As discussed before, lightweight backpacking is not a new concept. As long as people have been schlepping the gear, they are going to go as light, comfortable, and safe as possible.
However, for modern times, the seminal book that kick-started the modern lightweight backpacking movement is the second edition (1996) of Ray Jardine’s The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook.
Ray Jardine, an accomplished climber and all-around adventurer with an engineering background, decided to make hiking the PCT a more efficient endeavor by going lighter. He and his wife Jenny helped to popularize the concept of lightweight backpacking in modern times.
Jardine’s ideas were not radical. The concept of taking a minimal kit is logical for any backcountry traveler, and people applied the ideas for eons.
However, the concepts presented in his book were presented in a consistent, well-laid out manner without a lot of detailed gear wonkery present in newer books covering similar topics. And, crucially, the influential 1996 edition came out in the nascent days of the internet as we know it today. Meaning ideas could easily be shared, discussed, and further developed in online discussion groups and forums. Even a decade previously, these ideas would not promulgate as quickly.
So how does this book stack up today during our time of DCF shelters and packs, many lightweight gear manufacturers, and where even mainstream retailers sell “ultralightweight” gear?
Well, let us go down that rabbit hole.
But I want to look at the classic book that kickstarted where we are today in terms of lightweight backpacking.
I’ll divide the look into four general parts: Gear, Technique, Nutrition (Food), and Philosophy.
For various reasons, lightweight backpacking tends towards gear discussion. But unlike many more recent takes on going light, be it online or in print, Jardine looks at gear as a system rather than individual items. I am biased, but I think that is the key to going light – knowing how your gear works together rather than picking gear ala carte that looks good on a spreadsheet but does not work in a real-world setting.
And, surprisingly for many I am sure, equipment is among the least amount of items discussed. The overall thesis of taking minimal gear means you can take a small pack to haul it, and only need minimal shoes to walk the well-maintained PCT. In total, the 372-page book has a relatively small 72 pages dedicated to gear! And that’s counting the five pages of gear lists at the back of the book and the techniques within the equipment specific chapters themselves. In other words, specific gear items are among the least essential things mentioned in the seminal book on lightweight backpacking.
Perhaps the only “radical” piece of kit discussed circa 1996 is the use of an umbrella for rain gear and sun protection — something reasonably mainstream in 2019, not so much at that time. And, as Jardine himself said, nothing new either. And you can quibble with the individual choices, such as the umbrella, but the arc of a gear system working in concert vs. specific items holds up. I enjoy the practical take that does not get bogged down in numbers or specifics.
Overall, much like Colin Fletcher’s take on gear, the specific items might change, but the overall advice is still rock solid; if with a lighter focus. Jardine’s sub-9lb kit would work just fine on the PCT for three-season conditions in 2019 or 1996, which means, taking what you need appropriate for the conditions. And what you need to be safe, comfortable, and efficient with you walking is not as much as marketing tells you that you need.
What many people forget is that the majority of the book is about techniques and information. Note that the cover of the book does not list the words “gear” or “equipment.” The book is about not just what to take to go light, but what information and knowledge will allow you to go light in the backcountry.
Jardine discusses much in the text from how to negotiate issues with a trip partner, how to pack efficiently, to foot care, to other topics of interest to a backpacker wishing to go light.
Having the tools only goes so far; knowing how to use the tools is what makes a lightweight backpacker different from a lightweight gear collector.
Even more so than the gear section, the technique section holds up well.
Food and Nutrition
Oy vey! The infamous sections on corn pasta and such still bring some unfortunate chuckles. Many intelligent people who are incredibly knowledgeable in one field make the mistake of transferring that expertise to all aspects of life. I’m looking at you, Oprah and other quacks you endorse!
And Jardine gives advice on nutrition and food that does not hold up. There is nothing magical about corn pasta, and any person who discusses and sells “blood cleaners” or 40-day water fasts should be looked at with a jaundiced eye for specific topics. I have no advice here other than to educate yourself, be it about a book published in 1996 or celebrity endorsements that make absolutely no sense.
Beyond the gear as a system, Jardine has some ideas he is adamant about rather strongly. The emphasis on “make your own gear,” how horses do not belong in the backcountry and are ruining the environment, and the commercialization of backpacking among other topics.
His strident, forceful nature may turn off people. As a person not afraid to express my own opinions (ha!), I may not agree with them, but I welcome the challenge to rethink my beliefs. His later books are more mellow in tone if still expressing similar ideas.
The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook holds up much like The Complete Walker in part because of the information but also because of the tone of the book. Jardine’s book is pragmatic, an interesting read, and still pertinent nearly twenty-five years later. Skip the nutrition information and take his strong opinions (as opposed to advice) on certain topics as points to ponder and not as Gospel.
Only once in a while does a book come out about backpacking as influential such as Kephart’s books or Fletcher’s. Books that are still read for information, entertainment, and ideas that make a person think long after the specific information might be outdated. The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook is such a book.
In our days of dwindling use of print resources will another such book come along or will online resources be The Complete Walker of the future? Only time will tell.
Resources for 2019
You might want to pick up Beyond Backpacking for less PCT specific advice and advice that is perhaps less strident overall in tone. At, $85 or more, the newer Trail Life is a bit expensive to pick up used. Read Jardine’s books for (mainly) timeless and entertaining advice that did influence the modern lightweight backpacking movement.
However, if you are looking for more current advice, online resources might work best.
Cam Honan and Andrew Skurka have many articles on their websites and books available for general lightweight backpacking techniques. Cam and I both tend to take a more overall view of gear; Andrew gets more into the “nuts and bolts.”
Mike Clelland’s Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips I think is an overall excellent one-volume book for lightening your load with some easy, and inexpensive, ideas. Justin Lichter’s books provide more “nuts and bolts” for techniques. And if you want a mix of gear and execution, but with a long distance hiking focus, Liz Thomas’ Backpacker Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike might be of interest.