It was a cool, cloudy spring morning on Snowbird Mountain heading to Max Patch. As I stopped for lunch, it began to rain. It didn’t stop until sometime in the middle of the night. Hours later, as I poured the water out of my Gore-Tex boots at a shelter, a thru-hiker asked me how they were working out for me. I looked at his trail runners and had to admit, I didn’t much like my boots at that moment. Those boots must have weighed five pounds apiece for the rest of the trip. Two days later in Hot Springs, while I was inspecting the blisters that the wet boots had left me with, I knew something had to change.
|The old days, including chair.|
I started out backpacking in winter. We didn’t care about how much weight we were carrying or how it felt; we had to take all the comforts of home: Gore-Tex boots, thick inflatable pads, and even relatively light aluminum folding camp chairs (with backs) that we got at Kmart. Man, those chairs were great for sitting around the fire or taking a break in the snow on the side of the trail. We knew that thru-hikers did all kinds of crazy stuff like drilling holes in their toothbrushes, but we were only out for three nights, and besides, we were tough and could handle all the weight. The more comforts you could stand to drag along, the cooler you were. Still, I can remember carrying a forty-eight pound pack six miles uphill on the first day out and wondering if we would ever get there.
On winter trips, being wet was not a problem because the cold air kept everything dry. But as we started going on more trips, I quickly learned that during warmer months in the Appalachians, it rains every day. And once everything is wet, it never dries. And when it’s not raining, the humidity makes you sweat so much you get soaked anyway. And the extra dry clothes and socks just become heavy wet clothes in your pack. I clearly needed different techniques for hiking in those conditions.
Although beautiful, climbing Big Bald with a 40-lb pack was the hardest day I have experienced. I sure could have used a smaller pack that day.
Ron, one of my hiking buddies, had discovered BackpackingLight.com and told the rest of us about it. One of the first articles I read was Water Weight Gain and Drying Characteristics of Lightweight Hiking Shoes after Submersion. It was just what I needed. I replaced the heavy boots with Montrail Hardrocks and went on a short overnighter. I was pleased to find that the bottoms of my feet didn’t hurt (more than normal) from the protruding rocks and roots that are common in our area. Also I felt like the flexibility of the shoe allowed me to get a better grip on the rocks and react to uneven terrain better.
Over the course of the next year, my buddies and I learned the techniques of lightweight backpacking, replaced key pieces of equipment in our kit, and scrutinized the clothes on our backs and everything that went in our pack. I probably saved five pounds by just removing unnecessary items. My attitude changed from “Could I possibly use this?” to “Do I absolutely have to have this?” The surprising thing was that I really didn’t miss anything that I didn’t have.
Now I just go straight up the mountain!
Each step along the way, we would go on another trip and challenge our limits further. Each time the trips got easier and more enjoyable. On one of these we rolled into camp for the last night at 2:00 pm after a fifteen-mile day. We knew then that it would be nothing to go the additional seven miles into town.
Finally, the transition was complete: Ron and I were ready to see how fast and how far we could really go with our lightened loads. We set out for a week on the Appalachian Trail from Springer, with no definite plans for how far to go or where to stop each night. The idea was to go as far as we felt like going each day. I started with a base weight of 13.7 pounds and a total weight of 24.2 pounds including food, fuel, and water. Ron had a similar pack weight.
Ron’s Gatewood cape, Opsrey pack, and patented sit pad.
The first sixteen miles went easily. That night we stayed with a couple of college boys who came in with two huge packs, bursting at the seams with all kinds of stuff tied on the outside. Even though they were young and in good shape, we never saw them again after leaving the next morning. It’s kind of thrilling for an old guy to blow by so many younger people and just give them the 'nice ascent' nod while doing it.
The next day we got to the Walasi-Yi Center in the early afternoon and, while enjoying a Coke, decided to move on to the next shelter, 23 miles total for the day, including the lovely 1.2-mile side trail to the Whitley Gap shelter. After 19 more miles the third day, we stopped at the Cheese Factory campsite. During that day we took a break with a granddad and two girls that were probably eight and ten years old. He had them packed right, in small external frame packs, and these girls were having the best time. They didn’t complain about a thing. It just made you feel good.
I was pretty chipper eating lunch at Bly Gap, the GA/NC line, on the fourth day, knowing that many thru-hikers pass this spot on day six or seven. In all, we did 106 miles in six and a half days, ending up at Winding Stair Gap. The entire trip was validation that we could do this, and we could do it in comfort and style (there’s something very stylish about having a small pack with all your gear inside). I never could have made this trip with a traditional pack.
Cruising along after 15 miles.
We continue to refine our gearlists as lightweight backpackers do. This year we went 115 miles through Damascus and the Grayson Highlands. I have whittled my base weight down below 12 pounds, even though I still carry such luxuries as a water pump, Crocs, and an iPod.
For a fifty-something occasional backpacker, going light doesn’t seem like it would be that important. I mean, I’m not going on a 500-mile traverse of the arctic tundra. But actually, the less you are able to go, the more you need to get out of it when you DO go. See more, do more, and enjoy it more. I really love the hiking part - “moving on” along the trail and covering a lot of terrain. With a lighter load, I am able to keep gliding along all day and the trips are more enjoyable. After all, that’s what it’s all about.
Major equipment changes
|Pack||Gregory Forester||5.0||GoLite Jam2||1.2|
|Tent||Kelty Zen||5.0||Tarptent Rainbow||2.0|
|Sleeping bag||Marmot Wizard long||3.5||Marmot Atom||1.2|
|Sleeping pad||Thermarest Inflatable||2.5||Thermarest Ridgerest||0.6|
|Shoes||Zamberlain Mountaineering||3.5||Montrail Hardrock||2.0|
Full gear list. Summer 2008, one week with resupply
|Short Sleeve Shirt||REI||7.3||0.5|
|Socks||Smartwool Lightwight Trail Runners||1.6||0.1|
|Other Items Worn / Carried|
|Trekking Poles||REI Peak UL Carbon||12.5||0.8|
|Wind Shirt||Marmot Dri-Clime||9||0.6|
|Rain Jacket||Marmot Precip||12.1||0.8|
|Rain Pants||Sierra Designs||8.1||0.5|
|Sleep & Shelter|
|Sleeping Bag||Marmot Atom with Stuff Sack||20.1||1.3|
|Sleeping Pad||Thermarest 3/4||7.9||0.5|
|Pack||GoLite Jam 2||21||1.3|
|Stuff Sack||Large Gray||0.9||0.1|
|Cooking & Water|
|Stove, Alcohol||Etowah Stove with Windscreen||4.4||0.3|
|Fuel Bottle||Dasani 12 oz. Water Bottle||1||0.1|
|Cook Pot||Evernew .9 L Titanium||4.3||0.3|
|Cleanup||Camp Suds & Scrubber||0.8||0.1|
|Water Bottle||Platypus 1 L||0.8||0.1|
|Water Bottle||Platypus 1.8 L||1.1||0.1|
|Water Bottle||Platypus 2.4 L||1.3||0.1|
|Water Treatment||PUR Hiker||13.2||0.8|
|Food Hanging Kit||Homemade||4.6||0.3|
|Light||Petzl Tieka XP||2.9||0.2|
|First Aid||Homemade in Ziploc||2.9||0.2|
|Firestarting||Waterproof Matches, Case||0.9||0.1|
|Test Kit||Test Kit||4.5||0.3|
|Hygiene||Toothpaste, Toothbrush, Contact Case, Comb||5||0.3|
|Food||24 oz per Day||96||6.0|
|Total Weight Worn or Carried||63.6||4.0|
|Total Base Weight in Pack||196.6||12.3|
|Total Weight of Consumables||140||8.8|
|Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3)||336.6||21.0|
|Full Skin Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3)||400.2||25.0|