On April 2nd, I gave a demonstration about lightweight backpacking to a dozen hikers from the NY-NJ Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club in Harriman State Park, just outside of New York City.
For this demonstration, I brought along a Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack packed with a representative 3 season gear list and let each participant wear my pack and hike with it. The participants, split evenly between people who’d never backpacked or had backpacked with much heavier loads, were impressed at the comfort that a lightweight pack and lighter load provide. The most frequent comment regarding the Gorilla besides it’s low weight, was the comfort of the extra wide shoulder pads, standard on Gossamer gear packs, that are designed to distribute weight across the shoulders and prevent painful pressure points.
As part of my demonstration, I also set up camp, explained what all of of the elements of my gear list were for, and how they work together. It was a real eye opener for many of the students, who were simply unaware of the options available beyond the gear carried by their local REI or EMS stores.
Most had never seen a tarp, bivy bag, aqua mira drops, or a Sawyer Water Filter. They didn’t understand the relationship between down fill power, warmth, weight and fill compressibility and had never seriously considered the caloric density of their trail food. It was an eye opener for all involved.
Another important thing I learned is that many people don’t understand something as fundamental as how to wear a backpack – namely that the hip belt is designed to carry most of the load and not the shoulder straps. Upon reflection, it’s perfectly understandable that people don’t know this: it’s not like backpacks come with manuals or there are backpack fitting specialists or trainers at retail shops.
Lightweight Backpacking Gear List
Here’s the gear list I handed out at the lightweight backpacking gear demonstration and which I subsequently took on a two week, 173 mile hike of the Appalachian Trail from New Jersey, through New York, and up into southern Connecticut. It has a few luxury items on it and some cold weather gear, in case of snow or cold rain, but is representative of the gear I’ve been carrying for the past year
|Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack||23.2|
|Gossamer Gear Nighlight Pad 2/3 torso only||2.4|
|Gossamer Gear Pack Liner||1.0|
|Gossamer Gear External Hip Belt Pocket||0.9|
|Mountain Laurel Designs External Camera Pocket||1.1|
|Mountain Laurel Designs External Hip Belt pocket||0.9|
|Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo Tarp, Cord, Stuff Sack||9.6|
|10 X tent stakes and stuff sack||4.0|
|Sea-to-Summit Waterproof Sack||1.0|
|Western Mountaineering Ultralight Sleeping Bag||29.9|
|MLD Superlight Bivy Bag with head net||6.9|
|Thermarest NeoAir Sleeping Pad||14.0|
|Camp Clothes/Rain Gear|
|Mountain Laurel Designs UL Stuff Sack for Camp Clothes||0.4|
|Rocky Gore Tex Socks||2.6|
|Golite Reed Rain Pants||6.2|
|Patagonia Capilene 1 Bottom Long Underwear||6.0|
|1 pr Swartwool Sock Liners||1.5|
|Patagonia Capilene 1 Jersey||6.7|
|Montbell Thermawrap Jacket||7.5|
|Rab eVent Momentum Jacket||12.0|
|Mountain Laurel Designs eVent Rain Mitts||1.4|
|Black polypro glove liners||1.4|
|Mountain Hardware polypro hat||0.8|
|Monbell Tachyon Wind Shirt + stuff sack (gear testing)||2.6|
|1 x 3L Platypus Bladder||1.5|
|80 x Katadyn Micropur Chlorine Dioxide Tablets||1.8|
|Aquamira Frontier Pro Filter||2.6|
|2 X Qt Recycled Soda Bottles||2.0|
|Cut down Platypus Water Scoop||0.5|
|Gear Repair and First Aid Bag||4.5|
|Kitchen and Camp|
|Ursack Bear Bag||7.5|
|Evernew Pasta Pot 0.75 L||3.9|
|Snowpeak Giga Stove||3.8|
|MSR Camp Towel||0.8|
|BPL Long Titanium spoon||0.3|
|Suunto A10 Baseplate compass||0.9|
|Panasonic Lumix lx3 digital camera and polarizing filter||10.3|
|Black Diamond Spot Headlamp||3.0|
|Spot II GPS Satellite Messenger||4.1|
|2 extra Camera batteries, filter, brush||3.0|
|Maps and AT Guide Pages||8.4|
|Rite as Rain Journal||2.3|
|Digital Tape Recorder||2.0|
|Personal Items/Stuff Sack||3.9|
|Dermatone tin – Sun tan lotion||0.8|
|Total packed weight in lbs||14.13|
|RailRiders EcoMesh Long Pants||13.0|
|R1 Patagonia Pullover||12.0|
|EMS Techwick Short Sleeve Shirt||4.8|
|Black Diamond Trail Hiking Poles||18.0|
|Inov8 Terroc 330 Trail Runners||24.6|
|Smartwool Sock Liners||1.5|
|Under Armour Boxer Jocks||3.5|
|2 X Protec ITBS Straps||2.0|
|Marmot Xeno Hat||1.8|
|Total weight worn, in lbs||5.1|
I'm glad you're out there to spread the word! It does seem like the lightweight thing is becoming more and more mainstream, but I doubt it will become common knowledge without well-spoken individuals like yourself educating one small group at a time.
I wonder about the incentive for REI and EMS type stores to educate people on the lightweight style. Most of the lightening of the pack comes from leaving stuff at home, whereas outdoor stores survive by selling lots of stuff that you would, in theory, want to take with you. Wouldn't it be nice if there were an outdoor store that pushed lighter stuff?
I am very excited about talking to people offline and in-person like this. It's really helping me to understand the barriers that people face in getting more information and is teaching me to communicate the benefits of lightweight hiking more. The audience that evangelists like myself are trying to reach is still largely offline, and I think face-to-face interaction and education like this is really the only way to get the word out to new people.
Regarding REI and EMS, and existing mainstream manufacturers. I think there is a great business case to be made for them to shift more emphasis to lightweight backpacking products:
1) They get to upgrade most backpackers existing equipment with lighter gear. Backpacks, sleeping bags, and tents/shelters are costly but if you can replace the existing models that people already own, we're talking about $1000 per person of new revenue.
2) Selling lightweight backpacking expands the existing market substantially, maybe as much as 3 times, by enabling older hikers, women, and younger adults and families to take up backpacking or more comfortable camping.
I would liken the economic upside to the switchover from gas guzzlers to more fuel efficient cars, about 5-10 years ago, when the entire US fleet was replaced. Lots of economic incentives for this shift to occur within the backpacking and camping market.
FYI – EMS is way better of a store than REI because of expertise and “realness” of the whole vibe. EMS is always my first choice for gear. But I don’t think of either as having lightweight product lines. You definitely have to have a diverse closet to get the lightest and the best. It seems these boutique companies makes one stellar staple product. i.e. Western Mountaineering, Jetboil, Outdoor Research, Big Agnes… just to name a few brands that have one widely regarded pinnacle lightweight solution. EMS does make some good products that I always buy like Gore-Tex gloves… but if you want those superlight, tough, marquee pieces… you have to spend huge bucks $$$$. In that sense… I think lightweight is more of a barrier to summertime dabblers. It literally takes hours of research and feedback before I determine a lightweight piece is strong enough and reputable enough for my needs.
We’ve made too many mistakes. Laura and I literally bought one of everything (axes, crampons, bags, you name it) and have had to replace it all this season as we soon realized, if we are going to mountaineer unrestricted, even descent gear can get you killed. Now we only opt for the absolute best. I know it sounds smug but it’s a matter of survival. The danger of choosing a glove that doesn’t keep you dry, gaiters that fall loose, a rope that frays, a stove that won’t light, or a sleeping pad that’s 6lbs… can be catastrophic or uncomfortable at best when you are on top of Kinsman and its -20 degrees. My point is that, I think super-light gear will not be the choice for kids and summer hobbyists, unless they want to sacrifice quality. There are certainly tons of eye popping light pieces but from what I’ve gathered, the weather in the Whites is like no other and some of these west coast companies make some gear that was made for a weekend kayaking in the California Highlands, to share a joint with some friends and a Osaka after a day of cragging. The west has higher altitudes but from what I’ve gathered, the conditions are noticeably friendlier. That’s a far cry from not be able to see or bend your fingers and trying to set up tent in the Whites with freezing rain, snow, whatever.
Gear weight and the internal struggle:
Laura and I have been playing this game … shaving every ounce we can, creating excel charts… etc… Our packs generally have a 35lbs weight. A few things push it past your 14.13lbs (winter gear aside)… First, water is heavy… over 6lbs to fill a 3liter bladder. Second, our 10.3MM 9lbs Petzl climbing rope. Third, we have 5lbs Alpinisto heavy duty alpine mountaineering bags plus all the hardware we use for climbing. We are always looking to save weight…. considering a Fly Creek tent, possibly a thinner rope… we are starting to run out of tactics though. We already have the Western Mountaineer 16oz bags and 14oz NeoAir and using a thinner climbing rope becomes increasingly dangerous. I've just come to accept that alpine style requires a 30lbs pack at its lightest. I actually see very very few alpine climbers in the true "touching the void" sense and perhaps weight is why we rarely see people who climb/camp/summit all in one trip. Charlie at EMS said "We like to split the sports up"… I can see the benefit of cragging… as Laura and I have been going to Quincy Quarry and Ice climbing but I view it as practice and one discipline I want to get good at (among many) so that Laura and I can go to any summit in the U.S. and climb up wherever we please and sleep on the top even if it means climbing a vertical ravine with ropes, shelter, etc… I see it just how a hockey player practices skating, checking, and stick handling … all could technically be their own sport or even done without the other. You could put on shoes and play with a hockey ball in your driveway. You can go on a free skate and practice skating. You can workout and wrestle. The magic is when you take those 5 skills at put them together for a game.
It seems that the more I hang out with rock climbing folk, the more I learn that they are not hikers and aren’t interested in the inconvenience of hike-ins, camping, and survival. I have friends that are into climbing, the more they got into climbing, the less they seemed like mountaineers… to the point where they used to hike in the Whites but almost exclusively do indoor climbing in Boston. They prefer the convenience of just pulling up in a parking lot banging some routes and going home. Conversely, the more I hang out with hikers the more I realize they are not climbers. There are plenty of climbing opportunities on most any mountain in the Whites but you rarely ever see people overnight with climbing gear too. My whole idealized vision of a mountaineer is someone who could use technical, survival, endurance, teamwork,… all to reach a summit. I kind of see ice, rock, and hiking just specialties (practice) for the main event. Particularly alpine style (opposed to expedition which I find unappealing) where two people may find themselves handing from a piton with the sun going down. Maybe its just a practicality thing but I sure would like to meet a seasoned alpinist in real life and get pointers.
Perhaps it is as Charlie points out, a weight issue. I didn’t feel Laura and I were proficient enough for any ravine summits this winter but we are training hard to be able to do obscure (and vertical routes) as soon as the ice hits. For now we’ll save some weight by ditching the axes, crampons, and snow shoes.
Lot's of meat in there – a few point comments:
EMS floor expertise is way better than REI. No doubt as a result of better training and less staff turnover. EMS clothing is excellent, especially their base layers.
There is no such thing as one stop shop for gear. You need to buy good products from specialist manufacturers. What is wrong with that?
Don't confuse lightweight backpacking with ultralight backpacking. I'm evangelizing 25 lb pack weights, not sub 10 lbs. I also agree that ultralight backpacking is more of a possibility out West than in the Whites. You can do it in July, but you still really need to know what you are doing.
Mountaineering is a different sport than 3 season backpacking. I've given up trying to get below 30 lbs, without even counting food and water. It is what it is. Suck it up if you want to do multi-day trips.
I do think you over dramatize the need for good gear, though. You can always back off if you wet out or have a gear failure. Great mountaineers aren't great because of their gear.
Sadly, backpacking and overnight anything is nearly dead in the White Mountains. I blame the AMC partially. The place has become an amusement park for sport specific play spots. Still the lack of people spending nights out is better for me because I like getting away from the crowds.
Great rant here Chris. :-)
About that Fly Creek – get yourself a tarp or sew one out of silnylon. My 2 cents.
When you say backpacking and overnighting in the Whites is dead, do you mean because of the crowds, or what? The monopolized campsites? I still quite enjoy backpacking there, although I'll admit I also steer clear of the more crowded areas when I can.
As for lightweight backpacking in the Whites, it is true that conditions out west during the summer are a bit friendlier, but with a little practice you can travel just as light, if not lighter than the west coast. A friend of mine once said that you can't go UL in the Northeast because "it gets really cold when it rains." My response: "Then what have I been doing for the past few years?"
One can go UL in the Whites. I do it. You do it. But, I just think it takes some experience to do it safely in areas like the North Presidentials, the Mahoosics, or the Wild River area.
As for whether backpacking is dead in the Whites. Sadly, I believe it is. People want to stay in AMC huts or RVs and not get dirty. In fact the AMC even gives free huts stays to backpacking leaders who arrange to have their trips stay in huts instead of camping!
Sure, there are plenty of die-hards who still backpack and camp in the Whites. But I'm not talking about the people on Views. I don't think that there is a big influx of new people who are staring to backpack in the northeast.
It just seems that people would rather go rock climbing or ice climbing for the day, and then go home and take a shower, instead of sleeping outdoors and getting all funky (and I mean funky!)
That's funny. I'll be leading a summer camp's backpacking trips this summer in the Whites, but you can bet I won't be staying in any Huts. Probably to some of the fee campsites, but definitely not a big, crowded hut.
I hadn't noticed the lack of new backpackers, but you may indeed be right about that. I had a small talk with someone at Views the other day about something along these lines because of the lack of younger members in the AMC and GMC. It's easy to see people going more into ice climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc, because those are more action-packed and instantly appealing to the younger generation. A leisurely walk in the woods… maybe not as much.
And just to be a pest… I'd argue that going UL out west, in many cases, requires even more caution than out here :) But we can definitely leave it at the fact that backpacking always takes practice.
Good for you.
I think Meetups have killed off the AMC and GMC. The backpacking committee of the Boston AMC Chapter is just about dead as far as I'm concerned.
I'll becoming a leader with the New York-New Jersey Chapter this fall, and will probably lead a lot of hikes up in the Whites and Green Mountains, but also plan to pop down to the Catskills periodically. That Chapter has a great backpacking audience, plus they're very forward thinking about going light.
I've never stayed in a hut and can't see the appeal. Damn expensive too.
As someone who has just started backpacking and winter camping a couple of years ago, I'd have to argue that it's not dead yet in the Whites.
With each trip I take, more friends of mine express their desire to come along on the next one, and although most don't, more and more have been. Even with that, I'm quite satisfied with the amount of people I've seen on the trails in this time. Not too many, but always some.
I'd also have to argue the effect of the AMC. Sure it makes things easy, perhaps too easy, and it takes away from the true experience of the area, but it does some good things. Blow-downs get cut, signs are maintained, toilets are available (you know you like them), but most important are the intangibles. More people can get out there and enjoy the region and those who would abuse the natural resources are provided means not to. It's no solution, but it helps.
As for the gear… I love it. Researching the best products that fit my needs and budget has been an inspirational as well as educational pass time. Finding that balance between light and strong is critical, and blogs and discussions like this are my encyclopedia. Gear turnover is frustrating and expensive, and I thank you all for helping me to reduce mine.
Regarding retailers, EMS and REI both do an excellent job of producing good products and offering a good selection. As for their capabilities, I feel that it is more a function of location and the individual employee than it is that one is always better than the other. I've had +/- experiences at both.
Justin – I'm happy to count you among us diehards. Didn't mean to start an AMC rant. Let's also give credit to the other trail maintenance volunteers like the WOMC, RMC,and the Forest Service, which carries a huge load in the Whites.
"Still the lack of people spending nights out is better for me because I like getting away from the crowds." – Agreed!
Thanks for the post. My husband and I will probably never go as light as one could and will always need a tent for our dogs (greyhounds, can't be off-leash), but it's nice to pick up ideas for where to cut weight down where possible. The hardest part for us is the food – always seem to overpack "just in case" we need it.
Thanks for the post. Light is obviously the way to go.
This thread is way too meaty :-). Too many sub-threads to address, and some to avoid. But I like the discussion about the death of backpacking (or not) in the Whites. Personally, I couldn't care less either way. I always hike my own hike. I like the European style of hiking: good long active days, followed by good food and cheer. To me it is inconsequential whether you backpack, or not, as long as you get out there, enjoy, get physical, and love the place enough to treat it right.
The idea that if you're not backpacking, you're not experiencing the real outdoors, really gets my goat. I sense that, from some of the comments here. How is "getting dirty" in any way some kind of merit badge? Why do I need to sleep on rocks, and eat couscous with freeze-dried peas, to be a real hiker? I'm a veteran of many many miles, and I've slept on those rocks many nights. But to be very honest, my greatest love is the walking. Backpacking is only a means to an end. I don't mind overnights, but I can't think of a better day than about fifteen miles of wonderful hiking, followed by a fine meal with good drink.
Phil, I like the fact that you make a real distinction between lightweight, and ultralight. I find the whole UL thing a little too precious. I read Colin Fletcher, in the late sixties, and soon realized that I did not have his amazing physical ability to carry huge loads. On my first unfinished AT attempt, I never carried more than 35-40 pounds including food and water. That was in 1979, using a JanSport D3. Today, it is so much easier to keep a light load while being safe, realistic, and comfortable.
I could probably rant on, but I think I've said enough.
You discussed lightweight backpacking and the possible demise of backpacking in the NE. I think these are both excellent points. Until recently I purposely carried heavy loads to be prepared for every imaginable contingency. My fellow hikers would constantly point out that I brought to much stuff. I have begun to see the benefits of going light by leaving a few non essential things in the car and buying lighter gear. This post is a great road map to the next step. I am not sure I agree that backpacking is dead but it certainly is not the norm. Many people I know will talk about how they are going camping. When I ask where they are going these people will brag that they are going to campgrounds with a jacuzzi, showers and the like. The concept of carrying all your gear on your back and getting dirty is insane to this group. I say more power to them if it is what they like. However, backpacking still has a chance. Whenever I can convince a non backpacker to join me on a trip they typically see that it is not crazy and is an outstanding way to spend a weekend. I think backpacking is alive but it certainly is not the norm. In some ways this is good since it means more open campsites and trails for us backpackers.
Victor – I like the walking and the excellent sleeping. I sleep fantastically after a 15-20 mile day. But you are right to call me on HYOH grouds. What people do is unimportant isn't it. As long as they are satisfied and getting Vitamin D, outside.
Grant – Great summary. I wish backpacking was not waning in the Whites, but you wouldn't believe how hard it is for me to find backpacking partners I can rely on and who have similar goals. I think that's what I'm mourning, but don't worry I am not giving up extolling it's virtues. Far from it, although I am willing to travel to other regions to find kindred spirits, if I must.
I am glad to hear that you are leaving things in the car. Good-oh!
No backpacking partners? I'd join you, Phil, but the rest of my dang life always gets in the way of hiking!
Maybe I'll see you on the trail while I'm leading kids this summer. I'll be the one with the slightly lighter pack than the kids :)
Hard to believe, but I have trouble recruiting people to go on 4-5 day backpacking trips with me. Can't figure out why…
"It just seems that people would rather go rock climbing or ice climbing for the day, and then go home and take a shower, instead of sleeping outdoors and getting all funky"
Yes! I completely agree Phil. Going rock/ice climbing is cool, but its my second choice. Sleeping out (especially in very cold weather) suck but for some reason I'm addicted to it. Maybe its winter mountaineering that toughens folks like us up because honestly, a low of 30 degrees feels like a tropical vacation right now.
Perhaps you and I stay committed because we have to travel further to get to the Whites… so a weekend of hiking means… you camp!! =)
Like I said, all my rock climbing friends got lazy on the hiking (losers).
I have mixed feelings about huts though. Remember, huts make it easy to avoid high trafficked areas since there are few. Also, it keeps most people from impacting the woods and detracting from the solitude. I saw a huge group from Dartmouth headed up the trail and I'm thinkin to myself "Geez, are all these people ganna be spread out over the mountain?" and then one kid told me they were staying in a hut and I was like "Phew, definitely won't be seeing them between 4PM and 11AM"
I leave Boston on the weekends to get away. The worse hike I had was Franconia Ridge, there was literally traffic the whole way. Large groups of French travelers, kids, dogs,… it sucked. It told me a lot about the "occasional" hiker because that day was supposed to be chilly. like any other November day but for some reason it was freakishly warm. We started at 7AM and no one was out. By 12PM there were throngs of people still headed up the mountain.
I'll join you on a multi-day sometime ;)
Ha ha… Phil, do you think the fly creek isn't worth it?
BTW, I know my rant yesterday was long but as a fellow blog author I know comments (even disagreeable ones) improve the site.
It was a great comment. Keep'em coming!
The high traffic hikes do suck. But going on weekdays, really helps. :-)
If you want more solitude, try the Kilkenny Ridge, Wild River, Baldface, Sandwich, and Mahoosic sections of the Whites. Nobody out there except moose.
I see your point about the difficulty of recruiting like minded backpackers, especially in the winter. I have a group of 4 friends who will backpack all season but beyond that it is a challenge.
I would be thrilled to join you on some backpacking trips…..I am just not as advanced as you are at packing light. Contact me if you would like to set something up.
Ah shucks – you guys are pals. I'll probably be in touch in a month or two or three. Got some more redlining to do in the whites and two sections of the Maine AT.
Thank you for the gear list. I enjoy comparing your gear lists across the different seasons, based on # of nights out, and over the history of your blog. Lots of subtle changes.
There are many UL lists ands UL blogs on the internet.
I appreciate yours the most because you do not seem to promote UL as end "in and of itself" but instead are willing to add weigh if it significantly adds value.
+ 1 to backpacking on weekdays, what a tremendous difference
PS Will take you up on the offer to submit a guest post soon. Hammock gathering at Monroe SF in May.
Glad this helped – yes, I'm really not promoting UL as much as comfortable backpacking, by reducing pack weight. While, I've gotten my pack below 10 lbs the magic number which defines a UL backpacker), I didn't keep it there. I want my camera and a few other things on trips that bring my weight up. That's ok. I'm still comfortable. I just want people to know that they have other options.
I'd love to have another guest post from you Tommy. Be well. Hopefully I'll see you next month at Joy Street. I'm giving a talk there in a few weeks about Lightweight Backpacking…announcement forthcoming any day now.
I was one of the people who attended this light backpacking demo you did. and ended up buying much of the stuff you recommended. Last weekend I did my first ever backpacking trip – just one night – but it was awesome. My pack was 24 pounds including water and food.
Thanks again for the demo – It was an eyeopener.
That is so cool. Thanks for letting me know. Just made my day!
That sounds like a grand success to me. You should post a trip report! :) I'm sure it would open lots of first-time backpackers eyes as well.
What an informative post. I'd like to shed some pounds from my pack, but I can't seem to lighten up no matter how I try. The lists you've written are extremely helpful.
Kyle – Let me know if you have any questions I can answer. Happy to help. I always found lists like this helpful, but don't hesitate to ask if something doesn't make sense.
I enjoyed your post, and knowledge. Starting to backpacking and looking to buy equipment. This is very helpful. Thanks.