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.
I feel like a wobbly-kneed fawn. I’ve got all the confidence of a gawky tourist, clutching at his phrasebook in a foreign country. I’m like a pimple-faced teenager at a school dance, craning in anxiety at the ladies across the room…
But, my base weight has dropped to nineteen pounds.
Compared to the expertise written into surrounding pages, a nineteen-pound base weight must look like an embarrassingly tight pair of pants. With another ten pounds in food and water, my thirty-pound pack still needs heavy trimming. With this base weight, however, I have just barely squeezed into the unremarkable "light" category. Unremarkable, that is, until you consider the base weight I’ve dropped from: sixty pounds.
Following my confessions in Issue 7 of Backpacking Light Magazine, I dedicated myself to the goal of becoming a super-ultralight (SUL) backpacker. The first step of weighing my existing gear revealed a startling excess of booty: extra batteries, large bottle of sunscreen, rubber poncho, homemade PVC fishing rod carrier… the list was substantial. As I sat in my kitchen scribbling down weights, I realized that no one item could easily be removed to reduce my base weight. Granted, my 6.5-pound Nebo sleeping bag was topping the list, but my backpack wasn’t far behind at 5.2 pounds! I had a flashlight that weighed one pound and a "light" jacket that weighed two! All in all, the mountain of goods that I spread out on my kitchen table set a shockingly high benchmark.
Will it Hurt?
My first step away from that benchmark was to order a handful of items from BPL: a bottle of KlearWater water purifier, a titanium Esbit wing stove, and some fuel tablets. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked when the tiny box arrived several days later. My first thought before tearing it open was, "They must not have sent the whole order." I was wrong. They had sent the whole order, and there was room in the box to spare. As I held my new Esbit wing stove between thumb and index finger, one thought kept rattling through my head: "I’m going to starve."
My vigor for the implementation of new backpacking methods seemed to be tested at every juncture. Not only was I alarmed that the Esbit stove was the size of a paper clip, but several very important camping traditions seemed to be under attack. "Feet Relief," (the name my backpacking partner Gibbs and I have given to our camp sandals), appear contradictory to the lightweight ethos. A Crazy Creek chair has held my exhausted frame after many a long day in the alpine, but again, does not seem to compliment ultra austerity. My adoption of trekking poles has been somewhat more acceptable, but is an act for which I must swallow my pride. When Gibbs first started using them a year or two ago, I chided him for his dependence on "Pixie Stix." When shopping for the right pair, I shook my head in disbelief that Leki poles come equipped with walking instructions.
Separating me from my old pack has been another difficult passage. I suspect it will while away its last years doing odd chores, like it did recently, swallowing all my clothes in a hurried move across the country and belching them forth again in my new home, but it will not likely see the high country again. It has been replaced by a used GoLite Infinity internal frame pack, whose weight can be coaxed below the two-pound barrier when stripped of its frame stiffener and pocket lid. As excited as I am about the GoLite, I feel like I’m dating again after a long marriage. On our first several dates, the GoLite and I giggled nervously, trying to get used to one another. I stammered and tried not to look like a fool.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
As winter melted into spring, I assigned myself a few dry runs to get used to the new methods and mindsets. During a visit to southern Arizona, I climbed into the Santa Rita Mountains, where my inability to block the wind from my Esbit stove forced me to consume some rather crunchy chili beef with mac. My grumbling intestines reminded me to buy a foil windscreen before serious trips. In mid-May, I tried my hand at pitching my old tent fly, sans poles, sans tent. I was hoping that it would serve in place of an expensive tarp. In a small, tick-infested swath of public land in southern Minnesota, I grumbled discontentedly as it sagged toward my perspiration streaked face. After thirty minutes of slapping at mosquitoes, I abandoned the effort. I still hadn’t been able to replace my sleeping bag, which would not have physically fit into my new GoLite anyway, and my efforts to fashion a shelter from existing items had failed miserably. It began to seem as though all my best intentions were doomed.
However, not everything was a disaster: on an afternoon hike just outside of Rochester, Minnesota, I took my chances at purifying my drinking water with a few drops of the KlearWater solution. I can say with conviction that it worked. Had it been anything less than effective, the agricultural slurry I pulled out of Silver Creek that day may very well have killed me. Lastly, I replaced my flashlight with an LED light the size of quarter, jettisoned my hard-sided Nalgene bottles for collapsible, and dedicated myself to the hunt for a new shelter and sleep system.
Concerning sleep systems, let me be clear: if my legs do not maintain their distance from one another during slumber, I will sweat to death. I am a warm and claustrophobic sleeper, so tapered mummy bags are out. That being said, I had determined that a top-bag system would be ideal. That decision led me to Big Agnes. In the interest of total disclosure, I have to admit that many of the sleep systems I’d seen on BPL made me wonder if you people weren’t completely out of your minds. A sleep quilt? Really? I sleep warm, yes, but isn’t it desirable to wake up in a bag? At any rate, the Big Agnes bags seemed to combine a fairly roomy design with a decent weight. After hours of comparisons, reading reviews and analyzing my pocketbook, I had it narrowed down to two: the Horse Thief or the Nugget. Maybe the Yampa… jeesh, don’t get me started. Does it indicate a problem that I spent more time weighing the merits of sleeping bags than I did on the purchase of my first home? Nevertheless, my first action represented what is always the safest decision: I purchased a Big Agnes Roxy Ann for my wife and continued dithering about my own bag.
Joining the Nutters
As the summer began, I had essentially made no gains since spring. I was confused, disheveled, and clutching at a mismatch of ultra-light and ultra-heavy backpacking gear. I was too reluctant and broke to make a firm decision regarding my next step, but my intrigue with lightweight precluded me from continuing on with the old gear. It wasn’t until a car camping trip at 10,000 feet in Colorado that I awoke with an epiphany: I was under my sleeping bag. I had shimmied completely out of the bag, undoing the zipper along the way, and was sleeping soundly directly underneath it. The shock was not waking up in that position-it happens nearly every time. No, the shock was in the realization that I had inadvertently been turning my sleeping bag into a quilt, laying directly upon my pad, and had been doing it for years! I’ve said it myself: "if my legs do not maintain their distance from one another during slumber, I will sweat to death. I am a warm and claustrophobic sleeper." Problem solved.
In a matter of days, I was enduring some gentle derision myself as I proclaimed proudly that I had purchased a fourteen-ounce Bozeman Mountain Works Pro 90 Quilt. "A quilt?" My wife’s words came as more of a mockery than a question, "Doesn’t sound very comfortable to me."
With several minor failures behind me, I determined to throw myself into the roiling sea and either sink or swim. Striking out across Colorado’s Grand Mesa, I tried to mentally prepare myself for a miserable night. It was to be the maiden voyage of my quilt, and to be tried out live without a safety net. I had brought minimal food, my new selection of lightweight gear, and a blue tarp for cover. That’s right: the old fiber-reinforced blue tarp, fresh from Ace Hardware (also seen protecting roofs in the Gulf Coast). It was a considerable weight savings over my old tent and represented a definite departure from the old way. No more tip-toeing around-I was jumping in with both feet. Speaking of feet, I took a radical departure from my traditional steel-toed boots and donned a pair of ultra-light Crocs. I figured my Pixie Stix could make up for any lost stability.
I won’t pretend it was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in the high country. Considering the hurried configuration of my blue tarp into a triangular tunnel to serve both as tarp and ground cloth, I think I slept quite well. In fact, being my first night under a bona fide quilt and struggling to keep my body’s warmth from escaping at each roll, I’d say it was a fine rest. My feet protruded a bit from the bottom end of my haphazard tarp arrangement, and my head lay mostly exposed to the night air, but this allowed me a dazzling view of a meteor shower dancing behind the silhouetted spruce trees. The temperature dropped into the mid-forties, but once I was able to locate my stocking cap, my body’s engine kept me at a comfortable idle. I was, in fact, surprised to see daylight paint the eastern sky so soon.
Wait, That’s It?
When I finally tossed the quilt aside and pulled myself out of my blue refuge, my first thought was, "Ok, I’ve done it." I knew I’d be in a hurry to make a prior arrangement in town, so I began to gather my things, which was precisely when the full allure of lightweight backpacking hit home with a fury: I was packed in under five minutes. I slung my pack over my shoulder easily, without the furious grunting and heaving to which I had so long been accustomed. With my pack as light as it was, I happily avoided the trail and began to pick my way across the Mesa, slowly, deliberately, enjoying every step. I stopped at regular intervals, absent of the concern that getting going again might be an effort. I stooped to pick up interesting rocks, snap pictures, and ponder the topography. I was reluctant to turn back toward home.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m not sure how to reconcile the apparent needs I have- Crazy Creek, Leatherman tool, pack cover, extra clothing, tripod for the camera, rain pants – with ultralight alternatives. Old habits die hard. However, I was so jazzed up after my successful trip that I found myself at work the following Monday, scribbling lists of the changes I’d make to my next jaunt. Unfortunately, too many of the items were things I felt I needed to add to my pack, rather than remove. Still, there are obvious ways to improve as well. I’m more than willing to leave behind a whole array of items that I once thought indispensable: stove, water pump, sunscreen, glasses case. There are also a few items I simply failed to minimize fully last time: car keys, wallet, toothbrush handle… but will these changes be effective when put to a more challenging test? Will my base weight continue to drop? Considering how much I cut for the last test, is it even possible to get into the ultralight category?
I’ve got some very critical pounds between here and there, but I am not afraid.
Read More of Nathan’s Transformation