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.