The Right Way

I’ve been haunting the various Facebook hiking and backpacking groups, trying to get more information about the right way to do things, and I’ve come across some interesting discussions. In one, a fellow asked if it were possible to hike the PCT without seeing anyone, and apparently, it’s all but impossible these days ever since THAT book and THAT movie. In fact, some people were downright rude in their responses, telling the poor fellow that one of the major benefits of hiking such a well-known trail was the camaraderie among hikers and that he’d be better off hiking somewhere far from them. Very few seemed to understand why he would want the trail to himself; most acted as if he were committing some sort of crime against the community by wanting to be alone on the trail.

One person who did understand suggested other hikes, such as The Desert Trail, which apparently runs parallel to the PCT, but goes through the desert portions of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It sounds interesting, but there isn’t a lot of information about the trail, not like The Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. He also suggested the Ouachita Trail, which is one I actually considered hiking. In fact, before my road trip turned into more of a friend trip than a camping trip, I’d planned to hike the trail. I even printed out all the maps and instructions and rules for the trail. I’ve kept all that information because it still fascinates me, not just because it’s an east-west trail, but because it goes through states I would never have considered, and also because the best time to hike the trail is in the winter rather than the summer when so many people are out and about.

Other discussions center on cost. Apparently, a thru hike on the PCT costs about $1,000 a month. If you add home rent on top of that expense, plus all the extravagantly expensive gear, thru hiking becomes a pricey undertaking. (When I first considered it, I thought I’d be homeless and so the $1,000 a month seemed reasonable.

There seem to be two groups who thru hike, recent college graduates and recent retirees, probably because both groups have the money and the time and little responsibility. A lot of retirees do manage to complete the hike, though many have to bail out because of health issues or bad knees. At least one older woman who completed the trail had to have her knees replaced afterward. Eek.

Many discussions in the various groups are about basic pack weight — the weight of all gear except for perishables such as food, water, and fuel. It seems to be a matter of status to hike the lightest possible hike. In fact, one fellow’s base pack weight was five pounds. Yep — tent, backpack, sleep system, emergency gear, clothes, all less than five pounds.

Outside of the understandable need to carry as little weight as possible, the real reason for ultra light is for thru hikers to be able to go as fast as possible, which seems a bit ridiculous to me, but what do I know. I’m just a saunterer or a plodder or even a trudger, no matter how much or how little weight I carry. This ultra lightweight gear is horrendously expensive (coming near to truly costing their weight in gold), and seems a bit counterproductive. The lightest weight backpack has no hip belt, just shoulder straps, which means all the weight is on the shoulders. If it were just the five pounds of basics that needed to be carried, that’s one thing, but if you add food and water, especially water enough to get through the dry places (six liters minimum at two pounds a liter) that’s a whole heck of a lot of weight to be hanging from one’s shoulders. Some of the ultra light tents are enclosed spaces, but some are not, and if you’re going through a buggy or snaky area, I for one would prefer a totally enclosed tent.

There’s quite a bit of snobbishness when it comes to light weight backpacking. One person sneered at the folks who spent all that money on ultra lightweight gear, but carried many extra pounds of their own weight. So what? At least the huskier folks are trying. And they have as much right on the trail as the thinner ones.

I left one forum when the talk turned political, as if I care whether or not the various companies catering to backpackers aim for diversity or not. All I know is that they are not catering to me. There are clothes geared toward women backpackers now, but very little for hefty women, even though a lot of not-thin women are interested in hiking. For example, the hip belt of the lightest backpack with a hip belt would in no way fit me. And most sleeping pads, especially ultra light sleeping pads, are too narrow.

Which is why I have to go lightweight and not ultra light. My base weight is, at a guess, seventeen pounds, depending on what sort of emergency and electronic gear I would bring in addition to extra clothes. (Unheard of in the early backpacking days, my tent is three pounds, my backpack three pounds, and my sleep system four pounds.) Of course, the ultra lights don’t bring many optional items. As one person said, “If you have energy to read or write at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right.” As if there is a right way or a wrong way. Each person who hikes or backpacks has different goals, and although “hike your own hike” seems to be a mantra of the hiking bunch, they don’t all seem to live by it, at least not for other people. (To be fair, I should admit that most hikers seem helpful and supportive of one another.)

I don’t suppose any of this really matters since there is a good chance neither you nor I will ever meet these folks on the trail.

There’s a good chance you will never meet me, anyway. I’m not sure I enjoy carrying any weight on my back, regardless if it’s ultra lightweight or just lightweight. With what I can carry and for how long, I’ll still be able to do short backpacking trips, dispersed camping, and various other activities that will get me out in the wild and away from people who think they know the “right” way to do things.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

My Faux Backpacking Trip

Dance class was cancelled today, so I was going to take a “zero” day — in backpacking parlance, that means no miles — but since I had nothing better to do, I eventually shrugged on the pack and headed up the road. I figured, in a real backpacking situation, for example one in which I was running out of food, being lazy wouldn’t get me out of the predicament, and the saunters this weekend were supposed to — sort of — mimic a backpacking trip.

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Sixteen miles in four days carrying twenty pounds sounds like a lot (and feels like even more!) but for a real backpacker, that would be a day’s hike with a light pack.

But then, I’m not a real backpacker, and have no real aspirations to be. What I’m aiming for is time in the wilderness rather than monster miles through the wilderness, but one doesn’t get to remote areas without some effort, so that’s what I’m doing. Putting in the effort.

As of right now, I figure I’m carrying the basic pack, or rather the weight of a basic pack, which would include the pack itself, a tent, sleep system (a total of ten pounds for those three basic items), and perhaps another ten pounds of emergency supplies and tools and extra clothes. What’s missing? Yep — food and water.

I could, of course, get rid of some of the emergency items and tools, such as the external battery for my phone and the Solo camp stove, to make room for food, but an even better plan would be to get strong enough to carry more weight.

I’m doing well for just having started my conditioning for a backpacking trip. I’ve also stuck to most of my non-resolutions, such as no sugar, no wheat, almost no dairy, but the not-eating-after-6:00-pm has been a problem. Still, it’s on the list, and one day, perhaps, I can adhere to that item, too. I do other things on the list, such as stretching and lifting weights (very light weights because of my arm) most days, which hopefully will also help get me in shape for the trip. Oddly, dance classes have become something of a respite from the trail conditioning because even grand plies are easier than trudging around with twenty extra pounds piled on my body.

Best of all, by being disciplined and going out for a trudge, I got to enjoy the lovely day.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.