The summer of 2008 got Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking School off to a great start. We ran three trips in three wildly different locations: Northern Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Desert Southwest. Each allowed for a unique experience and permitted us to focus on the core curriculum of the Wilderness Trekking format.
All three of our courses began with a full day in a classroom as a foundation for the backcountry time. This was an opportunity for in-depth presentations and group discussions, as well as hands-on time with the gear, all building to the moment we left the indoor classroom for the outdoor one.
The Gear and How to Choose It
There is no denying that a major component of lightweight camping is an emphasis on gear and its weight. One of the amazing benefits that Backpacking Light can offer is an arsenal of extremely specialized equipment. There was an excellent assortment of cutting-edge stoves, shelters, bear bag hanging tools, bivy sacks, tent stakes, water treatments, and backpacks. Getting to handle and use these items was a high point for most of the students – they were like kids in a candy store, with a comfy pack instead of a sugar coma as the consequence of indulging in the array.
The team was encouraged to use (well, play with, actually) a wide variety of gear. Folks cooked their meals on a rotation of stove systems, and each night we slept under different tarps. The result was some real-deal insight into what worked best for each person and their individual needs. Student feedback indicated that experience actually using the gear was invaluable in shaping their decisions for their own gear closets.
The instructors formalized the process of how students chose gear, factoring in multi-use items, durability, potential weather, our route and our goals for the trip. If a piece of gear was superfluous, we made a mindful decision about not taking it, creating a lot of discussion around the perception of "need." The phrase "But I always take this," should set alarm bells ringing; you need to consciously ask yourself "Why do I always take this?" If you can’t answer that, the item doesn’t go in the pack.
Weighing Every Little Thing – No Sneaking!
The preparations for a lightweight backpacking trip require definitive data, and the only way you can get the relevant info is to put each individual item on a scale and write down its weight on a data sheet. This exercise is an essential part of the experience. The process goes pretty quickly as we minimize the actual number of potential items by separating our wants from our needs, all before the scales even come out. We have a data sheet for each team member, pencils, calculators, and bunch of digital scales (digital is more precise, and we’re all about precision). The students immediately jump into the process, and the business of dramatic subtraction begins.
We urged folks to be bold and to use their course to really try something new. Students discovered that it’s a liberating experience to leave things behind. We encouraged a lot of sharing, so while we had up to ten students on some trips, we never had ten tubes of toothpaste. Something as simple as sharing little things also added to the community experience of our little team.
The moment of truth: one at a time, we put the packs on the scale. There was a heightened sense of camaraderie as each teammate announced their total pack weight, and that total was written on a large display data sheet. What surprised and fascinated everyone, including the instructors, were how low the initial numbers were. It was impressive, and it consistently lead to a last minute flurry of even more subtraction, with a friendly competition to get those numbers just a little bit lower.
We were meticulous about the weight of all the gear, including the weight of the food, which was a real eye-opener for some of the students. Like we had every other item, we made decisions based on efficiency, experience, and safety. Some folks were a little worried that we might not be taking enough and that they would end up being hungry. We reassured them, then trimmed their food weight anyway. At the end of the trip, we verified our food calculations and their accuracy. After a six-day, five-night trek, we weighed the leftovers that we walked out with, and they came in at well under one pound. Many students had never considered food weight, simply considering quantity for each meal. Reducing excess food weight was one more area of knowledge and resulting freedom when backpacking – and the good news is that no one felt as though they had been deprived during the trip. Everyone ate their fill.
We also weighed the stove fuel going in and at the end of the trek so that we could get a true number about the quantity we used. Our trash was an issue too, and before going in, we were thorough about minimizing any excessive packaging. As a final measure, we weighed all the trash when we came out. These numbers were impressively low without us taking any extraordinary measures beyond simply being mindful of what we were carrying in.
A New Way of Thinking
During our time in the backcountry, we collectively settled into a pleasant day-to-day rhythm. Some classes were in a big formal circle, but most were done on the trail as brief info-bursts, which makes sense. There aren’t many grand concepts involved with lightweight backpacking and camping, but there are a million little tricks. As an example, I was with a small crew on a steep set of switchbacks, and I demonstrated to the students how to take off and pack their windshirt while continuing walking… never stopping. We had some fun with this simple trick, racing each other as we pulled off layers and crammed them into the pack and put ’em back on – all while hiking.
We also focused on hydration methods and carrying. The traditional backpacker loads up their pack with lots of water, which is a very conservative approach (hiking with the belief that no water will be available to you on the trail), and it adds a lot of weight to their packs, backs, and hips. We carefully reviewed the maps for water sources along our route, and combined the maps with the instructors’ knowledge about the area of travel. The Gallatin Ridge in Montana in late summer is intimidating and dry, yet we managed to fill our bottles from some tiny springs along the way. Instructor Ryan Connelly would pow-wow with a group of students and point at zone over a mile away, off on the horizon. A little stripe of bright green grass among the yellowed foliage of late summer was a dead giveaway for a water source.
“See that green? That means there we should find some water there.” He then led by example, drinking his water bottle dry and hiking with an empty vessel. There was no need to encourage anyone to do the same; it was understood. A half-hour later, when we arrived at the lush pocket of green grass, we found the little trickle seeping out over the rocks and filled up.
Tarp camping was a newfound joy for a lot of the students, who were accustomed to the perceived security of their tents. Sleeping with a sewn-in floor and sidewalls seems impermeable to bugs, and students were surprised at how comfortable and non-chewed up they stayed with a simple ground cloth and tarp. Now, I’ve got a lot of experience setting up a tidy tarp, but watching Andrew Skurka teach tarp-craft was genuinely impressive. I was in the presence of true mastery: taut pitches, secure guylines, and stable poles attested to his skill.
While critics of lightweight backpacking focus on what they believe is being neglected or left behind, those who want to pursue it as a means of getting to the wilderness more often and more comfortably must first look headlong at their packing choices. Learning some lightweight tricks is key, but learning how to pack light and still lack for nothing takes time and a dedication to trial and error. Those who enroll in courses like this are motivated and bold, taking more vigorous steps to reducing packweight and seeing what else opens up as a result. It was a delight to spend time on the trail in conversation, since no one was too winded to chat, and the fact that the packs were light and the shoes were comfortable made trail-time even more pleasant.
Teaching on the Fly
The class was good for the instructors, too. When we turned a corner in the high country and got a big expansive view of our route from the previous day, it was easy to do an impromptu map class. We could match big features on the map to visual points off in the distance, features we had climbed over yesterday. We got a fix on our position on the map and could extrapolate what to expect for the rest of the day. With traditional backpacks, we would have needed to take ‘em off in order to focus and relax into the lesson. Not so with our team: we did all our map work and navigation with the lightweight packs on, without any burden. This simple exercise (not shedding one’s pack at each and every opportunity) was a highlight of the trip for some of the students. The lightweight pack heightens your ability to look around and make decisions with a new-found efficiency, and leaving heavy items behind translates to more, not less, freedom on the trail.
In 2008, our WT1 course format was very different than it is in 2009. In 2008, students were treated to a two-day intensive classroom training session. They then embarked on an optional community trek to test their new skills together. The students chose treks that were in the range of four to five days, just enough time to become immersed in an authentic lightweight backcountry experience. At the end, they were getting into the rhythm of a well oiled machine, but all the students collectively recommended that we make the WT1 field component of the course mandatory, and just a little bit longer. They felt like the last day came too soon, that they were all finally achieving a heightened level of efficiency, and they wanted to USE those newfound skills a bit longer. In response and recognition of this desire to use new skills for as long as possible, we’ve extended our WT1 courses in 2009 to a full seven days, with six days and five nights in the field.
In 2008, we had multiple locations throughout the west for the WT1 courses, and while this gave us diversity of field of study, we’ve decided to keep future courses in our own backyard of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The wilderness areas around Bozeman are just TOO perfect! Plus, it’s our own playgound, so we have more to offer as far as natural history lessons and our own intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Traveling Off the Trail
There is something liberating about hiking on a path in the mountains, but there is a heightened feeling of freedom when you leave that path. We made an effort to do some ambitious off-trail hiking on all of the courses, modeling efficiency in path finding and route selection. Our reward was to move through some astoundingly pristine places. There is an emotional fulfillment in being in the wilderness, and feeling competent in your route finding away from the trail heightens that feeling. Trails are all very well and good, but they simply move you from point A to point B. Choosing your own way, one not traveled by most others in a place, is satisfying in all the deep and meaningful ways that make us feel empowered and independent.
Once we mastered cooking on the trail and water source location, we were liberated from the traditional campsite location requirement of a stream or river or creek nearby. And when we realized that we could walk away from the trail, we were capable of making low impact stealth camps with small overall footprints. As the team began to master these basic lightweight skills, it was as though we were watching little puzzle pieces snap into place in the students’ minds, making them capable of doing something truly new and revolutionary in their outdoor pursuits.
We were camping in a new way, and the rewards were enormous.
To further explore what the BPL Wilderness Trekking School has to offer, click on the SCHOOL link. We wanna help lighten your load! If you have any questions email us.
Click a thumbnail to view the image gallery.