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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!