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Backpacking: Packing light without sacrificing the essentials

Various photos from my backpacking trips in 2011
Various photos from my backpacking trips in 2011
Matt Payne

If you're like me, you really enjoy the solitude offered by a nice backpacking trip into the wilderness. Backpacking can really offer that sense of serenity often missed through an existence in the urban spawl. It is as close as one can get to really experiencing what Henry David Thoreau described in Walden as solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature. Unfortunately, with the rewards of backpacking comes the difficulty of hauling enough food and equipment into the woods to survive for an extended period of time. Before you know it, your pack weighs 70 pounds and your knees are begging for respite. In search of assistance to this common conundrum, I recently attended an ultralight backpacking seminar put on by the Colorado Mountain Club. At this seminar, we learned about all kinds of wonderful equipment that was feather-light and uber expensive. We even learned to saw the ends off of our toothbrushes and to carry equipment that doubles as both your tent and your rain gear.

Snowmass Lake in June
Matt Payne

Personally, I don't have a lot of money to spend on new equipment, and I suspect a lot of my readers are the same. A good deal of my gear is either hand-me-down or purchased without weight in mind. Since I did not want to spend a ton of money replacing my gear, I set out to think about how I packed in a different way. As a consequence, I've been able to keep my pack weight down to about 35 pounds, a huge improvement from 60 pounds a year ago. So - what have I been doing differently this year?

While the experts expouse the benefits of weighing every peice of gear you own and figuring out what the lightest equipment is, I don't have that luxury - I don't own an appropriate scale and don't plan on buying one. The experts also demonstrated the use of clever stoves that burn only small pellets of fuel. Again - I don't plan on purchasing a new stove. What the clinic did offer me was a change in the way I thought about my backpacking trip. Would I really need three pairs of socks and four pairs of underwear? Maybe, but not likely. Would I really need that container of spices to make my food taste better? Sure - but at what cost in weight? Do I really need to bring a fleece jacket, or can another jacket suffice that weighs less?

I really started to think about what i needed instead of what I wanted. In my mind, you don't need to turn into an ultralight extremist to make backpacking a lightweight affair. Some common sense thinking about how you pack and what you pack will get you far.

Another mistake we've all made is packing too much of something. Take bug spray for example. Do you need the whole bottle, or can you condense it down to how much you'll need for this trip? Toothpaste? Water? Is there water on the trail you're going to be on? If so - you don't need to pack 200ml of water. Bring a smaller camelbak and a light bottle and re-fill with your filtration system as you go.

Lastly, what you plan for meals can save you from hauling the kitchen up the mountain. Instead of bringing canned food, consider bringing dehydrated food that water can be added to. Instead of bringing a full complement of cookware, consider using the same container for eating and cooking. Think of ways you can get two uses out of something.

I hope this is helpful for those of you that also struggled with dropping the weight from your pack. It has really saved my knees from a great deal of agony this year.

To see some photos of areas I've backpacked to this year, be sure to check out the slide show!

Happy hiking!

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