Hiker Profile: Jonny Waldman (Founder of Mayfly Ultralight)

Today, in our Hiker Profiles series, we highlight Jonny Waldman, a backpacker, cyclist, rock climber, skier, and all-around outdoor adventurer. He founded Mayfly Ultralight Equipment, an online shop where he sells handmade ultralight camp shoes that weigh just a couple of ounces.

Smiling man backpacking down a backcountry trail

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’ve been obsessed with outdoor adventures — on earth, rock, snow, and water — for three decades. I’ve taught rock climbing, led 1000-mile cycling tours, directed backcountry trips for a summer camp, and spent a couple of years refurbishing a 40-foot sailboat for a circumnavigation — but it turns out I like mountains much more than oceans.

Although I’m from the East-coast, I’ve spent the last 20 years living all over the West, where I’ve organized plenty of my own endurance adventures. I’ve also written two nonfiction books, but since I landed in Santa Fe I’ve tried to minimize my chair/screen time, and now I split my time between working as a carpenter and a cobbler.

What inspired you to start Mayfly Ultralight Equipment?

Hand holding a pair of ultralight camp shoes with a river in the background

I was gearing up to hike the AT! Like so many nerds, I was trying to assemble a lightweight backpack with just enough comforts — after all, walking shouldn’t be a sloggish sufferfest — and I didn’t like any of the sandal options available. So I started tinkering, and designed exactly what I wanted.

What’s the most memorable backpacking trip you’ve ever been on?

Jonny Waldman standing near a sign that says "HIGH POINT 13,271 FT. THE COLORADO TRAIL"

Well, COVID forced me to cancel that 2020 AT trip, so two years later I hiked the CT from Denver to Durango — and it was awesome. I’d already been up most of the Colorado 14ers, so it was really cool to recognize features and landmarks as I navigated whole mountain ranges.

I also nailed the timing: the end of summer meant stable weather (warm enough during the day to wear shorts and eat milkshakes, cool enough at night to sleep well), and nearly empty trails. My legs felt strong, my pack felt light, and I didn’t get a single blister. I was really happy with my kit, and it gave me such a great dose of quality wilderness time.

Tell us your most intense hiking/backpacking story

Backpacker smiling and wearing a yellow shirt at nighttime

Ha! There was the time a buddy and I intentionally hiked the Teton Crest Trail w/no stove (which sucked), and there was the time another buddy and I were way up high in Yosemite and tried to make do with cold ramen (because I’d brought a stove but forgotten a lighter; this also sucked), but one that really stands out was my third trip to the Grand Canyon, when I walked R2R2R in a day, and with only five miles to go (all uphill) and the sun setting, I bumped into a kid from LA who had no food, water, warm layers, or headlamp… he basically had no business being alone in such a wild/unforgiving place.

So I hooked him up with water and a Snicker’s bar and a jacket, and let him walk beside me and use the light of my headlamp, and as we neared the south rim (and lots more tourists w/headlamps) I asked him to run ahead and snag some hot grub for me from the cafeteria before it closed — or at least tell the cashier that a very hungry hiker was about to walk in — so off he went, and when I got to the cafeteria 10 minutes later it was closed and the kid was just gone.

So lame.

What’s your favorite piece of hiking/backpacking gear and why?

Looking down on a pair of feet wearing camp shoes and a backpacking dinner cooked in an ultralight pot

My camp shoes! After pounding my feet all day, it’s such a relief to take off my gross socks and stinky sneakers and let my skin breathe while I set up my tent and pile as many calories as I can into one pot and take in the marvelous landscape. This recovery is almost heavenly, and costs me only two ounces.

What big hiking/backpacking trip do you have planned next?

Man in shorts crossing a river on a backpacking trip

I’m scheming up southwestern trips that combine walking, scrambling and packrafting. Letting a river take you down, down, down through otherwise inhospitable terrain is just magical. Otherwise, I’m starting to take notes on the AZT.

Maybe when my hair turns gray I’ll get back to the AT, where I first went backpacking.

Leave us with a helpful hiking/backpacking tip

Backpacker, Jonny Waldman, standing on a vantage point with a mountain range in the background

Going ultralight is cool, but it’s not like there’s some set-in-stone weight threshold above which the U.S. Department of Ultralight Backpacking (USDUB) won’t grant you an official Certificate of Ultralight Awesomeness… which is to say: there’s a big difference between ultralight-with-comforts and stupid-light.

I think it’s worth stopping to consider that by living in the 21st century, you already devote many ounces (cumulatively, pounds) to all kinds of comforts, including an inflatable mattress and/or pillow, padded shoulder straps, carbon-fiber poles, cook stove, tent, smartphone, Kindle, etc., etc. Which is to say, you’ve already chosen (wisely) not to travel like a Neanderthal.

Implicitly, you’ve already decided that you’d rather not shiver, starve, get soaking wet, lose sleep, be incommunicado or bored, or endure sore shoulders and knees. Any good journey inevitably includes some suffering, but most of it should be a pleasure! I think pleasure, rather than some arbitrary weight threshold, ought to be in the forefront of your mind while you plan an adventure.

Last Updated on April 29, 2024

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TPL Staff

This post was a collaborative effort, and was written more than one author from The Packable Life Team. Certain types of articles require multiple perspectives, which is why we team up when necessary to give you the best content possible.

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