Kelty Redcloud loaded with forty-two pounds for a weekend in the Smokies.
I began backpacking as a teenager, typically going on four or five hikes a year for the past forty years. Now in my fifties, I considered myself well seasoned in the science of backpacking. I felt pretty confident that I knew it all when it came to planning, outfitting, and executing a successful backpacking adventure.
My first serious pack was a Jansport D2 external frame. It was state of the art - in 1977. I loved that pack and carried it for nearly twenty years before it finally wore out. I replaced it with my first internal frame pack, an Arc'teryx Bora 95 that fit like a glove. It was the most comfortable pack I had ever put on my back, but once I used it, I realized it was just one big sack. Having to dump everything out on the ground to find anything was total foolishness. I hated it! I was accustomed to the D2’s multi-compartmented, everything-at-your-fingertips, instant access. The Bora had to go, so I replaced it with a Kelty Redcloud, basically an internal frame version of my beloved D2 with about elevendy-seven more pockets. It was the best of both worlds!
For a two- or three-day hike, my pack’s trail weight, including a tent, has usually hovered around forty pounds. In the past, I wasn’t too concerned about the weight. I’d always been able to carry it with no problems, but as I’ve gotten older it’s become more of a burden, especially on my knees. Over the last couple years, it has become normal for me to drag into camp with aching feet and knees, barely enough energy remaining to pitch my tent, eat dinner, and crash. I’d begun to think that I might be about done with this backpacking thing. It wasn’t as much fun any more; the rewards weren’t worth the suffering.
The wake up call for me came during a rainy, foggy, January ‘09 hike with my friend Scott and a couple of his hiking buddies. Scott and I were both backpackers, but this was our first time hiking together. Our hike was on the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia, up Trey Mountain and over to Deep Gap Shelter. Scott and his buds ran shuttle, hitting the trail about an hour behind me. I was, as usual, plodding along, huffing and puffing, with all my winter gear on, chilled from my sweat, but making decent progress. Or so I thought. Suddenly all three shuttlers passed me like I was standing still. They flew up the trail where I was crawling step by step. They looked like cross-country skiers with their poles pinging and clanking against the rocky trail.
Fording Hazel Creek in the Smokies on a four-day hike with my forty-five-pound Kelty pack.
Getting passed on Trey Mountain by a whippersnapper shuttler carrying his twenty-pound pack while I lugged my forty-two-pound pack.
I knew something was wrong with this picture, but I wasn’t sure what.
At the shelter that evening, over the sounds of wet wood sizzling from our smoky camp fire, I began questioning them. I wanted to know more about their packs, their lightweight equipment, and how it was possible for them to hike so quickly. Scott told me about Ray Jardine’s book Trail Life - Lightweight Backpacking. In the book, he said Ray details how to choose lightweight gear, food, clothing, boots, shoes, and so on to bring the trail weight of your pack down. Less weight equals less burden, meaning more energy for more enjoyable hiking. It all sounded reasonable.
Lightweight hiking guru Scott's alcohol/beer can stove.
Map reading over the campfire at the Derrick Knob Shelter in the Smokies.
I’d already been hearing about this newfangled fad, “ultra-light hiking” from another hiking bud, Patrick. But I hadn’t really bought into it yet. He’d told me about BackpackingLight, about all the useful information on the website, and what he’d done to reduce his pack’s weight. I thought, “Yeah, that’s great, but I can’t afford to just start over. And besides, I’m not about to give up all the comfort accessories I’ve been accumulating all these decades.” I needed them to survive, right?
But somewhere in the back of my consciousness, the wheels had begun to turn. Could reducing my pack weight make that much difference? I wasn’t convinced. After all, I’d been doing this for forty years and I was so well seasoned. However, it seemed a pattern was developing. Maybe I didn’t know everything after all… naaah, that couldn’t be it!
When I got back home I bought Trail Life and read it cover to cover… it was like everything I knew was wrong! This book just made sense. The “Ray Way” is his philosophy of what really works on the trail. His vast knowledge and experience is without question, so if he says it works, then it probably does, at least for him. At first I thought, “Well yeah, maybe I’ll try a few of these suggestions.” But when I began weighing out each piece of my equipment and saw just how much each item really weighed, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe, for example, the heavy duty REI mug I’d been carrying since, oh-I-don’t-know, the 80s, weighed 4.6 oz - and I only used it for hot chocolate at breakfast. That’s the weight of a meal! My Kelty Redcloud pack weighed seven pounds empty!!! It was at that moment I realized I really could make these changes... and had to make these changes if I was going to keep hiking.
My old MSR Hubba Hubba is too heavy (5 lbs) and awfully big.
New Tarptent Rainbow (2 lbs 2 oz) at Camp #48 in the Smokies. This is just right.
To quote my friend Scott, “everything weighs something.” Those words never rang more true for me. No matter what I was looking for, if I researched long enough, I always found a lighter (and probably more expensive!) version. So over the past year with a lot of advice from Trail Life, a little common sense and many hours on the interwebs, I’ve whittled my pack’s trail weight down to around twenty-eight pounds. All this with no real sacrifice in comfort and with room for still more savings. I’ve gotten so obsessed with saving weight I bought a digital scale that measures grams… yes, it’s that bad!
Changes include, but are not limited to:
- Replacing my 7 lb Kelty Redcloud 6650 with new Golite Quest pack, 3 lbs 3 oz (-3 lbs 13 oz)
- Replacing my MSR Hubba Hubba, 5 lbs with new Tarptent Rainbow, 2 lbs 2 oz (-2 lbs 14oz)
- Replacing 1 lb 4oz. 4’x 8’ Home Depot tarp with new Tyvek Rainbow foot print, 5 oz (-15 oz)
- Replaced 4.6 oz REI mug with cheap-o plastic cup from old mess kit 1.6 oz (-3 oz)
- Lighter rain gear (-11 oz), lighter boots (-1 lb 5 oz), lighter clothing (-1 lb 8 oz)
- Trimmed weight from straps, tags, clips, cooking utensils, water bottles (-10 oz)
- Tossed out camp pillow, now use sleeping bag’s stuff sack packed with clothes (-8 oz)
- Replaced old Olympus digital camera with new Sony Cybershot (-4 oz)
- Lighter food and snack choices (-1 to -2 lbs)
- Smaller lighter pocket knife (-3 oz)
Swapping out my heavier pack and tent alone reduced trail weight by almost seven pounds. Then after all the other weight trimming I’ve done; now it’s like hiking with a day pack.
Transformation in progress: Golite Odyssey pack, Leki poles, lighter gear in pack and on feet, packed weight twenty-eight pounds.
Another revelation was the use of trekking poles. All my friends already used them. I always just made a hiking pole out of the first decent stick I found along the trail. It worked for me all those years. Besides, I considered trekking poles were for wimps, sissies, and fools. So this past November, just before hitting the trail for a three-day hike in the Smokies, my hiking buddy Rod Campbell (see December BPL Calendar) offered me the use of a spare set of his trekking poles. I thought, “What the heck, I’ll give ‘em a try and see what the fuss is all about.” Well, all of you who use poles already know what the fuss is about, as I soon discovered. I was amazed at how much they helped me. I couldn’t believe the confidence and stability they added to my hike, plus a better overall work out. I related it to how a four-legged animal distributes its weight and energy evenly over its four limbs. Now suddenly, I was motoring up ascents, fifteen fewer pounds on my back, hiking farther and longer, arriving at camp less tired than before. I was stunned! As it turned out I was the wimp, sissy, and fool! My wife and kids bought me a set of Leki poles for Christmas. They’re so awesome (the family and the poles)!
Using new Leki poles on the ice covered Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain.
I’m pleased with the changes I’ve made so far, but I’m already planning my next move - replacing my sleeping bag. I love my Mountain Hardwear 0 down bag, but it weighs 4 lbs 6 oz. My old North Face Rabbit’s Foot three-season bag isn’t much lighter either. I’m considering a Ray Way quilt, which weighs less than two pounds, but haven’t made that move yet. Another area where I could lose a pound or two is my stove. This is where I’m an old school stick in the mud. I have an Optimus Svea 123R white gas stove I’ve carried on almost every hike since 1978. It and the extra fuel bottle weigh about 2 lbs 8 oz, but it’ll cook anything, anywhere, at any altitude, in any temperature. I’ve been on winter trips where it was the only stove that would light. It’s a real life saver. I also own an MSR Pocket Rocket which weighs something like negative three ounces. I often carry it in the summer to save weight, but I prefer my trusted friend the Svea. Ray Jardine suggests using a cook fire, eliminating the weight of a stove altogether. Don’t know if I’m that committed just yet.
Breakfast on Gregory Bald in the Smokies with my old trusted friend Svea 123R stove and some new friends in the back, on a 12 F morning. My Svea is a two-pound lump of old school dependability. You can hear it a mile away at full song, and I just can't part with it (yet).
It’s been just over a year since I began this transformation from my 1970’s mind set about backpacking to where I am today. With the lighter gear, smarter choices about food and equipment, and the acceptance of trekking poles, I’ve given myself a fresh start. I’m enjoying the hike and seeing the world around me again instead of wishing the day would hurry up and be over. It’s still tough, but the difficulty comes from the steepness of the trail, not the burden on my back. As a result of this amazing journey of discovery in my backpacking life, I’ve gotten my groove back. Now, with a renewed spirit, more knowledge and lighter gear, I’ll be able to extend my hiking well into the new millennium. Funny thing - this old stick-in-the-mud know-it-all actually likes playing with all his wimpy newfangled toys. Who’d a thunk it?!