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How Light is Too Light?

How Light is Too Light?


by Ryan Jordan | 2001-07-30 03:00:00-06

Last spring, I visited a hometown outfitter, shopping for a new sleeping bag rated to around 40 degrees for three-season backpacking in the Northern Rockies. When I told the college-aged salesman my requirements, he shook his head and told me succinctly: "That will never cut it, dude," followed by a not-so-brief lecture about the dangers of hypothermia and the potential brutality of Montana's Rocky Mountain front that he himself had personally experienced on a number of occasions (at which time I began to wonder just how many occasions constituted a "number"). He then fetched a bag with a 15-degree rating and a DRYLOFT® shell, and said, "This is it, man--the one for you. This is the one I take when I want to go light."

RJ: "Oh. So, how much do you carry when you 'go light'?"

Sales Kid: "Well, I get pretty cranky when my pack gets to be more than thirty pounds..."

I began to think that maybe this guy was OK--he just had some kind of overkill thing about sleeping bags. I didn't realize that this thought interrupted him in mid-sentence.

SK: "...because when I add food and water to that, things get heavy real quick."

RJ: "Ohhh. So, thirty pounds is your 'base' pack weight, without food and water?"

SK: "Oh yeah, definitely, never a pound over," he beamed.

So I walked past him and his big beautiful blue DRYLOFT® bag and grabbed the Western Mountaineering MityLite™ .

RJ: "This would make a great 2-person quilt," I exclaimed out loud.

SK [laughing aloud]: "Yeah, maybe in Arizona."

RJ: "Well, I mean, you'd have to at least put a foam pad under you, you know?"

SK [with a look of disbelief on his face]: "How much weight do you normally carry around here for a week-long summer trip?"

RJ: "I start getting cranky if I carry more than 25 pounds..."

SK: "Whew, I thought you were one of those freaks that trotted around the hills with a daypack and--"

RJ: "...but if you take out the food and water, I guess I'm still pushing 12 or 13 pounds...I really have to carry a lighter fishing rod."

SK [shaking his head]: "You're going to be in the obituary someday."

RJ: "Yes, and my epitaph will read: 'died of frustration over lack of decent gear selection at local outfitter.'"

SK then called over his buddy ("SK2"), saying "Hey SK2, get over here. This guy is for you."

SK2 walked over excitedly. "All right, another lightweight backpacker! I'm packin' less than 25 pounds these days. With food and water for a week, I'm easily less than 45 pounds."

SK turned to SK2, shaking his head, and said, "No, no, this guy carries 25 pounds--total--for a week." SK2's expression turned to sincere concern and he readily lectured me (he was older than SK after all, at least a sophomore--maybe even a junior): "You can't do that around here. Our tax dollars are paying the search and rescue fees to pull you guys out of the woods. You really ought to take some personal responsibility for yourself."

So I casually turned and began walking down the stairs towards the exit.

SK2: "Where're you goin', man?"

RJ: "Taking your advice…"

This was an entertaining, if not utterly hopeless conversation, but it got me thinking: "How light is too light?" I struggle with that question every time I pack for an outing and began tossing gear aside.

OK, so how light is too light?

What sets us apart from RV campers is our willingness to forgo creature comforts for experiences that aren't available in a KOA campground. We give up hot showers and inner spring mattresses for marmot whistles at timberline. We trade away ice cream for sunrises above valleys filled with clouds.

We also walk away from telephones, nearby medical clinics and police protection. Backpackers accept higher risk.

Lighter equipment or less "stuff" may increase that risk. Just as we had to balance sore feet and shoulders against distance from civilized distraction, we must balance the increased risk of lightweight backpacking with our level of experience. Not carrying that extra flashlight means being more careful not to lose your only one. A G4 pack requires better care than any Kelty. The pounds and ounces removed from your pack must be replaced with skill, experience and prudence.

Ultimately, it depends upon the strength of spirit (I call this 'emotional fortitude') which you invoke when bad turns to worse and you're caught in the wilds with your pants down (i.e., you didn't bring enough stuff).

There may be no exercise that hones your emotional fortitude better than practicing critical wilderness skills, particularly those related to injury self-treatment, hypothermia prevention, nutrition, and dehydration. Knowledge--and practice--and more practice--of a basic repertoire of critical wilderness techniques will give you the confidence needed to shed pack weight.

Of course, catastrophes happen. Broken legs. Heart attacks. Seizures. Strokes. A bear eating your food. Or a bear eating you. These are the things that spell an early end to your hike and may require knowledge of signaling techniques and assisted extrication. Ironically, most of these catastrophes cannot be avoided by carrying a heavier pack. In fact, I could argue that a lighter pack could avoid some of these major problems by not taxing your body to its load-bearing limit.

So, how light is too light?

Don't listen to them. Forget the boundaries. Go for it. But recognize your limitations, gain more experience, and be prepared to invoke your emotional fortitude!

C'mon, how light is too light?

When your comfort is sacrificed? Give me a break. This isn't a tennis club.

When your safety is sacrificed? Hey, c'mon. There's risk involved. You're not out walking the moors of your city park. Less gear sometimes means more risk.

Skill and "trail wisdom" can increase comfort and safety without adding pack weight--the more sense you bring along, the more weight you can leave behind.

Get to the point - how light is too light?

YOU get to the point. Throw some stuff out of your pack and take a walk. You'll find out soon enough.

Just don't tell your mom.


"How Light is Too Light?," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2001-07-30 03:00:00-06.