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An Old Dog Learns New Tricks - How Lightweight Technology Keeps me on the Trail at 70

How lightweight backpacking gear has kept the author on the trail at 70.


by Ron Hamm | 2005-04-19 03:00:00-06

An Old Dog Learns New Tricks: How Lightweight Technology Keeps me on the Trail at Nearly 70 - 2
The author in Gila National Forest sporting his new lightweight look.

Photo: Rick Sherman

Lightweight backpacking gear has a special significance for seniors: it can help us continue backpacking perhaps well past any so-called "logical time" to stop. With the adoption of the ultralight concept and philosophy espoused by Ray Jardine, Ryel Kestenbaum and other backpackers, seniors can enjoy backpacking well beyond the usual time to give our gear to the grand kids. To say my encounter with this approach was a revelation would not be putting it too strongly! In simple terms, reducing my pack weight has meant an extension of my treasured time afoot.

A recent article quoted one gearhead as saying, "ounces mean minutes," inferring that the lighter your load, the faster you are on the trail. At my age, it isn't speed I'm seeking; it is the backpacking seasons to come. Who cares about faster or further? I'm not a through-hiker. As much as I would like to do truly long distance trails such as the Continental Divide or the Appalachian Trail, it isn't as likely to happen now. I'm perfectly content backpacking two or three days instead of spending an entire summer on the trail.

Newer packs with their drastically reduced weight and related gear all contribute to our extended time on the trail. They add years to our enjoyment of the outdoors. At 70, I have fewer backpacking days ahead than behind me. It isn't my legs or wind, it's my ability to carry and tolerate as much weight as I used to. And by the way, I have stepped up my workouts to increase my upper body strength.

On my first backpacking trip this season, my loaded external frame model weighed 35 pounds and beat me to death. My back was sore and bruised for a week. I was ready to quit. I'm convinced the pack was just too heavy - unnecessarily so. The experience was so painful (and discouraging) that I resolved to do something about it, and in so doing I've embraced a new mindset - lighter is better. Never again all that extra weight!

I gave away my 25-year old pack the day I got back. Today I have a 1 pound 5 ounce top-loading Granite Gear Virga (I don't even call it a pack; no internal stays, no zippered pockets, etc.) and carried 16 pounds my last trip - enough for three days. It's rated for 20 pounds at 3,200 cubic inches and the volume helps to limit my loads. I also switched sleeping pads and am leaving my tent, a five-pounder, at home. I'm now using a 13-ounce Therm-a-Rest ProLite 3 - which provides internal stability to the backpack in lieu of stays - and a 1 pound 3 ounce Cordura ripstop tarp from Granite Gear. The difference in comfort in camp is not noticeable, but the difference to my back definitely is!

I credit my change in outlook, and the hoped-for extension of my active backpacking days, to younger trail partners who led by example in the gear they chose and in what they left behind. One loaned me the aforementioned ultralight "Bibles." My insights from my reading were highly enlightening. Kestenbaum writes that he frequently observes "backpackers looking like soldiers going off to battle, with huge packs and bulletproof tents and piles of clothing ... nature (is) about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our built-up world."

Although I've read the books and heeded some of their advice, I'm not a fanatic like the guy who sawed off his toothbrush so short he couldn't use it, and I'm not into ripping off labels or trimming excess length off straps (yet!). My stainless steel spoon (the only utensil I carry besides my all-purpose stainless steel mug) is nearly as light as its titanium counterpart and a whole lot cheaper. I've always used an MSR Pocket Rocket stove, and that's as light as I need to go. I'm letting common sense dictate my course.

However, to paraphrase John Paul Jones, "I've not yet begun to shed." As a result, I couldn't help but be amused (and struck by the differences in philosophy) by an article suggesting that backpackers might wish to lug along a seven-pound table because "In the wilderness, a simple thing like a table can be luxurious." Maybe. But if I were going for creature comforts, I'd rather carry a bottle of Cabernet. At least, all I would have to pack out is the empty plastic container into which I'd transferred the wine. That infamous table, by the way, is nearly half my total pack weight now.

Dipping into the ultralight books and using common sense, I've nearly halved my pack weight, and I didn't even have to work at it! For example, I didn't cut the tongues out of my trail hikers, and I'm eschewing lighter but more expensive titanium gear. My basic guideline is: "Do I really need it?" If not, it stays home. My back thanks me, and I've not left behind one single thing I truly needed. So my emerging philosophy is the lighter I go, the more years I (can) go. It just makes sense.

Last time out I carried 16 pounds. To change the lyrics to one song, "How much lighter can one man be?" I'm still trying to find out.

An Old Dog Learns New Tricks: How Lightweight Technology Keeps me on the Trail at Nearly 70 - 1

About the Author

Ron Hamm has been backpacking more than 35 years, camping much longer. But he is a newcomer to ultra-lighting and like all converts he has to tell everyone how great it is. Hamm also is a long distance cyclist, trail worker, and freelance writer. He and his hound Harriet are in the Gila National Forest nearly every day when he isn't at sea teaching for the US Navy.


"An Old Dog Learns New Tricks - How Lightweight Technology Keeps me on the Trail at 70," by Ron Hamm. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-04-19 03:00:00-06.