Heavy(ish) pack = ultralight dreams

7jul-gear pic

Above: My gear for the JMT in 2017, including the “maybe item” Petzl Glacier ice axe – 350g (will wait until the day before to decide based on trail reports). My Osprey Ariel 65 is off to the side at top right. My Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree sleeping bag will go in a dry compression sack and then in a waterproof trash compactor bag. Melanzana fleece and Patagonia Down Sweater will both be in my kit because I get really cold.

Heavy(ish) pack = ultralight dreams

Backpacking seems like it should be simple, right? You just pack your bag, find your trailhead, and start walking!

Yeah, no.

Backpackers, especially JMT hikers, have to consider so many things that day hikers and causal walkers never have to deal with. Above tree line? Congratulations, you get to go to the bathroom in a wag bag and carry your own poo for 90 miles! Record snow year? Hooray, even the simplest “creeks” can become raging death-traps if you don’t time your crossings right or look for alternate fords! Going 10 days in between resupplies? Right on, here’s 14 pounds of food and a bag of tortillas to last you until Muir Trail Ranch! Etc. etc. etc.

I’m definitely not complaining, because I am just bouncing around in my seat waiting to get out into those beautiful mountains. But it’s been a little stressful trying to balance weight and anticipated need, especially since I’ve never tried a hike like this before, and it just so happens that this is one of the hardest trails, and one of the highest snow years on record. The result of my multiple months of repackaging, paring down, and realistic assessment is a base weight of about 22 pounds, a bear canister with around 12-14 pounds of freeze-dried meals, granola bars, and instant coffee, and the fluctuating capacity for anywhere between 1-5 pounds of water. The food weight will start to go down very quickly, and I may not end up bringing my ice axe (it’s a day-before decision for me). So overall, my pack will be around the 30-35-lb region.

I’ve been training hard, and consistently, at between 7,000 and 12,300-foot elevation with 30-40 pounds for the last couple of months, and I feel prepared to deal with the immense weight for the first couple of days before it gets closer to a more comfortable 30. But I’m already starting to see through the cracks in my kit. Most ultralight (or at least decently-light) long-distance hikers will laugh and shake their heads at you if you carry anything over 20 pounds for a thru-hike. I understand this reasoning. Lighter weight means bigger, more enjoyable daily mileages. You’re thinking less about what’s on your back and more about the nature around you.

For me, there are a few issues with the ultralight camp, though, chiefly among them being the very practical reason of cost – as a general rule, the lighter the weight, the higher the price tag. But besides this, I really feel like one’s personal journey in backpacking is just that – personal. I can’t expect to just do my first thru-hike and have my system down pat. It will take many miles and years before I have consolidated and become comfortable with that balance between weight and necessity. On this hike I will probably learn that much of my preparation was in vain, or that I didn’t use certain items as frequently as I thought I would. Or, equally likely, I will learn that I missed something on the trail that I elected not to bring. Either way, I’m learning to be okay with this uncertainty, and to embrace the journey. I might get made fun of by PCTers with 20-liter packs on this summer’s trail, but maybe in a few years I’ll be a 2,000-miler with a base weight of 9. That’s the dream. And it’s in the future. For now, my 65-liter setup will be just fine.

It’s a process, y’all. Life is all about process.

Happy trails! -S


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