On the Trail With Lynne Whelden (Interview)

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by Eric Jensen | 2001-08-06 03:00:00-06

Lynne Whelden is known in the backpacking world for his documentary films and instruction videos on the various aspects of hiking. His “How to...” videos are considered a valuable resource for many thru-hikers preparing to hike the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails. A resident of Pennsylvania, Whelden has recently expanded his talents to include the design and sale of a line of lightweight backpacking equipment, the most popular of which are the components that make up his "One Pound Series.” This system, consisting of the "big three" pieces of backpacking gear: a pack, a tarp and a sleeping blanket, has a combined weight of three pounds. Competing with the traditional outdoor equipment companies through his online enterprise, LWGear, Whelden’s designs are used by many lightweight backpackers throughout North America.


Eric Jensen: How did you get started backpacking?

Lynne Whelden: In the 60s, I was a Boy Scout. In a nearby town there was a Scoutmaster named Jerry Cobleigh who was trying to hike the AT in sections. I asked him if I could come along on some of his trips and he very graciously said yes. Over the next few years we did sections of VA and GA. Looking back, I'm amazed he was willing to put up with such a novice. I really didn't have any gear to speak of. An army issue down bag, a mess kit, and a canteen that my mom had used as a Red Cross worker during World War 2. No tent. Some cotton jeans and T-shirts. Eight inch high work boots and cotton athletic socks from Sears. A big plastic poncho and a canvas external frame pack from a BSA store. When you're 16 and you don't know any better, it's amazing what you can do. Nowadays when I'm trying to spread the lightweight message I realize that a person has to make all the mistakes before he or she is willing to consider a better way. When you're a teenager or in your 20s there's this macho thing about lugging a heavy pack into the woods. One of the greatest challenges for any proponent of lightweight backpacking is to reach the younger generation. If the idea catches on there, the economic impact in the backpacking industry will be so strong they can't ignore us anymore.

EJ: What have been your most rewarding long distance hikes?

"I think the important thing is to get out there and spend uncompressed chunks of time in the woods. That's when the magic happens." LW: I don't like the term "long-distance hike." It implies that there are schedules to be kept, mileages to be met, places to go, and important rendezvous to be made. Aren't we going into the woods to escape that kind of goal-oriented mentality? I prefer to call it "long-term hiking" instead. I think the important thing is to get out there and spend uncompressed chunks of time in the woods. That's when the magic happens.

So to answer your question, the magic happened for me about 6 weeks into my '92 AT thru-hike and about the same 6 week period into my '97 PCT thru-hike. It was a moment maybe 10 minutes long that can only be described as transcendent. An epiphany. A vision. Whatever you want to call it, it was unexpected and it was profound. It's significant that it happened when it did. I've found that the first few weeks of a hike are occupied with just trying to get everything to work correctly. Feet need to be broken in. Muscles need to be toughened up. Routines need to be established. Head noise has to be dealt with. A month or so into a hike is when I've hit my stride. However, after about two months just the opposite starts to take place. My body starts to break down. I find myself getting tired of the now all-too-familiar routines. I'm ready to try something else. But because I've set this athletic goal in front of me I keep chugging on. That's when I get a bad attitude. So I've learned that two months is about the maximum amount of time for me to be away from home. Consequently I've become much more sympathetic to section hikers these days. I've also become intrigued by the art of walking. Thoreau's statement from his essay "Walking" hits me right between the eyes. "If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again--if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a free man--then you are ready for a walk." I ask myself, am I truly free? On my AT hike I was trying to run my video business from phone booths along the way. On the PCT hike I had to worry about the health of my 80-year old mother who was living alone while coping with senile dementia. But this is what's so cool about lightweight backpacking and long-term hiking--they strike to the very core of our existence with life-changing implications.

EJ: What made you decide to pursue a lightweight approach to backpacking?

LW: I really beat myself up on the AT hike. My pack weights were like everyone else's--40 to 50 pounds. I had a really sore spastic muscle in my back that forced me to change my internal frame for an external one. And I had an even more painful Morton's toe developing in the ball of my foot. So when I encountered a hiker somewhere in VA who was hiking with 10 pounds on his back, needless to say it got me thinking. I spent the next five years experimenting and talking with other lightweight enthusiasts to come up with a system that works. The result was a two-hour video called "Lightweight Backpacking Secrets Revealed."

EJ: Which lightweight backpacking principle or technique was the easiest to adopt? Which was the most difficult?

LW: I don't think there was anything easy about the transition. I was really attached to all my gear. After all, this was the stuff that got me through my AT thru-hike. My stove and pack and sleeping bag had become old friends to me. I knew the story behind each dent and scratch and patch. It was a long process. I'd try fuel tablets and found that they really worked. So then I'd sell my stove. I'd have a friend sew me a blanket and then I'd sell my sleeping bag. Ray Jardine's book "The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook" [now updated as "Beyond Backpacking"] had a big impact on me.

EJ: Ray Jardine calls his style and philosophy of lightweight backpacking "The Ray Way". If a style and philosophy were to be coined "The Whelden Way" what would its key principles be?

LW: May that phrase never be. I'm not one to seek the limelight. Not until my fourth video did I even inject my voice into the soundtrack (and then it was only one question at the end while the credits were rolling). And not until "Secrets Revealed"--my seventh video--did I appear on camera. I see myself as someone who can take a bunch of confusing information and distill it down to its essence and then present it in a digestible form. A promoter of sorts. You mention Ray Jardine. It's unfortunate that the man has somehow managed to get in the way of his message. It's amazing what emotions hikers feel towards Ray. Everything from utter disdain to pure adulation. This is obviously not a good situation because it can give lightweight backpacking a bad reputation by mere association. ("Isn't that the guy who says corn pasta is magical?" "Well, yes but....") You'll also note that in my video I have eight other opinions in addition to my own. No one has a corner on the truth. I'm where I'm at now by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ray was one of them. "I'm where I'm at now by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ray [Jardine] was one of them. "

EJ: What would you say is the greatest innovation or practice in lightweight backpacking to date? What do you think might be the next innovation or practice?

LW: For me the greatest eye-opener was to realize that you could make your own gear. Again, I have to thank Ray for that insight. Somehow I'd thought that packs and sleeping gear and clothing were just too technical for us mere mortals. The fabrics and sewing techniques originated from the bowels of some corporate giant like Kelty or Coleman--names that made us tremble. So to be able to circumvent that whole scene was real freedom. Using $10 worth of material to make a pack was a real rush. And I could make it according to my own particular needs--totally wild!

"I think the next great innovation in lightweight will be in the area of food...we carry much more food / calories than we really need." I think the next great innovation in lightweight will be in the area of food. Our food bag is the heaviest item in our packs. When we've just resupplied, that food bag weighs a ridiculous 10-15 pounds. Recently I've been experimenting with fasting while hiking. 

Let's face it, the conventional wisdom of us hikers needing thousands and thousands of calories per day is based on standard heavyweight backpacking practices. We have to toss the rulebook out when it comes to lightweight. I really believe that we can easily cut our food weight in half. If you're used to eating two pounds of dried weight of food a day, you can get by on one. If you're a one pounder per day, cut that in half. The stomach is a muscle that responds to discipline. The science of nutrition needs to make its mark on hiker's diets. There are ways to intelligently modify one's diet so that you feel satiated on less. Also, certain foods can deliver more of a consistent energy boost than others. Food is the last frontier in lightweight backpacking.

EJ: In your opinion, are there any lightweight backpacking principles that should not be followed by certain types of backpackers?

"...the more fears we have
the heavier our packs will be."

LW: In my enthusiasm for certain principles, it's easy for me to overlook the fact that some people simply cannot do certain things. For some older hikers who have abused their bodies from a lifetime of toting heavy packs, there may be physical limitations. Thus they might not be able to wear low-cut trail running shoes. Some people may have spines that are too short or too curved to comfortably accommodate a frameless pack. People with compromised immune systems or thyroid problems may not be able to take the chance with iodine tablets. I think it's important to determine whether these limitations are real or imagined, however. I often hear people talk about their weak ankles as they try to rationalize why they wear heavy leather hiking boots or why they use hiking poles. Do they have real proof they have weak ankles? Or is this some vague notion that originated years ago when they once twisted their ankle and have forever clung to that bias? Can they get a physician to document their "weak ankles?" I doubt it. Our fears are what dictate our choices. Or to put it another way, the more fears we have the heavier our packs will be. You may not like to call your "weak ankle" excuse a fear but that's what it is. And until you're willing to change, there's nothing that can be done to make your backpacking experience a more pleasant one. There's a strange empowering force that operates in tandem with our fears. The more we're willing to try something new, the more strength (courage) we find in some remote corner of our being. I recently did an interview with two women who are hiking the AT barefoot. They mentioned that as long as we keep our feet bound up in shoes, the muscles will never be allowed to fully develop. Only when they freed their feet did they discover muscles they never even knew existed--muscles that then could prevent their ankles from being twisted and arches from falling.

EJ: While making your hiking videos of the AT and PCT, were traditional backpackers receptive to or cautious about a lightweight approach?

"Some people also believe that going light
means skating on the edge of disaster."

LW: Everyone's always receptive. The funny part is that most people think they're doing lightweight backpacking anyway. Many folks will do one thing towards lightening their load like leaving behind their stove. But they're still toting a five-pound tent and six pairs of socks! They just don't get it. Lightweight backpacking is a tightly woven system and those that benefit the most are those who have committed to a total integration. Some people also believe that going light means skating on the edge of disaster. I've never advocated going without fundamental items. In fact, my approach doesn't require any major sacrifices to be made. I'm not saying leave your foam pad behind and let exhaustion be your mattress. Nor am I advocating use of materials that can easily rip and tear. I'm not a fan of thin-soled running shoes, either. As long as you've decided to encase your feet, there's a certain amount of sole protection that's necessary and thin running shoes don't deliver. There is a certain level of confidence in one's wilderness skills that has to enter into the equation. Anyone thinking of getting into lightweight has to have a base knowledge so they can cope with the unexpected. But it doesn't mean you have to be an expert in survival either.

EJ: Do you videotape while you hike? If so, are you able to reconcile your lightweight backpacking principles with the equipment demands of taping along the trail?

LW: Once upon a time I thought I could. But it was a horrible experience. I cringe when I think back to 1986 when I was shooting "Five Million Steps." One night in the Smokies I was carrying a super 8mm-film camera, a tripod, a tape recorder and microphone, batteries and extra film. All this in addition to my camping gear. Needless to say, that pipe dream lasted for all of one night. Then in the 90s when miniature camcorders were a reality, I tried it again on the PCT. I had a Sony PC-7 that weighed maybe a pound and a half. I also had a hiking pole that I had rigged to be a monopod. At the base of the pole I had a heavy lithium expedition battery. And the usual extra tape and cables. Again it was a disaster. So I've done these videos by meeting hikers along the way, usually at some point where I can conveniently drive and walk to. I haven't given up on the notion of carrying video gear. With the Sony PC-5 it's down below a pound. But it's a bummer when you're slugging up a hill and you know that several pounds in your pack are totally useless to the hike itself. Without the filmmaker's vision, I would have never pursued such a course.

EJ: Besides fame and fortune (grin), what motivates you to create videos of the hiking experience?

"As long as lightweight principles are discussed only in esoteric hiking circles, I'll be frustrated. I want the average Joe Sixpack to get out into the woods and to have a good time doing it." LW: I think it goes back to my situation at home. I grew up in a family where my dad left us when I was 6, leaving behind a brother and a sister who was brain-damaged and totally invalid. My mom had been an adventurer in her younger days and was now confined to taking care of my sister 24/7. So I found a certain pleasure in being able to bring home my adventures to her. Plus I have a real desire to educate the masses. As long as lightweight principles are discussed only in esoteric hiking circles, I'll be frustrated. I want the average Joe Sixpack to get out into the woods and to have a good time doing it. When we can get the world to spend significant amounts of time (I emphasize the time) in the woods, preferably alone, then we stand a chance of actually changing it for the better. And isn't that what our purpose in life should be?

 

EJ: In developing your own line of lightweight gear, LWgear, what have been the greatest challenges and successes? What would be your advice for the enterprising backpacker keen on starting up their own cottage industry for the hiking community?

LW: To see some of my gear end up in some mutated form or another in the Campmor catalog has been encouraging. It almost seems like the message is seeping out into the masses when something like that happens. But I still don't think that the corporate world gets it. I still see salespeople pushing ridiculously heavy gear onto unsuspecting buyers. I think the mom and pop lightweight gear manufacturers are going to be the heart of the revolution. They're the ones that can respond to change quickly and incorporate new ideas. They don't need to deal with committees or boards or stockholders or be obsessed with the bottom line. I think some folks feel Ray Jardine has sold out to this corporate mentality. Here's someone who in his second book said not to buy anything that had a bold logo you couldn't remove. And now his gear sports logos that--I kid not--are embroidered in bright yellow. You couldn't remove them even if you wanted to. Isn't it odd that Backpacker magazine seems to only review companies who advertise with them? I've sent them promotional literature for years on my videos and my gear. I've called them on the phone. I've written letters. Back in the 80s I even took out one-inch high classified ads advertising my videos (to the tune of $400 per inch). But you won't see LWgear mentioned in any articles on lightweight gear now. So I say, long live the folks who are operating out of their homes and garages. We won't get rich but we'll be giving the people what they need.

EJ: In your company's website, you state that that one of your motivations behind the making of your "Lightweight Backpacking Secrets Revealed" video came from what you called dishonest practices in the retail trade. Do you believe these practices also exist within the specialized lightweight equipment trade?

LW: Hard to say. I don't really follow the lightweight industry all that much. I don't participate in on-line chat rooms. I don't even subscribe to Backpacker. I might check a copy out at the library once in a while just to see what's going on.

EJ: What project(s) are you working on currently?

LW: I'm toying with the idea of writing a booklet on lightweight backpacking. I say bookLET because it seems incongruous that a book on simplifying one's pack should require many hundreds of pages.

EJ: Lastly, what one or more item do you take hiking that you consider a luxury (either lightweight or non-lightweight)?

LW: A radio. I need it for mental stimulation. I haven't found anything lighter than the Sony ICF series that weighs 8 ounces and offers AM, FM and shortwave. If anyone knows anything better, give me a holler at lwgear@juno.com.

Filmography/Videography

  • Lightweight Backpacking Secrets Revealed: Let the Revolution Begin
  • Five Million Steps: The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker's Story
  • 27 Days: A Senior Backpacking Adventure on Vermont's Long Trail
  • Amazing Grace! The Incredible Story of the Blind Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Bill Irwin
  • Doc on the 'Sock: A Physician Discovers the Loyalsock Trail
  • Free Food?! Vol. 1: A Guide to Edible Plants for Backpackers (and other people on the go)
  • How To Hike The Appalachian Trail
  • How To Hike The Pacific Crest Trail
  • How To Hike The Continental Divide Trail

For more information about Lynne Whelden and LWGear:

http://www.lwgear.com

Biography, Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen lives with his family in Kirkland, Washington where he enjoys the close proximity to the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Working in Seattle as an Urban Planner for King County, Washington, he is currently hiking the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Eric’s outdoor activities include nordic/biathlon and alpine skiing during the hiking off-season.


Citation

"On the Trail With Lynne Whelden (Interview)," by Eric Jensen. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00117.html, 2001-08-06 03:00:00-06.

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