Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lightweight Backpacking: Sweat the Big Stuff

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack is essential for journeying into the depth of the Adirondack backcountry, where trails are nonexistent and obstacles plentiful. This is especially true as time passes and endurance of youth gives way to the slower plodding of middle age and beyond. Shouldering less of a burden reduces the stress on the legs resulting in more comfortable hiking, healthier joints and blister-free feet.

Although endlessly counting ounces may be tedious, there is no other way to effectively reduce the weight of a backpack. The simplest solution is carry less stuff. Discard the superfluous, such as a large bowie knife, a cast iron frying pan, or a square egg maker (this is no jest, I witnessed all of these articles packed into the backcountry during my backpacking career). Think small when it comes to those essential items.

When going lightweight is in its nascent stage, initially concentrate on the biggest and bulkiest items. A shelter (e.g. tent), sleeping bag and backpack form a triumvirate of heavy equipment typically carried into the backcountry. Therefore, these big boys are where one should start to shave off the pounds.

Making the switch to lightweight is easier today since most manufacturers appear to be making equipment out of lighter material. Unfortunately, many of them are simply playing lip service to this effort. The majority of their products continue to contain numerous unnecessary “bells and whistles.” Keeping the ounces off one’s back requires jettisoning all but the essential amenities.

The best method for getting exactly what one desires in a piece of backpacking equipment is to make it yourself. Although this notion seems unthinkable to some (at least that’s what the major manufacturers are counting on), it is not as difficult as first imagined. Unfortunately, not everyone has the skills or patience to make their own homemade equipment.

The best alternative for those without the skills or inclination to make their own is to modify manufactured equipment after purchasing it. Since it requires steely nerves to start ripping apart a brand new product to remove unwanted bells and whistles, this option may be just as unrealistic as producing equipment from scratch.

For those unwilling to make their own and unable to disassemble newly purchased manufactured products, the only viable alternative remaining is carefully shopping around to find manufactured equipment that comes as closely to meeting ones needs as possible. Just think small and keep it simple.

The shelter is a great place to start reducing the weight of a fully packed backcountry backpack. The bountiful options available makes it easier than ever to lug around more shelter than absolutely necessary. The tent is the most conventional choice in a portable shelter but often other options (e.g. tarp) weigh less and offer better ventilation.

Avoid carrying more shelter than necessary, if possible. Carrying a three-person tent for a single person results in a heavier burden and a lot of unoccupied and thus unnecessary space at the end of the day. The smaller the shelter, the less weight on one’s back. Think small and save potentially a few pounds.

Any shelter with optional poles is an excellent choice for a lightweight shelter. The backcountry has an almost infinite variety of poles, ripe for the using, if one knows where to find them. Standing trees and their fallen limbs make outstanding poles, and they add nothing to the weight of a backpack. Just take care not to damage any living trees in the process.

My shelter preference is for a modular tarp system; I have not seen the inside of a tent in a decade. The tarp system was manufactured by Golite using Ray Jardine’s designs. The system consists of a tarp (the Cave) and a hanging insect netting interior (the Nest). Trees or sticks function as poles, though sometimes in a pinch I will use my hiking poles. Unfortunately, Golite no longer offers this product (although a tarp kit is available directly from Ray Jardine’s website), though they do have many other lightweight tents currently available.

The sleeping bag is another one of the more weighty backpacking essentials. Its bulk and weight is mostly due to the insulating material that keeps one comfortable and warm on a chilly Adirondack night. Enough insulation is necessary for the lowest potential temperature encountered on a trip but going overboard in this regard can be costly weight-wise. If it gets colder than anticipated long underwear, coats and rain gear may be worn as pajamas.

Choosing down over synthetic insulation is the best way to reduce the weight of a sleeping bag. Down insulates better, is more compressible and weighs much less than the synthetic alternatives. Some may find such a notion complete lunacy in the temperate rainforest known as the Adirondacks, since wet down offers little insulating ability. A waterproof stuff sack, backpack liner and/or pack cover insures a dry down sleeping bag, even in the Adirondacks.

For the last half dozen years, I have almost exclusively slept in the Western Mountaineering’s Highlite sleeping bag during the warmer months of the Adirondacks. It is engineered to be as lightweight as possible, with such features as down insulation, lightweight fabrics and a reduced sized half zipper. Unfortunately, it is offered in only a few sizes and I had to settle for the 6 feet length option. At around 5’8” (and that is with my boots on), this sleeping bag is much too long but I lack the nerves of steel required to do something about it.

Shaving off weight by replacing the backpack with a lighter equivalent is best saved for last. Since the backpack must offer enough support to comfortably carry all the equipment, it is best to pare down the weight of its contents before making the leap to a lightweight equivalent.

Some features to avoid in a backpack are a top pocket, side pockets, metal or plastic stays and even a highly cushioned hip-belt. Although these features might appear essential, they are easily abandoned with some planning. The extra support provided by the stays and highly cushioned hip-belt is unnecessary when the weight of the contents of the backpack is reduced sufficiently.

Golite’s Pinnacle is my primary backpack during the summer months in the Adirondacks. It is extremely lightweight but roomy enough to carry over a week’s worth of supplies and is highly durable. Over the years mine has traveled from Cranberry Lake to Stillwater Reservoir (and back), through some horrendous recovering blowdown along Oven Lake, and deep into the interior of the Pepperbox Wilderness.

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack allows for more comfortable hiking and a more enjoyable backcountry experience. Concentrating the initial effort on the larger equipment lays the groundwork for reducing the weight on the less substantial gear. Think small, keep it simple and enjoy a renewed spring in the step on the trail.

Photos: Cave/Nest tarp at Moshier Reservoir, Highlite sleeping bag on Cat Mountain and Pinnacle backpack at Streeter Fishpond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




4 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    But I think I would also like to carry a small cast iron wood stove and the necessary stove pipe to go in that tent you have! Then I would only need a light blanket.

    This is a good post. Thanks.

  2. Dan Crane says:

    Paul,

    I once saw someone bringing such a stove in a wheelbarrow on the trail between Janack’s Landing and Sand Hill Junction in the Five Ponds Wilderness. I guess I should have added that to my list!

    Thanks!

  3. Paul says:

    Dan, I am sure they were setting up a temporary camp for the deer hunting season. I have seen the same thing in other places. With some of the places you have been you must have found some “outlaw” camps on your treks?

  4. Dan Crane says:

    Paul, I am sure you arre right. In fact, I think it might have been in late September when I saw them. I have found several outlaw camps before, in fact, I wrote about some here http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2010/11/storage-of-personal-property-on-public.html.