“Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.” —Earl Shaffer
OK, this book is about the basic gear you need to comfortably spend a few nights out in the back country. We’ll get into the specifics of what kind and how much gear you need, but first let’s talk philosophy.
As you consider each gear item on your packing list, you will face this question: “Do I want to be more comfortable on the trail or in camp?” Based on my personal experience as well as what I’ve observed watching other backpackers, your answer to this question will be different for different trips and will change over time.
Most of us begin with the idea of having as many comforts as possible on hand at our campsite. A big comfy sleeping pad, a foam pillow from my bed at home, a light-weight collapsible camp stool or chair, a tent with a spacious vestibule and room for sitting up-right in the middle, lots of ropes and carabiners and straps for hanging things, a hatchet or folding saw for cutting firewood, etc. This is especially true for those of us who spent time car camping before we became backpackers. These items can all add quite a bit of comfort and enjoyment to your time in camp before you turn in for the night!
But of course, there is a price to having all the comforts of home, and you pay that price in weight. The more weight you are carrying, the less comfortable you will be on the trail itself, hiking from one site to the next. And of course, the flip side of that is: the less weight you carry on the trail, the more comfortable and enjoyable the hiking will be.
An additional factor to keep in mind is that a heavier pack weight is associated with a greater risk of accident or injury. The heavier the pack, the more energy it will take to carry it. The more energy you use, the earlier you will tire out. Hiking when fatigued can lead to stumbles and misjudgments… which can lead to big problems.
So, what is the ideal pack weight? That is something each backpacker must determine for herself.
Some things to consider when you’re trying to decide how much you want to carry: How far do you plan to hike each day? How many hours will that take? Over what sort of terrain will you be carrying your gear as you hike? What about elevation changes? And how much water will you need to carry? What is your physical condition? Have you had a chance to train for the planned hike? You also must determine how much gear you need to safely navigate the terrain and withstand changing conditions that may be thrown at you by Mother Nature.
Many backpackers start out with relatively low miles each day. Interestingly it seems that many trips labeled “beginner”, call for 6 or 7 miles per day which may only be 3 or 4 hours of normal day hiking, less in some cases. But for backpacking, it will take some time to get used to carrying the weight of a full pack. It’s not unusual for new backpackers to average only a little over a mile an hour; even less if the terrain has many ups and downs. This means a 6 or 7-mile backpack for someone who doesn’t yet have their trail legs, can easily be a long, full-day of hiking.
Once you arrive at camp of course, there is a fair amount of time to be spent setting things up and preparing your dinner before you can settle in and relax. It’s usually not very long before “Campers Midnight” hits, usually by 9:00pm; often earlier. That’s the time when we’ve fully unwound, eyelids start to droop, and the crickets begin singing a lullaby. This means you may find you’re spending less time relaxing around the campfire than you expected; there may be only a little time between when finish your camp chores and when your eyelids are telling you the day is over. (Due to Campers Midnight, I once hiked 168 miles on the Appalachian Trail without ever needing my headlamp!)
If the time you hike daily increases, the time you spend using your comfort items to relax in camp will decrease even more, and at some point, you will probably find that the trail-weight vs. camp-comfort trade off begins to tilt your preferences in favor of a lighter pack.
Of course, there is also the issue of cost. As the weight of your gear goes down, the price tag inevitably goes up a corresponding amount. You can spend a lot of money on good, light weight backpacking gear. How much are you prepared to invest in gear? Can you borrow some of the key items from a friend until you can determine if this is your “thing”? Can you alter or even make your own lightweight gear to save money? How often do you plan to backpack?
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