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Every Ounce Counts

We asked, you answered: Lightweight Testimony Contest Winner!

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by Luke Ludwig | 2010-04-20 00:05:00-06

The Beginning

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 1
Pre-lightweight, here I am carrying about thirty-five pounds on Isle Royale with my Granite Gear Stratus Access pack.

The summer of 1999, after my freshman year of college, I ventured on my first backpacking trip with two friends in the Canadian Rockies of Jasper National Park. I had yet to consider the very concept of weighing my pack, let alone each item within it. A rough guess as to our individual pack weights is somewhere in the range of forty to forty-five pounds, and this is after emptying eight liters of water out of the dromedary I had hanging from my backpack, which I carried for the first few uphill miles! Even though we had a water filter, I thought carrying water would be easier. Hah!

From perusing old photos, I can see that we were wearing cotton t-shirts and jeans! Three days later, basking in the after-trip glory at a local pub, we bragged to the cute young waitress about our trip on Jasper's thirty-kilometer Skyline trail. She smiled and listened to our story, and then slammed our egos by mentioning that she ran the same trail the previous Saturday for fun.

My next trip was rather miserable. It was closer to home in Minnesota on the Lake Superior Hiking trail with my brother Ben. We certainly weren't in good shape, and I'm guessing our packs weighed in the range of forty to forty-five pounds again. We assembled our gear from my dad's and cousin John's extensive collection of old camping stuff. Our cooking pot was actually one inch thick along the sides, which I'm sure weighed several pounds. Ironically a normal kitchen pot would have been much lighter, but we brought this one along since it was a "camping pot."

We considered ourselves lucky to have my dad's 1970s-era one-burner stove, which was roughly equivalent in size to four Mac Mini computers. That was "lucky" because our alternative was a two burner Coleman camp stove. I had recently purchased a brand new Granite Gear Stratus Access pack, which weighed seven pounds. We had my dad's external-frame elk hunting pack, also from the seventies. The external frame pack dug into our backs and was horribly uncomfortable, so we carried considerably more weight in the Granite Gear internal frame pack. And in the sense of fairness, we swapped packs back and forth throughout the day. It rained constantly the entire three days, and one mile from the end of the trip my left knee popped under the strain of the heavy load. For the next several years, pain in my knee reminded me of this trip anytime I went for a run.

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 2
My brother Ben hoping we chose the correct pass to climb one snowy September afternoon in the Wind River Range. Shouldn't that trail be here somewhere?

I continued backpacking despite this miserable experience. Pack weight lessened as I replaced the 1970s equipment with more standard backpacking gear, until I was down to a thirty- to thirty-five-pound pack. My wife Becca and I did a four-day, thirty-mile trip on Isle Royale in the summer of 2003. This was Becca's first backpacking trip, and she was carrying about twenty-five pounds, which was a decent amount for her smaller build. I wore a knee brace for my bad knee. On the second day Becca's feet were in considerable pain, and we realized that she has over-pronating arches. Her feet were in pain the remainder of the trip, and combining this with the typical rigors of backpacking produced a poor first backpacking experience for Becca. This was the point I realized something had to change if I was to continue backpacking.

The Transition

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 3
Cruising through an aspen stand along the Superior Hiking Trail, carrying seventeen pounds in my Six Moon Designs Starlite pack.

I first read about lightweight backpacking at BackpackingLight in the spring of 2003. I became a fan of Ryan Jordan and Alan Dixon's articles, in which they analyzed backpacking gear and techniques with a scientific flavor that immediately connected with my own science background and perfectionist nature. I was originally drawn to backpacking as a way to see and experience the outdoors, but now the hobby was taking on new dimensions. I got very excited about backpacking efficiently. The first step was to lighten my pack, which I did by weighing each item, considering its relative importance to my comfort and safety, and then deciding if I could leave the item behind, keep it, or replace it with something lighter. This simple act of considering each item's worth versus its weight is the meaning behind the title "Every Ounce Counts." I exchanged my four-ounce pocket knife for a 0.8-ounce Micro Swiss Army knife. I started using Aquamira in lieu of a water filter, which saved fourteen ounces. I stopped carrying sandals entirely. I bought a seventeen-ounce sleeping quilt from Bozeman Mountain Works, the twenty-two-ounce frameless Starlite pack from Six Moon Designs, and a two-pound Henry Shires Cloudburst Tarptent, which chopped a total of twelve and a half pounds off of the previous pack, sleeping bag, and tent I was carrying.

In May of 2005 I took off on my first lightweight trip. My base weight was eleven pounds, and my total pack weight was eighteen pounds. My destination was the Kekekabic Trail that bisects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a popular canoeing destination in northern Minnesota. I physically prepared during the two months prior to this trip with to four-mile trail runs three days a week, supplemented by conventional lower body weight lifting in the gym three days a week. The trail itself is only thirty-eight miles, and my plan was to hike it solo, down and back in four and a half days. Previously the furthest I had backpacked in a day was sixteen miles, and I would have to average seventeen to eighteen miles a day to finish on time. I couldn't be late, as I would be meeting my wife and two friends to immediately depart on a canoe trip.

I started late the first day, leaving the eastern trailhead at 2:00 pm. Four hours and nine miles later I came to a camp with four college-aged backpackers cooking supper. I could see the surprise on their faces when they realized I was alone. A conversation ensued, the likeness of which is becoming commonplace on trails between lightweight and traditional backpackers. As it was late and the sun would be setting in a few hours, they nicely offered space in their camp. One guy asked if I had started yesterday, and when I answered no, he commented that I must have started early in the morning since they had already been hiking for two days to cover the same nine-mile stretch. They were astonished when I told them I had started at 2:00 pm and would be continuing on another three miles to the next campsite before dark. They were planning on taking eight days to do the thirty-eight-mile trail, while I was hoping to go down and back, covering seventy-six miles in four and a half days.

I wasn't making the progress necessary to be back in time to start the canoe trip, so I turned around about ten miles short of the end of the trail. I was wearing my trusty pair of full leather L.L. Bean hiking boots lined with Gore-Tex. By the end of the third day, during which I went seventeen miles, my ankles were extremely stiff and inflexible, and I slowed to a pitiful rate. The boots restricted the natural movement of my ankles, causing them to gradually become sprained. After this trip, I switched to trail running shoes, and wow, what a difference this made! My ankle problems disappeared entirely and I could now go seventeen miles and more without any issues. Traditional backpacking wisdom says that you need a good pair of boots to protect your ankles, yet my own personal experience has indicated the exact opposite. I can hike farther, faster, and more safely with trail running shoes than with boots.

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 4
My camp one night during a May 2006 trip on the Border Route Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. I slept underneath this Oware Cat Tarp inside of my BMW bivy sack. There weren't many flat dry areas to sleep along this section of the trail. I shifted a pile of moose droppings a few feet to make room for myself!

I continued to refine both the gear I carried and my hiking technique over the next several trips. I switched to using an Oware silnylon catenary tarp and a Bozeman Mountain Works bivy sack. I got rid of my eleven-ounce fleece layer and bought an eight-ounce Bozeman Mountain Works Cocoon jacket. I swapped out my three-ounce headlamp for the half-ounce Photon Freedom Microlight. Every ounce counts, even when the item you are replacing only weighs three ounces. For most purposes, the Photon Freedom Microlight accomplishes the exact function as my three-ounce headlamp, so it just isn't worth it to me to carry the headlamp. A few other minor adjustments, and my base weight had dropped down to eight pounds, thirteen ounces. The full leather Gore-Tex boots were replaced by lightweight breathable trail running shoes. I adapted to hiking with wet feet, which was made bearable by applying Sportslick in the morning to protect my feet from excessive water absorption. I learned to make efficient use of my time to increase the distance traveled each day. I would hit the trail in the morning, in less than thirty minutes after waking up, and limit my breaks during the day to five minutes for snacks, to fill my water bottle, or to adjust my clothing. On a normal day, I would spend ten to twelve hours on the trail. Soon I was averaging twenty to twenty-five miles a day on my solo backpacking trips.

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 5
One night on the Pacific Crest Trail I really wanted to take off my wet shoes before retiring to my sleeping bag. As a lightweight backpacker, carrying a pair of sandals for use in camp is absurd, especially when you can make do with a plastic bag and a hat!

The Reality Check

I was certainly less comfortable at times, particularly due to wet feet or to sleeping under a tarp instead of in a tent and having to deal with mosquitoes and mice. Over the last few years, my base weight has actually increased to twelve pounds, indicating a change in my attitude. I am no longer striving towards the extreme of carrying as little as possible to survive safely while hiking as far as my legs will carry me. It was fun for awhile, but I have eased up lately in favor of increasing my comfort while on the trail and in camp. Now, for an extra fifteen ounces I elect to bring along a Squall 2 Tarp-Tent with sewn-in floor (34 oz) instead of a tarp and bivy sack. On most trips I bring along a pair of Gore-Tex socks (3.5 oz) to keep my feet dry. I sleep considerably better at night with my Ether Thermo Pacific Outdoor Equipment sleeping pad (17.5 oz) than with my closed cell foam Ridgerest pad (8.5 oz). Having dry feet and a comfortable night's rest in a shelter capable of keeping the bugs and mice at bay is worth more than the extra 27.5 ounces.

My longest trip was a 200-mile, ten-day solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in northern Washington during September of 2007. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but ten days is a long time to be alone, and I'm not sure I would want to do a longer hike by myself. While I don't have a monumental trip to look forward to, I am excited to get outside and explore places that I haven't been. I want to improve my orienteering skills and spend more time off-trail. To satisfy my photographic creativity, I occasionally enjoy bringing along my heavy Digital SLR Canon 400D camera as my one luxury item (36 oz with 18-250mm lens).

Testimony: Every Ounce Counts - 6
A beautiful morning above 11,000 feet following the coldest night I've experienced. More photos of my backpacking trips can be found here.

I was originally drawn to backpacking as a way to enjoy and experience the outdoors, which I was able to do at some level while carrying a heavy pack. After discovering the enjoyment of hiking with a light pack, backpacking has grown from a simple desire to get outside and see the mountains to something much more. It has given me a reason to exercise frequently, which has had a positive impact on my daily life. Lessening my pack weight and improving my backcountry skills with each trip has been an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Sure, I was able to get outside and see the mountains with a heavy pack, but with a light pack I can see three times as many mountains!


"Every Ounce Counts," by Luke Ludwig. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2010-04-20 00:05:00-06.


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Every Ounce Counts
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Every Ounce Counts on 04/20/2010 14:55:49 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Every Ounce Counts

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Every Ounce Counts on 04/20/2010 17:50:37 MDT Print View

Good story Luke

Agree that is it fun to go as minimum as you can and then, when you want, to add back a "luxury" or two. The experience of actually going as light as you can (whatever that weight is to each individual) is life changing IMO.

Lanny Myslicki
(Pyre80) - MLife

Locale: The Rockies
re on 04/20/2010 21:48:35 MDT Print View

Great story, Luke. My pack weight is dropping from 35ish pounds of 2 years ago to under 15 right now, and I'm planning on a Skyline trail hike this summer. I will show your story to my buddies that think that more is better, and give me a hard time for my 1 oz stove and 2 pound tent. If people realized that less weight means faster and/or farther and/or easier, instead of just doing without, maybe they would appreciate lightweight a little bit more.

Robert Cowman
(rcowman) - F

Locale: Canadian Rockies
traditional on 04/20/2010 22:32:12 MDT Print View

Once a customer at my store told me about their up coming skyline trip taking 4 days for 44km. I asked why so long and they said they were doing it fast. I then told them I was doing the North boundary in jasper (179KM) in 7 days, and they thought I was nuts and thought that it wasn't possible. then I gave them this website.

Ike Mouser
(isaac.mouser) - F
@ Luke i think we have the same style on 04/21/2010 05:23:12 MDT Print View

my approach is get everything as light as i can but not sacrifice comfort. That means repackaging everything, dehydrating, cutting straps, etc. Summer Full SO is about 20-23lbs (which is light in my book and including hammock setup, gps, extra socks), winter full so 27lbs. Again no problem to carry, lots of luxury. I could immediately cut a lb with a switch to a different pack from my aarn FF(aoubt 2.3lbs), but why? The Aarn ff is the most comfortable pack i've ever used, no need to. I still make huge miles with my current weight. There are some changes i would like to make though, replace spinn hammock tarp with cuben one, make a cuben hammock w/ bugnet instead of a sil hammock. This would probably cut me another lb, and would be amazing. Anyway enough rambling.

So Luke what do your weights look like now? I mean your full so weight, when your at the trailhead taking your first step, whats your pack weight? I don't care about what clothes your wearing, just your pack.

Edited by isaac.mouser on 04/21/2010 05:59:19 MDT.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Every Ounce Counts on 04/21/2010 05:51:09 MDT Print View

Great article. I have been doing the same thing. Did a few crazy light trips but now slowly the comfort items are creeping back in.

Lanny Myslicki
(Pyre80) - MLife

Locale: The Rockies
Re: traditional on 04/21/2010 06:54:06 MDT Print View

10km a day is fast? We've done 25km days and that's still not as quick as I'd like. My first trip with 35lbs to Mystery Lake by Jasper was 12km each way and I'm told I flew for my 4 hours in, 3.5 out. I said I was slowed by retying my shoes every other step. I will have to return with my new pack, see if I can be in and out between breakfast and lunch.

Luke Ludwig
(ludwigl) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota
Re: @ Luke i think we have the same style on 04/21/2010 07:54:31 MDT Print View

Isaac - I just got back from a 3 day trip in Itasca State Park and my pack weighed 14 pounds 3 oz, with a base weight of 9 pounds 5 ounces. If you count my camera (37 oz) which I carry slung over my shoulder, not in my pack, then my weight was closer to 16 pounds 8 oz.

Lucas Boyer
(jhawkwx) - MLife

Locale: 38.97˚N, 95.26˚W
re: on 04/21/2010 08:04:04 MDT Print View

Thanks for sharing your experience Luke. It's a bit embarrassing to admit how much stuff we carried in our packs before lightening up. You bring up an important topic in your choice to bring back some luxury to your hike. It's easy to get in the tunnel of mileage and weight, one must go up and the other down. Rather than treat base weight/mileage as a cause/effect relationship, we need to remember that lightening up also instills confidence, provides less distraction when we stop for the night and have to sort through a locker full of gadgets, and simplifies the overall experience. Some will declare heresy as I say this, but looking at the gross number of things vs. the weight of things is the best means of lightening up for myself. For example: I'm sure I could put together a multi-piece foam pad for less weight than a full length ridge rest, but I prefer the one stop shop that allows me to roll it up and strap it and go, opposed to fiddling w/ 2 pieces of foam and finding a place for each. Less gear means more than less weight. It means more focus on the hike; more focus on the surroundings. A seamless interaction with one's natural surroundings.

Charles Hill
(chuckster) - F

Locale: Georgia
nice job! on 04/21/2010 08:15:36 MDT Print View

Excellent testimony Luke! From one extreme to another and back a little. I'm still working on reducing my pack weight but like you I need the comfort of shelter with the ability to keep out mosquitoes. As most of my hiking is in the south and bugs can be a real problem at night, my Tarptent Rainbow at 34 oz. is tough to beat.

Edited by chuckster on 04/21/2010 08:18:24 MDT.

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Every Ounce Counts on 04/21/2010 09:58:03 MDT Print View

Nice Luke---Deja Vu and comfort counts.

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
RE: Every Ounce Counts on 04/21/2010 11:15:30 MDT Print View

Glad to hear of others who don't sacrifice everything to minimize weight.

I never "overshot" on the weight thing because I'm so cheap, and I seem to have settled into the 10-14 lb baseweight range, depending on conditions, at least for a while. As equipment wears out I will replace it with lighter equivalents (as long as it doesn't bust the bank), and I'm currently sewing synthetic insulated jackets to replace my heavier fleece stuff.

I would also add that I don't overdo it on the mileage, either. At my age (mid-50's) my feet and bones just can't take too many hours on the trail.

Thanks for your insights.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: RE: Every Ounce Counts on 04/21/2010 11:29:54 MDT Print View

>> Elliott said: At my age (mid-50's) my feet and bones just can't take too many hours on the trail.

Amen, my Brother! : )

Andrew Mazibrada
(cohenfain) - F

Locale: UK and Western Europe
Equilibrium on 04/22/2010 06:54:55 MDT Print View

The parallels with my own experience are notable but, I suspect, not extraordinary. I'm English & often, from my perusal of BPL, different situations apply. For me, height as well as distance are fundamental, climbing hills & wild camping high for an amazing morning view. When I, 12 years ago, first started a multiple-day trek in the Lake District, 10-12 miles a day with a heavy pack, 5 cotton t-shirts, jeans and other insane packing decisions, I was astonished that others would do a similar hike in a 35 litre pack rather than 60! Bless the Aussies!! Now, some years on, I'm hillwalking with a base weight of 4.5kg but I could possibly get that down to 4kg - any lower & it would not be fun for me. Summer tarp camping seems like a feasible option in valleys but camping above 800m in the UK under a tarp, even in Summer, carries the risk of such inclement weather as to make the whole proposition potentially very unpleasant. I think that may be why some US manufacturers are not as popular in the UK & vice versa. I've read numerous critical reviews of one of the most popular 1 man tents in the UK, the Terra Nova Laser Comp being too warm in the US. Conversely, in anything other than 2 season use, I find the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1 rather draughty above 800m. There is a balance to be struck between terrain, season, personal comfort & what you seek to achieve but there are constants in your seasonal kit lists, no matter where you are & what you want to do. Sites like this & stories like Lukes keep us informed to make decisions about what we want carry.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Every Ounce Counts on 04/22/2010 09:44:45 MDT Print View

Just enjoyed looking through the photos on your Web site, Luke. They bring back some memories as you and I have visited quite a few of the same places.

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
RE: RE: RE: RE: "Every Ounce Counts" on 04/22/2010 10:15:21 MDT Print View

Great article! I really enjoyed it. :)

craig crowther
(crowie) - F
lightweight benefits on 04/25/2010 14:35:39 MDT Print View

Good article.....when walking in aussie often come across other walkers struggling with heavy packs...of 25kg plus
lightweight is the only way to go.....the article refreshed memories of adventure walks when a teenager with friends
we carried everything in heavy canvas packs, leadweight sleeping bags, 2 burner gas stoves and yes the....cast iron camp pot....
thesedays my pack with all food and water weighs less than 10 kgs...for a 4-5 day walk

Edited by crowie on 04/25/2010 14:36:20 MDT.

rhonda rouyer
(rrouyer) - F

Locale: deep south
what about lighter food? on 04/26/2010 13:09:37 MDT Print View

I too have come a long way in lightening my load, from an 8lb eureka to a 3 1/2 lb spitfire to a 1 1/2 lb Tarptent Contrail! Lighter bag and pad etc. Don't want to be uncomfortable though. One hike I took a 3/4 length z rest and used it for seating and sleeping. Found I really missed my crazy creek chair and not enough padding at night. But what about food? I can get my pack weight with out food and water to about 18 lbs and then when i add about 4 days of food and a liter of water I'm up to 29lb. Which is still much light than I was at 42lbs!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: what about lighter food? on 04/26/2010 13:29:22 MDT Print View

Rhonda, if I did my math correctly, that is 11 pounds of food for 4 days. Doesn't that seem a little heavy? With careful planning and repackaging, you ought to be able to get that under 2 pounds per day. However, getting it much under 1.5 pounds per day will have compromises. My low limit is 1.3 or 1.4 pounds per day.

You can get away with some nutrition compromises for just a few days like that. Hey, you may drop a couple of pounds of body weight. No big deal. In the long term, you may want to pay closer attention to balanced nutrition.

I've found that I can go a long way on a little food weight as long as I have a few snacks and plenty of water during the day. For hot meals, I have lots of rehydrated soups. After a week, though, I will crave solid food.


Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Great article! on 04/26/2010 15:42:12 MDT Print View

I'm still working on lowering my pack weight, so I don't qualify as a lightweight, let alone ultralight, backpacker yet. Your experience sounds quite a bit like mine. I went from a 65 pound starting weight to around a 40 pound starting weight so far (I'm targeting a starting trip weight of around 40 pounds), and even that much has made things much easier.

The biggest change I've made was to leave my digital SLR at home (that dropped close to 10 pounds from my pack), travelling only with a point and shoot (Canon s90) and my Arca-Swiss monorail. Other things are less redundancy and a lighter stove (saved a pound on the stove alone). Up next are a lighter shelter... after that, a quilt, which will lower my pack weight by another 2.5 pounds or so in total.

Even though I'm not there yet, and my total pack weight will always be non-trivially higher than that of a true ultralighter, I'm a convert. And most of the reason for the higher pack weight is the 4x5 camera, film, changing bag, lenses, filters, and tripod. And the extension rail.

I'm really looking forward to doing a lot more backpacking this summer... more backpacking means... well, more backpacking, which is enough of a victory by itself, but it also means more photography, which will in turn lead to yet more backpacking.