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Going Light

by Jason D. Martin

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In Bill Brysonís wonderful book about the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, there is a comic moment when the authorís out-of-shape companion begins to eject anything and everything that is weighing him down. The man tosses food, clothes, and even water bottles into the woods. Clearly Brysonís friend was not aware of the tenants of Leave No Trace, but he was also unaware of another important factor of backcountry travel, the ability to pack light.

Going light begins at the outdoor shop with the basic essential gear. Following are a few factors that should be considered:

1) How much does your empty pack weigh?

Gear catalogues always provide the weight of the pack in their description. It is important to look closely at the packís size and weight. A pack that is even a few ounces lighter can make a difference. Every ounce adds up, so start cutting from the outset. The size of the pack in cubic inches is almost as important as the weight. If the pack is a six thousand cubic inch behemoth, there will be a temptation to fill it to the brim with extras that are not really required. A solid backcountry user can get away with a 3500 cubic inch pack for shorter trips and a 4500 cubic inch pack for longer trips. There are people who modify their packs as well. In other words, they cut off extra straps, extra patches, anything that adds even the slightest weight. Some backpackers have been able to cut down their weight by nearly a pound by doing this. However, before committing to cutting things off of your brand new pack, take it out for a test spin and make sure you donít cut off a strap that is needed.

2) What about tents?

There are four different ways to go with tents. The heaviest would be a two or three man four season tent. The question that should be asked is whether or not this is essential. If the trip is to take place during the summer, probably not. If you are planning on hiking alone, definitely not. If the trip includes two to three people, then a two to three man three season tent would be lighter than allowing each person to carry his or her own tent. This makes sense in that most trips include this type of ratio.

A one man tent is great if hiking alone. Though this tends to be the least used of the four concepts. Perhaps the lightest system of all is something that mountain climbers use on a regular basis. The bivy sack is simply a bag that goes over your sleeping bag and closes up over your face. These sacks are waterproof and weigh next to nothing. As a result, many backcountry users will go with these over tents because they are so light. However, in a serious rainstorm, bivy sacks are uncomfortable. It is impossible to eat or play cards inside of them.

3) What should I bring for clothing?

The layering system is the most effective clothing for backcountry travel. In other words, start from the bottom with thermals, then wear a layer of fast drying clothing made of a high tech fabric like microfleece or Schoeller. On top of this one may add a fleece jacket and rain gear. Throw in a few pairs of extra socks and thatís really all a backpacker needs.

Sometimes the question arises concerning what to do if this single set of clothing gets wet. The answer is simple. Your sleeping bag is not just for sleeping, it is a clothes dryer. Every night, damp clothing should go in the bottom of the bag. Body heat will dry out most high tech fabrics overnight. It is common to see people carrying jeans and extra t-shirts and extra shoes and all sorts of oddities. There is nothing wrong with this, itís just not needed for anything other than creature comforts. If light is right, than anything that is not absolutely essential should be left behind.

4) What about cooking materials?

Some people are backcountry chefs. They carry all sorts of spices and classy foods. Periodically, one might even come across someone who has carried a bottle of wine into the backcountry. Once again, there is nothing wrong with this...itís just a matter of how much a backpacker is willing to carry. Many cook kits come with multiple pots. If the food is simple - as it usually is - then a single pot is fine. The only utensil required is a spoon. The pocket knife will generally play the role of anything else needed.

To cut down on weight more, it is possible to go into the backcountry without a pots, stove or fuel. It is possible to live off of GORP, bagels, crackers, power bars, and numerous other types of cold food. However, that said, if temperatures are cold or if one is traveling through snow, a stove is a very nice device. Hot tea or coco can be a lifesaver.

Packing light is a skill that takes many years and many trips to master. Start slowly by cutting back on a few of the creature comforts and then work your way towards a super-light pack. As time goes by, you will learn what you really do need and what you donít. And before you know it, your pack will weigh almost nothing!

About the Author

I am a professional mountain guide and a freelance writer. From May through September I live out of a backpack while conducting trips in the backcountry.


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