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A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered

Lightweight Testimony: Tony Wong Finds, Loses, and Rediscovers a Lightweight Passion.

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by Tony Wong | 2009-01-06 00:00:00-07

I took my first backpacking trip right after I graduated from college. I was living in a student co-op in Berkeley, and a bunch of us decided to celebrate the end of the year by going up to Half Dome in Yosemite. Having never backpacked before, I borrowed whatever gear I could from friends and scrounged an assortment of food from the co-op.

At the trailhead to Vernal Falls, I carried a Coleman external frame pack, a white gas two-burner car camping stove, a gallon of fuel, a four-person tent, a gallon jug of water, some extra clothing, and a five-pound jar of peanut butter.

I was twenty-three years old, young, fit, and I was in pain.

The pack I wore was two sizes too large for me. As a result, the hipbelt did not fit, and the entire weight of the pack tugged down on my shoulders. Just walking to the trailhead was difficult under this tremendous load, and I struggled to catch my breath.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 1
Yosemite Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls from the Panoramic Trail south of Glacier Point.

I know we hiked up Vernal and Nevada falls, but I am not certain I ever saw them. Most of my memory from that part of the trip was of the mist from the water fall cooling my aching, sweat-drenched body as I stared at the endless number of granite steps I had yet to climb. In an attempt to shift the weight off my shoulders, I was bending so far forward that all I could see was ground. Any attempt to look up was rewarded with my head hitting the massive jar of peanut butter strapped on the top of my pack.

Mercifully, we made it to Little Yosemite Valley to set up our base camp and climbed Half Dome the next day with just daypacks.

The views atop Half Dome were breathtaking, with the tree-dotted expanses of granite everywhere I looked and the valley floor far below me. I was on top of the world, and I wanted more of it.

Educating a Mule

I bought my first book on backpacking, Karen Berger's Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking. It became my backpacking Bible, educating me on the myriad of choices I had to confront when buying gear. It also gave me insight into the skills I would need to learn and challenges I would face in the wild.

More books would follow, including Backpacker magazine's Everyday Wisdom: 1001 Expert Tips for Hikers and More Everyday Wisdom: Trail-Tested Advice from the Experts.

I was determined to learn how to select gear wisely and remedy the mistakes from my first backpacking experience. Yet somehow years went by without my taking another backpacking trip. I found my career, got married, bought a house, got a dog, and then started a family. It was not until my daughter turned two-and-a-half that I began to reflect on my unfulfilled desire to go backpacking. While I wanted my daughter, Mei-Ling, to be comfortable in the outdoors, in truth, I wasn't comfortable myself.

So, I dusted off my old books, re-familiarized myself with the essentials of backpacking gear and strode confidently into REI. It was July - the height of the camping season - and the ideal time to pay full price for all my backpacking needs.

After dropping a few thousand dollars, I walked out of REI with everything a family of three would need to take on the world and survive. The trunk of my car was crammed with an exhaustive array of outdoor preparedness apparatus, including repair kits for my stove and water filter and any other gear that could possibly succumb to disaster. I'd even found a portable nebulizer for my asthmatic daughter.

Being the Family Sherpa

For our first family backpacking trip, I decided to return to Yosemite and go to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. As I carefully loaded our backpacks, I took pride in knowing each item had been carefully considered and recommended by expert backpackers based on years of hard-earned trail experience. What I had not prepared for was carrying all of the gear for a family of three.

I was thirty-six years old, mature, relatively fit, had the best and lightest gear that money could buy, and I was in pain.

I weighed 135 pounds and, according to my backpacking book, I should have been carrying no more than a third of my body weight. Apparently, the 80 pounds I was hauling was closer to 59 percent of my body weight.

My wife had it even worse, struggling seven long miles with Mei-Ling on her back in an ill-fitting child carrier.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 2
"Backpacking is easy, Mommy!" Mei is riding in style in an early model Deuter Kangakid, which lacked any lumbar support padding. Notice the plastic bag full of used diapers.

Once we arrived at our campsite, the trip became quite enjoyable. With my aching, sweat-drenched body freed of the pack, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the park. Gazing out over the ridges of granite, hearing wind whistling through the pine trees and white water crashing down the river, I was reminded of the reasons I had wanted to do this again.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 3
Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is visited by less than 1% of park visitors, providing a unique opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the park without the crowds. Photo taken one mile northeast of Rancheria Falls campsite with Hetch Hetchy Reservior in the distance, which is the water source for San Francisco. Rancheria Falls campsite is about seven miles from the O'Shaughnessy Dam trailhead and is an easy trek with little elevation change.

But my aching feet and the crushing pain in my back on the trail told me I was still doing something wrong. What had I missed in all my books? They told me how much weight I should be carrying, but not how to lighten my pack. I realized I would have to experiment on my own.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 4
Yosemite Tenaya Creek is southeast of Tuolumne Meadows, off of Highway 120/Old Tioga Road near Olmsted Point, and flows from Tenaya Lake.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 5
My wife Pat and four-year-old daughter Mei-Ling, smiling before the mosquitoes ate us alive in Yosemite's Tenaya Creek during the month of June.

On other family trips to places like Tenaya Creek in Yosemite, I made progress on getting lighter.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 6
Down to "just" fifty-five pounds to Lake Vernon!

For a four-day trip to Lake Vernon, I pared my pack down to fifty-five pounds.

Finding a New Book

In October of 2006, my friend Bill and I decided to hike the Ohlone Trail - a twenty-mile overnighter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bill's friend, Jeremy, joined us. I carried only thirty-five pounds on this trip, my lightest yet. My 5300-cubic-inch Gregory Palisade pack alone accounted for seven of those pounds.

As the day progressed, Bill and I plodded along the trail and did our best to keep up with Jeremy. At the top of the steep hills, he patiently waited for us to catch up. Winded from our climb, we took time to catch our breath, while Jeremy cheerfully marched on ahead of us.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 7
Jeremy's Granite Gear Vapor Trail, taunting me while showing me the errors of my heavyweight ways.

To my shock and disbelief, Jeremy was only carrying a nineteen-pound pack! When we made camp that night, I was dumbfounded. Jeremy had a freestanding tent. He ate hot food and slept warm and comfortably that night. No suffering, no deprivation, no holes drilled into his spoon. How had he done this?

Days after the trip, I struggled to figure out how Jeremy had managed to carry a pack half the weight of mine without sacrificing on comfort in camp. I bombarded him with emails, grilling him about the gear he carried. Eventually Jeremy told me about the book Lightweight Backpacking & Camping. Then he remarked, "Now you know everything that I do."

I read this book over and over to glean its secrets. Thus began my maddening quest to further reduce the weight of my backpack.

Obsessing Over Gear

I downloaded a gear calculator program and weighed all of my clothing and gear on a postal scale down to the ounce.

I soon realized how changes in my gear choices could make pounds of difference. Switching from a white gas stove to a canister stove shaved off a pound. Exchanging my synthetic sleeping bag for a down one saved me a pound and a half. Trading my seven-pound, three-person tent for a tarptent saved me five-and-a-half pounds.

I embarked on hours of research, posted questions on the Backpacking Light forums, and experimented endlessly with an assortment of gear. I was in pursuit of the perfect kit. There were many trials and a number of errors along the way.

On a trip to Santa Cruz Mountains, I pitched my tarptent on top of an exposed ridge while a rain storm rolled in. As I huddled inside the shelter, howling winds ripped a stake out of the soggy ground. The tarptent collapsed on me, and more than an inch of muddy water rushed inside. Unable to get out of the tent for fear that the wind would blow it away, I cinched the top of my sleeping bag and curled up on my side, hoping for the best. I awoke the next morning looking like Han Solo encased in carbonite beneath the drenched collapsed tent. The exterior of my sleeping bag and sleeping pad were completely soaked. Thankfully, in my seam-sealed Marmot Helium EQ bag, I had somehow remained completely warm and dry through the night.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 8
Learning by screwing up. The consequences of failing to practice properly pitching my tarptent and poor site selection resulted in sleeping in a mud puddle under a collapsed tent.

Fortunately, there were more successes than errors.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 9
Below Yosemite's Red Peak Pass (11,075 feet) descending to Triple Peak Fork.

Jeremy and I took a number of trips together, each one giving us confidence to push harder, travel longer distances - and to go lighter and lighter. Our first major trip together was a fifty-mile, four-day loop in Yosemite from Glacier Point to Red Peak Pass. Though we traveled quickly and light, we suffered huge blisters on our heels and learned the importance of foot care and wearing the right shoes and socks.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 10
Starting out on the High Sierra Trail from Sequoia National Park from Crescent Meadow with Castle Rocks in the background sporting a Gregory Z55 pack, amazingly comfortable at 3 lbs, 3 oz.

Two months later, we set out to conquer the seventy-mile High Sierra Trail from Sequoia National Park to the top of Mt. Whitney. I carried thirty-six pounds. The trip we had planned to complete in seven days took only four days. We were thrilled with the knowledge we could comfortably do fifteen miles per day, which hinted at the possibility of even longer trips.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 11
A slice of Heaven with the perfect swimming hole. Fraser Lakes, 9201 feet above Emigrant Lake in the Stanislaus National Forest, which lies on northern border of Yosemite.

This year Jeremy and I made the leap of faith into the world of poncho tarps, bivy bags, and frameless packs. I carried twenty-six pounds into the Emigrant Wilderness on a four-day, forty-mile trip. We experienced the full range of Mother Nature's moods, including hail and rain. There were injuries, pain, and perseverance. There were places of beauty that took my breath away and put a silly grin of pure happiness upon my face.

I recently took my first solo backpacking trip at Big Basin in the California Redwoods State Park. The trip put all the things I had read and learned into a test of endurance. For two days and one night, I carried seventeen pounds and travelled fifty-nine miles.

Explaining My Sickness

On a snow-camping trip with the Sierra Club this past February in Yosemite, other hikers struggled under the weight of fifty-pound packs. I carried thirty-six pounds and remained comfortable and warm. During the trip, a puzzled instructor asked why in the world would I want to hike fifteen to twenty miles in a day? In essence, why go light?

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 12
Yosemite's Dewy Point (7385 feet) provides a stunning view that overlooks Yosemite Valley and is located about four miles north of Badger Pass Ski area. Taken during the Sierra Club's snow camping class. There is something wrong when you are marched in the middle of nowhere, are made to dig your own grave in the snow, toss a tarp over the top of it, and then are told to sleep in it for two nights.

I explained to the instructor that going light has not been about deprivation and suffering. Going light has enabled me to be more engaged in my outdoor pursuits. It has demanded the best of me physically and has challenged me to thoughtfully consider what I need to carry, where I will go - and how to get there safely.

It is not about the number of miles I travel. It is about the spectacular things I witness in nature, sights that humble me with their raw power and beauty. It's about time on the trail with friends and family, learning about each other and ourselves - and sharing experiences that inspire new journeys to be taken in the future.

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 13
Sharing the adventure: Jeremy & Tony at Deer Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered - 14
Tony, Pat, and five-year-old Mei-Ling backpacking together at Point Reyes, California. North of San Francisco. Despite going light, see how nothing changes: Mei is still bumming a free ride.

I no longer view mysterious, distant places as only within the reach of a few extreme adventurers I read about in magazines, but as something that we can all aspire to reach. I am thirty-nine years old, wiser, still fit, and no longer in pain.


"A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered," by Tony Wong. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-01-06 00:00:00-07.


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A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/06/2009 19:55:16 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered

Casey Bowden
(clbowden) - MLife

Locale: Berkeley Hills
A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/06/2009 21:01:08 MST Print View


That was a fantastic article. I look forward to meeting you in Point Reyes later this month. By the way, what co-op where you at and when? I was at Cloyne from 96 to 97 and it's where I met my wife.


Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
A Passion Found, Lost and Rediscovered on 01/06/2009 22:01:53 MST Print View

Awesome Tony! "High Five" Hope to see Ya at Pt. Reyes-
What about breakfast at Hub Caps in Walnut Creek on 1/24 then maybe carpool to the trailhead? Just a thought.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Great! on 01/06/2009 22:46:24 MST Print View

Love to hear the transformation stories! I too am looking forward to seeing you at Point Reyes,18 days.

twig .
(bretthartwig) - MLife

Locale: Australia
A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 05:47:19 MST Print View

Great stuff! Brought back many memories of a pack so heavy I used to prop it up against a tree so i could wrestle it onto my back!
Keep up the great trip reports,

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 07:55:23 MST Print View

Great story, mine is very similar. I think the first time I went out I carried 2-3 fleece tops b/c I could not decide which to take!!! Luckily I have been cured of my demon's from that trip.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 08:13:15 MST Print View


Edited by FamilyGuy on 02/24/2015 12:51:56 MST.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Passion on 01/07/2009 08:47:46 MST Print View

Very nice. Glad I didn't send my story in now. Maybe if I got Tony to ghost write it for me.............

Jeremy Pendrey
(Pendrey) - MLife

Locale: California
Great article on 01/07/2009 08:47:54 MST Print View

Tony: Great article, and not just because you mention me in the article. :) It is very well written too! As you know, I've been going through the same lightweight transformation and it's been fun having you to bounce ideas off as we get lighter and lighter. I look forward to many more longer and lighter trips.

Ps. Oh yeah, and Jay, I'm up for a carpool and Hubcaps for breakfast for the 24th. I'm sure Tony will be up for it too.

Edited by Pendrey on 01/07/2009 08:50:08 MST.

WV Hiker

Locale: West Virginia
Most insightful moment on 01/07/2009 09:20:49 MST Print View

The best lines in this article were:

"It is not about the number of miles I travel. It is about the spectacular things I witness in nature, sights that humble me with their raw power and beauty. It's about time on the trail with friends and family, learning about each other and ourselves - and sharing experiences that inspire new journeys to be taken in the future."

That says it all.

Edited by vdeal on 01/07/2009 09:21:26 MST.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: Most insightful moment on 01/07/2009 09:46:06 MST Print View

Very nice article Tony. I really enjoyed reading this! I think most of us can sympathise with the beginning portion of your tale. Nicely done!!

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 09:47:55 MST Print View

How fortunate we are to know someone with such a balanced point of view and the word skills to express it well.

Thanks, Tony. This article will join Doug Prosser's when I strive to sell UL to our 2010 Philmont crews.

Erik Graf
(VanGo) - F

Locale: Southeast
Bravo! on 01/07/2009 11:09:03 MST Print View


Great article and photos. Beautiful family - you have a lot to be thankful for. Thanks for sharing your story - similar to mine!

Erik "thanks for the Sawyer Filter tips" Graf

William Webber
(micwebbpl) - F
Stay Safe, Too on 01/07/2009 11:30:42 MST Print View

It sounds like you have ventured well-beyond "recreational hiking/camping." It's good to also plan for worst-case scenarios, too - as a parent I now think in terms of hiking buddies & beacons, early unexpected snows and unexpected cold rains, well-traveled trails and not so well-traveled trails, points where I walk more carefully because a fall could be more serious.

Not something to dominate your thinking, but it should always be part of your planning. We all take survival SO much for granted.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 14:26:25 MST Print View

Well done Tony, well done. Your sparkling wit and humility are very much in evidence here. Loved the Han Solo reference. And your daughter: darn cute!

I look forward to many more trip accounts.



George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 15:20:03 MST Print View

Beautiful story spoken from the heart!

I too embrace "Learning by screwing up." LOL

Thanks for sharing your info and pics. Beautiful family.

Patricia Combee
(Trailfrog) - F

Locale: Northeast/Southeast your call
Wonderful writing! on 01/07/2009 18:12:48 MST Print View

Thanks for sharing your journey! It made me laugh and remember my "good old days" of the heavy. Awesome pictures. You have a great family and friends.

Dondo .

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 19:08:46 MST Print View

Great writing and photographs, Tony. I especially liked the pictures of you and your family. It reminds me of my sherpadaddy days.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 19:22:47 MST Print View

Great story & photos. I think your first pack weight definitely beat mine (not in a good way). I gotta give you credit for making it to Little Yosemite with that much on your back. That last stretch up the switchbacks at Nevada Falls had to be a real killer!

I can't wait to read the other essays. I hope this is a regular offering.


Linda Vassallo

Locale: Eastbay
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/07/2009 21:03:45 MST Print View


Thank you for writing your wonderful, insightful article. You have put into words what I'm sure so many of us have experienced in our own struggles on the way to UL backpacking. You have captured, so eloquently, the reasons why we hike.

I'm ever thankful that you shared your obsession and UL "sickness" with Dave and I, showing us the way to lighter packs. One sickness I want no cure for and an obsession I am already passing on to others.

Looking forward to future hiking adventures.


Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/08/2009 09:04:59 MST Print View

Really well-written, insightful, thoughtful and balanced. Thanks! You summarized a lot of my journey, too. I have to say, it feels kind of weird to me to read my age on screen-- thirty-three? Really? Isn't that kind of... old? I'm just saying, mentally I still think of myself as mid-twenties. I suspect that's true for people of all ages here. Anyway, looking forward to more.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Ages on 01/08/2009 09:59:39 MST Print View

>"I'm just saying, mentally I still think of myself as mid-twenties. I suspect that's true for people of all ages here."

My wife accuses me of thinking in dog years, since I have a habit of refering to incidents from 15 years ago as a couple of years.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/12/2009 10:00:56 MST Print View

WOW! That really was great. I truly enjoyed reading every word. Your story is much like my own...heavy beginnings!!!

Good work!!!

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: A Passion Found, Lost, and Rediscovered on 01/13/2009 22:09:50 MST Print View


Congratulations! Excellent write up! Conjures up those early days for a lot of us! :)

Linda Vassallo

Locale: Eastbay
Tony in his new BPL Hoodie on 01/19/2009 13:43:09 MST Print View

Tony in his new BPL Hoodie

Hiking with Tony at Las Trampas.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Backpacking Gear Calculator on 09/06/2009 23:20:43 MDT Print View

Originally, when I wrote this article, I had intended to include a link within it that lead to the website where I found the excellent gear calculator that I used to list all of my gear and to see what impact changes in my gear made to my overall pack weight.

The link never made it into the posted essay that you see here, but I wanted to list it here, in case anyone wanted to have one to use for themselves.

Here it is and good luck on your own light weight journey: