Packing Light, and Packing Right: Lessons from the field on what to put in your pack, and what to le
The trail climbs steeply out of sight into the dreary world of green and grey, the ancient Douglas Firs blocking most of the light of the overcast fall day. I try to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and do my best to avoid dwelling on the thoughts that keep popping into my mind. The trail parallels the lake, so why are we going uphill right now? Why am I so tired after only a few miles? How far did we say we would hike today? The shoulder straps of my new 70-liter pack dig into my flesh and its weight bears down on my spine as I lean forward to shift the load. Finally, I reach the top of the hill and find my friends slumped against their burdens, as soaked with sweat as I am.
We descend the hill and contour around the inlets and patches of devil’s club along the shore of the lake until we find a patch of clear dirt among Douglas firs six feet in diameter and thick carpets of moss. I unsnap my waist belt from my chaffed hips and let my pack fall beside a fire ring, into which I toss the factory-made fire log that I had strapped to the top of my pack. I then unclip my camp stool, which had been hanging from the back of the pack. Andrew digs through his pack in search of his water filter as Jared sets up his three person tent- one of the three we’d brought between us. A heavy fog settles in over the lake as we set up our stoves and cook our dinners. Dusk gives way to night and the mist glows under the full moon, making it impossible to decipher where the lake ends and the sky begins. We stare into the fire, too tired for much in the way of conversation.
A few years later I find myself shivering fiercely on a flat rock in a boulder field high in the North Cascades. It’s the middle of the summer, but our floorless tent does little to hold back the stiff breeze which is blowing cold air down from the glacier just above us. More importantly, all I have between me and the cold air is a lightly insulated jacket, and the single layer of silver reflective fabric that makes up my lightweight bivy sack. Nestled inside a one pound down sleeping bag Blake snores as I begin to do pushups and sit-ups in an attempt to stop my teeth from chattering.
It was 2007 and Blake Herrington and I were attempting a rambling high-country traverse of the North Cascades; a journey that we expected to take two weeks of continuous travel. At this point I was deep into the fast-and-light ethos preached by my heros in the climbing world. I figured that I could only pull this trip off if my pack was lighter than ever been before: no sleeping bag, a silly ¼ inch thick pad, and minimal food. On the first two nights we slept below tree line and huddled up beside fires, but above the tree line I found myself shivering through the nights laying on top of my backpack and our rope, which I had laid out like a carpet.
Photo: Blake Herrington near the summit of Mt. Buckner in August 2007. Two days earlier we'd made 10 hair raising rapels to bail off of Mt. Goode's then still unclimbed Megalodon Ridge, which is the ridge on the right skyline of the big peak in the background.
My light pack had been nice as we climbed steep rock to cross over the shoulder of Mount Goode and as we kicked up the glacier up to the Booker-Boston Col, but after a couple of sleepless nights I was finding that my body was unable to properly recover from the work. 5 days into the trip a weather forecast delivered by some friends who’d come to bring us a food resupply told us that we had several days of rain and snow to look forward to. Sure enough, the next afternoon found us hiking down and hitchhiking home in the driving rain. I never had to admit that my fast and light strategy had been completely self-defeating.
There is a fine line between bringing too much and not bringing enough when going into the backcountry. Bring too much, and every step can feel like misery. You fail to see beauty through the sweat dripping in your eyes, and future trips will just sound like a chore. Bring too little, and night will be something dreaded rather than savored. Real rest never comes and by morning you find yourself more tired than you were the night before. I know both feelings all too well, but after hundreds of nights spent in the mountains over the last 15 years as a recreationalist and as an outdoor professional working for the US Forest Service, I’ve got a feel for what I need, what I like to have, and what I will never carry again.
Over the course of the coming months I intend to write a series of blog posts focusing on what I bring into the mountains for all kinds of different situations. I’ll break these short posts down into categories like sleeping systems, cooking systems, clothing, food, entertainment and other nice to have junk, and camera equipment.
Photo: Jens Holsten and I figured that by packing light, we'd move fast enough to find the descent route on Peak 11,300 in the Alaska Range before it got dark. As it turned out, we reached the summit just after sunset and couldn't find our way down in the dark. We dug a small snowcave to get out of the wind, and spent the thankfully short night wiggling our fingers and toes to keep blood flowing.