I took my first backpacking trip right after I graduated from college. I was living in a student co-op in Berkeley, and a bunch of us decided to celebrate the end of the year by going up to Half Dome in Yosemite. Having never backpacked before, I borrowed whatever gear I could from friends and scrounged an assortment of food from the co-op.
At the trailhead to Vernal Falls, I carried a Coleman external frame pack, a white gas two-burner car camping stove, a gallon of fuel, a four-person tent, a gallon jug of water, some extra clothing, and a five-pound jar of peanut butter.
I was twenty-three years old, young, fit, and I was in pain.
The pack I wore was two sizes too large for me. As a result, the hipbelt did not fit, and the entire weight of the pack tugged down on my shoulders. Just walking to the trailhead was difficult under this tremendous load, and I struggled to catch my breath.
Yosemite Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls from the Panoramic Trail south of Glacier Point.
I know we hiked up Vernal and Nevada falls, but I am not certain I ever saw them. Most of my memory from that part of the trip was of the mist from the water fall cooling my aching, sweat-drenched body as I stared at the endless number of granite steps I had yet to climb. In an attempt to shift the weight off my shoulders, I was bending so far forward that all I could see was ground. Any attempt to look up was rewarded with my head hitting the massive jar of peanut butter strapped on the top of my pack.
Mercifully, we made it to Little Yosemite Valley to set up our base camp and climbed Half Dome the next day with just daypacks.
The views atop Half Dome were breathtaking, with the tree-dotted expanses of granite everywhere I looked and the valley floor far below me. I was on top of the world, and I wanted more of it.
Educating a Mule
I bought my first book on backpacking, Karen Berger’s Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking. It became my backpacking Bible, educating me on the myriad of choices I had to confront when buying gear. It also gave me insight into the skills I would need to learn and challenges I would face in the wild.
More books would follow, including Backpacker magazine’s Everyday Wisdom: 1001 Expert Tips for Hikers and More Everyday Wisdom: Trail-Tested Advice from the Experts.
I was determined to learn how to select gear wisely and remedy the mistakes from my first backpacking experience. Yet somehow years went by without my taking another backpacking trip. I found my career, got married, bought a house, got a dog, and then started a family. It was not until my daughter turned two-and-a-half that I began to reflect on my unfulfilled desire to go backpacking. While I wanted my daughter, Mei-Ling, to be comfortable in the outdoors, in truth, I wasn’t comfortable myself.
So, I dusted off my old books, re-familiarized myself with the essentials of backpacking gear and strode confidently into REI. It was July – the height of the camping season – and the ideal time to pay full price for all my backpacking needs.
After dropping a few thousand dollars, I walked out of REI with everything a family of three would need to take on the world and survive. The trunk of my car was crammed with an exhaustive array of outdoor preparedness apparatus, including repair kits for my stove and water filter and any other gear that could possibly succumb to disaster. I’d even found a portable nebulizer for my asthmatic daughter.
Being the Family Sherpa
For our first family backpacking trip, I decided to return to Yosemite and go to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. As I carefully loaded our backpacks, I took pride in knowing each item had been carefully considered and recommended by expert backpackers based on years of hard-earned trail experience. What I had not prepared for was carrying all of the gear for a family of three.
I was thirty-six years old, mature, relatively fit, had the best and lightest gear that money could buy, and I was in pain.
I weighed 135 pounds and, according to my backpacking book, I should have been carrying no more than a third of my body weight. Apparently, the 80 pounds I was hauling was closer to 59 percent of my body weight.
My wife had it even worse, struggling seven long miles with Mei-Ling on her back in an ill-fitting child carrier.
"Backpacking is easy, Mommy!" Mei is riding in style in an early model Deuter Kangakid, which lacked any lumbar support padding. Notice the plastic bag full of used diapers.
Once we arrived at our campsite, the trip became quite enjoyable. With my aching, sweat-drenched body freed of the pack, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the park. Gazing out over the ridges of granite, hearing wind whistling through the pine trees and white water crashing down the river, I was reminded of the reasons I had wanted to do this again.
Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is visited by less than 1% of park visitors, providing a unique opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the park without the crowds. Photo taken one mile northeast of Rancheria Falls campsite with Hetch Hetchy Reservior in the distance, which is the water source for San Francisco. Rancheria Falls campsite is about seven miles from the O’Shaughnessy Dam trailhead and is an easy trek with little elevation change.
But my aching feet and the crushing pain in my back on the trail told me I was still doing something wrong. What had I missed in all my books? They told me how much weight I should be carrying, but not how to lighten my pack. I realized I would have to experiment on my own.
Yosemite Tenaya Creek is southeast of Tuolumne Meadows, off of Highway 120/Old Tioga Road near Olmsted Point, and flows from Tenaya Lake.
My wife Pat and four-year-old daughter Mei-Ling, smiling before the mosquitoes ate us alive in Yosemite’s Tenaya Creek during the month of June.
On other family trips to places like Tenaya Creek in Yosemite, I made progress on getting lighter.
Down to "just" fifty-five pounds to Lake Vernon!
For a four-day trip to Lake Vernon, I pared my pack down to fifty-five pounds.
Finding a New Book
In October of 2006, my friend Bill and I decided to hike the Ohlone Trail – a twenty-mile overnighter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bill’s friend, Jeremy, joined us. I carried only thirty-five pounds on this trip, my lightest yet. My 5300-cubic-inch Gregory Palisade pack alone accounted for seven of those pounds.
As the day progressed, Bill and I plodded along the trail and did our best to keep up with Jeremy. At the top of the steep hills, he patiently waited for us to catch up. Winded from our climb, we took time to catch our breath, while Jeremy cheerfully marched on ahead of us.
Jeremy’s Granite Gear Vapor Trail, taunting me while showing me the errors of my heavyweight ways.
To my shock and disbelief, Jeremy was only carrying a nineteen-pound pack! When we made camp that night, I was dumbfounded. Jeremy had a freestanding tent. He ate hot food and slept warm and comfortably that night. No suffering, no deprivation, no holes drilled into his spoon. How had he done this?
Days after the trip, I struggled to figure out how Jeremy had managed to carry a pack half the weight of mine without sacrificing on comfort in camp. I bombarded him with emails, grilling him about the gear he carried. Eventually Jeremy told me about the book Lightweight Backpacking & Camping. Then he remarked, "Now you know everything that I do."
I read this book over and over to glean its secrets. Thus began my maddening quest to further reduce the weight of my backpack.
Obsessing Over Gear
I downloaded a gear calculator program and weighed all of my clothing and gear on a postal scale down to the ounce.
I soon realized how changes in my gear choices could make pounds of difference. Switching from a white gas stove to a canister stove shaved off a pound. Exchanging my synthetic sleeping bag for a down one saved me a pound and a half. Trading my seven-pound, three-person tent for a tarptent saved me five-and-a-half pounds.
I embarked on hours of research, posted questions on the Backpacking Light forums, and experimented endlessly with an assortment of gear. I was in pursuit of the perfect kit. There were many trials and a number of errors along the way.
On a trip to Santa Cruz Mountains, I pitched my tarptent on top of an exposed ridge while a rain storm rolled in. As I huddled inside the shelter, howling winds ripped a stake out of the soggy ground. The tarptent collapsed on me, and more than an inch of muddy water rushed inside. Unable to get out of the tent for fear that the wind would blow it away, I cinched the top of my sleeping bag and curled up on my side, hoping for the best. I awoke the next morning looking like Han Solo encased in carbonite beneath the drenched collapsed tent. The exterior of my sleeping bag and sleeping pad were completely soaked. Thankfully, in my seam-sealed Marmot Helium EQ bag, I had somehow remained completely warm and dry through the night.
Learning by screwing up. The consequences of failing to practice properly pitching my tarptent and poor site selection resulted in sleeping in a mud puddle under a collapsed tent.
Fortunately, there were more successes than errors.
Below Yosemite’s Red Peak Pass (11,075 feet) descending to Triple Peak Fork.
Jeremy and I took a number of trips together, each one giving us confidence to push harder, travel longer distances – and to go lighter and lighter. Our first major trip together was a fifty-mile, four-day loop in Yosemite from Glacier Point to Red Peak Pass. Though we traveled quickly and light, we suffered huge blisters on our heels and learned the importance of foot care and wearing the right shoes and socks.
Starting out on the High Sierra Trail from Sequoia National Park from Crescent Meadow with Castle Rocks in the background sporting a Gregory Z55 pack, amazingly comfortable at 3 lbs, 3 oz.
Two months later, we set out to conquer the seventy-mile High Sierra Trail from Sequoia National Park to the top of Mt. Whitney. I carried thirty-six pounds. The trip we had planned to complete in seven days took only four days. We were thrilled with the knowledge we could comfortably do fifteen miles per day, which hinted at the possibility of even longer trips.
A slice of Heaven with the perfect swimming hole. Fraser Lakes, 9201 feet above Emigrant Lake in the Stanislaus National Forest, which lies on northern border of Yosemite.
This year Jeremy and I made the leap of faith into the world of poncho tarps, bivy bags, and frameless packs. I carried twenty-six pounds into the Emigrant Wilderness on a four-day, forty-mile trip. We experienced the full range of Mother Nature’s moods, including hail and rain. There were injuries, pain, and perseverance. There were places of beauty that took my breath away and put a silly grin of pure happiness upon my face.
I recently took my first solo backpacking trip at Big Basin in the California Redwoods State Park. The trip put all the things I had read and learned into a test of endurance. For two days and one night, I carried seventeen pounds and travelled fifty-nine miles.
Explaining My Sickness
On a snow-camping trip with the Sierra Club this past February in Yosemite, other hikers struggled under the weight of fifty-pound packs. I carried thirty-six pounds and remained comfortable and warm. During the trip, a puzzled instructor asked why in the world would I want to hike fifteen to twenty miles in a day? In essence, why go light?
Yosemite’s Dewy Point (7385 feet) provides a stunning view that overlooks Yosemite Valley and is located about four miles north of Badger Pass Ski area. Taken during the Sierra Club’s snow camping class. There is something wrong when you are marched in the middle of nowhere, are made to dig your own grave in the snow, toss a tarp over the top of it, and then are told to sleep in it for two nights.
I explained to the instructor that going light has not been about deprivation and suffering. Going light has enabled me to be more engaged in my outdoor pursuits. It has demanded the best of me physically and has challenged me to thoughtfully consider what I need to carry, where I will go – and how to get there safely.
It is not about the number of miles I travel. It is about the spectacular things I witness in nature, sights that humble me with their raw power and beauty. It’s about time on the trail with friends and family, learning about each other and ourselves – and sharing experiences that inspire new journeys to be taken in the future.
Sharing the adventure: Jeremy & Tony at Deer Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness
Tony, Pat, and five-year-old Mei-Ling backpacking together at Point Reyes, California. North of San Francisco. Despite going light, see how nothing changes: Mei is still bumming a free ride.
I no longer view mysterious, distant places as only within the reach of a few extreme adventurers I read about in magazines, but as something that we can all aspire to reach. I am thirty-nine years old, wiser, still fit, and no longer in pain.