A version of this document has appeared in Yogi’s PCT Handbook and on various hiking boards. It is also in the current edition of the Colorado Trail Guidebook. My overview of lightweight backpacking.
One sunny, summer day in Maine, I summited Katahdin. I had climbed one of the most majestic mountains in the East and I had finished a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It was memorable day and one I look back on fondly. A week or so later, my knees were in pain. I was 24 years old and I was hobbling up and down stairs like a senior citizen. It would take almost a month for my body to truly recover.
Why was I in so much discomfort at such a young age? I was muscular, fit and in terrific shape. Yet, I had trouble walking up a simple flight of stairs. Why?
Benefits of Lightening Up
Many people say the Appalachian Trail (AT) is perhaps more physically demanding than the other long distance hiking trails. Parts of the AT are indeed more steep than anything found on the PCT, CDT or other trails. However, when I thru-hiked the three-hundred mile long Benton MacKaye Trail (with its grades supposedly more difficult than the nearby AT), I was climbing steadily up the mountains and comfortably hiking about 25 MPD.
What changed? I was a more experienced hiker. I was in better shape mentally and physically than my AT hike. And my gear was lighter.
After my hike of the Appalachian Trail, I vowed never to carry fifty pounds up and down the mountains consistently again. Over the course of the year, I read various on-line resources about cutting my weight down. Went to a smaller pack. Made a homemade alcohol stove and cut down my sleeping bad. I did the physically demanding Long Trail of Vermont and felt great. The AT thru-hikers that year were a little incredulous over my smaller pack.
When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, my Base Pack Weight (BPW – all your gear in the pack minus food, water and fuel) was now half the weight of my AT gear. The experience of hiking the PCT was fantastic. Incredible vistas, experiences I will not forget….and I felt great at the end of the journey.
With lighter gear, the climbers were easier. My body was less tired. And the overall hiking experience was much more enjoyable.
My gear continues to evolve. But my basic setup has not changed since the PCT: Frameless pack, trailrunners vs. boots, a good down bag, a simple shelter in lieu of a tent, cut down foam pad and so on. I would not go on any future walks with my Appalachian Trail gear; I could do future hikes with my PCT gear.
LIGHTWEIGHT GEAR PhilOsophy
In the process of lightening my load, I’ve come to come look at gear as why I should take particular piece of gear rather that what specific gear I should take. I do not consider myself an ultralighter. To me that term employs too much gear wonkery. Where the emphasis is on gear and not enjoying the trail. While gear is important, I think it is the LEAST important part of hiking.I use gear to hike…not hike to use gear.
Rather, I think of myself as minimalist. I take enough gear for what I consider to be my own personal safety, comfort and fun levels. On three-season, solo hikes it is pretty scant. On social backpacks (more camping, less hiking), I’ll take a stove, a book and wine (of course). (A less charitable name, but perhaps more accurate, is dirt bagger! As Shinobu “Buddha” Price said: You make hiker trash more trashy Mags!)
Why do I go with this method? Because I enjoy the simplicity. I have little to come between me and how I want to enjoy the outdoors. I can enjoy the simple act of walking without worrying about how heavy my gear is on my back. I am not exhausted in camp but can appreciate the sunset over the mountains, the sound of the wind in the trees and can contemplate the wonderful day I again experienced.
After the Long Trail in 1999, there was a gradual decline in my base pack weight. I am at the point where I can get lower only if I spend more money for shaving ounces rather than pounds. It gets to the point that I have to ask myself how much money is worth spending to lose more weight in my pack? I also emphasize again that I am really not into gear. Its just a tool for me. Or, to put it differently, as one thru-hiker friend said to me “Losing pounds is cheap; losing ounces is expensive”. To me that can mean monetarily, time wise or comfort level. Each hiker has to find for themselves what that balance is between comfort while hiking and while in camp.
There is definitely more than one way to approach going lightweight. I honestly think most people can easily get into into the 15-20 lbs BPW range without making any radical changes in their hiking and camping styles. The newer gear made by such companies as ULA, Six Moon Designs, Henry Shires, Gossamer Gear, etc is functionally equivalent to older, more traditional gear but is also much lighter.
A few simple changes
A good friend of mine is a prime example of how anyone can benefit from a lighter kit. He wanted to enjoy hiking…but also be comfortable in camp. Backpacking was no longer a pleasure but a trudge. He’d be achy, sore and exhausted at the end of the day.
He asked me to look over his gear and give some recommendations. When I did a gear makeover for him, I was able to get him the GoLite equivalent of a framed ULA Pack, a good down sleeping bag and a GoLite Primaloft jacket (major sale that year at the Boulder HQ. Dirt cheap!). A small pot, a canister stove, a real two-person tent and even a relatively light Thermarest completed the kit. I chose gear for him and not me.
Long story short? His BPW is 17 lbs. Most people do not have to take heavier gear than that (or so) if they are in a position to buy new gear. His gear is functionally the same as traditional gear..but without the weight. It is not any less safe and does not require any more knowledge of their use or sacrifices in comfort than traditional gear. And his comfort level in camp is no different. Needless to say, his comfort level while HIKING is much better. (Well, actually his comfort level in camp is better now. He is no longer as tired and sore!)
Assess your hiking style
As other experienced hikers have noted, it is indeed more difficult to get below 15 lbs in BPW. The gear starts becoming more expensive and/or you need to go more minimalist. If you are the type of person to hike all day versus spending time in camp, a more minimal kit may be for you. A cut down foam pad vs. a Thermarest, a simple lined windshirt vs. a heavier jacket and so on will work well. Do an honest assessment of your hiking style. If you want some camp comforts and want more of a traditionalist setup, go for the 15-20 lbs BPW. Hike more than camp? Tweak your gear to fit this lesser weight range.
Sub-10lb BPW requires experience!
Below 10lbs BPW? You better be comfortable, knowledgeable and experienced in a wide range of outdoor situations in addition to being comfortable with a minimalist kit. As more than one hiker found out, it is one thing to read about the joys of going sub-10lbs on the Internet. It is something completely different to use this gear in real world situations. What is your experience level? Are you honestly comfortable in whatever Mother Nature may throw at you? Have you used this very minimalist kit before? Finding out you do not know how to set up your tarp, that you hate going stoveless and wish you went with a thicker pad is easier to deal with on a weekend outing rather than in a Sierra snowstorm.
I am at about 8 # 12 oz now. (Get rid of the camera equipment? Right at 8 lbs). To go lower would require me to go even more minimalist, sometimes pick and choose my my seasons with care, and perhaps spend more money. I’ve reached my limit pretty much. And I’m cool with that.
Remember, there is no such thing as the BEST GEAR. Find out what works for you for your personal comfort, safety and fun levels. Remember it is just gear in the end. We use gear to hike the trails…we do not hike the trails to use gear. 🙂
Lighten Up! a Falcon Guide by Don Ladigin: A good “meat and potatoes” guide for those who are traditional backpackers and want to lighten up their load. Not as detailed as other guides, but sometimes too many details gets in the way of the overall goal. A good guide for the WHY of going lightweight rather than the specific WHAT. Basically, start with this book if you want to go from 30 lbs base packweight to 15lbs.
Lightweight backpacking and camping edited by Ryan Jordan :A very detailed gear-workshop in book form. If you want diverse opinions from many different people and wish to fine tune your techniques, this book is a great guide. This book is more aimed towards high end gear for lightening your load, and it definitely shows the analytical side of backpacking gear (engineer types tend to be gear wonks 😉 ) but it does give some interesting ideas from many different people. The editor is the grand poombah over at Backpackinglight.com
Links at PMags.com
My take on the basics of backpacking and going light. The documents have links to backpacking stove comparisons, other resources found on the Internet and how to “dirtbag”. I honestly believe it is possible to go light and be comfortable without spending a lot of money on the latest lexan widget or titanium whatchamahoosey. 🙂 It took many miles, many years and much tweaking to get to my current level of gear. I put together a list that shows how my gear evolved over the various trails. It may be instructive as you put together your own kit.
Hey, Mag, Simply, thanks. I’m 52, getting back into backpacking after many years. Back in the day, I was primarily a hitch-hiker with a heavy pack and modest back-country experience. Recently, I started cracking into the Web to supplement my own dusty know-how. My learning curve has been so steep it’s gone oblique. I’m starting over with gear. I love the minimalist approach and look forward to building stoves, etc. Very, very curious about tarping. Love the idea. Ready to spend money but don’t want to be hasty and gullible about it. Don’t want to kill myself out there with… Read more »
Found your blog while researching a thru hike on the Benton Mackaye. Great stuff, I share a similar philosophy!
Glad you liked it! Have fun on the BMT. It’s a great trail. I need to update the BMT info a little bit.