This past week I had several non-hikers ask me questions about what I actually do in the woods. When I tell stories about trips they actually stare at me with a complete lack of understanding. It seems as if they are enthralled by the idea of heading deep into the more beautiful spaces on our planet, but have no idea how to get there. The stories hikers tell begin with the sublime and end bordering on insanity. There is both solace and glamour. And there are many who would love to see what we see. They just don't know how. So this post is a return to the beginning for me as a blogger. I wanted to pass on knowledge to aspiring outdoorsman. And to preach about the virtues of doing it with less weight on their backs.
Some think that being "lightweight" is the goal. But it's just not that simple for most. My brother, for instance thinks in terms of dollars spent and the functionality of his gear. Another buddy seems to believe that he simply "can't" get away with carrying less. I contend that the opposite approach may be the simplest. Suppose you started by writing down exactly what you would need to go for a walk in a park. Then you added what you would need if that were an all day walk in the woods. Hmmm.... then you added what you would need if you decided to sleep in the woods that night. For survival, that is. Maybe THEN you consider a trip lasting multiple nights in the woods. My guess is that only then would you begin adding what an ultralighter would consider luxury items. This is supposed to be each person's journey. They should decide what is mandatory and what can be dispensed with.
Here's an example; when you decide that your daily walk in the park is going to become a day hike into the backcountry. All of a sudden, you need water. And shed those tennis shoes, too. But do you need full on mountaineering boots? Not really. Just something with better rigidity and grip. Also, you may need a snack or lunch. Maybe a jacket(or raincoat) if the weather is going to change at all before you get back. You'll be hiking further away from safety after all. That being said, you would be wise to carry along a compass and a map. So, in review, you now have different shoes, a jacket, some food and water, and navigation materials. Oh, and a pack to carry them in. That doesn't have to be all conclusive. It's just an example of thinking only in terms of what you NEED.
The same idea can be applied when you decide to camp overnight in the course of your hike. Now you need more water(or water treatment), more food(and something to cook with-if you choose to cook), a shelter, and a sleeping system(bag and mattress). A knife, a light source, and a firestarter too. That's just for survival. In practicality, you would likely want to brush teeth, take vitamins, use toilet paper, etc. These weren't requirements, they were desires. I'm all for these types of concessions.
It's just that I firmly believe that we should be adding to our packs from empty as we find new needs. Not subtracting from them as we dare. This is the key to shedding pack weight. It's a mindset that most don't have. I didn't when I began this journey. It's a skill that one picks up when creating their own packing list. Shoot, I'm an Eagle Scout trained in being prepared for anything. The packing lists found in my old Boy Scout Handbook were filled with more redundancy than I could physically carry. Recognizing the liability that the Boy Scouts of America have is the only way to view their training. I get it. But it doesn't eliminate the opportunity to search for new approaches.
The mainstream outdoor press and manufacturers don't really help the situation. Sure, they can get new people into the outdoors with some degree of safety. Again, I say it's not just about that. Having the latest North Face or Patagonia gear doesn't qualify one to be in the backcountry. Common sense, research, and skill development do. So the various outdoor education organizations are doing a service, if not fully divulging the secrets. It seems their approach is to let the rookie outdoorsman learn the hard way. You know,"carry this 40 lb. pack just in case you need 40 lbs. of gear." I mean there's no fashion police in the woods to inform you that you can't wear the same pair of pants twice. Or that your tent HAS to be a dome. Even that your pack needs to have a frame.
By all means mimic the people you see going before you. Just don't give in to the concept that they possess the only "right" way. Read gear reviews and trip reports. Find the outdoor site that grabs your attention and figure out what books they read. Soak it all in. Take some dayhikes. Talk your buddies into camping trips. experiment with clothing in different weather conditions. Even if you're just going to a football game.
Borrow gear and practice camping in your backyard. Every time you need another piece of gear go inside and get it. You'll determine that you don't absolutely have to carry everything you'd imagined. It's a lot like going to visit family out of town. You could check in at a hotel if you wanted, but you might settle instead on a couch. Those are the same types of concessions you make when you attempt to reduce the amount of gear on your back. I don't carry a huge air mattress to sleep on. It's just a piece of closed cell foam(CCF). But every step I take all day long is easier for it. Others choose to carry a heavier mattress and eliminate gear elsewhere.
The key advice I have for a new backpacker(or one attempting to get lighter) is to understand their own needs, desires, and abilities. Learn more, and take things slowly. Don't go shopping until you're sure of what you want. Don't copy without asking around if something doesn't seem right. Ask questions about everything. "Why do I need that kind of water storage device?" Begin weighing your gear. Knowing what is weighing your pack down is the key to staying light and fast. Write down everything, and you will be amazed at your progression within months. Mostly, just try new things at the edge of your capabilities. That's where real adventure is.