Into the Forest with the Ultralighters

I don't enjoy road-walking at the best of times.

With overloaded cars heading at speed down twisting narrow country roads for the bright lights of Ahipara, Mike, Becky and I felt relieved to reach the entrance of the Kerehino Forest.

The track entrance is guarded by a pou (pou whenua), a wooden post that tells a story or reflects the relationship between the land and the people.

I wished for a Maori to explain this one to me but all that appeared was a cocky, well-fed feral rooster. Mike looked at it hungrily and it scuttled back into the bush.

We followed the rooster for about 50 metres and made camp along the trail in gathering darkness.

Since meeting my companions the night before last, I had been thinking about my equipment. I had bought most of it over ten years ago. Clearly designs, materials and philosophies in the tramping world had marched on while I steadfastly stuck with what I knew.

So, while Mike boiled some cut price sausages in the world's smallest pot and Becky struggled with the lightest tent on the planet, I ate my pot noodles and watched.

First, his stove was tiny. Like mine it used methylated spirits but there similarities ended.

"I made it out of a cat food tin from a design I found on the internet," he explained. I refrained from asking about what happened to the cat food. From the way he'd looked at that rooster, I had a pretty good idea.

"Waste not," is an ultralight motto and one I heartily endorse, just like, "Leave no trace."

Mike had also made a windshield from aluminium foil and sections of spare plastic strips. And he'd made a pot cosy from one of those insulated covers designed to protect car dashboards.

"Saves fuel," he muttered. "These sausages will cook themselves now without wasting any more meth."

He took out a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pot of honey and some ziploc sandwich bags.

"We generally pre-make our sandwiches," he explained, lathering slices with peanut butter and honey and sealing them in individual bags.

Becky emerged from her tent. He gave five bags to her and kept five for himself. "Should last until Kerikeri. We'll resupply then," he said.

There were half a dozen slices of bread left. He speared a sausage, laid it on a slice of bread, added a dab of butter. "Perfect!" he exclaimed. "Just too bad we don't have any mustard or ketchup. I can usually find packets in a fast food restaurant."

My mouth watered.

"Want one?" he asked.

"No, no, I couldn't," I said weakly.

Becky laughed. "Don't be silly. We made one for you."

I bit into the sausage sandwich and found it delicious. We shared our meal in silence and sighed.

My conscience won a momentary tussle. I offered my precious chocolate bag.

"Dessert?" I asked.

While we munched, I asked about tents, sleeping bags and packs.

"Those are the 'Big Three'", Mike said. He slept under a lightweight tarp supported by trees or trekking poles. She had bought a tent made of a new material called Cuben fibre.

"Everybody's talking about Cuben," Mike said.

"Actually, it's crap," she said. "$500 and it won't stay straight."

"But it weighs less then a kilo," Mike said.

"It's still crap," she said. Clearly, not everything goes well in the ultralight world.

They preferred down-filled bags for their superior warmth/weight ratios. "More expensive but still," Mike said, sealing the argument.

Their packs were just over half the size of mine and nearly a quarter lighter with no internal frame or thick padding on the shoulder straps or waist belt. Their skinny waist belts even had handy pockets sewn on for things like cameras, power bars and so on.

I never snacked on the move because I had to stop, drop the pack and then heft it on again. It wasn't worth the effort.

"Because our gear weighs so little and packs down so small, we need less volume. We even use our sleeping pads to create a frame for the pack."

He reached over and lifted his near empty pack to show the two pockets the sleeping pad fitted into.

I had already seen how that worked in Ahipara. Secretly, I envied it.

"There're a lot of other tricks to the ultralight way," Mike said, yawning. "There's even a 'super ultralight' movement."

"What about safety?" I asked, thinking, "Some of this gear looks a little flimsy." I was thinking of my staunch canvas rucksack, the comfort of knowing my synthetic-fibre filled SOS "onesie" would stay warm and lofted when wet, the reassurance of knowing I had sat out hours of high winds and driving rain in my hammock.

"That hammock's a good piece of gear and a lot of hikers use them," Mike conceded. "But it's a little heavy for what it does, Hammocks are cold because air comes underneath so you need a heavier sleeping bag. Plus, they don't pack down that small, so you need a bigger pack. "

His argument boiled down to, "Less weight and size means less physical and mental strain. Less fatigue means better decision-making. Better decision-making means not getting into trouble in the first place."

"You've gotta know your limitations," he said. "For yourself and your gear. It's so much easier to make the decision to turn back when you're not carrying such a big investment in weight and effort on your back. Plus, you're less likely to sprain or break something."

On that cheerful thought, we headed for our respective tarp, tent and hammock.

I had pitched mine badly in the near dark.

The advantage of hammocks is that you can pitch them anywhere, even across steep slopes, like this one.

However, there are no instructions about how to approach a hammock from uphill while clad in a "onesie".

My arms flailed as the slippery nylon booties slid over the unstable forest floor.

With a despairing wail, I  slid under the hammock in a shower of leaves, twigs and dead fern fronds.

There followed a ludicrous gasping battle in which I hauled myself back under the hammock to the zippered entrance.

Spitting a leaf out of my mouth, I slid into the cocoon like the Michelen man after a hard day selling tires.

The support line sagged and my rump hit ground.

This was going to be a long night.

From a little way down the track, a gentle snore arose, wafting upwards like a benediction.