Most novice backpackers make the same first time mistakes—they pack and attempt to carry too much gear. While hiking the Continental Divide Trail, my brother-in-law hooked up with me to do a sixty-mile section in the Targee National Forest just west of Yellowstone. Before we headed out I went through his gigantic pack and pulled out a whole roll of toilet paper, a super-size tube of toothpaste and a whole roll of duct tape. Often first time backpackers take along gear that they have and not the gear they should have. I have seen people hauling old canvas boy scout tents that weigh more than my whole pack. I spent a night in a very crowded shelter at Egypt Lake along Canada’s Great Divide Trail. A French Canadian lad from Quebec noticed my wood burning titanium Zip Ztove and struck up a conversation with me about ultra-light backpacking. He had many questions about my gear and suggested to me that he too pared his gear down to a very reasonable load. I later noticed he was sleeping on one of those large inflatable mattresses that require an air compressor to fill when unexpected house guests show up.
There is also the other extreme—what I call the "ultra-light backpacker syndrome." It’s easy to recognize ultra-light backpackers—they want to borrow stuff from you. There is a limit to how much discomfort I am willing to submit to for a little solitude. When I first read Ray Jardine’s book I thought the guy was some kind of nut. I ended up reading the book three times. Ray changed my backpacking life. I am in no way an ultra-light disciple of the "Ray Way" but he did make me rethink my whole pack. My pack is twice as heavy as Ray’s but lighter than it used to be.
Tarps are nifty little shelters but I still like sleeping in a tent when the sleet is blowing in sideways. My little Hilleberg "Akto" weighs under three pounds and it’s a bomb shelter that has kept me warm and dry in the most radical weather conditions. I tried Ray’s corn pasta diet. He can eat the stuff cold for months on end. After one hot meal I decided I hate corn pasta. I prefer my dehydrated refried beans. You don’t want to hike behind me but I guarantee they pack as much octane as his corn pasta. Ray’s ounce paring did make me retool my cooking apparatus. I decided I would rather splurge and carry an extra 11 ounces and eat my beans hot. My Zip Ztove requires carrying no fuel and has worked efficiently in all kinds of conditions. Besides the light weight of the titanium construction there is no need to carry a fuel source.
The beauty of Jardine’s book was the fact that it made me rethink everything I stuffed into my pack. Today I carry about 26 pounds, plus food and water. I have "the list." When I go out and when I come back I study "the list." I am constantly refining my gear and deciding what I really need. My latest light-weight technique is the "Google Camera." I’m blind in one eye and have no depth perception. I can’t take a decent picture if Nikon sponsors me and sends a sherpa along with all their latest gear. Last fall while hiking in Glacier National Park it struck me that a Google camera would be the ultimate light-weight picture capturing device. I simply committed to memory the things I saw along the trail that I wanted to record in pixel perfect format—Ptarmigan Tunnel, a grizzly bear standing on two hind legs sniffing me in the air, Granite Park Chalet, Hidden Lake. When I returned home I found that hundreds of people that see with both eyes and know how to take wonderful photographs have already recorded my memories and uploaded them to Google Images for me to enjoy—total weight—0 oz.
A light weight clothing wardrobe is as simple as creating the ability to layer up and down. Consider every possible extreme combination of wind, rain, snow, sun, temperature and terrain. Do some self analysis of what you really need to be comfortable and safe. Any item that will do double duty is that much more beneficial to attaining a lighter load. The outer layer of my foul weather system is a large hooded poncho. It is also the ground sheet for my tent. Unlike a rain jacket the poncho covers not only me but my pack. It offers better ventilation while hiking. Hiking in a rain suit is much the same as hiking in a sauna. The open-sided poncho let’s much of your body heat escape. In windy conditions I use a web strap from my pack as a belt to keep the poncho from bellowing open.
Gloves and mittens are another clothing item I have experimented with. Gloves did not keep my fingers warm enough. Fleece mittens worked better but were not waterproof. A wet rain would suck the heat right out of my hands. I finally started carrying waterproof, down mittens which are light, keep my hands warm and dry, while also doubling as the most comfortable backcountry pillow I have ever used.
Lightening your load does not have to be uncomfortable or unsafe. It just means "thinking outside the pack." If you don’t use it, lose it. Experimenting with gear and technique can be one of the great joys of packtoting.