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Most of the young backpackers I know think ultra-light travel is a modern concept. Nothing could be further from the truth. During the last quarter of the 20th century backcountry packs got bigger and heavier.
John Muir took to the outback with items in his coat pockets. In 1920, Forest and Stream published Nessmuk’s (George Washington Sears) Woodcraft. For a canoe cruise across what Nessmuk called Northern Wilderness in late summer, Sears' equipment weight never exceeded 26 lbs - including canoe and fishing gear! A popular little soft cover archery catalog from my youth (1962) describes “How to Pack in for 3 days with less than 10 lbs.,” including archery tackle.
In The Wilderness Handbook, Paul Petzoldt provided this essential advice: “It is a tendency of everyone to over equip....” “Before starting an outing, I ask beginners to divide the gear they have brought into two piles; items they consider absolutely necessary and those things which might be needed. I reject the second stack completely and then check the first one and discard about half of its contents.”
The primary rule of packing light: Do not take what you do not need!
The essentials include what all animals need - food, water and shelter.
Many modern outdoor books and articles encourage you to carry packaged foods, stove, fuel, cooking equipment and sometimes accessories, like cutting boards, measuring cups and so on. You can avoid carrying stove, fuel, pots, dishes and utensils by carrying ready to eat foods. For thousands of years travelers carried ready to eat foods, hunted and gathered, and prepared cooked items over an open fire. Ready to eat foods are available from your food market. Try making your own dried goods, jerky and pemmican. I always carry nuts, dried fruit, candy, cheese and a few energy bars. At any rate, break the habit of hauling cumbersome mechanical gadgets, petro-fuels, bulky packaging and an array of kitchen accessories. Incorporate a little more wildness into your backcountry experiences. Carry less - enjoy more.
Try to avoid systems thinking. You need water, not a bacteria breeding hydration system with hoses, carry straps, etc. Light, plastic bottles have never been so abundant. Recycle by using them.
I sometimes use water filters on river trips. I never carry the things backpacking and would not ask my horse to carry one either. Sometimes purification tablets are desirable, but the scientific data suggests the outdoor press has overstated the need for water purification.
Much backcountry abuse is concentrated around water. It is helpful to carry your water away from these sites and camp in less stressed and less sensitive areas. In deserts, camping near a spring may cause substantial hardship to animals relying on that scarce water source - camp somewhere else.
Shelter includes clothing, tent and sleeping gear. Before recommending paring down your equipment, let me remind you of this backcountry axiom: If you do not sleep well you will have a lousy trip. If you always sleep in a soft king bed with generous pillow and fluffy comforter in Los Angeles, you probably won’t fair well in a jacket and bivy bag or fleece blanket with a few Velcro tabs and wafer thin closed cell foam pad in Wyoming. It is true that when you get tired enough you will sleep; you will also increase your susceptibility to illness and accidents, and feel like hell during what is supposed to be recreation.
If you are not used to sleeping in a hammock, do not take one for your camping bed. Incidentally, in high country or cool weather the air under the hammock will chill you. Don’t get conned into using a hammock to Leave-No-Trace or because you can “sleep anywhere." People have been sleeping on the ground for thousands of years without ruining mother earth, and finding a good hammock site is frequently difficult.
If you like hammocks for backcountry camping, by all means use one. But I do not recommend taking one on a week long backpack without closer to home experience.
Most folks will need a comfortable pad, good sleeping bag and maybe a pillow of some kind. If your down sweater/pillow doesn’t feel right without a pillow case, carry the pillow case. I like light sleeping bags and get along fine with short and narrow pads, but don’t scrimp if you need more pad or bag. Body shape and sleeping style should determine the width and length of your bag and pad. I like air/foam pads but use open and closed cell pads too. I like down sleeping bags, but synthetics are also excellent. I always use a ground cloth. Try to use new sleeping equipment in the back yard and on a few short excursions before a major trip. Don’t be unreasonably influenced by popular literature or the opinions of well-intended sales persons.
Save weight and space by not packing a tent. Unless you are mountaineering or winter camping, you can avoid carrying a tent. Sleep under the stars, use natural shelter. Try a poncho or tarp.
Most tents are grossly over-built. Too many poles, too many zippers, doors, windows, vestibules, accessory pockets, too much heavy fabric. Too many armchair writer/experts have propagandized the public into believing they need a bombproof winter mountaineering tent on forest trails in July. If you do not truly need a tent, leave it home.
Light, efficient materials, layered (to a point) are the prescription for comfort. Both manmade and natural materials are suitable. I routinely travel off trails, follow game trails, and frequent undesignated backcountry, so I prefer long pants and long sleeve shirts. I like drab, natural environment colors because I like to observe wildlife. Clothing is largely a matter of personal taste and one can get by with very little.
I obtain outdoor clothing from four sources: I visit thrift stores, such as Goodwill. When in larger cities I visit outfitter stores. Some of the new designs and fabrics are worthy of consideration. Traditional sporting goods stores sometimes have excellent made in America or Canada gear for hunters or anglers suitable for all backcountry users. Finally, I spend more time on the Internet. I prefer buying from small shop crafters. Let’s face it, the textile industry has moved off shore to exploit cheap foreign labor and avoid regulations protecting workers and the environment. The manufacturers wanting to stay domestic can’t afford to. The public buys the most heavily promoted products and ignores the production part of the business equation.
You have to carry your gear. My first real pack was a Trapper Nelson. It was made of canvas and wood. When I started doing fifty-mile hikes with the Boy Scouts, I bought a Kelty Pack. Dick’s early packs were trim and light, and beautifully made. Some years ago a major manufacturer sent me a prototype internal frame pack for my analysis. I’ll bet it weights two pounds more than the Trapper Nelson of my youth. Most of the packs sold in the past thirty years are overbuilt, too big and too heavy.
Don’t take more than you need was our first packing light guideline. The second is: Don’t take heavy if you can take light.
For years, backcountry gurus insisted travelers needed lots of stuff, and it had to be extraordinarily rugged and durable. Anything less just wasn’t safe. For better and worse, the winds of change have been blowing.
Packing ultralight is the current craze.
Exercise caution. Overbuilt products may slow you down; under-built products might kill you. A number of the publications and promoters of ultralight equipment are the same folks who promoted every gadget imaginable, every convenience accessory, and everything overbuilt as durable and necessary in the past. For consumers the challenge is to separate the ultralight hype from reality. Do not buy all new gear because some book, web site or sales person suggests you cannot enjoy your sport anymore with your old stuff. If the spirit moves you, make incremental changes that provide satisfaction. Packing light is means to ends, not an end in itself. You go into the outback to enjoy yourself and commune with nature. Pack appropriately. Your time in the outdoors will be more rewarding if you avoid setting arbitrary pack weight or trail mile objectives. Individuals have different points of harmony. Find your own.
There has been substantial progress in providing lightweight materials and appropriate construction. When I was a boy, plastic fabrication was becoming popular. The failure rate was tremendous. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that American universities started granting degrees in plastics engineering. The chemists are still ahead of the engineers. Even in this new century it is common to find an improper plastic used in an application, or the right material with the wrong engineering. Beware of products promising new space age ultralight materials until they have proven themselves somewhere other than twenty miles from the nearest trailhead.
There really are tremendous advances in textiles. We find the greatest innovation in strength to weight in sailing fabrics, where films, laminates and state of the art filaments are woven with base fabrics to accomplish amazing results. The cost of these materials is still high; consequently, over the counter applications of advanced fabrics is progressing slowly, but they are coming. Unfortunately, some of the current fabric hype is nothing more than marketing from larger companies trying to convince you a change in product weave is revolutionary simply because it is proprietary.
A few decades ago almost all camp cookware designed for packing was aluminum. Then advertisers tried to convince campers they needed to replace aluminum with stainless steel. Stainless is wonderful stuff, but it is heavy and a mediocre conductor of heat. Titanium has experienced some popularity but it is expensive. Titanium is a poor conductor of heat, very strong, and not as light as aluminum. Hard-anodized aluminum has been used as commercial cookware for ages. Pam Banks’ little industrial anodized Fry-Bake pan has been around for years and I heartily recommend it. Pressure bonded metals are another option with a long history in commercial kitchens that work well on the trail if you can find them. Sigg and Trangia used to feature excellent bonded cookware in North America.
In many respects, this is the golden age of outdoor equipment because you can select high tech, traditional or primitive gear of outstanding quality; and support groups, literature and hands on tutelage to augment your choice. You can mix and match, as I do.
There are a few things I rarely carry. I mentioned the water filter and hydration system. I own several shovels, wonderful for digging in the garden, but I never carry a little shovel in my pack to bury my poop. Gaiters are great in winter, unnecessary inconvenience spring through fall. I started wearing Italian mountaineering boots as a teenager and my boots have gotten lighter every decade since. For thousands of years people walked all over the earth without heavy boots.
On occasion I have used wood or bamboo walking sticks, but I wouldn’t dream of buying a set of the currently popular walking poles. I want my hands free to move and augment my gait and balance. If walking or running with sticks in both hands was a good idea, people all around the world would have been using pairs of walking sticks for the past several thousand years. Our generation walks little and knows little about it, go back a few generations and people walked everywhere; they were experts.
I avoid electronic gadgets such as radios, GPS, cell phones and so on. If I take a watch, I put it in my pack. I go to the backcountry to get away from these things. The Wilderness Act emphasizes solitude and primitive recreation. Modern gadgetry isn’t appropriate in designated Wilderness areas.
I own net bags, candle lanterns, portable showers and a drawer full of emergency gear. Rarely do I take them backpacking. I used to take cameras but find them less relevant as I get older. I rarely take a novel or pleasure reading.
On the other hand, I routinely carry a monocular or small pair of binoculars and a magnifying glass; together these things allow me to see and enjoy more of the natural world.
My preferred cooking equipment consists of a Purcell Trench grill and a Trangia alcohol burner, for areas and times when a fire isn’t appropriate. I usually carry a fry pan, pot and small kettle. I sometimes use the Trangia stormcooker when stoves are mandatory. The Trangia items are safe and dependable. I try to use ready to eat foods when packing ultralight.
Final word of caution regarding packing light: There is still some real wilderness left. Head to the outback long enough and you will have to cope with a freak and terrifying storm. When you least expect it you or a companion will break a leg. Everyone gets lost eventually. Don’t die on a backcountry trip because you were following the advice of the latest faddist. Pack proper equipment for your application.
Don Tryon, June 2010