Hiking Gear Loads
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There are several things that can spoil a hiking experience. Being ill prepared for the conditions encountered is one way to spoil a trip. Being over prepared or attempting to carry too much is another way to spoil a trip. Finding the ideal gear load is a balance between carrying too much and carrying too little, and there are many considerations that must be taken into account when attempting to find that balance.
The gear loads referred to here are for overnight or backpacking trips. Most day hikes donít require enough gear to make gear loads a problem. To skip the following background information and jump right to the gear load definitions and how each load category will impact your backpacking, click here.
In the 1960ís and 70ís most backpacking was done with external frame backpacks, and most loads were fairly heavy. Then there was a shift to using more internal frame backpacks and a seemingly new interest in lighter loads. But as time went on and the new internal frame packs became more sophisticated they and gear in general it seems began to get heavier and heavier.
Why? Well gear manufacturers, in an effort to stay competitive, add features to make their gear more attractive, and they produce gear that is even more indestructible so they can afford to offer lifetime warranties - the sorts of things that generally appeal to the consumer public.
But once again some of the hikers that have to carry the all this gear have begun to revolt against heavy loads. This is particularly true amongst the growing numbers of long distance hikers where the difference in weight over a long trail can make a big difference in cumulative mileage.
The current wisdom of whatís true about pack loads is the lighter the load the more enjoyable the hiking but the more Spartan the camping, while the more gear you carry and hence the heavier the load the more enjoyable the camping but at the expense of hiking pleasure.
Hikers who go out to hike as opposed to just hiking to camp have always been interested in lightweight loads. John Muir, for example, used to head out into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California with little more than a great coat and what provisions he could pack into its pockets.
A recent leader in the move towards lighter weight loads is Ray Jardine, author of "Beyond Backpacking" - an excellent book for those interested in going as lightweight as possible.
The resurgent interest in lightweight loads prompted by Ray Jardine and others has given rise to the fairly wide spread use of the term "ultra-light". The question is what do we mean by ultra-light? How do we define it? Naturally one might think ultra-light would be used to mean a pack load that is the epitome of lightweight, but I have heard the term applied by several hikers to their not so ultra-light loads.
Some hikers it seems are very concerned with labeling themselves as ultra-lighters. In fact one lightweight backpacking mail list moderator was so upset when I challenged his definition of ultra-light and confronted him with an alternative point of view that he informed me I was no longer welcome to contribute messages to the list.
Rather than calling any pack load ultra-light I think it is useful to define limits to what we mean by ultra-light, light, and so on. That way when we are planning a trip we have a better idea of what our gear imposed limitations will be. It can also give us an idea of what our backpacking expectations should be in terms of distances traveled. The definitions and attendant considerations developed here are intended as gear and hiking planning aids, and also to help clarify what is meant when these terms are used.
When Ray Jardine and his wife made their third hike of the PCT their base pack weights were about 8.5 lbs. each. A hiker on the AT known by the trail name of "Wolf" carried a daypack with a total load of about 15 lbs. including food and water. Others have also found ways to reduce their base pack weight to less than 10 lbs. Since this seems to be the lower limit for most backpacking, defining ultra-light as base pack weights of 10 lbs. or less seems like a reasonable starting point.
One of the things Ray discovered when he lightened his load was that he no longer needed to use a hip belt to transfer a good part of the load off his shoulders. Not having to use a hip belt helps contribute to a lighter pack and consequently to a lighter overall load.
I have experimented quite a bit with this myself. What I found was that I liked being able to get a portion of the load off my shoulders any time the load was greater than about 14 pounds, and definitely wanted a hip belt for any loads over 20 pounds. My communications with others confirms that this is generally true for other hikers as well. But the exact weight at which this will be true will vary some from person to person and with current physical condition.
Ray also discovered that with a lighter load he could wear lighter shoes reducing the load his feet had to carry. The conventional wisdom here is 1 pound of additional weight on the feet is the equivalent of 5 pounds of additional weight in the pack because of the extra motion each foot has to make while walking compared to the relatively straight line travel of a pack load. While some people have successfully carried fairly heavy backpacks (35 lbs. or more) in light weight running shoes the general consensus of opinion seems to be light weight shoes are fine for light loads but heavier loads are generally more comfortably carried when wearing heavier boots.
Lighter loads usually mean that you can travel farther with the same amount of effort. This may further decrease your load by reducing the amount of food and water you need to carry for a trip enabling you to walk even longer and farther each day. So lighter it would seem is definitely better if you plan on hiking long distances.
Does packing lighter really make that much of a difference? My suggestion is to find out for yourself. After you have gained some hiking/backpacking experience and you feel comfortable out on the trail and in the wilderness on overnight trips, try making at least one short, overnight trip with the lightest possible load you feel comfortable with. Leave your stove, pots, spoons, and cups behind. Take only food that does not need to be cooked. And do everything else possible to lighten your load without sacrificing safety. It can be a very liberating experience.
With more than 20 pounds or so total pack weight I have a hard time ever forgetting about that load strapped to my back while Iím on the trail. But with a lighter load, especially when it reaches that point where for some period of time I can actually almost forget that I am carrying a pack, the hiking becomes much more enjoyable. You know you donít have to get back before dark and yet itís like day hiking. Try it. I think youíll like it. (Use the gear type system and lists to help you figure out how to lighten up.)
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