Friday, September 2, 2011

Carrying less

"The less you carry, the more you'll find" -Garlic

On my first backpacking trip, I carried 35 lbs. of stuff that all seemed absolutely essential for my safety and security in the (scary) wilderness.  Two years later, my pack is ten pounds lighter.  How, and more importantly WHY, did I make these changes?
On my 1st trip with a huge tent and 35 lbs of stuff.
Going lighter-weight gives me more energy to do the things I love-- investigate flowers and explore side trails-- because I'm not worn out hauling around lots of stuff.  The extra gear I didn't use cluttered my pack.  Now, I feel free when I moved more nimbly down the trail with my lighter load. 

Skipping through the wildflowers near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  This is what it FEELS like to carry 23 lbs.

Let's get to the "how."  Each trip, I try to leave some carefully-chosen item out of my pack.  Then, I find out if I miss the item, or what I can make due without.  I learn WHY I take an item, rather than WHAT piece of gear I choose.  This type of controlled experimentation has show me I don't miss:

1. My stove.  No-cook meals involve less fuss and can be eaten immediately.

2. Extra clothes.  I now hike in one set of clothes (my "dirty" clothes), and sleep in my long-underwear (my "clean" clothes). 

3. Camp shoes.  I now air out my barefeet at rest breaks. My hiking shoes are so comfortable I don't need to walk around in anything else.

4. Long pants (in everything but the coldest weather).  I love the breeziness and easy peeing of my hiking skirt.  Gaitors keep my legs warm and protected.

5. My tent.  I used to take comfort in the protective cover of my tent, which created the illusion of security.  I've since embraced the open view of my surrounds offered by my hammock and tarp.  It makes me feel more connected with nature and I sleep soundly off the ground.

Finding what items I was OK with leaving at home (and what I found essential) helped me to understand my individual style of backpacking.  It clarified, in essence, WHY I backpack.  The less I carried, the more I found out about myself.

Sometimes my experimentation showed me what items I should keep in my pack.  When I left behind my camera, I learned that taking pictures is something I do as a way to focus my observations and see the beauty of nature.  Having a notebook in my pocket and writing down my nature discoveries and my thoughts helps me clear my mind, and without it my brain felt cluttered.  My steripen allows me extra flexibility.  I drink instantly when I reach a spring and "tank up" by drinking an extra half liter at to rehydrate, rather than having to wait 30 minutes for the chemical treatments to work.  When I forgot my underquilt (oops!), I realized that I could stay warm enough (in summer) by using my pack under my torso as insulation in my hammock.  But I also really appreciated being surrounded by the soft cozy down of my underquilt, and I realized the huge difference a good night's sleep made in terms of how much energy I had for hiking. 

Overall, I've learned that what brings me the most joy while backpacking is the hiking part of backpacking (rather than the camping part).  Other people tend to enjoy the camping part of backpacking, and the items that make them comfortable in camp.  Some people really like backcountry cooking, so they would never be happy without their stoves.  The key thing is finding out why *you* backpack, and then consciously making gear decisions that enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors.

**Disclaimer-- I also totally admit I have the money to buy (or sew) the gear that I want.  I've been extremely lucky in terms of my family (and thus socioeconomic status), eduction (thanks Mom and Dad!), and my ex (who seriously is the best ex ever!).  But I've also made tradeoffs-- i.e. cheap rent, fuel-efficient hybrid car, no kids.  The point of this article is that some things that are helpful in backpacking are not what you HAVE, but what you DON'T have.**


  1. Hey Joan,
    Very nice post. I think I fall in the "Likes camping" category most of the time. I'm a sucker for a good waterfall and one of my favorite trips was to hike 6 miles on the Foothills Trail to Hilliard Falls and stay 2 nights.
    That said, I do like to do some distance to. I did the 33 mile Laurel Valley section( I know that doesn't sound like much to someone that hikes 20 mile days for months).
    We camped at Hilliard Falls, Toxaway River and the top of Laurel Fork Falls. It was so good, I plan to do it in every season.
    To do that and really enjoy it, I need to take your advice and leave some things at home.


    1. Hi there Swampfox! Great to hear from you. Ah, that sure is a beautiful section of the Foothills Trail. And those climbs are no joke, so a lighter pack can make those more pleasant for sure. That Hillard Falls is a sweet spot too- I rarely stay two nights in one place, but that would be such a nice change of pace sometime. :)