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Lightweight Testimony: My Journey into Lightweight Backpacking

The true story of how Jamie survived in the woods with his paper coat.

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by Jamie Shortt | 2009-02-03 00:00:00-07

I guess you could say I needed something. I wasn't sure what that was, but I knew I was struggling without it. Over the previous seven years I had lost my childhood home to fire, lost my mother and brother to heart attacks, and lost my father to leukemia. I had been transferred twice for my job in less than two years. My wife and kids were exhausted with the transfers. The new job was turning out to be something different than what I had expected, and it was not working out. Simply put, things were bad.

While I was reading everything I could to make changes with my work, I came across an interesting exercise: "Write down the things you want to achieve in your life; don't let perceived possibility influence what is written." I did, and one of them struck me. Until that moment, I had forgotten my childhood dream, but there it was: "Hike the Appalachian Trail." I was soon turning forty and, with a wife and two kids, the thought of ever completing the Appalachian Trail seemed like an absurdity.

When I was a child, my family often went camping, and I had taught myself to backpack as a teen. I had even completed a few overnighters as an adult, but nothing in many years. My gear was sitting in the attic showing years of non-use. It was good gear, but traditional, and weighed 27 pounds.

Jamie's Traditional Gear List
(3 Season, 20+ F)
Base Weight Items: Weight (oz)
Packing: 95.0
North Face Moraine Internal Frame Pack 88.0
Sleeping Bag Stuff Sack 3.0
Clothing Stuff Sack 3.0
Misc Items Stuff Sack 1.0
Shelter/Sleeping: 162.0
North Face Cat's Meow Synthetic Sleeping Bag 60.0
Ridgerest Pad 14.0
Sierra Designs Starlight Tent (2-person) 88.0
Cooking: 45.8
Platypus Water Bottle 1.3
Iodine Tabs 3.0
Nalgene 32 oz bottle 6.0
Sigg Fuel Bottle 4.0
MSR Whisperlite Gas Stove 13.0
Food Sack 1.0
Aluminum Pot & Lid, Strap & Clamp 11.0
Plastic Cup 2.5
Camp Soap & Plastic Scrubber 2.0
Lighter 1.0
Plastic Spoon 1.0
Extra Clothes: 68.0
Generic Gore-Tex Parka 24.0
Generic Gore-Tex Pants 18.0
Fleece Jacket 16.0
Wool Gloves 3.0
Wool Cap 3.0
Wool Socks 4.0
Miscellaneous: 44.5
Compass & Map 5.5
Paper, Pencil, ID, Money in Plastic Case 3.0
Mini Mag Light 4.0
Bug Dope 3.0
Personal Items (TP, Toothpaste, Toothbrush, Mirror, etc) 5.0
Parachute Cord 3.0
Leatherman Pocket Tool 10.0
Repair Kit (Needles, Thread, Buttons, Duct Tape, Wire, Safety Pins) 4.0
First Aid & Repair (Ace Bandage, BandAids, Tape, Moleskin, etc) 7.0
Extras: 20.0
Camera 8.0
Small Radio 4.0
Extra Batteries 2.0
Book 6.0
Total Base Weight (oz) 435.3
Total Base Weight (lbs) 27.2

It wasn't my intentional to do anything about the AT idea. For some reason, though, things ended up happening. I researched online and found blogs, which I read intently. I started to make a list of what people were carrying and discovered that some were using techniques to lighten the load. I created a list of what a lighter weight hiker would carry. Thru-hikers were carrying 3-pound packs, 2-pound sleeping bags, and lightweight tents. I was thinking I could drop 10 pounds from my old setup without any sacrifice. For what though? What would I do with a new set of gear? My job was getting worse and life seemed like it was closing in on me.

I found myself in a local REI, browsing. Then I saw it, a Gregory G-Pack. One of the packs 'those' guys were using. It was light - under 3 pounds with all the features. I met Ross, a cool REI-guy who told me about his thru-hike of the AT. There I was, actually talking to one of 'those' guys. He explained that the G-Pack was solid and would do me well. I could tell my wife was wondering what on earth was I doing buying a backpack and, truthfully, I didn't know myself. I just knew I needed it. So there I was, no trip planned and a bunch of old dusty gear that was too heavy. But I had a new, lightweight pack! It felt good.

To take my mind off work, I began intently researching gear. I needed a tent and sleeping bag. I bought a Marmot Hydrogen bag and MSR Hubba tent. Both were much lighter than the items they replaced. Every few days a package would arrive with something new for my kit. Before I knew it, I had everything I needed for a trip, and it all weighed less than 15 pounds!

Jamie's Lightweight Gear List
(SNP I 9/29/2007, 2.5 Days, 40 F to 75 F)
Base Weight Items: Weight (oz)
Pack: 46.5
Gregory G-Pack 44.0
Stuff Sack for Sleeping Bag 1.8
Stuff Sack for Clothes 0.8
Shelter/Sleeping: 89.5
Marmot Helium 30 23.5
Ridgerest Pad 9.0
Hubba Poles, Stakes, Bags, Tent, Fly, & Footprint 57.0
Cooking: 22.3
Platypus Water Bottle 1.3
Aqua Mira 2.8
Gatoraid Water Bottle 1.5
Fuel Bottle 0.5
Vargo Triad Stove 1.0
Food Sack 1.0
Aluminum Pot, Lid & Clamp 9.5
Plastic Cup 2.5
Camp Soap 0.8
Plastic Scrubber 0.1
Mini Bic Lighter 0.5
Foil Windscreen 0.4
Plastic Spoon 0.5
Extra Clothes: 38.3
Marmot Precip Jacket 12.3
Marmot Precip Pants 9.0
Fleece Shirt 14.8
Extra Socks - Merino Wool 2.3
Miscellaneous: 19.5
Compass 2.5
Map 1.0
Paper, Pencil, ID, Money 1.5
Princeton Tec Headlamp 3.0
Bug Dope 1.5
Personal Items (Contact Case, RX Pills, Contact Solution, Toothbrush, Toothpaste, TP) 3.0
Parachute Cord 1.3
Swiss Army Knife Classic 0.8
First Aid & Repair (Ace Bandage, BandAids, Tape, Moleskin, Matches, Antibiotic Ointment,
Ibuprofen, Antihistamine, Antacid, Decongestant, Wire, Needle, Thread, Duct Tape, Button)
5.0
Extras: 16.8
Camera (Empty) 5.5
Batteries 1.8
Book 6.3
Cell Phone 3.3
Total Weight (oz) 232.8
Total Weight (lbs) 14.5

With work continuing to deteriorate, I had to get away to consider my future. I settled on some trails in the Shenandoah National Park that were familiar as a teenager, but that I'd not been on in over twenty years. I was going in solo with a much older body, looking to hike three days, covering over 30 miles, with all new gear. I remember stepping from my truck and walking to the Ranger at the gate to get my permit. It was late September, and the morning air felt cold. I was nervous. In my synthetic T-shirt and hiking pants, I began to shake.

Worn/Carried Items: Weight (oz)
Columbia Titanium Short Sleeve T-Shirt 5.7
Columbia Convertible Pants 13.3
Poly Boxer/Brief 2.8
REI Merino Wool Ankle Socks 2.3
Bandanna 1.1
Watch 0.9
Columbia Boonie Hat 2.8
Komperdell Carbon Hiking Staff 10.4
Merrell Hiking Shoes 37.7
Total Weight (oz) 76.7
Total Weight (lbs) 4.8

I hit the trails and, within the first mile of climbing up, I was winded. Then I ran out of water. A bit scared, I covered a frantic distance, reaching a small stream by night fall. On the whole, the trip was amazing. I spent time swimming in the Moorman River, hiked until dark and nearly fell off a waterfall (lesson learned), and had a strange huge animal visit my camp after I cooked dinner (a bear?). I was excited and terrified during the trip, but in the end I felt the most alive I had in years.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 1
Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park.

I purchased a copy of Lightweight Backpacking & Camping, and I began to look at gear differently after reading it. I wanted less weight, but my gear still included a framed pack and tent. I questioned each item and researched options. It was time for a second trip, to a place I had always wanted to visit: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Much planning went into creating a 45-mile loop for four days in November, again alone.

My gear was similar to my first trip, though 2 pounds lighter. I dropped the Hubba footprint and replaced items like my cookware with a titanium pot and my fleece shirt with a Mont-Bell UL down inner (which my family dubbed my "paper coat"). My gear was now just over 12 pounds.  My attitude was slightly lighter as well, as there was the prospect of a new position at work.

I headed out, hopeful, the Sunday before Thanksgiving on a snow-covered trail north of Clingman's Dome, but wondered if I had enough gear. My trip took me through mountains, streams, and valleys. The night temperatures were in the thirties, and I slept warmly. My gear worked flawlessly, and I was gaining confidence.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 2
Fork Ridge Trail, Smokies.

I considered going from lightweight (less than 20 pounds) to ultralightweight (less than 10 pounds). I had already trimmed everything I could trim, so something else had to change. I studied Lightweight Backpacking and Camping like it was the Bible. I became a member of BackpackingLight.com and scoured the forums.

The only option was forgo the tent for a tarp and bivy, but I admit I was afraid of sleeping out in the open alone in the woods. If I was to go ultralight, I had face it, so I purchased an Integral Designs 5 x 8 foot silnylon tarp and Mont-Bell Dry-Tech bivy. I stuffed my gear into my first frameless pack, a Granite Gear Virga. It all weighed 8.5 pounds, well under my goal of 10 pounds!

Jamie's Ultralight Gear List
(SNP II 1/11/2008, 2.5 Days, 22 F to 55 F)
Base Weight Items: Weight (oz)
Pack: 23.0
Granite Gear Virga 21.0
Granite Gear Medium Stuff Sack for Clothes 0.7
Granite Gear Large Stuff Sack for Sleeping Bag 0.8
REI Stuff Sack for Shelter Items 0.6
Shelter/Sleeping: 54.6
Marmot Hydrogen 30 Degree Sleeping Bag 23.4
Mont-Bell 90 Self-Inflatable Sleeping Pad 9.9
GG 3/8" ThinLight Sleeping Pad - 3/4 Length (Trimmed) 4.9
Integral Designs 5 x 8 SilTarp 6.8
Mont-Bell Breeze Dry-Tec Bivy 6.3
8 Ti Stakes + 33' Spectraline 3.4
Cooking: 13.5
Platypus 2.5L Water Bottle 1.3
ClO2 Purification Tabs (20) 0.5
Platypus 1L bottle 0.9
Trip Tease Cord 35' + REI Stuff Sack for Food 1.9
8 oz Fuel Bottle 0.6
Titanium Pot .9L 4.9
Vargo Triad Stove 0.9
Plastic Measuring Cup 0.8
Camp Soap - Microdropper 0.5
Plastic Scrubber 0.2
Mini Bic Lighter 0.4
Foil Windscreen 0.4
Titanium Spork 0.6
Extra Clothes: 33.1
Marmot Precip Jacket 12.4
Marmot Precip Pants 8.8
Mont-Bell UL Down Jacket 6.9
REI Oslo Gloves (90/10 Poly/Wool) 1.4
Fleece Cap 1.4
REI Merino Wool Light Hiker Socks - Low 2.2
Miscellaneous: 12.4
Mesh Bag 0.4
Keychain Thermometer/Compass 0.3
Cell Phone (Typically Useless) 3.3
Black Diamond Ion Head Light 1.0
Swiss Army Knife Classic 0.8
Personal Items (Contact Case, RX Pills, Contact Solution, Toothbrush, Baking Soda) 2.9
First Aid & Repair (Pen & Paper, Deet, Gauze Pads, Medical Tape, Moleskin,
Ibuprofen, Decongestant, Antihistamine, Antibiotic Ointment, Extra Contacts,
Repair Kit in Film Can: Duct Tape, Needle, Thread, Matches, Extra Battery)
3.8
Total Base Weight (oz) 136.6
Total Base Weight (lbs) 8.5

It was now January, and the temperatures were low. I had a job interview in Richmond, Virginia which took me again close to the Shenandoah Mountains, so I planned a trip to follow. I would go back to White Oak Canyon, where I first started backpacking as a teen. But this time I would start the loop further away down the AT and add a side trip to the summit of Old Rag Mountain, something I was never able to do on any of my previous three trips to the area as a youngster because of the distance and load. I covered 35 miles over the 3-day trip. The temps dropped down into the low twenties. I slept under a tarp, my fears were gone, and I was now officially an ultralightweight backpacker.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 3
Summit of Old Rag Mountain.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 4
Surviving a sub-freezing night alone in the woods under a tarp.

I got the job and things were really turning around! Because I was busy learning the new role, my next trip was not until the following Memorial Day, and I was determined to get into the super ultra light weight category (< 5 pounds) by that time. I changed to a poncho tarp, wind shirt, and sub-one-pound quilt. My pack was the GoLite Ion at a scant 9 ounces. I went to the smallest Ti mug I could find and changed to a Gram Weenie stove. The final tally was 4.95 pounds; I was just under the SUL cutoff!

Jamie's Super Ultralight Gear List
(Pisgah Trip, 5/26/08, 2.5 days, 38 F to 75 F)
Base Weight Items: Weight (oz)
Pack: 9.1
GoLite Ion 9.1
Shelter/Sleeping: 37.7
Mont-Bell Thermal Sheet 14.3
GG 3/8 ThinLight Sleeping Pad - 3/4 Length (Trimmed) 3.5
GoLite Poncho Tarp 10.8
Mont-Bell Breeze Dry Tec Bivy 6.3
8 Ti Stakes 2.3
Spectraline (24 ft) 0.7
Cooking: 9.6
Platypus 2.5L Water Bottle 1.3
ClO2 Purification Tabs (20) 0.5
Platypus 1L bottle 0.9
Trip Tease Cord 35' + REI Stuff Sack for Food 1.9
4 oz Fuel Bottle 0.6
3 oz Everclear Bottle 0.4
Snowpeak Trek 450 2.4
Gram Weenie Stove + Pan 0.5
Camp Soap - Microdropper 0.3
Mini Bic Lighter 0.4
Foil Windscreen & Foil Lid 0.3
GSI Collapsible Spoon 0.3
Extra Clothes: 12.0
GoLite Wisp Windshirt 2.9
Mont-Bell UL Down Jacket 6.9
REI Merino Wool Light Hiker Socks - Low 2.2
Miscellaneous: 10.9
Keychain Thermometer/Compass 0.3
Cell Phone 3.3
Book - The 2 oz Backpacker 2.4
Microlight 0.3
Saline - Microbottle 0.4
Sunscreen - Microbottle 0.5
Deet - Microbottle 0.6
Pen w/Duct Tape & Needle 0.3
DentaBurst Brushes x 4 0.1
Floss 0.2
Contact Case 0.5
Pills (4 Immodium, 4 Benadryl, 8 Sudafed, 16 Ibuprofen) 0.4
Extra Contacts 0.5
Gauze Pads 0.1
Matchbook 0.2
Swiss Army Knife Classic 0.8
Ziploc Bag 0.3
Total Base Weight (oz) 79.3
Total Base Weight (lbs) 5.0

I hit the Pisgah National Forest. The weather turned rather cold for late May in NC. One night, temperatures dipped into the upper thirties. My Mont-Bell thermal sheet and UL down jacket held off the cold, but I wished I had not left my fleece cap behind. Regardless, I had traveled my first twenty-plus mile day and was astonished to cover 50 miles in two-and-a-half days.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 5
The pose in the Pisgah.

The new job was great, and a business trip took me to Eugene, Oregon. This was too close to Three Sisters Wilderness Area to pass up. Gear modifications were called for, as snow and cold temps were strong possibilities in late September. I also decided try one more thing: a zipper-less quilt. I went with a GoLite Ultra 20 quilt and put it in a Jam2 pack. Wanting lighter rain gear, I also bought a GoLite Virga jacket and Reed pants. My gear list for the trip was 6.5 pounds.

I covered 77 remarkable miles, completing the loop around the Three Sisters in three-and-a-half days. Day three was a true record-breaker for me at 27 miles. Life was now good!

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 6
Green Lakes in Three Sisters Wilderness Area, Oregon.

I don't think a journey into enlightenment can be complete until you pass it on. In sharing my many stories with anyone who would listen, I finally found someone interested in going with me on an ultralight trip. Scott was the father of one of my children's friends. He was the determined type of individual that might just be up to a challenging trip. We considered our options and wanted to hike to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies.

Having worked my way through so many pieces of gear, I now had nearly two full lightweight sets. I put together a spreadsheet of what I could supply, mapped out the trip, purchased consumables, and off we went. My pack weighed approximately 6.5 pounds, and Scott's was 7.5 pounds.

Scott's UL Gear List - 1.5 Days
(Mount Mitchell, NC - Nov 2008, 20 F to 55 F)
Base Weight Items: Weight (oz)
Pack: 22.3
Granite Gear Virga Frameless Pack 20.6
REI Medium Tuff Lite Stuff Sack 1.0
Granite Gear Air Bag Stuff Sack #5 0.8
Shelter/Sleeping: 52.2
Marmot Hydrogen 30 Degree Sleeping Bag 23.4
Ridgerest Sleeping Pad - 48 inch Trimmed 8.0
GoLite Poncho Tarp 10.8
Mont-Bell Breeze Dry Tec Bivy or Ground Sheet 6.3
8 Ti Stakes 2.4
Paracord (24 ft) 1.5
Cooking: 8.5
Platypus 2.5L Water Bottle 1.3
Platypus 1L bottle 0.9
ClO2 Purification Tabs (8) or Aqua Mira 0.5
REI X-Small Tuff Lite Stuff Sack 0.6
4 oz Fuel Bottle 0.6
Brasslight 550 Ti Mug 3.2
V8 Can Stove 0.3
Camp Soap - Microdropper 0.3
Mini Bic Lighter 0.4
Foil Windscreen 0.2
GSI Collapsible Spoon 0.3
Extra Clothes: 27.0
Wind Jacket 5.0
Fleece Jacket 16.0
Fleece Gloves 2.0
Fleece Cap 2.0
Extra Socks 2.0
Miscellaneous: 8.8
Cell Phone or BlackBerry 5.0
Mini LED Light 0.3
Toothbrush 0.5
Floss 0.2
BandAids/Gaze Pads/Blister Care 1.0
Meds (4 Immodium, 4 Benadryl, 8 Sudafed, 16 Ibuprofen) 0.5
Small Knife 1.0
Ziploc Bag 0.3
Total Base Weight (oz) 118.8
Total Base Weight (lbs) 7.4

The trip was a huge success. We hiked 15 miles and gained over 5000 feet in elevation the first day, despite not hitting the trail until 11:00 a.m. The daily temperatures dropped to below freezing as we prepared to camp. We set up our poncho tarps, heated our freeze-dried dinners, and warmed ourselves by a small fire before going to bed shortly after 8:00 p.m. to fend off the cold. Scott was in my Marmot Hydrogen (30 F bag) and me in my GoLite Ultra 20 Quilt. My new gear included a MLD Ultralight Bivy and an Integral Designs Silponcho.

The night was windy, and we woke to a cold 20 F morning, but we were fine. We hiked out and on our way stopped to talk to some people going up. They asked where we camped and questioned how that was possible since our packs were so small. My companion excitedly handed his pack over so they could feel the light weight. He began explaining how it worked and how he too was an ultralightweight backpacker. We completed the 27-mile trip in 28 hours.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 7
Author using new poncho tarp and bivy with quilt.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 8
Scott's first time in a tarp and bivy. Not sure how his tarp survived the winds pitched like that, but it did.

What started as an absolute low in my life has turned out to be a high. I don't know if I will ever thru-hike the AT, but I don't think it matters, now that my lightweight journey has reached a pinnacle. As my kids put it, "Dad has learned to survive in the woods with his paper coat."

I do want to thank my wife and kids for their support during this much needed journey and thank the online community at BackpackingLight.com for the wealth of knowledge to make it possible.

Lightweight Testimony: Journey into Lightweight Backpacking - 9
Author and friend at the new lookout tower on the summit of Mount Mitchell, North Carolina.


Citation

"Lightweight Testimony: My Journey into Lightweight Backpacking," by Jamie Shortt. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/lw_testimony_shortt_journey.html, 2009-02-03 00:00:00-07.

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Lightweight Testimony: My Journey into Lightweight Backpacking
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Jesse Taylor
(ahikernamedgq) - F
"Double Inspirational" on 02/24/2009 21:30:50 MST Print View

Thanks for sharing the candid story of your career struggles and your "ultralight birth." Inspirational.

That picture of you with the Golite Ion floored me. All of your gear was store bought, not modified or special made. That's really amazing.

Your article is double inspirational!

Dug Shelby
(Pittsburgh) - F

Locale: Bay Area
Excellent! on 12/07/2010 01:34:53 MST Print View

Jamie, fantastic stuff! Just came across this article you wrote, well done. Loved the inspiration and the transformation you took us through. Hope all is going well, and I do hope you get to do the AT sometime soon.

My best friend lives near Lake Wylie, SC, and we went camping at a great spot for a couple nights this last summer. Whereabouts are you in NC?

Hope all is well,

Dug
http://thf2.wordpress.com

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: Excellent! on 12/29/2010 17:08:46 MST Print View

Jamie,

I read your article a month or so ago and sent myself a link at home so I could learn from your gear lists and all your experiences that you talk about. I'm heading down the same street too. Just like Dug above, I really enjoyed the it immensly. -If you ever so feel inclined, I bet many here in the BPL community would really enjoy reading another article by yourself. Cheers and thanks for the inspiration.