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Hiking should be fun, not work, so lighten up

Light is right and less is more, especially when you are backpacking. A lightweight pack is safer and more comfortable, and more FUN, than a heavy pack full of overbuilt and unnecessary stuff; and it makes the backcountry more accessible for anyone who does not want to (or cannot) carry a traditional pack, which should be everyone but the masochists among us.

Why I Go Light

My first day of “backpacking” was my first day on the Appalachian Trail in 2002. I had spent ample time in the outdoors — as an adventurous child, a car camper on family vacations, and a summer camp counselor — but I was not a knowledgeable backpacker, and certainly not a knowledgeable long-distance backpacker.

Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing, besides trying to make a crazy idea (hiking to Maine, from Georgia) a reality. I did, however, have an idea about what a backpacker is “supposed” to look like, at least according to photos in Backpacker Magazine and the REI catalog, posters at the local outfitters, and backpackers I’d seen in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Those impressions told me that, in order to go backpacking, I needed carry a monstrous pack with lots of stuff lashed to the outside, wear superfluous layers of clothing, and don a pair of heavy hiking boots. There did not seem to be another way.

I did exactly what I was supposed to do: I loaded up 49 pounds of gear and food inside of a pack that weighed 8 pounds (empty!), and started north from Springer Mountain.

Bad idea! It took me just the first hill to realize that the 49-pound load on my back was NOT my friend. In fact, my journal entry from that first day includes a long list of stuff I wanted to throw out or send home as soon as I had the opportunity. My 49-pound load was:

  • Uncomfortable. Even though my pack was designed for carrying that much weight, 49 pounds is still 49 pounds! My muscles were overly fatigued, my joints were achy, and my tendons and ligaments quickly became irritated and inflamed.
  • Distracting. Instead of being able to enjoy the mountains of Georgia and the camaraderie of other hikers, I was too focused on how uncomfortable and how “not fun” the experience was up to that point.
  • Limiting. In order to reach Maine before my fall semester I needed to complete the trail in less than 100 days (an average of 21.6 miles per day), which would be really difficult with a 49-pound motor home on my back.

By the time I had reached Maine I had whittled my “base weight” (the weight of my pack minus consumables like food, water, and fuel) to 16 pounds, and I had watched the “fun factor” go in the inverse direction — up — with every pound that I shed. At the same time, my safety and comfort increased.

And Why I Continally Go Lighter

Since the Appalachian Trail the weight of my pack has continued to go down, to the point where nowadays my 3-season thru-hiking base weight is ~7 pounds and my 4+ season base weight is a mere 14! The weight of my pack has gone down as:

  • My knowledge of lightweight gear has expanded — I am very familiar with the latest lightweight technologies (namely, fabrics and designs) and the products that are out on the market;
  • My backcountry skills have improved — I rely more on my brain, and less on my gear, to get me through difficult situations;
  • The breadth of my backcountry experiences has widened — By backpacking in all seasons and all environments, I have a much better idea of exactly what I need for a given set of circumstances, allowing me to rule out many “what if” and “maybe I’ll need these” scenarios; and,
  • Lightweight gear has improved — The materials today are lighter and stronger, and the designs are more innovative.

Sadly, my story is not unique: most people “go (really) heavy” at first, until they realize that overbuilt products, overloaded packs, and clunky hiking boots do not equate to comfort, safety, or fun in the backcountry. In fact, it’s just the opposite: you are more comfortable, safer, more mobile, faster, less injury prone, and less environmentally-destructive when you “go light.” Hopefully people discover that there is another way before they give up backpacking for something that doesn’t feel like “work,” which isn’t fun.

5 Responses to Hiking should be fun, not work, so lighten up

  1. Tim Nielsen February 16, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    Your story about your first backpacking trip back in 2002 reminded me of me back in 1978. My first trip ended after only 1 day due to blisters the size of silver dollars. The experience was so negative that I didn’t try again for 12 years! I managed to survive a 4 day trip in the Tetons back in 1990, but have not done it since.

    I write a newspaper column called “On the trail” which is mostly humerous accounts and observations of adventures I have taken. I have been doing a lot of research on Ultralight Backpacking and it has me dreaming of being able to enjoy backpacking like I enjoy day hiking.

    Since you live in Boulder, we should meet up at RMNP and go for a dayhike together. I could write a column about it that 30,000 plus households in Fort Collins would see. It would be a good way to plug your new book.

    Enjoy the day,

    Tim Nielsen
    Windsor, CO

  2. Donny Terranove September 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    Terrific article. We are hitting Mt Whitney in early October, and I am torn between my traditional pack, and my Keltey redwing 3100 (daypack on steroids). We are going to spend two nights on the Mt, so I keep going back and forth — any feedback would be greatly appreciated…

    • Andrew Skurka October 9, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      This decision requires more info than you have provided, so I’m reluctant to make a recommendation. The overall weight and volume of your gear & supplies should drive this decision. Personally, 3100 cubic inches sounds sufficient for a 2-day trip, especially one that involves so much climbing & descending since it’s much more difficult to lug weight vertically than horizontally.

  3. Ryan February 14, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I’m always criticized because my pack is so light. Comments like you won’t be warm. What if this and what if that. My pack weighs no more that 30 pounds even on multi days and I love it. I can run up trails and never even notice my pack. I would much rather be happy on the trail than suffer. Like you said, It should be fun and having a heavy pack doesn’t make it fun. Me and my brother sent backpacking with some friends and we were so efficient because we just brought the basics, food was easy to prepare with a canister stove (you can simmer stuff) while some friends brought a whitegas stove and tried to cook raw sausages, they were charred on the outside and red on the inside. And to be honest our packs were lightest and we had the best camp. Motto: Heavier doesn’t always mean better

  4. Chasingcolor June 27, 2015 at 11:40 am #

    I am a runner and I have target weights for different races. For a marathon my weight is 170. I know that each pound over my target will add minutes to my race. I feel that I also need a target body weight for backpacking.

    At 17 pounds all gear is only 10 percent of my overall weight that my legs are carrying. Thus focusing only on gear leaves 90 percent of weight unaddressed. I think backpackers need to realize the importance of body weight.

    170 gets me Boston qualified…so I drop no lower. Backpackers also need to drop to a weight that fits their goals. I hike at 180.

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