I’d always wondered how to get my backpack lighter. I am on the short side of average height in the U.S., being five feet, four inches tall, and in my early adult life, I weighed 125-130 pounds. The general rule at the time was that your pack should be no more than one-third of your body weight.Yet I had to carry a tent, pad and sleeping bag all sized for an average man; my pack usually hovered around fifty pounds, and when I was the leader responsible for a group of teenagers, with the larger first aid kit, emergency paperwork, educational readings, and all else added to my load, I would sometimes be carrying fully HALF of my body weight! I’m strong, but ten miles is a looooong way carrying that much weight.
Over the years, I pared down my pile of luxuries whose individual impact was negligible but whose cumulative burden outweighed (literally) their benefit. I didn’t really need and rarely ever used the cheese grater, the candle lantern, the star chart, or the solar shower, so they stayed home. I paid more attention to the amount of food I came home with, and the number of warm layers never touched. I made sure I carried more of each than I ever had used, but reduced my emergency buffer to a more reasonable volume. I bought the women’s bag, pad, and packs when they were finally available. I dealt with my fear of running out of reading and limited myself to one thin paperback. I made a compact and lightweight watercolor kit. At the same time, past the age of forty, I gained a few pounds, so that by the numbers I was "allowed" to carry more, but by the body it felt even more important to lighten up.
In 2005 I was backpacking on the PCT at the base of Mt. Adams. Several lightly-loaded through-hikers, and some people just hiking long days, passed me, all carrying the same pack (which shall remain nameless and unendorsed), light and slim and half the size of mine, and it made my gearaholic nerve endings jangle in recognition and desire.
Fate stepped in and pushed me down some steps in November 2006, breaking my fibula at the ankle. After eighteen months of trying all sorts of things and hoping the X-rays would look better, it became clear that I would need a surgical repair. In December 2007, I got a bone graft and a metal plate. When I went in for my January check-up, I asked my surgeon if I could backpack the following summer – it had been so hard not being able to join the trips while I was healing! He said, "If you can get your pack down to thirty pounds, you can backpack." My lightweight journey was launched in earnest.
In February, fate more gently nudged me in the right direction. Still on crutches, at a training out of town, I noticed a colleague’s BPL bumper sticker and was introduced to Backpacking Light. So began months of web searches, reading forums, reading library books, reading blogs, making lists, etc. I tallied up the gear I had and its weight, and I made a wish list of gear to replace it, calculating the cost per weight saved to determine where I would get the greatest benefit with the least expenditure. I did not want to use lightening my load as an excuse for amassing more stuff and spending money I didn’t have. I kept my eye on eBay and other on-line retailer’s winter sales. I went to REI garage sales. I went to shops selling used and discounted gear. Selling and trading in some of my old gear, I ended up spending about $300 on some clothing, a shelter, pack, lighter trekking poles, a cook system, and a sleeping quilt.
I re-thought a lot of my assumptions and habits. The basic premise, that to the extent possible everything carried should have multiple uses, made so much sense to me that it was easy to put into practice. I once had hypothermia, so my anxiety when I am cold worsens my physical discomfort, but I was willing to try sleeping with a lighter quilt wearing all my warm clothing instead of carrying three pounds of bag that only got pulled out at night. Alcohol stoves excited my inner tinkerer, and freezer bag cooking was a no-brainer extension of my old habit of dehydrating my own soups, noodle dishes, and stews. My cooking outfit came down to well under a pound, fuel and all. Instead of a book, I had my iPod loaded with podcasts. I was excited when I saw the weight tally of my base gear plummet: a twenty-four-ounce backpack! A twenty-four-ounce shelter with floor and mosquito netting! Meanwhile, I worked with my physical therapist to make a training schedule to get ready for the trip. After nearly two years on the couch and a ‘new’ ankle, I wanted to do it right and hike happily and safely.
When I had my gear, a day’s water and all my food loaded for my trip in Canada, my pack weighed 31 pounds. I was thrilled! With excitement and curious anticipation, I started back, after so long waiting, to the place I love the best: on a trail surrounded by wilderness. My ankle was sore at the end of the day, but there was no lack of icy water in which to soak (or dunk, rather) my lower leg for thirty seconds. I was comfortable and happy on the trail. More of my time and attention was devoted to enjoying and painting my surroundings. I was enjoying the journey more and laid down at night more relaxed than exhausted, with fewer kinks to work out of my spine.
I might have chosen a different path to my new lightweight backpacking style, but I am glad I got here. I look forward to more trips, maybe even with longer mileage days, in my lightweight future.