Nathan’s heavyweight pack.
Editor’s Note: Metamorphosis #1 and #2 were first published in the BackpackingLight Print Magazine, Issues 7 and 9, respectively. All four installments are now also available online.
Just days ago, I was poised to drop a few hundred dollars on eBay. I needed only to submit my bid and beam it up to the cyber auction. The Kelty Typhoon II tent (10 lb, 11 oz) promised to be all of the "bombproof" four-season shelter that reviewers across the ‘net claimed it would be. The behemoth was outfitted with two massive vestibules, two doors, multiple gear stashes – and a matching footprint! It was reported to be capable of withstanding more than twenty inches of snow and driving winds. A slumbering camper might even get a bit too toasty inside the Typhoon II.
Wouldn’t the backcountry be marvelous?!
But I paused too long.
Minutes passed, and the auction ended. Like many times before, I was left wondering why I cannot commit to the purchase of new gear.
Year after year, I fail to acquire the backcountry equipment that whispers sweet promises of improved performance. I continue to crawl into the alpine with an eleven-year-old backpack that pinches and slumps. I still use a six-(plus)-pound sleeping bag that has the packed dimensions of a mid-sized foot stool. I have carried the same old water purifier for hundreds of bone-jarring miles, despite its ability to produce repulsive water from its iodine-stained machinery and jaundiced tubing. I supplement my near-worthless headlamp with a full sized, double D battery flashlight… which I seldom use. I drag a two-pound tarp, a collapsible camp chair, Army surplus rain pants, an oversized rain parka, and an unusual assortment of emergency accoutrement.
Ahh, my pack and I. We weigh a ton, so to speak.
At the trailhead, I saddle up: I don’t carry my pack. It rides me.
My steel-toed boots thunder along the trail, resonating tremors deep into the ground of high country tundra. My shirt clings heavily with perspiration, the soles of my feet cry out for air, and my shoulders ache for reprieve.
My name is Nathan Boddy, and I have a backpacking problem.
I Don’t Age: I Mature
In a frantic last minute reshuffling of gear at a trailhead in the Beartooth Mountains last fall, I cringed while shoving my tripod and fishing gear back into the trunk of the car. There wasn’t an inch to spare – either inside or outside of my pack – to accommodate these luxuries. Despite these unfortunate sacrifices, my pack pounded down upon me like a slow jackhammer as I staggered off toward the trail. By mid-afternoon, my longtime backpacking partner Ryan Gibbs and I were eight miles up, beaten and weary.
Grumbling, we agreed on a campsite that only five years ago we would have eschewed for its proximity to the trailhead. Granted, it was only the first day on the trail, and we were just warming up, right? After all, we had sapped ourselves of needed energy with a short scramble up a talus slope earlier in the day. In spite of vain attempts at justifying our near-the-car campsite, we had to face reality: Ryan and I aren’t twenty-year-olds anymore.
The siren song of age was singing taps. It’s a song we’d heard about, but not actually heard – until now.
After September’s trip, I determined with finality that I will commit to incorporating a lightweight ethos into my hiking style.
2007 will not find me with the same awkward gear. My days in the high country are too precious to encumber my own performance. With this in mind, I find myself jumping enthusiastically into the research and planning required to replace key components of my gear: backpack, sleeping bag, tent, purifier, stove!
Following my nearly fatal purchase of the Typhoon II, however, I followed a breadcrumbed path of articles and reviews that led me into a bright new world that I had never known existed. This new world has challenged my long held notions about backpacking and – like many of you – has literally kept me awake at night! Could it be possible that my hesitation to purchase the mammoth Kelty shelter was simply an instinctual response for self-preservation? Could it be that toeing the line with equipment upgrades is not the only option?
Could it be that I could go… light?
I’ve seen the handwriting on the wall for some time.
I have, in fact, left items behind to reduce bulk and weight, but the fun stuff has always been getting axed first. When my thirteen-year-old gas stove finally met its demise in 2005, I began to use a old blackened tin pot to boil creek water on our campfire, rather than purchase another cooker. But I won’t tell you what the pot weighs.
I’ve wasted hours grappling with my sleeping bag in order to extract it from my pack in a Cesarean-like maneuver that leaves even onlookers exhausted. While I’m sure an upgrade in equipment may help in some of these matters, I fear that toting my heavy pack for many more years may only put me on the one-way path of a trail barge to nowhere, skidding to a stop on a muddy beach with a broken rudder.
Now I see this bright new world of lightweight backpacking.
With this discovery, my suppressed urge for simplicity has been acknowledged! The tight seal of reliance on outdoor equipment and "commercialized backpacking" has been broken, and I am now peeling back the facade to see what lies underneath. With my inclination for minimalism, how can I possibly continue my current trajectory, while knowing that some people are walking tall and strong into the wilderness with packs loaded with gear that weigh less than my pack – empty!? How can I continue to call myself an "avid" backpacker while others are exploring the alpine with loads weighing less than ten pounds?
How can I not begin to obsess over these questions?
This will take time. I have only just begun to see into your world – but I can see far enough to crave more. While my instinct nudges me toward simplicity, my training screams frantic warnings. Can I trust a tarp in place of a tent? Is it really possible to use solid fuel tablets in place of a tank of white gas? Can I really survive with a stove that weighs thirteen grams? Bivy sacks and titanium spoons… is this not complete lunacy?
After all, I have two decades of backpacking a la humpback behind me and reconditioning this ethos will not be easy.
So, give me one year.
With loyalty to experimentation and adventure, one year should be sufficient to give lightweight backpacking a thorough trial. More than just a trial, however: I’ll put it and myself, to the test. In September of 2007, Gibbs and I will attempt a transect of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness along the Continental Divide. It’s easy to speculate that, with our bodies aging, time being increasingly hard to come by, and our historical attachment to heavy gear, that this may not only be one of the longer, but also one of the last long hikes we undertake.
However, with lightweight gear and the discipline to use it comfortably, I may see the Pintler transect evolve into an entirely different creature: the beginning of a whole new way to enjoy the backcountry. Alternatively, I suppose it could mean day after day of derision and scorn as Gibbs lambastes me for being an ill-prepared idiot above the treeline.
I have one year to lay the groundwork. One year to undergo the metamorphosis from heavy to light. One year to drop my base weight to… twenty… fifteen… ten pounds?
Read More of Nathan’s Transformation