Lessons from an Ultra-Light Backpacker

Tom and Katherine Aug 22 croppedYou only have to carry an overstuffed 40+ pound pack on your back for a few miles with a small elevation gain to know that there has to be a better way … and that you probably didn’t need that extra pot, jacket, and solar cell phone charger all that much after all.

After several such trips into the famous Desolation Wilderness just two miles from our cabin in the Sierras, and subsequently spending days post-hike nursing swollen feet and ankles as well as aching backs and shoulders, Tom and I decided to attend a class on Ultralight Backpacking strategies. It was taught by a middle-aged, athletically trim, soft-spoken man who had a passion for sleeping under the stars with not a streetlight or siren for miles. He is also known as the pioneer of ultra-light backpacking.

Glen Van Peski, an avid outdoor adventurer, started out just wanting to find lightweight gear so he could backpack into the wilderness with his son when he was a boy scout. Unable to find it, he decided to create it, and that was the seed of his company, Gossamer Gear. The company’s slogan says it all: “Take Less. Do More.”

Van Peski outlined common sense strategies for lightening your load so that young and old could conserve energy and see more magnificent backcountry with better posture and more strength and comfort. His strategies included having a dual purpose for everything you packed, repackaging items into smaller containers, and shaving weight off the big three: sleep system, backpack, and shelter. His overriding packing philosophy was to “trade knowledge for weight” which of course speaks to learning the knowledge you need about things like purifying water properly (so you don’t have to carry it) and where the water sources are located along your way; understanding medical strategies for the most common problems you might experience on the particular trail you’re taking (and hence what to take or leave behind…think snakebite kits in an area where there are no snakes☺). Trade knowledge for weight. Brilliant.

But it was his strategies for overall backpacking trip success that really struck a familiar and resonate cord with me. He advised being crystal clear on three key elements: 1) know where you’re traveling, 2) know who you’re traveling with, and 3) know your weight. This might seem simplistic on the surface, but it’s truly sound advice … for hiking and for life.

Aug 22 Tom hikingKnow where you’re traveling: For backpackers this means knowing more than your destination. It’s familiarizing yourself with altitude changes, alternate routes, water sources, terrain, weather forecast, and flora and fauna including potential threats such as snakes, insects, bears, or mountain lions. All of these will dictate what makes the cut in your pack.

As for living a great life, being purposeful and intentional about where you’re headed as well as having clear goals and a compelling purpose and vision always gets us there quicker and more predictably. It also allows us to make better choices day-to-day. You’ll likely remember Alice in Wonderland coming to a fork in the road and looking up at the Cheshire Cat and saying, “I think I’m lost. Which way should I go?”

“Where are you going?” the Cat asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“Then either road will get you there.”

Without a clear destination, choosing the best path just isn’t clear.

Know who you’re traveling with: For backpackers this means know the skills, temperament, experience, and fitness levels of your companions. For example, if someone in your group is a physician or emergency room nurse, you can defer to them for advice on the medical supplies this particular trip will call for. If this is the first overnight trip for a companion, you’ll likely be offering advice on their pack load so they don’t “bonk” on you midway up the trail. And if one companion suffers from a fear of heights, trails that require bouldering to an edgy view might not be the best choice.

For living a great life, being clear and intentional about who is on your team and who you spend the most time with is critical to creating a satisfying life journey. Surrounding yourself at work and home with those that lift and support you, hold you accountable, understand and believe in you, and encourage and expect your very best is key.

Know your weight: For backpackers, this means knowing the overall weight that your body frame can competently and logically carry and deducting the exact weight of the big three to determine just how much room you’ll have for everything else. Van Peski’s gotten his week-long pack under 20 pounds… less than half the weight of my 40+ monster for one overnight stay! It’s all about what’s useful to keep and what’s not worth the weight.

FB aug 22 trioAs for living your best life, recognizing the baggage we all have in the form of regret, loss, resentment, disappointment, guilt, and anger and knowing what is useful to keep as reminders of who we were and who we’ve now become is work worth doing. Likewise, shedding from our emotional pack that which is not worth the weight to take along is crucial to going the distance and stepping into all that we can be.

This weekend, Tom and I will be the lucky companions of Melinda Heryford along with her brother and sister-in-law on a 2-night, 20-mile backpacking trip with a 3,000-foot elevation gain into the Modoc National Forest in the Warner Mountain range near the California / Oregon border… very near where Melinda grew up. We’ve been taking short training hikes with full packs and have successfully shaved them down to 30 pounds with a goal over the next few days to shave off another five. We’ve been researching where we’re going, who we’re traveling with, knowing our exact weight and lightening our load by deciding what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth the weight. The jury is still out on where the flask of red wine fits into that equation.

This week, give some thought to clarifying your life goals, being intentional about who you spend time with, and making hard cuts on your emotional baggage and lightening your load for the long-haul of life.

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