(re)Defining Lightweight Backpacking

The difference between lightweight backpacking and ‘normal’ backpacking is obviously the gear.

Winter has reached that point where we talk about summer. After a long weekend of rain, a bunch of us found ourselves in the Northern in Whitefish after an avy meeting last night, discussing not skiing and snow, but sunshine and fly fishing (Amber is a fish biologist, inside beta!). Pre-emptive nostalgia, if you will.

Shoshone Lake, YNP

Of course, it snowed heavily this afternoon, and the first race of 2011 is on skis and taking place tomorrow morning.  So carpe diem, for the moment.

Thinking of summer gets me thinking about backpacking.  Snow travel is still a mystery to me, at least insofar as the snow-shrouded landscape is for me more hostile and less predictable, less friendly, than that of bare earth and rock.  I want to do a lot of backpacking this year.

Yardsale, White River terminus, Bob Marshall Wilderness

I’m not really certain that I’m much of a backpacker in the way most folks use the term.  I’ve been backpacking since I was around 3, and after working wilderness therapy (the best paid pro backpacking gig around) merely walking in the woods with a sack of gear has little appeal.  Add a twist, a remote fishing hole, snow covered pass, rivers to packraft, or an absurd loop to do in a weekend, and my interest returns.  This mindset, this wilderness ADHD, this preoccupation with the more egregious forms of human-powered wilderness travel, colors my understanding of backpacking completely.

Which is why I think Phil Turner, quoted in this posts epigraph, is quite wrong.  Hendrik got the ball rolling with a provocative post (which engendered the quoted comment) about contemporary weight-weenieism.  In the post and the resultant discussion all relevant terrain is covered, save one issue.

A “traditional” backpacker carries a heavy (30+ lbs) pack.  The weight of the gear necessitates a heavy pack, the load dictates a slow pace, the pace requires more food, and the circle continues.  Use less/lighter stuff, move faster, be happier.  Simple equation, one applicable to both the dawn-dusk 30 mile a day camp, and the lolligagin’, 8 mile a day field guides, camera tripods, and reading books crew.

But are less and lighter the same?  Yes and no.  Different in that less means reducing redundancy (no extra undies), the same in that lighter often means reducing the psychological margin of redundancy and error (my Dana will last 50 years of egregious abuse!).  The point is, going lighter and bringing less is at root a mental rather than physical process.

Wilderness is the ultimate form of the Other.  I.e.; that which is outside us, our self, our comprehension.  The Other reminds us, in literal and metaphysical ways, that our state of being in the world is fragile and transient.   When backpacking, gear serves to insulate us from that fear.  Some of the insulation is literal; without protection from the elements, food, and water we will die.  However, the majority of backpacking gear is for metaphysical, rather than literal, protection from the elements.

Witness Luc Mehl’s pack for an overnight technical packrafting descent (Selway River, Sept 2010).  Luc has thin synthetic puffy layers, paddling shells, shorts, and a baselayers shirt.  He slept around the fire, and kept warm by paddling stronger than Forrest and me.

Gear is good, but by focusing on it too much and in an excessively literal manner we ignore the more interesting reasons for going out into the woods in the first place.  At our (spiritual) peril.

On my agenda for this spring and summer are some trips without a sleeping bag or tarp/tent.  Bracing how the very idea flies against conventional wisdom and “safety.”

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9 thoughts on “(re)Defining Lightweight Backpacking

  1. I often wondered how badass the Lewis and Clark crew were. Sure the officers got a tent, but I think pretty much everyone else just bivvied it in the clothes they wore around the fire. Hungry? Go kill something and eat it.

  2. Just had another thought about how many soldiers have simply laid wherever they could when it was time to rest. No extra weight expended for anything but ammo. Battle of the Bulge sounds horrific, freezing cold, no sleep, just had to lay low. It is all in the motivation. What can you put up with?

  3. Dave,

    I have always found that carrying less gear/food/water etc. results in greater distance traveled in a day.

    For myself, 70-75 miles in a day has been possible in a supported race.
    That drops to 55-60 if self supported
    And again drops to 35-40, maybe high 40’s with minimal overnight gear.

    The balance of how much/how little to take has always been an interesting and often difficult task. I know even my minimal survival & 1st Aid gear on self supported wilderness runs/hikes has yo-yo’d from too much to, maybe too little.

    The more comfortable I get without any close calls results in paring down my kit further and further. Then something will happen that nearly results in spending an unplanned night out, or twisting an ankle and I will then add a few items back for peace of mind.

    I think you have put it well as to experiencing the fear of “being out there,” Yes there are times that a situation could turn serious, but more often it is just a matter of a bit of discomfort that the mind over plays. The more that I am out, especially solo, the more comfortable I get, yet even though I did my first solo backpack trip at age 12 and am now 53, there is still that feel of uncertainty at times.

    Wilderness is a great teacher for both the body and the mind.

  4. Timely post Dave, a good reminder for me as to what “means to an end” gear should play in my life. I’m guilty as the next guy for shuffling gear around, pawning gear, acquiring new gear, shaving ounces and obsessively tinkering in anticipation for the next outing, sometimes the lines between ‘gearcentricity’ and necessary preparation or adjustments become obscure. I will admit to obsessively searching for ways to ‘perfect’ and tailor a kit to my needs and often this involves spending money or trying out new pieces of kit through trial and error. I’m far removed from searching for the absolute lightest gear as I’ve found that #1. I’m broke. and #2. the pendulum swing for me in terms of weight is a rather large margin, a few pounds and ounces added or lost in the pack at the beginning of a trip is hardly ever noticeable or worth fussing over and I can handle the weight physically, for others tipping the scale a few ounces is cause for sleep loss. There will always be individuals who’s sole purpose of getting outdoors is to justify the acquisition of gear, and then there are others whose sole purpose for getting outdoors is first and foremost the act of being engaged in the environment of their choosing, the gear simply being a means to an end.

    There’s a link to your blog and Hendrik’s on the subject with some good feedback.

  5. Almost nothing to add to Eugene’s post. I think it is all there.

    One addition might be, that I like longish trips. Say at least a weekend and preferably a week. It is hard to find enough time to do these trips as often as I’d wish. In these cases gear (and quality armchair adventuring) comes to rescue. For me, the gear is a way to extrapolate my outdoor hobbies to home and to office. Shaving ounces, doings some sewing, writing new gear lists, etc. is a little escape from the reality when not able to go for a proper trip.

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