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Hiking Lighter, Hiking Smarter

Experiences of a Montana news journalist taking the trail to backpacking enlightenment.


by Brett French, BILLINGS GAZETTE | 2005-07-21 03:00:00-06

Lightweight guru Ryan Jordan
helps hiker lessen load

Story and photos
By Brett French
Gazette Outdoor Writer

I felt exposed. With my motley collection of backpacking gear laid out for criticism, I was sure Ryan Jordan would laugh out loud. After all, the founder of is the guru of all things new and lightweight - a high-end gear aficionado.

But he took the discussion of my hand-me-down external frame pack and its jumbled contents very seriously. He carefully assessed the contents and pointed out how I could save weight and loaned me several items to test. The only time he showed emotion was when he came across my old blue Gerry down vest, circa 1973.

"That's cool," he said. "That's a relic. You could probably sell it for $200 on eBay."

Mentor needed

Conversion to a new belief system takes a mentor, someone who can point out the enlightenment in a new way of thinking. That's how I ended up talking to Jordan. Hoping to trim the weight off my traditional backpacking gear, I appealed to him for a critique and a piece-by-piece examination of my gear.

Many backpackers are probably in the same boat, I reasoned, loaded down with old, heavy gear and unsure about the best places to make an investment to substantially lighten their load.

"Our mission is to educate people how to use a lightweight product safely and comfortably," Jordan said. "Our philosophy is you can carry lightweight gear and you don't have to suffer."

He stressed, however, that "You can't send a neophyte into the wilderness with a one-pound tarp. You can do this, but you need some skills."

Paring it down

Shaving weight off my oddball collection of gear was relatively easy. Without food or water, my basic kit weighed in at 31 pounds, 4 ounces. With some modifications from Jordan, I was able to get my entire pack weight, with food, down to 26 pounds.

The food alone for the three-day outing I planned weighed in at 7 pounds. And since I had plenty left over when I reached the trailhead, I probably could shave my food weight down to around 4 pounds. My goal on my next outing is to carry 20 pounds or less.

But what's the best way to achieve such a weight loss? It's a question as difficult as dieting.

"Take less stuff," Jordan said simply. "It doesn't cost a dime."

My miscellaneous gear is a good case in point. It weighed in at 4 pounds, 12 ounces. Here's some of what I had planned to take along: mosquito headnet, fuel bottle, binoculars, Leatherman multitool, lighter, matches, first-aid kit, pen and paper, patch kit for Therma Rest, sun and bug lotion, trowel, bullion cubes, toothbrush, toothpaste, bear spray, garbage sack, whistle, compass, firestarter, flashlight, extra batteries, clothespin, clothesline, ear plugs, aluminum foil and toilet paper.

"Unless I'm fishing, I don't ever take a knife," Jordan said. Instead, he'll take along a small pair of scissors to cut tape for patching up blisters.

So my large Leatherman multitool was overkill, he said. For those people who have to have a knife, Jordan recommended the smaller Leatherman Micra or Swiss Army Classic.

Hot plate lightweight

"The stove is probably one of the biggest areas where you can invest a little money and save a lot of weight," he said.

Jordan set me up with a Vargo Titanium Jet-Ti Stove (2.7 oz.-$65). The stove requires an isobutane canister ($7), one of which will last about four days depending on how much you use it. The Jet-Ti has an output of 9,000 BTUs an hour and quickly heated enough water for a dehydrated meal and drink. Also, it was nice to not have to mess around with filling a stove with fuel, pumping and fiddling to get the flame just right. Unfortunately, the canisters are not refillable.

By comparison, my old white gas Coleman Peak One stove weighed in at 2 pounds, 8 ounces, not counting the extra fuel that might be required.

The big 3

The backpack, tent and sleeping bag are the big three places to save weight, but they are also the most expensive, Jordan noted.

"The sleeping bag is probably the most expensive," Jordan said. "Most people carry a lot of weight because the bags are synthetic or durable."

Jordan let me borrow a Nunatak Arc Alpinist bag. With a detached down hood, it weighed in at 1 pound, 9 ounces compared to my old Goose Bay Down bag with fleece liner that weighed 4 pounds, 7 ounces.

The Arc Alpinist has 800 fill down, meaning there are 800 cubic inches of down per ounce of fill. Unique to this bag's design is that it has no bottom. Instead, nylon webbing crosses from one side of the bag to the other. The idea is that when down is compressed, it loses its heating capability. So the down you're sleeping on doesn't do much good anyway, so why not remove it. The straps can be slid around your pad, which will provide insulation from the ground.

"I've taken it into the teens," Jordan said.

The bag was more than warm enough on cool summer nights. The stuff sack, made out of spinnaker sail material, weighed a half ounce. Stuffed, the bag measures about 7 by 11 inches.

"That's down's best quality, its ability to occupy small spaces," Jordan said.

Rated to 20 degrees, the Arc Alpinist's medium bag (5 foot, 10 inches) costs $260.

For a pad, I left my 2-pound, 6-ounce Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mattress at home. This was a difficult choice. I love my pad, especially since I sleep on my side a lot and lesser pads leave my hips hurting.

But in the interest of experimenting, I opted instead for a closed cell foam pad ($14) that weighed in at about 14 ounces. (One good thing about foam pads is that there's no risk of popping them.) It's nowhere near as comfortable as my Therm-A-Rest, but for a couple of nights, it was no big deal. In the future, however, I might look to shave weight elsewhere just to take it along.

Home on the mountainside

"One of the biggest things people are paranoid about is that they invest a lot of money in a tent," Jordan said. And because it's a big investment, they feel the need to take it along, even if the weather doesn't merit such protection from the elements.

For my trip, I planned on taking my Crazy Creek Crib LEX that comes with a tarp. The neat thing about this 4-pound hammock is that it can also be used as a bivy sack when no trees are around. Aluminum poles prop the crib's canopy up to avoid a claustrophobic feeling and it's covered with mosquito netting. The tarp provides protection from rain.

With an Integral Designs Siltarp 3 ($135, 8 x 10 feet), some hiking poles, guy lines and tent stakes, Jordan was able to drop that weight to about 1 pound.

I've got to admit, setting up the tarp in the front yard to try alternate layouts is much different than erecting the same shelter in the middle of a rainstorm. I was a bit frustrated with my first design, trying to get enough headroom to feel comfortable without letting the rain in. And I was too chicken to try it in the traditional pup-tent style, with a pole at each end, for fear of the rain getting in. Instead, I set it up in a lean-to style to shed water and wind. I stayed dry and, on this trip, mosquitoes were no problem. I also had a huge window for viewing the stars at night.

I've tarp-camped before with mixed results. One night I spent worrying about my bag getting wet. Another time mosquitoes buzzing in my ear kept waking me up. So I would recommend a mosquito head net and ear plugs for tarp campers.

Lighter packs

For a backpack, I've got a hand-me-down Alaskan Frame Pack from Cabelas that weighs 6 pounds, 6 ounces. This is a beefy, external frame setup that has lots of pockets and strap loops.

Jordan could have been describing me when he said, "So many people when they started out bought heavy, durable gear."

But if most of your trips are in the summer, such heavyweight items aren't necessary, Jordan said.

He recommended I keep my frame pack until I got my weight down. But I opted to shave 2 pounds by borrowing my son's internal frame backpack. Its smaller size also meant I had to shave some gear to ensure it all fit.

Jordan took me by ProLite Gear's shop in Bozeman to show me some of the lighter alternatives to my external frame pack. The Granite Gear Vapor Trail ($145) won Backpacker magazine's Editor's Choice award. It can carry 30 pounds and weighs just under 2 pounds.

GoLite's Infinity pack ($200) was another Jordan choice. It's a top seller, weighing 2 pounds, 7 ounces and accommodating 2550 cubic inches of gear. The Gregory Z ($180) was another recommendation. It weighs 3 pounds, and holds 3550 cubic inches of gear.

"What this really highlights is that there's a huge range of stuff that you can get into at a wide range of costs," Jordan said.

He noted that for about $300 to $550, anyone could significantly shave weight off their basic backpacking kit.

Lightweight backpacking is here to stay, Jordan noted. All of the larger outdoor gear manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon.

"We're riding a wave," he said. "That's something we've never seen before - the mass marketing of products directly at lightweight users."

Brett French can be reached at or at 657-1387.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.



"Hiking Lighter, Hiking Smarter," by Brett French, BILLINGS GAZETTE. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-07-21 03:00:00-06.