Thirty years ago, on a humid Orlando, Florida morning, I was cinching up the opening to my Navy duffle bag after filling it with my new issue of uniform items. This was the first time that I would be strapping a major amount of "stuff" to my back...stuff that amounted to my entire worldly possessions at the time, aside from a few clothes, a bicycle and a box or two of miscellaneous childhood memories in storage back home. I do not know what the bag weighed, but my best guess would be at least 40-45 lbs. I was young then...and proud to be where I was...serving my country and on my own...and I was going to "make it" no matter what.
A smile sneaks across my face whenever I remember the cocky, or shall I say, extremely confident, young person I was at that time. Have I really changed from those early years? Yes, but something of that youngster remains alive inside. Something, or someone inside, stills likes to say, "I'm going to make it, no matter what."
So, here I am again, getting ready to strap onto my back what will amount to all my worldly possessions. Ok, so in reality, it won't really be all I own, but it certainly will end up feeling that way at times, I'm sure. The truth is, I will be carrying everything that I will need for survival on my back for 5-7 months. The only changes in my possessions will be the resupplying of the consumable items; water, food, fuel; and probably some minor equipment or clothing exchanges along the way as conditions change. This won't be just a short half mile march to the barracks to unload a duffel bag. The weight of this "bag" matters much more.
If you spend a little time in the hiking forums, trail websites or any backpacking magazine, you quickly learn that pack weight is a very common discussion. Minimizing the amount of load one carries without compromising safety or too much comfort is the ultimate goal of long distance hikers when it comes to backpack weight. The belief being that the lighter the load, the more enjoyable the hike, but like most "comfort" and "necessities" issues, the opinions are as varied as the people giving them. Of course, the basic necessities are agreed upon; food, clothing and shelter; but the amount, styles and weights of those items are what comes into play when dealing with the issue of pack weight.
I'm not going to waste anyone's time by talking about all the little details and nuances or pros and cons of particular equipment. If you're interested in those subjects, there are plenty of discussions in various forums and videos to view on the web at your leisure. What I am going to say is that I have never spent so much time fussing over ounces as what I have with this endeavor. Ask yourself, when is the last time you thought about how much your shoes or shirt weighed? We might try on an article of clothing, especially something like a jacket or sweater, and say, "Oh, that's too heavy or bulky for my liking", but we don't ask the store clerk, "Excuse me, do you know how much this weighs?" Nor do we take two different shirts that are fairly comparable and place them on a set of kitchen food scales to see which may be an ounce or two lighter than the other when we decide what we are going to wear. This is not true of the long distance hiker. Every ounce matters, because all those little ounces end up being pounds off your pack weight.
This obsession with the amount of weight being carried has produced a new brand of "nerd" called the "gram weenie." Neither of these terms are intended to be derogatory to anyone. It is a known fact, that nerds provide the world with tons of great inventions due to their intense focus on the "grams" of details in so many areas of life. Without them, progress toward lighter and stronger materials would not be made. Still, I wonder, does the average hiker need to obsess over every ounce or should that be reserved for those who intend to work on the development of the next great invention of lighter, stronger material or a better design of backpack, tent or shoe?
And there's also the question of what exactly is a "healthy" or safe back pack weight? It is recommended that you not carry more than 20% of your body weight and of course, you must take into consideration your physical condition as well. The ladies I'm heading out with next spring aren't exactly in the group of twenty-somethings...no offense intended to my fellow hikers...but we're also not so far over the hill that we're driving scooters around the grocery store. We have our share of aches and pains amongst us and hopefully, enough maturity to realize our limitations.
One of those limitations seems to involve our "sleeping systems." This term is used to describe the type of items you use for sleeping, such as a hammock, or sleeping pad & bag. It doesn't take a genius to realize that a good night's sleep is important for someone who will be spending 8-12 hours a day hiking up and down mountains. And we certainly aren't children anymore who are capable of spending hours sleeping on the floor and then bounce off it like a super ball when they wake. No, we're more like a piece of Play-doh that's been squished flat on the funny papers. If we sleep on the floor, we have to be pealed off that surface to get up in the morning and often have impressions printed on our bodies from where we were laying. But we certainly can't carry our Sealy or Tempurpedic mattress with us on this journey; they weigh too darn much and wouldn't fit in our backpacks anyway.
And what about the backpacks themselves? It must be big enough to hold everything you are going to need, yet light enough to not increase your burden tremendously. It absolutely must fit you properly. I loved the conversation that took place a few days ago between a few of my fellow hikers. They were discussing which backpack they each had chosen to use and why. One gal remarked that her selection put most of the weight of the pack on her hip belt instead of on her shoulders. Then she made a side remark that most women totally understand..."whoever thought they would want weight on their hips?" Who indeed; we are definitely making decisions based on a different set of parameters now.
So, how does one achieve the comfort desired and still have the ability to haul the necessities on an aging frame? You research. You learn about new products and read reviews. You make hard decisions between what you want and what you need. You get creative and use one item for multiple uses. For example, a salesman the other day relayed a story of backpackers that use a Frisbee for a dinner plate. It's lightweight; wash it after dinner and you have your afternoon or evening recreation as well. You count ounces and weigh everything twice, once in the balances between necessity and comfort; then again, between comfort and your ability to carry the load.
Ultimately, every hiker must decide for themselves where the boundaries are going to be for weight, comfort and necessity. Everyone hikes their own hike and what may be considered a "luxury" item or unnecessary by one hiker, may be considered a "must have" item by another. Your mental health and enjoyment of this journey play as much a part in a successful completion as the most costly ultralight equipment, if not more so. This trip may require every ounce of your strength, courage and determination at times, so why not allow yourself a little luxury and personal pleasure along the way? I say, if you have the ability to carry an item and it's important to your enjoyment of this trip, then by all means, pack it. You can always change your mind and send it home if you find it's too much for you or your opinion of the "necessity" changes.
While waiting for spring, I'll be weighing everything "necessary" for my pack. And if I make the wrong decisions, I may end up losing more than body weight on the way north.