One of the downsides of carrying an ultralight or lightweight backpacking load (20 pounds or less) is that it makes you weak. If you’re not used to carrying a 40 or 50 pound load, including food, fuel and water, you’ll run out of gas quickly if the need arises to go heavier.
I experienced this at the beginning of last winter when I had to transition from a 15 pound lightweight backpacking load to a full 45 pound winter backpacking load over the course of a weekend. I hit the wall after a day of breaking trail in snowshoes and had to bail out of a trip two days early. If that wasn’t bad enough, it took me 2/3 of the winter to build up enough stamina to go out on multi-day winter trips again. I was taken aback by the whole experience and resolved to prevent it from recurring ever again.
Although I’m looking forward to taking many lightweight backpacking trips this spring and summer, I take training hikes a few times a week with a heavier 30-40 pound backpack. It’s a great workout, and I’ve even lost some weight.
I simulate heavier loads by carrying bags of charcoal, like the 18 pound bag shown above next to a ULA Catalyst Backpack. If you’re not familiar with this pack, it’s simply enormous (4600 cubic inches) and can carry 40 pounds without a problem. I bought it for un-supplied expedition hikes that require carrying up to 16 days of food (about 30 pounds) at a time, in addition to gear and water. I was set to do one of these this May before my father passed away two months ago and I had to call it off. (see Hiking a White Mountain Direttissima)
I’ve tried a number of different ways to simulate a 30 pound food load from using hydration bladders full of water to carrying 30 pounds bags of bird seed. But the best way I’ve found so far is using bags of charcoal to simulate food weight because they take close to the same volume that backpacking food would. I’d use real food but it would just go to waste: bags of charcoal are good because you can buy them inexpensively in all different sizes and weights, they don’t go bad in the trunk of my car, and they won’t attract mice if I bring them into the house.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love carrying a lightweight backpack and sub-20 pound loads on weekend trips, but if you want to do longer distance hikes in remote locations without the ability to resupply, you have to train to go heavy too.