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5 Lessons from Heavy to Lightweight Backpacking

May 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

5 Lessons from Heavy to Lightweight Backpacking

Backpacking excited me. I had done many day hikes, including the highest peaks in Colorado. But there was something about experiencing the wilderness in a multi-day adventure that had such a strong attraction for me.

It reminded me of my younger days… much younger days as a Boy Scout. I slept in a canvas pup tent with a flannel lined sleeping bag and no mattress. I ate from a metal mess kit and drank from a saucer shaped canteen that I slung over my shoulder. My leather boots were tough and rugged. And I carried all my gear in a sturdy external frame pack.  

Eager to relive my youth, I dove in deep at my local outdoor gear store and bought a bunch of stuff that looked like what I had seen in those great outdoor photography shots. I definitely had the cool stuff. I looked the part for sure.

Off I went, my first overnight backpacking trip in many years. I was carrying 45 pounds of all this great gear. It was a 3-mile 800-foot elevation gain hike into camp. My shoulders went numb, my head was pounding, and my feet ached like I had hiked all day. The gear was luxurious when I wasn’t carrying it. I didn’t complain. I didn’t care because I was returning to the glorious memories of my youth. "This was fun", I told myself.

Fast forward a couple years. I’ve learned a few things. It turns out this whole backpacking thing would be much more enjoyable with less weight. It didn’t take long for the novelty of having all this cool gear to ware off and for me to consider other options.

But I want to pause here to explain something.

The trend in the backpacking community these days is to go as light as possible – ultralight, they call it. That’s fine. But in some circles the trend has risen to the point of shaming people with heavy packs and glorifying those who are obviously more enlightened. So, I want shut that down now. It’s a joy thief.

People learn at their own pace and in their own way. And we’re all at a different place in our journey. I vote that we do away with competing in the gear contest. Let’s not dole out judgment on those who have chosen a different way. Instead, let’s simply accept each other’s place along this path… or trail… or whatever.

Resume play. 

Less weight is good for me. I’m not a young chicken, so that’s working against me. Plus, one of the meds I’m on lessens my bone density. More weight causes more stress on these ol’ bones, and I'm very much interested in extending my vertical days.

The third reason is that my feet are much happier when they aren’t supporting extra weight. I like it when I can feel my toes and I'm not constantly aware of achy, overused appendages.

Everyone has their own reasons to pack light or not, but this is the place I find myself; this is the choice I made. Happy me.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned along my path toward lightweight backpacking:

Nothing escapes close scrutiny. 

Not a single thing I’m carrying has not been subject to the gauntlet of exclusion or alternatives.  My nearly 5-pound pack was replaced by a 2-pound pack. My 4-ounce knife was replaced by a 2-ounce knife. My 9-ounce tripod was replaced by a 2-ounce tripod. But I’m keeping my 9-ounce Garmin Inreach Explorer+ because I paid a lot for it and it helps my wife worry less. And yes, it does eventually come down to counting ounces/grams. I set a goal to have a base weight of 15 pounds and I did it by raising a defense for everything. And if it didn’t pass the scrutiny it was gone or replaced by something that did.

The value of a good night’s sleep.

This might seem like a strange lesson to have in this list. But the reality is that a person could chose to carry near nothing if there was a strong enough willingness to sacrifice both safety and comfort. When it comes down to it, we carry things for those two reasons: we need to feel and be safe and we need to live within the boundaries of what we define as comfortable. A good night’s sleep falls into both of those realms. Exhaustion is a threat to safety; we need rest to avoid exhaustion and to help recover the body from a long day on the trail. And comfort goes a long way toward making a good night’s rest. So I created a sleeping system that works for me.  I have a MassDrop Klymit Insulated V Ultralight SL air mattress that has a 4.4 insulation rating, a Loco Libra Operator Series Ghost Pepper 20 degree down Topquilt, and a Klymit X large pillow. I have a set of night cloths that includes thermal mid-weight long underwear, a Thermowave Marino extreme long sleeve shirt, a Mountain Hardware Caelum Dome Beanie, a Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket if it gets cool, and Possum wool socks. This combination sleeping system and cloths is 4.5 pounds. And then I have a Zpacks Duplex shelter with ground stakes coming in at 1.5 pounds. All together my sleeping system, sleeping cloths, and shelter are 6 pounds. It works for me in the Colorado Mountains. I am safe and I sleep well. Of course, I would change out a few things if I was in a different climate.

Multi-purpose is a multiplier.

The fastest way to cut pack weight in half is to have one item that serves two or more purposes. For instance, my pad inflator is homemade from a garbage bag and serves as a doormat and works well as a relatively clean surface to prepare my meals. My night socks can be used as mittens. My rain pants can be used in town while I’m doing my laundry and are good for keeping me warm by blocking the wind on ridges above tree line or even as an extra layer on extra cold nights. My bandana has many uses like keeping the sun off my neck, a handkerchief, wash cloth, water filter, and a first aid sling.

Ignore the hype.

Sometimes the most marketed or most talked about product isn’t the best product for you. One example for me was the NeoAir XLite mattress that is talked about like a must-have for light backpackers. I found it to be too noisy and slippery, and it has a lower insulation rating. The much praised Lone Peak 3.5 trail shoes don’t fit me like the 3.0’s did. There is obviously much good advice among those with vast trail experience. Product reviews can also give you all kinds of perspectives.  But balance all these voices against your personal preferences to find the right thing for you. You are not hiking their hike; you’re hiking your hike.

It’s a learning experience.

Figure it out along the way. Enjoy the journey. Try out different ideas. Read everything. There is much to learn, and some things can only be learned by doing. So, just go with what you have or can afford to have. Take it all in.  But at the end of it all, do what’s right for you.

There are many more lessons I’ve learned along the way. These five should offer a decent start for anyone on a similar path than I’ve had. Whatever path you take, trail you trod, or avenue you travel, remember it’s all yours.  Make it so.


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