Backpacking: A little luxury or the bare necessities?
When it comes to multi-day backpacking trips, the unofficial backpackers’ doctrine is to go as light as possible. “Back in the days of people like Norman Clyde, one of the old-school mountaineers that did a lot of the first ascents in the Sierra, they went really heavy. Clyde carried iron skillets … but we don’t need to do that anymore,” said Gary Bell, owner of Sierra Cycle Works. But for some, eating oatmeal and reconstituted freeze-dried food and sleeping on the hard ground is truly suffering. Why should backpacking be like entering a monastery? Just taking the bare necessities might make for a hard, cold, sleepless, hungry night out in that beautiful wilderness. Steve Andersen was the first person to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail in 1998, before it was complete. He tries to keep his pack around 25 pounds on most trips but admits he sometimes indulges. “I’ll get extravagant on food. The thing is, you are going to eat it, you don’t have to carry it out,” Andersen said. “I’ll bring a frying pan and do quessadillas on the trail, or I’ll do a pizza. Now that’s extravangant. Sometimes the freeze-dried food just gets old.” It seems every backpacker has his indulgences. Tim Hauserman, who wrote the guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, says his is a pillow. “It’s actually really light. It’s still not as big as a regular pillow, but it’s really soft,” Hauserman said. “You know, sleeping is really a challenge; it makes it so nice – it makes a big difference.” Other luxury items include an extra sleeping pad, fresh fruit or veggies, a six-pack of beer or even a fold-up chair. And for the audaciously indulgent, there are always those Lexan screw together wine glasses. Backpackers can indulge when the trip is shorter or less steep. Choosing a closer base camp can allow for some heavier items and longer, pack-free day hikes. Taking too much can get a hiker into trouble. Backpackers need to pack their packs thoughtfully. Bell said he took a cantaloupe once, and learned his lesson. His mainstay luxury item is chocolate, which can be heavy, but well worth the haul. It’s a catch-22. Leaving behind the everyday necessities could make for a miserable night’s sleep, but taking them all along could make for a hard hike. “You have to be into suffering, you either have to suffer while you are walking or you have to suffer while you are in camp. Take your pick,” Hauserman said. Jeff Munson 5/11/04 This would make a good pull quote Going light “Unfortunately what they are missing is it’s such a better hike without all that stuff,” Andersen said. He usually keeps his pack weight below 30 pounds. To begin with, his backpack only weighs two pounds, and his sleeping bag a mere 1.2 pounds. By using light-weight sleeping bags, freeze-dried food and even forgoing comforts like a tent, some claim to be able get their whole load below 14 pounds. When you are hiking 10-20 miles a day for days or weeks at a time, that can make a big difference in the calories you need and the comfort of your feet and joints. Being light in the feet is important for Andersen. “I try to find the lightest weight boots I can find. I try to build up my ankles so I don’t have to protect my ankles” with the heavier boots, Andersen said. “You gotta think about it, every step you take, you are lifting that boot.” In the science of packing light, every pound, or even ounce, counts. What no outdoor retailer wants you to know about is the Pepsi stove, a homemade, lightweight stove made from the ends of two soda cans. One end acts as a cup to hold the fuel, and the other one is the lid, with about 30 tiny holes punched through it for the flame. The home-made stoves run on any type of fuel, even gas from your local gas station. When backpacking stoves can run as high as $150, Pepsi stoves are not only the lightest and cheapest by far, they are easily replaceable. Foregoing the tent is another option. Andersen has a light tarp and uses his trekking poles as poles for a makeshift tent. Others carry a bivouac sack, a caccoon that fits around the sleeping bag, with a mesh tented head area that gives breathing ventilation but also protects the sleeper from bugs. And the most adventurous just sleep outside, with just a sleeping bag and pad. In other areas of the country, you’d be taking the big risk of soaking all your belongings and catching hypothermia on a rainy night. Rain is more predictable in the Sierra summer months, if it happens at all. Food and cooking accesories take the most weight in your pack. Hauserman said if he’s just going for a night or two, he’ll go “cookless.” “That cuts out the stove, the pot, the fuel, cuts you down quite a bit,” Hauserman said. “You’re not eating that great even with cooked food. I take tortillas and cheese, some cooked chicken, salami, and hard cheese, gorp.” Other cookless foods include peanut butter in a plastic tube, and tuna in foil pouches. Cooked foods also come light. A package of freeze-dried beef stroganoff or chicken primavera for two costs between $5 and $7. There’s even freeze-dried ice cream for desert. Boxed rice pilafs, pastas, rice and beans and oatmeal are other favorites. Oatmeal can be mixed with trail mix to add flavor. Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese are also cheap, not to mention high-calory, camping foods. Hikers should carry out empty food packages and boxes with them. And bear cannisters, although heavy at 2.5 pounds, are the best way to ensure you’ll have some food left to eat at all. Plus, they can have other uses. “I wash my clothes in it. And it makes a nice seat,” said Hauserman.