Extreme Backpacking Makeover

I love being out in the woods and mountains.  I enjoy the scenery and the solitude, the opportunity to sit on a rock and watch a river flow by; all day if I want to.  I have been backpacking for most of the past 30 years in the Olympic Mountains and have traipsed over most of its trails at least once.  And over the past couple of years I have also hiked parts of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Up until the past couple of years I would have a tendency to take pretty much anything I thought I might need to enjoy the trip and to have a relative level of safety/security/comfort.  As a result my pack always weighed at least 45 pounds and as much as 65 if I was going to be out for a week.  With this load I would generally shoot for about 8 miles a day with 10-12 miles being pretty much the limit.  This would generally take about 4-6 hours of hiking plus an hour or so for lunch and breaks.  Thus my non-sleeping part of the day was roughly divided up into two parts; trudging along the trail from camp to camp, and relaxing/exploring/hanging around camp.  Now by no means was the trudging all bad.  I did enjoy the walking and the scenery, but after a few hours my shoulders and hips were starting to scream at me and dropping the pack for the day became the primary thought.

During a significant portion of this time I always dreamed about cutting down on the weight, but never seemed to be able to pull it off.  There was just too much stuff I needed to have.  And while none of it really weighed all that much individually, when you put together enough little things they began to become pretty heavy.

A couple of seasons ago though I experienced a total makeover in my backpacking.  It is hard for me to remember back to a triggering event but I suspect the adoption of using a hammock instead of a tent was probably the key.  That in itself did not buy me any weight savings, but in making such a transformational change in my sleep system, it seemed to open the doors to everything else as well.  I ended one season with a 5 night trip carrying 65 pounds and started the next on a 2 night trip at around 30 pounds (that the previous year would have been nearly 50).  That is about 15-20 pounds of stuff left at home.

That first time out with a 30 pound pack was not just notable for the weight loss though.  I set out late the first day and stopped after about 7-8 miles as it started to get dark.  I felt good at the end of the day but anxiously looked ahead to climbing a pass in the snow the next day; something I was nervous about.  So I was up early and quickly broke camp, optimistically hoping to get 15 miles that day and over the pass.  I quit walking 27 miles later at my truck.  And that included several miles in deep snow and over a high pass with no visible trail.  Needless to say I was sold on the advantages of lightweight backpacking.

Now instead of trudge a few miles and then recover each day, I am able to walk pretty much from sunup to near sunset, day after day after day.  Where before the highlight of the trip would be the time spent in camp, now it is watching the scenery flow by along with the miles.  This has had the added benefit of allowing me to easily drop more gear that was only used for hanging around camp; it’s no longer needed.  Now my base pack weight, before food and water is just under 20 pounds and will likely drop another couple of pounds this year.

I am noticing another transformation that is going on at the same time.  In my heavy-weight days I focused a lot on gear; gear for eating, sleeping, staying warm and dry, staying comfortable, handling emergencies, etc.  My experience in the back country was pretty reliant on having good gear to handle anything that might come up, a lot of which never did.  But my pack now is mostly concerned with stuff to stay warm and dry at night and food, plus a few other small essentials.  So I find myself becoming less reliant on gear and more comfortable with just being out in the wild and being able to handle whatever it throws my way.

I will share in subsequent posts more of the specifics of this Extreme Backpacking Makeover, but I have to ask myself: “What took so long?”  It’s been very liberating!

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