Summer Slack-Off: Ultralight Hiking

Summer Slack-Off: Ultralight Hiking
August 18, 2013

Over time, I figure out what I like to do. What I really like, it turns out, is going backpacking. Today, this has an “ultralight” theme.

August 30, 2009: Summer Slack-Off 3: How To Have Fun

I first went “ultralight” in 2000, led by the example of Ray Jardine. I haven’t gone back — although I am also happy to be “ultra heavy” for a short weekend trip with family or friends, with a cushy tent, thick full-length sleeping pads, really good food, wine, some candles, and a book. No need to be so serious about this stuff.

Contrary to what you might think, the ultralight approach becomes more important as distances get longer. Whether multiplied by more miles or more days, every pound of packweight gets more and more important. The very long trips, like the Appalachian Trail, are where ultralighting can have the greatest advantages. This is perhaps the opposite of what one might think, that a “serious” trip over several weeks must demand more gear. To take one example, I might use some heavy, waterproof, high-top hiking boots for a short (3 miles) hike in muddy conditions. However, for a two-week hike, I will use only running shoes, and if it’s muddy I just get wet feet.

This year, I did the 135-mile Northville to Placid trail in the Adirondacks. For years, I’ve been eyeing this trail which cuts north-south through the mountains, a big fat prize on the map. It took me ten days, averaging about thirteen miles a day with no off days. These are rather slow miles too: muddy, stumpy, overgrown, rocky, with blowdowns. Despite the low elevations, trails are very rough in the Northeast. Surprisingly, the big mountains of the Sierras or the Rockies can have very easy packed-gravel trails, where it is not too hard to blast out twenty miles or more. I didn’t want to push the miles too much, because I wanted long lunch breaks and quiet afternoons. Also, I haven’t been hiking that much, and my feet can’t really take ten hours of hiking day after day. The point-of-failure for most people is their feet — they get blisters or other situations, unless they have gradually built up the mileage and time so that their feet can get properly conditioned.

“Ultralight” basically means getting your “base weight” down under 15 lbs, and preferably under ten. “Base weight” is before consumables like food, water, and fuel. I’m generally around 6-9 lbs.

I could go lighter than this, and I have (sub-four pounds in hot weather), but it gets silly. The fact of the matter is, you are going to eat about 2 lbs of food a day — there is no practical way of cutting this and still getting adequate caloric intake, unless you purposefully decide to go into calorie deficit — so you will be carrying 4-10 lbs of food typically, plus another two pounds of water, for a total starting pack weight of perhaps 18 lbs. Cutting that extra 3 oz. off your pack weight doesn’t make that much sense. The optimal window seems to be around 6-10 lbs base weight, depending on temperature and conditions. In that range, you aren’t sacrificing a lot of comfort for very small amounts of weight savings. Above 10 lbs, you are starting to add luxuries which might seem invaluable to some but the advantages begin to drop quickly, in my opinion. (There’s something to be said for a proper tent, though.)

However, I am intrigued by the idea of traveling through the woods with less. This has little to do with practicality, but rather, with the mental process of living with very little. I will often go more minimalist than is really practical just to enjoy this feeling.

I find that I enjoy this minimalist hiking better than spending a week at a fancy resort hotel-type place. I especially like removing myself from everything — no TV, no Internet, no email, no cellphones, no cars, no electricity (I didn’t even take a headlamp on this trip), no money, none of the accumulations of your own house, no “things to do” like fix this or read that or clean up that other thing — my incessant to-do list. Just me and nature. In part, this is because the built environment today is so darn ugly. When I am in a built environment that is quite nice — I like Tokyo — then I can have a great time there too. But, that is unusual, especially in the United States. In recent years, I’ve even been backing off the mileage, to have more slack time in the day. Doing high mileage (up to 30 miles per day over several weeks) is one way to enjoy this process, but for me, now, I tend toward having long lazy afternoons instead. I could do more, and I did in the past (there was a time when I would have to hike ten hours just to get tired, and finishing by headlamp was common), but I learned that you don’t have to just because you can.

Hiking — and especially ultralight hiking — has many lessons for life in general. When you learn to live for a week or two (or six months if you do the Appalachian Trail) with only eight pounds of belongings, and cold food, and find that it is quite fun, this can translate into everything you do. I had many wonderful afternoons just lying on a rock in the sun — I mean wonderful in an absolute sense, like being as much or more fun than lying on the beach in front of a twenty-million dollar house in the Hamptons. You can still enjoy that four-thousand-square-foot house and German luxury automobile, but you don’t feel like you need it. You could just as easily drop it and live in a 300sf studio, which is just a different experience. In practice, I find that, although I genuinely enjoy luxury and excess, I just don’t care enough to put up with the hassle involved. I have other things to do. (The best beach house/sailboat/plane/sports car is someone else’s.) I get as much fun fixating on some tiny detail, like finding the “perfect” pair of trail shoes, as others get from building swimming pools and home theaters.

Give it a try. You might find you like it better than a week at Club Med. I ran into a group of four young people (age 20-23) who were out for a leisurely trip. They seemed like they were having so much fun. I was happy for them. I also ran into a group of four middle-aged (mid-fifties) women, who turned out to be really serious hikers. They had done the Appalachian Trail end-to-end, plus had made jaunts to the Sierras, Wind River range, and more. Usually, women that age are wrapped up in matronly fussiness, but these girls could go swimming naked in an Appalachian lake, without much care or concern, and just splash around and enjoy the afternoon sun.

* * *

After all this time, I’m still experimenting with all kinds of stuff. I suppose this is also one of the pleasures of the ultralight approach. Here are a few things I tried on this trip, and my conclusions.

Cold food: I didn’t take a stove or cooked food on this trip. It was all dried fruit, nuts, and a little chocolate. I have often done 2-3 day hikes with cold food, especially when hiking alone. I wondered how long I could do it without getting sick of it. I didn’t get sick of it on this trip. In fact, I rather liked it. I had quite a lot of variety, including pineapples, peaches, blueberries, cherries, candied ginger, apricots, figs (wow!), dates, prunes, mangoes, strawberries, almonds, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, cranberries and more (but no raisins or peanuts). This was not “trail mix,” and I kept it different each day. One day might be pineapple, prunes and walnuts, and the next day would be dates, apricots and almonds. Strangely, I fell into a pattern of eating all my food by 10am each morning, and eating nothing all afternoon and evening. For some reason, this didn’t bother me.

Other good no-cook foods include chocolate and candy bars, peanut butter/jelly and compact, durable breads like bagels, granola, cheese, hard sausage, etc. After fooling around with mini-stoves that use Esbit or alcohol, I find that I prefer to either take a proper gas/butane/wood stove, with a proper pot of at least 1.5 liters, with which I can do some real cooking like making pasta or soup, or nothing at all. Those little Esbit stoves are really just for heating a half-liter of water for coffee or reconstituting some freeze-dried food. My 900ml titanium pot is pretty miserable for making pasta, and I don’t find that the result is all that much better than a bagel with cheese. I suppose I might get a little more creative with just-add-hot-water options such as bean flakes.  (Bean flakes are good for burritos but they give you epic — I mean truly epic! — intestinal gas. My last experiment with bean flakes was in Alaska in 1992. Just try spending a cold night in a sleeping bag, in a tent, with epic gas. Multiply one fart per minute by twelve hours times sixty minutes to get a rough idea.) Mostly, I avoid processed foods, which rules out prepared freeze dried foods, instant soups, instant hot cocoa, and some other such things. I don’t really need to carry a stove just to make coffee.

Of course, cold food meant no stove, pot, lighters, matches, spoons, cups, etc. etc., which, in addition to weighing less, also frees up a lot of space in the pack. It also frees up a lot of time, as all of that cooking/eating/cleaning fussiness and ritual goes out the door.

8oz trail runners: I’ve already tried very minimalist trail runners while hiking (Merrell Trail Glove, 5.5. oz., my usual trail running shoes), and didn’t like it much. This is because the natural running gait is a forefoot strike, while the natural walking gait is a heel strike. You don’t need any padding in the heel for running, but you can certainly make use of it (although it is not really necessary) while hiking. Also, I nearly blew them out in a six-day trip (very, very rocky). I decided I wanted something more durable, with better armoring, and with some heel padding.

This time, I used the New Balance MT1010, which is still a lightweight runner around 8 oz. per shoe, but with more padding and armoring. No luck — I blew the things out completely by the end of the hike. They were pretty nice to walk with, much better than the Merrells, but not nearly durable enough. These lightweight shoes are just not made of burly stuff. Makes sense — or all shoes would be 8 oz. I figure I’ll have to go back to full-blown trail runners in the 12 oz. range to get the durability I want. I used the New Balance 800 series for many years, and they worked fine. I donated my most recent pair to charity, as I concluded they were a little too small and were chewing up my feet.

My feet were wet pretty much all day. This is something you should just get used to. Forget about Gore-Tex liners or anything of that sort. Heavy, high-top “waterproof” boots will get wet too, which makes them even heavier, and they also take forever to dry out, as opposed to a running shoe which just takes a few hours in the sun. Be in rhythm with nature. When it is rainy or muddy, you get wet. When it is sunny, you get dry. Trying to fight this is too much work, introduces its own problems, and is just plain impossible when you are talking about six, eight, ten hours or more on the trail per day. Having wet feet is not that big a deal. People associate being wet with being cold, but actually they are different things.

17 oz. 40F “top bag,” 4 oz. 28″ foam half-pad: I thought this sleeping combo would be fine for high summer, at elevations generally below 2000 ft., but it was totally insufficient. The Adirondacks are pretty far north, and I was uncomfortably cold every night. Also, the very small and light pad is great fun to think about, but it is way too uncomfortable. I had heard that you can get used to a foam pad after a few days, but I had no luck with that. I’m going to use air mattress-type pads from here on out, probably full length. Indeed, there have been quite a few advancements in this sphere in the past few years, so that you can get a very cushy pad that doesn’t weigh too much. Until a few years ago, the typical tradeoff was either a full-length foam pad (uncomfortable and waaay too bulky for an ultralight pack) or a Therma-Rest type “self inflating” air mattress, which is quite compact but can be heavy. I used the Therma-Rest Ultralight 3/4 pad for about eight years (17 oz.), before going to a 1/2 length (36″ long) Ridge Rest for ultralight hiking. If I were to do the same trip again, I would use my 20F bag (28 oz.) and a full-length Therma-Rest Neo Air Ultralight pad (12 oz.). This is much heavier, but it is good weight, and worth every gram. In warmer weather (lows in the 55F range), I will use the Klymit 3/4 length air mattress (6 oz.), and either the 40F bag or, in really hot weather (lows 65F or higher), just a space blanket (2.5 oz.). No more foam pads for me. I want to sleep warm and cozy all night — the kind of “I’m so comfortable I don’t want to get out of my bag” feeling in the morning, rather than the “thank god it’s finally getting light because I’ve been tossing and turning for the last five hours and it’s damn cold” result which happens to me way too often these days, including every single day on this trip. Now I want to be outrageously, luxuriantly comfortable while still keeping a sub-10 pound base packweight.

No insulation for the legs: Despite cool temperatures (45F in morning, 65F in afternoon), I didn’t take any insulation for my legs. Despite being woefully undergeared in my sleeping setup, I didn’t really miss the leg layer (midweight tights or light fleece pants) at all. I would probably take it anyway (6oz. fleece pants) just for comfort, however. My only insulation was a fleece jacket (7 oz.) and a fleece beanie (1.5 oz.).

Tyvek coveralls: I tried some 4.5 oz. disposable Tyvek coveralls ($5), made for lab technicians, painters and others who need a disposable coverup. I originally thought these would be decent raingear, but actually they are porous! They made an excellent “wind shell,” which I didn’t use for wind (all below treeline), but rather as a bug coverup and for a bit of warmth. Not too durable — I ripped out one leg — but at $5 that doesn’t matter too much. Actually, they worked pretty darn well, the main problem being that they are horrifically ugly! I know some people will enjoy the cheap/ugly/weird/superlight/works great aspect of it. For me, I’m going back to my “wind shirt and wind pants” combo (8 oz.). Either that, or I’ll take a heavier pair of “hiking pants” (10oz.) for the legs. Especially at these colder temperatures, wearing long pants instead of shorts is comfortable, and also provides very welcome protection from bugs, branches, thorny overgrowth, and other such things. My 4.5 oz. wind pants make pretty good all-day hiking pants, but they are ugly (bright yellow — they were on sale) and have some durability issues.

Bugs were a huge issue, which I didn’t really expect at all. This is the lakes and swamps section of the Adirondacks. I’ve hiked in the High Peaks, which have higher elevations, more wind, more exposure, colder temperatures, and steep slopes which prevent standing water where bugs breed. Shorts and t-shirts were generally OK. The typical “Adirondack Man” of the 1920s wore wool pants, a long-sleeve wool shirt, a hat, and smoked a pipe. Not only did this look quite spiffy, but it kept the bugs off (a pipe helps a lot actually). Even today, you don’t want to go spreading DEET — a horribly poisonous chemical, just try getting some on your lips if you want to see what I mean — all over your body. Cover up as best you can, with long sleeves and pants, and bugproof fabrics, and just use a little DEET around your neck and ears. I also found that a hat was quite important for bugs. This was a new one for me. But, the bugs really, really seem to like sweaty hair. A hat keeps them off. I ended up using my bulky, heavy rain hat all the time, and wished I had a wool hat from the 1920s instead. Even the indigenous Mohawk native Americans wore long-sleeve buckskin clothes (bugproof). They knew what they were doing. If I were going to the low-lying Adirondacks again, I might even take a longsleeve “bugproof hiking shirt” in lieu of an ultralight windshirt, which, in addition to being a lot more durable (so you don’t rip out that paper-thin windshirt on a blowdown or crashing through thorny overgrowth), also looks spiffy, the way an Adirondack Man should. Alas, it is 10 oz. vs. 3.5 oz.

Golite Breeze pack (14oz., 40L): This was my first ultralight pack, purchased in 2000, and not made anymore although the basic design is still common. It has been supplanted in recent years by smaller, lighter varieties. I have been using it as an around-town and day-hiking pack, but I took it here because I needed extra space and durability. I was carrying all ten days of food from the start, for a start weight around 30 lbs including some water. This is a nice, durable pack. I liked it. I added a belt a long time ago, and took it off on this trip despite the heavy start weight. Just don’t need a belt anymore I guess. Even with ten days of food, I didn’t really fill it up. Funny how a pack that seemed “so small” years ago now seems so roomy.

Poncho tarp (7oz.): Shelter and raingear in 7oz. I mostly stayed at lean-tos, which I expected to do and which is why I carried this, figuring that I wouldn’t actually have to use it much. I did spend one night in it, with a light rain. It is VERY low and tight, but once you crawl into it, it is quite comfortable and functional. Like a bivy bag. I also used this as a poncho for two days of rainy hiking, and it worked great. The temperature was a little borderline for a poncho in the rain. If it was ten degrees colder, or windy and above treeline, I would have to go with a rainsuit for warmth. A lot depends on temperature. Umbrellas, ponchos, and rainsuits all have temperatures that they work best at. Also, the poncho is potentially a problem when it gets dense, with the aforementioned thorny plants and so forth, but it worked OK for me this time.

Despite all sorts of creative “light and airy” pitches you see on the Internet, there is really only one way to use a poncho tarp, and that is a standard “A-frame” triangular tube pitch with the sides nailed down to the ground. Otherwise, you get too much splash in heavy rain, and too much wind vulnerability even below treeline. There is no margin for error at all in a five-foot-wide tarp. Any kind of pitch works great when it doesn’t rain, including the “leave it in your pack” pitch. When it rains, you need to nail it down.

Aquamira: First time using this water purification system. Seemed to work well.

No headlamp: Didn’t really miss it, but the weight of a headlamp is negligible anyway so I’d bring it next time.

One pair of socks: Everyone always brings an extra pair of socks. I tried just one pair, and it worked fine although I think I will take an extra pair in the future. The extra pair is very light, and if you did wear a hole or something in your socks, it could kill your trip. Plus, you can use them as sleep socks. I washed out the socks every day. Keeping your feet happy is very important. You have to dry your feet out every day and keep your socks clean. Look up “trench foot” among WWI British soldiers for example. Those units that cleaned and dried their feet every day were fine. If your feet blow out, your trip is over, or you will at least need a few recovery days.

All in all, it was pretty interesting. Some “crazy light” things worked fine (no layer for legs, cold food, Tyvek coveralls, poncho tarp, no headlamp), some things didn’t work (8 oz. shoes, lack of attention to bug protection), and some things were a total failure (sleeping bag and pad). Also, in the future, I would resupply so that I didn’t have to carry more than five days of food. Besides the weight of the food itself, this would also allow me to use my smaller, lighter packs, which would then allow me to carry a lot more sleeping bag without much gain in overall base pack weight.

I definitely got an appreciation for “too light” on this trip. I am now willing to add back two or three pounds — a huge amount in the world of ultralight hiking — to get the comfort, durability and functionality I want. This puts me back in the 8-10 lbs. range for base packweights. On a longer trip like this, the idea of “if anything doesn’t work or blows out, I will have to live with it for another week” was on my mind, which is different than a two or three day trip.

Also, I have an appreciation for cutting back a little bit here and there — an ounce here and two ounces there — so that I can add back eight or twelve ounces somewhere that it will make a big difference.

The Northville-Placid trail was great fun, and a major destination for Northeast hiking, along with the Long Trail, Long Path, Appalachian Trail and a few others. It is not very well known, perhaps because it doesn’t go over any big mountains. Even in the peak season, I had several days where I did not see a single other person, and I never had to share a shelter. Nevertheless, a fine outing. I had a wonderful time, finished with a beer, burger and hot shower in Lake Placid, and took the bus back. One of my happiest feelings is being able to appreciate just how luxurious hot and cold running water or a modern bed is.