need less. The second way is to figure out where can we share. Can we ride the bus or a bike or share a lawnmower with a neighbor? The third way is to use the technology that makes things lighter and simpler.” So, what is essentialist backpacking, actually? And why is it important? Forrest says that, in order to travel to ever wilder, more remote places in a world where untrammeled landscapes have become rare, he’s embraced three essential themes. He credits Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Roman Dial, the father of packrafting, with articulating these principles most precisely:

The Three Principles of Essentialist Backpacking:

  1. It’s not just about having lighter stuff; it’s about traveling simply.
  2. Make sure you are sharing gear and/or that you’re using one item for multiple purposes.
  3. Use the most minimal, lightest technology available.
We talked to Forrest learn more about what makes him tick. Narrowing down the gems of knowledge to just a publishable few was no easy task, but we’re excited to be able to share at least a small piece of his perspective and philosophy.
In my twenties, I adopted a philosophy of doing more with carefully selected items I needed out of necessity for alpine climbing and long ski traverses. To successfully climb and ski in big mountains and wilderness areas I needed to be limber and move fast. To achieve this I learned to take only what was absolutely necessary and invest in the lightest most durable equipment. I later applied this same philosophy to river paddling. In both cases, people started out wanting to explore a landscape, and so utilized the technology that allowed them to do so. But as the sports matured, people got into the idea of being able to climb or paddle just for the sake of doing those things. Now there are these incredibly talented paddlers really pushing the limit of what you can do in whitewater. I like combining the two things, just like I did with alpine climbing and ski mountaineering. It’s thrilling to do a big wilderness trip that includes exciting sections of technical whitewater.
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Photo by Mike Curiak | Grand Canyon, 2014
I often feel as if I’m chasing rainbows; seeking ephemeral moments where light, landscape, and emotion collide in a spectrum of magic and beauty. I can’t plan these moments; I can, however, increase the likelihood of experiencing them by simply going outside and into nature. When I'm “in the moment,” I’m often not aware it’s occurring. Only afterwards do I fully appreciate the euphoria and splendor. Wonderful memories that can never be taken away.
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Photo by Mark Oates
The prospect of exploring big and wild landscapes is what gets me up in the morning. There are not many wild places left on the surface of the earth. Their protection and the opportunity to experience them is paramount to me.
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Photo by Mike Curiak

If I had to choose one sport it would be hiking for its simplicity and versatility. In my pack I carry just a jacket, water bottle, and maybe a map. My Porter Pack is my most used piece of gear. It is light, durable, and versatile.

I enjoy reading books by true explorers from earlier ages when there truly existed “blank spots on the map.” The ingenuity, curiosity, and insight by the likes of William Tillman, Eric Shipton, David Brower, George Schaller, Charles Darwin, Ernest Shackleton, and Knud Rasmussen inspires me. In life, like when in the mountains, on the river, or in wilderness, being light and nimble allows me to focus on what really matters; experiencing a place and spending time with interesting people. As far as I know I only get one ride on the oasis we know as “Earth.” I plan to take full advantage of it.

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Photo by Jim Harris

You can also find Forrest McCarthy…

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Forest McCarthy is a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador. He currently works as a river guide and naturalist in Grand Teton National Park during the summer, where he takes people on educational river trips down the Snake River. He spends winters guiding in Antarctica, where he works on geological and glaciological research projects. He’s constantly devising new, creative adventures, that combine packrafting, skiing, and exploring.

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