Gear Talk

I once read an article by a woman who quit the Pacific Crest Trail mid-hike. One of the reasons was that she never quite found her “trail family,” though I got the impression she was even more disappointed by her lack of “trail tail.” (Yep, that’s a real thing.) Another reason was that she found the thru-hiking culture elitist — apparently, all anyone ever talked about was how many miles they’d walked, when they’d started, and what gear they carried. Mostly they talked about their gear, with the ultra-ultra-light folks looking down on those who carried a few extra pounds, whether in their packs or on their bodies.

What made me think of this is that a woman contacted me a couple of days ago. Four years older than I am, she is also thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s been nice connecting with someone more in my demographic than is generally prevalent in the hiking forums, someone who shares my particular worries.

Our last few exchanges have been about — drum roll — you guessed it! Our gear.

Since neither she nor I are planning on doing monster miles (don’t you love all these thru-hike terms I’m throwing at you?), we both agree that comfort is more important than a bit of extra weight — a comfortable pack, a comfortable sleep system, a comforting amount of emergency supplies. (Some of the lightest of the ultra-light hikers dispense with such “unnecessary” things as an emergency medical kit, a compass, extra socks, iodine tablets or something like that for a backup water purifier.)

In case you’re curious, these are my “big three” — the term for pack, tent, sleep system: Gregory J53 pack; Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent, Big Agnes double z insulated sleeping pad, and a zero-rated Enlightened Equipment camping quilt.

I couldn’t decide what size tent to get, so I ordered the UL2 (which means an ultra light two person tent). I immediately regretted not ordering the UL1 (a one-person tent) because it would have been a bit of weight saving, but the tent I ordered is a good size for me, and the weight just doesn’t seem worth worrying about. (Though thru-hikers worry about every fraction of an ounce. Some even cut off the handle of their toothbrush and trim the various straps on their backpacks.) So far, the only time I’ve used the tent was on my cross-country trip — I was so cold, I put the Big Agnes inside my big dome tent. I really enjoyed having a canopied bed!

A zero-rated quilt or sleeping bag is one that will keep you alive, though not necessarily comfortable, at zero degrees. My quilt barely keeps me warm when the temperature drops to thirty-five degrees, but I also have a second, lighter quilt I could bring, or perhaps half of a fleece throw. Why a quilt? I don’t like sleeping bags. Too confining. And it takes too much time to unzip. With an aging bladder, I figure I need to be able to get up as quickly as possible. (Too much information, I know, but this is the sort of thing I have to contemplate that young hikers don’t.)

And the sleeping pad — what can I say? It’s a bit heavier than what some people bring, a lot heavier than what the ultra-ultra light hikers use, but it is comfortable, and it keeps the ground temperature from being a problem. (Normally, I sleep propped up on a few pillows, but somehow, I can’t see me wandering the wilderness with a huge mound of pillows tied to the outside of my pack, though it would provide amusement to anyone who saw me.)

My “big three” weighs a total of ten pounds, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider all the other stuff I will need to carry. I’m hoping to keep clothes and the small bits of gear to a maximum of eight pounds, which would give me a base weight of 18 pounds, which is respectable, but I don’t know if I can do it. I, for one, need to have extra socks and other such amenities. And then, on top of that, there is all the food and water that needs to be carried. This should be enough to make me want to give up on my impossible dream, but oddly, all it does it make me consider how to get rid of the impossible part and keep only the dream.

There. Now you too got to participate in gear talk. Wasn’t that fun?

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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.

Weight Shaming

I’ve read a lot about ultra lightweight backpacking, and it makes sense — the less weight you have to carry, the easier it will be. Sounds good, right? But ultra lightweight gear is generally absurdly expensive, and in some cases, those who desire to go ultra light end up with gear that seems counterproductive. For example, some ultra lightweight backpacks are ultra lightweight because they leave off the hipbelt (making the shoulders take all the weight) or making the pack a lot smaller. (Small ultra lightweight packs hold as little as 35 liters, which makes me laugh, thinking about the fellow at REI who refused to sell me a 38 liter pack because it wouldn’t hold enough for a long trek.) And some people don’t carry important emergency items in order to make their packs lighter because they don’t think they will ever need them.

The real issue is the weight shaming that so many of these elitist backpackers indulge in. They look down on, and make fun of people who carry a heavier pack. Some go in for body shaming, too, mentioning the absurdity of heavy people trying to cut back the weight of their pack rather than their body weight, but most shaming goes toward the pack base weight. (Pack base weight is the total weight you carry including the pack but minus food, water, and fuel.)

Apparently, the motive for the ultra lightweight hikers is to chew up the miles. Their method is hike, eat, sleep, repeat. That’s it. They seem to believe there is no reason to take anything to read or to write with because they say if you have energy left at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right. (Apparently, although these folks spout the hiker’s mantra, hike your own hike, they don’t mean it.) The latest thing I’ve been hearing is the importance of cutting back on tent weight (for these folks, often a tarp is enough) and sleeping pad. They say it’s better to be comfortable walking than comfortable sleeping.

Even without checking to see who these folks are, I would bet they are youngish males. No older woman would ever consider the idea that being too uncomfortable to sleep is better than carrying a couple of extra pounds in her pack, even if it means she has to go slower.

The real issue with the weight shamers seems to be the same issue that shows up in any other inter-human relationship — the inability to understand that others might have different values than you. They don’t consider that maybe people are out there to do other things besides simply walk. Writers need to write about their experiences while the feeling is fresh. Photographers want to indulge in their artistry. Readers might find comfort in the familiarity of words in the vastness of the night. Aesthetes need time to appreciate. Nature lovers need time to commune with the world around them. Pilgrims have to search for spiritual meaning in the quest.

So many reasons to embark on a long hike. So many reasons to put other considerations before pack weight.

I don’t know what my base weight is since I have not yet gotten to that point, but the weight of my “big three” (pack, tent, sleep system) is a mere ten pounds, though it’s still considered heavy by some. Regardless, that weight is about as light as I can get it unless I want to invest in an ultra lightweight tent and a lighter backpack that together will cost about a thousand dollars. Even so, the most weight I can save by spending all that money is two or three pounds. (I can’t go lighter on my sleep system or there will be no sleep!)

And anyway, my goal is not to hike, eat, sleep, repeat. It’s to experience whatever I can as deeply as I can. And if that means carrying a bit of extra weight in my pack, so be it.

Actually, the biggest weight in anyone’s pack comes from food (some hikers eat four thousand calories a day) and water if there is no water source. (Water weighs a bit more than two pounds a liter, and we need at least that much every day.) If we could learn to get our food and water from the air, just think how light our packs would be!

Something to aim for?

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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.