Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Evolution to Lightweight

I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to backpacking at an early age. During my annual summer visit to see my Dad and Stepmom we would always take at least one backpacking trip into the mountains of the southeastern US. I don’t recall at what age I went on my first trip but I was probably around 6 years old. But every trip would start out the same.
As the day of departure approached there would be a flurry of activity, getting food and gear together. Making sure that the sleeping bags were aired out and that everything would fit into or onto the aluminum framed backpacks. I am sure I wasn’t very helpful during these preparations but I remember running around the house with Queenie (the german shepard) and being very excited. Queenie loved these trips as much as any of us and couldn’t wait to jump into the back of the car. These are some of the best experiences of my childhood and I think they were fundamental to my development as a person.

Greta, Queenie and I cooking over the fire

As a kid, I didn’t put much thought into what we brought with us but it consisted of your basic backpacking kit: sleeping bag, tent, foam pad, external framed backpack, boots or shoes, some clothes, some cookware, utensils, and other odds and ends. These were not long, grueling trips into extreme conditions. What we used was pretty simple but we were definitely comfortable and well fed.

Dad, Queenie and me (for the record, they didn't make me carry that big pack)

As a young adult, I went on few backpacking trips and continued to use and rely upon the knowledge gained as a child. At the age of 21, just before moving to Canada, I decided to go on a solo hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was my first foray into backpacking alone and I spent one month wandering around the mountains. This was very much a spiritual journey for me and one of self discovery.
However, looking back I cringe when I remember what I brought with me. I had a massive Lowe backpack and it was jam packed full. I had so much stuff and I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I hiked in jeans and a cotton shirt with these massive leather boots and thick wool socks. My two person tent weighed in around 5 or 6 lbs. I carried a full rain suit (not breathable at all), had a big first aid kit that I did not know how to use. I didn’t know about hiking poles at the time but I carried a giant wooden staff that I carved out of cedar.

One of the most important pieces of gear, which should have been much warmer considering where I was going, was an old synthetic sleeping bag made by Moonstone. I think it would be optimistically rated at 45o F. Unconsciously, I was following a principle of lightweight backpacking: using your clothing as part of your sleep insulation system. In this case, however, my supplemental clothing weighed way too much and consisted of 2 pairs of long underwear (tops and bottoms) which I could wear under my hiking clothes at night. One of those pairs of long underwear was made of wool and probably weighed in close to 2 lbs by itself.

But the thing that I still laugh about to this day is my cooking set-up. I had been getting into Indian cooking at the time and decided that I was going to cook fresh Indian food on the trail. I brought two pots, a spice kit in glass jars weighing at least a pound, and during the first week I carried with me a sack of potatoes, a head of cauliflower, onions, garlic, a jar of Indian pickle, I mean I went all out! I never did weigh the full pack but it was at least 60 lbs, it took a huge effort just to get it on my back, let alone walk with it.
Needless to say that first week was a bit rough. Not only was I alone in the woods but I was having a hard time just walking. I remember climbing up a mountain on a pretty steep trail and I was struggling hard, when this father and his young daughter just cruised right by me, my morale definitely took a hit. That very night, I was snowed on and shivered until morning because my sleep system was not adequate for the conditions. I stuck out that first week but had some serious doubts that this was worth the effort. At my first resupply stop, I dumped about 10lbs of gear (including the stupid spice set) and felt much better.
Despite this, I stuck with it and had a great time. That trip was an incredible learning experience. I met plenty of AT thru hikers and started to pick up a few tips from them.
After moving to British Columbia I continued to go on backpacking trips when I could. I never heard of the concept of lightweight backpacking and nobody I took trips with had either. But as I gained experience I started to reduce what I took with me, so that even though each item was not the lightest option available, I carried fewer of them. After a couple of years I switched to using a cheap blue plastic tarp instead of a tent, partly because I was poor but also because I like to be immersed in my environment and a tarp allows this while still keeping the rain and snow off.
I eventually switched to lighter boots, after those leather behemoths wore out. I finally bought a good quality down bag (waited way to long to do this!). It was about 14 years ago when I purchased a Hennessy Hammock and I was in heaven. I never did weigh my gear at that time but I would guess that I got my pack weight down to around 20-25 lbs.
Fast forward a few years, I didn’t do much backpacking when I was finishing my undergrad degree or during my graduate degree either. But after graduating and moving out to California, my passion for backpacking resurfaced.
Combine this with a decent regular paycheck and I was ready for business. I hit up REI and started to purchase gear to replace what had worn out. I found some lighter gear but I had still not been introduced to the concept of lightweight backpacking and I was still in my old mindset.

Hetch Hetchy in 2009

But, because I am a research freak and thanks to the internet, I started to look into the latest in backpacking gear and at some point I stumbled upon This website really opened my eyes to the world of lightweight backpacking. I bought a membership (well worth it) and have continued to use it as a resource for these past 5 years. I have met some wonderful people through it and am now part of a really great community of lightweight backpacking enthusiasts.
I returned most of what I had bought at REI and started over with a fresh perspective. My backpacking gear has been continuously evolving and becoming more refined as I gain more experience. I have now reduced my pack weight down to 10 lbs (not counting camera gear) and I am quite happy with where I am (link to my gear list blog post). I know I can handle just about any 3-season conditions and with a few additions I can handle winter conditions as well.

As I mature as a backpacker I find my focus is much less gear focused and much more skills focused. Proper skills and knowledge are essential for safe backcountry travel. And really, what is the point of all that gear? From my perspective, it is to make spending time in the wilderness a little more safe and comfortable, it is a means to an end and nothing more. 

Well, I hope that wasn't too boring and introspective. I look forward to seeing you out there on the trail of Life!