Thursday, March 5, 2009

Those Last Five Pounds

In reviewing my Pacific Crest Trail Gear and reading gear recommendations for the CDT, I've started to think more about weight. I'm certainly not an ultra-lighter, nor am I really a light-weight backpacker. I'm generally content to carry whatever fits in my pack.

I started the Appalachian Trail with about fifty pounds on my back. I had heard the adage that "ounces equal pounds equals pain", but I didn't really listen. The pack I started with was donated by a friend. It alone weighed seven pounds. Like many first-time thru-hikers, I had way too much stuff.

I was reminded of my AT predicament last Spring during a warm-up hike that Reason and I took before heading to California to start the PCT. We started at Springer Mountain, the AT's southern terminus, and headed north for a few days. The hikers we met along the way had a long trek in front of them. It is over 2,000 miles to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, a daunting figure when suddenly you are at Springer, having most likely given up your job, possibly your abode, and temporarily your relationships.

One of the hikers we met during that warm-up hike was about the best-natured person I've ever met. He was young and strong, but suffering under the weight of an enormous pack. He'd read all of the books and advice about backpacking, but still had too much stuff. This is not unusual for first-time through hikers. Much advice about backpacking and safety recommends taking along all sorts of emergency supplies. Of course a hiker's first priority is to keep himself safe and healthy, but more recent thought suggests carrying less stuff and making better decisions about being in the elements. You can carry fewer clothes, for example, as long as you recognize that if you are too cold to hike you need to get to a lower elevation and get in your sleeping bag. You don't have to carry ten days of food if you find out where to resupply in the middle of the hike.

It goes without saying that different hikes require different gear and weather considerations, but the point remains that a hiker does not need the kitchen sink. The Good-Natured Hiker we met had all the gear to keep him safe, but it was making him miserable. He didn't need a heavy rope, for example. Nor did he need a hatchet or heavy blue tarp. He certainly didn't need the multi-dispenser spice kit. In good humor, this hiker pulled out two large summer sausages at a shelter one evening and offered it all around. "I'm not carrying these any farther, so please help yourselves," he smiled.

This Good-Natured Hiker is to be commended for his efforts at being prepared. I have heard it said, though, that a hiker tends to carry his fears with him. A hiker afraid of being hungry will carry too much food. A hiker afraid of running out of water will carry too much water. Would it be awful to run out of food and water? Of course! Are you going to die if you run short? Unlikely. That burger and coke in town will simply taste a lot better.

For my own part, I was afraid of being cold. Fortunately, at the 30 mile mark on the AT there is a conveniently located outfitter called Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap. I'm not sure whether it is more convenient for the hiker toiling under his heavy backpack or for the owners who practically operate a mint. Either way, Mountain Crossings is an amazing resource. I can't think of an outfitter that is better suited to long-distance hikers. Like many a thru-hiker, I made an appointment at the shop for a "shake-down". The friendly folks at Mountain Crossings walked through every piece of my gear with me until I had identified what I could send home, what I could replace with lighter equipment, and what I couldn't do without. In my case, I had way too many layers of warm clothing, most of which I sent home.

A gear shake-down is one of the best preparation exercises a hiker can do. It helps, too, to start by keep a spreadsheet listing the weight of each and every item of gear and clothing with a running total of the overall weight before food and water is added to the pack. This is what is known as base weight. Some hikers take this to the extreme. Known as gram-weenies, they are also the ones who are cold at night but who often have very innovative home-made gear that they weigh to the gram. You'll know you are in the company of thru-hikers if the folks around you are constantly bragging about their base weight.

Though the base weight lends an additional metric of competition to the sport of long-distance hiking, being conscious of base weight does make for a more comfortable hike. The Good-Natured Hiker with the many summer sausages wasn't going to go hungry, but he may never have had the chance to rescue himself or anyone else with his heavy rope because it would have been quite difficult to carry that rope and the tens of pounds of other equipment all the way to Maine.

When Reason and I turned South to head back to our car, we again met this Good-Natured Hiker. He had come through Neels Gap a transformed man. His already good-natured smile now spread from ear to ear, for his pack was a fraction of its original size! An already strong hiker, he was now bounding up and down the steep grades of North Georgia. It was a joy to see, and I have no doubt that he summited Mt. Katahdin in good speed.

I myself am not a gram-weenie. I do now keep a spreadsheet, but some things I never get around to weighing. I've been known to carry a book. I've been known to carry an extra liter of water in the desert. Reason makes fun of me for this, but he has run out of water more than once and then buttered me up while eyeing my extra liter. Reason is in fact making fun of how much I carry as I write these very words!

I do carry more than Reason. I hike with a Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone backpack. It holds a full ten pounds more than Reason's much smaller looking Vapor Trail pack. Folks we've passed on the trail have done a double take at this sight. Either they think I'm stronger or that I'm a beast of burden. Truth be known, when Reason and I were hiking together on the AT, I did carry the entire two-person tent when his knees were hurting. It was actually the tent I started with independently of Reason, but we did share it. Reason's family never lets up on the notion that "I carried his gear for him".

Reason would say that he would never choose such a heavy tent to begin with. It didn't hurt my cause, though to invite Reason to share my tent with me on a particularly rainy night in North Carolina. His ultra-light sil-nylon tarp looked to be about the size of a washcloth, and I said so. I didn't think it would keep him dry, and he obliged!

We hiked with a palatial two-person free-standing tent for much of the PCT. Though I loved sleeping under the stars, the tent was warm in the High Sierra and the bug netting was indispensable in much of Northern California and most of Oregon. The tent offered plenty of room for the two of us and our packs and had enough head room so that we could both sit up inside.

Reason was embarrassed by this tent. He didn't want to be seen in it. "Too heavy," he would complain. "No serious ultra-lighter would ever be caught with it." Reason loves the idea of shedding weight. He once took to eating 2,000 calories a day for months to reduce his very body weight in preparation for a hike on the Long Trail. The less body weight he has, the less overall weight he has to carry around on a hike, was his reasoning. True, but I got some looks from his sister after seeing his somewhat emaciated state that suggested that maybe I wasn't taking very good care of my husband. On the PCT, Reason also took to removing his hip belt from his pack. Serious gram-weenies can't be bothered to carry even the weight of the hip belt itself, not to mention that their base weight doesn't merit one.

Well, I like to think I'm conscious of my pack weight, but the truth is I'm not. I carry all kinds of things. I started the PCT with three half-used mini tubes of toothpaste. I just didn't see the need to have to buy more until I used those up. (Reason doesn't know this and will laugh at me now!) I tell myself that the weight of little things like that doesn't matter, but that is the same lie I tell myself every time I eat a cookie! In truth, it all adds up.

I'm still afraid of the cold. I just purchased a zero degree down sleeping bag for the CDT. It weighs 42 ounces - 13 ounces more than my 15 degree bag. That's the better part of a pound! My plan is to carry fewer clothes this time around in exchange for a warmer sleeping bag.

I guess I'd better get back to my spreadsheet and figure that out!

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