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Have Your Cake (and carry it too)

by Gerry McDermott

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There seems to be a proliferation of advice on how to shave ounces off your pack weight. While everyone would like a lighter load, most of us also want to have along the things we need for a safe and enjoyable time in the backcountry. Lets face it, in summer you can spend a night in the woods with almost nothing at all, but youd be pretty miserable.

So what luxuries can you bring along? Just how much difference will a few ounces, or even a few pounds, actually make? Well, it could mean the difference between winning or losing a race. But you're not in a race. You've left the rat race behind. You're getting back to basics. Simplifying. Enjoying your natural surroundings intimately. You're on vacation. You're backpacking!

How Much?

The good news is that people have been backpacking for decades, and there are time proven guidelines to help you. The classic rule of thumb is that your pack should weigh no more than twenty-five percent of your body weight, say 40 pounds for a 160 pound male and 30 pounds for a 120 pound female. The bad news for the female is that most of the gear isn't gender specific, weighing the same regardless of who carries it, so a woman has a tougher time staying below the target weight. That said, however, the man and woman described, if partnered and adhering to this guideline, can carry a combined weight of 70 pounds. Equivalent to 35 pounds each. This is sufficient for a comfortable 5 day summer (May through October) trip and includes 1.5 pounds of food each per day and a full quart of water in each pack at all times. It also includes such amenities as book, journal, radio (for weather reports), sandals, towel, camera, deck of cards, harmonica and even my GerryCraft Tree-Z-Chair! By the end of your trip, when foods supplies are eaten, the two packs together will weigh only 55 pounds, or an average of 27.5 pounds each. And it doesn't require a lot of high end, expensive gear.

Having trouble paring down to the "target weight"? Perhaps you're packing winter gear; or you're a woman who does not happen to be partnering with a man. Maybe you're on an extended solo trip (when not sharing gear with a partner, a pack with all the items listed above will weigh about 40 pounds at the start and 32.5 pounds at the end of your trip). Or maybe you think the "target weight" itself is much too great. Don't despair. Just as "it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools", pack weight is usually the innocent scapegoat for poor trip planning. Contrary to what you may have heard, a few extra pounds will not ruin your time on the trail. Here's why.

First, youre going to have the things with you that you'll need to live comfortably in the backcountry.

Second, your pack will decrease in weight by about one and a half pounds a day. You'll literally eat away at it! It's very unlikely that your pack will be over "target weight" beyond the first couple of days.

Third, remember that seventy-five percent of the weight you move from campsite to campsite is yourself! A 160 pound person carrying a 40 pound pack creates a combined total of 200 pounds. Shave off a full 5 pounds of gear and the total is still 195 pounds. Only a 2.5% total decrease. All the "amenities" mentioned earlier add up to less than that 5 pounds.

Fourth, extra weight is easily dealt with by simply hiking a little less distance. You'll get more tired carrying 30 pounds for 15 miles, than if you carry 40 pounds only 10 miles. When my son was young, I carried some huge packs. He would carry a little knapsack, mostly for the fun of it, while I carried virtually everything for the two of us. It was OK because we only went a few miles and we had some great experiences, camping by streams, small waterfalls or mountain ponds; seeing moose and shooting stars.

How Far?

So the real question becomes not 'how much to carry', but 'how far to carry it'. Here's the golden rule:

"For every five pounds in your pack, reduce your hiking distance by one mile."

It's that simple! For me it's a no brainer. I'll take my book, journal, towel, Tree-Z-Chair, radio, harmonica, flip flops, dry socks and a tent I can actually sit up in; and I'll hike 12 miles instead of 13 miles.


In order to properly plan your trip, you need to reasonably estimate both your physical capability and your pack weight. This is important. Don't make assumptions! The single greatest cause of unhappy backpacking excursions is poor planning, and the single greatest planning mistake is over ambitious distances. I continually have to reign in distances myself, not just because it looks so close on the map, but because I like to imagine I'm in pretty good shape. But unless your training is regular excursions on tough terrain with a pack on (in which case you already know your capabilities), you're going to find parts of you that aren't up to the task; and those parts will rudely communicate their deficiencies to you. You won't be on a treadmill, sidewalk or road.

Determine your physical capability by taking a full day hike on moderate terrain, with a about a 10 pound day pack (put in a couple of quarts of water, lunch, snacks, jacket and usual backcountry essentials). Weigh your daypack before you begin and also make sure you can determine the distance you hike. There are trail guides and maps available for state and national parks that give mileage information. Hike out until lunch time, determine your mileage, eat and head back. If the next day you feel you could do it again, that was a comfortable distance (with a day pack). If you feel beat up, it was too far. Knock a few miles off the distance you went. Remember, on a backpacking trip you'll have to do it again the next day, and again the next day, and still set up and break camp. It's important that this trial hike be a full day. Don't hike a few hours and assume you can just double or triple that amount. Write down the distance you went and the weight you carried in your journal.

Gather together the gear and clothing you plan to take on you backpacking trip. Put in everything except food. Include a quart of water, 16 ounces of fuel, book or deck of cards or whatever else you might want. Determine your pack weight by weighing yourself with, and without the pack on. Add to that a pound and a half for each day of food you'll carry.

Knowing your pack weight and physical capacity (with a day pack), you can estimate a comfortable daily hiking distance with a full backpack by subtracting 1 mile from your day hike distance for every 5 pounds heavier your backpack will be than the daypack.

Example: Say you comfortably hiked 15 miles with a 10 pound day pack. If you expect to carry a 35 pound backpack on your trip (25 additional pounds) you should reduce your daily distance by 5 miles. In other words you can expect to comfortably hike 10 miles a day with a 35 pound pack.

Now you can sit down with your map to plan a route that will result in a really enjoyable trip. Here's some things to keep in mind:

1. Don't plan for the absolute maximum distance you estimate you can handle. Remember Murphy's Law.
2. Reduce mileage if you expect to encounter terrain worse than moderate.
3. When practical, set up a base camp and climb peaks unencumbered by a heavy load. Planning your route this way also builds in a safety factor, in that if the weather turns bad you are not obligated to go up and over to complete your trip.
4. Plan slightly shorter distances the first couple of days while you work out the kinks and eat some of the food.
5. Every few days allow yourself an afternoon off from hiking. It's like a mini-vacation within a vacation!

The bottom line is that you want to pack light, but you don't have to go overboard. Take along the things that will make your stay comfortable, just plan realistic distances. The challenge of backpacking isn't having the ability to endure hardships in the backcountry. The challenge is to have the ability not to have to endure hardships in the backcountry. So get out and enjoy!

printed with permission Copyright 2002 Gerard McDermott. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author

Proprietor: www.GerryCraft.com


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