“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” – John Muir, 1888
The great conservationist John Muir rambled the Sierras with only a teapot, a sack of bread and a blanket – sometimes not even a blanket. He slept under the sheltering sky and gloried in close contact with nature.
It sounds ideal.
Or does it? Claude Garneau, 39, tramps the north woods for fun, and thinks going in the style of Muir misses the point.
“One of the things I love most about camping,” he says, “is being able to bake a cake in my Outback Oven, have an espresso to go with it and flop out on my self-inflating pad, while reading a book by my trusty old UCO candle lantern. Isn’t it great to have more perks in my pack than most people have in their RV?”
Garneau is a cheerful nonconvert to what some are calling the “Lightweight Revolution,” a downsizing, Muir-like attitude toward gear. Its chief guru is Ray Jardine, a 50-some-year-old inventor and wilderness traveler. His ideas, honed by years of experience on mountain trails, reflect an uncompromising desire to reduce the weight of his load.
Most backpackers would accept 30 pounds, not including food and water, as a reasonable load. But at a mere 8.5 pounds, Jardine’s pack – with gear – is about two pounds more than the average full-size backpack – empty.
His book, “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook” (AdventureLore Press, $18.95) set off the revolution in 1997 by telling how he reduces his overall load. He cuts out nonessentials. He uses a tarp instead of a tent. He trims his foam mattress to fit his body. He puts items to more than one use.
For example, by wearing his jacket in bed, he can stay warm with a lighter sleeping bag. Skeptical of manufactured gear, he makes a lot of his own. His 13.5-ounce homemade pack is a model of simplicity – little more than a stuff sack with shoulder straps. Keep your load light, he says, and you won’t need a heavy, high-tech backpack.
Jardine is quick to caution that his methods aren’t for everyone. Of course, safety is a top priority. “I state repeatedly that people should wean themselves from their big loads gradually, and that they should always carry storm gear,” he says.
He cautions that while the principles in the first two-thirds of his book should benefit most hikers and campers, his more advanced methods, found later in his book, are for fit, experienced hikers who can make skilled decisions about what to carry – and what to leave behind.
However, anyone can lighten up, and the first steps are the easiest. Optional items – books, camera, frying pan, fishing gear, personal stereo – account for many pounds.
Second, choose lighter gear. You can buy sleeping bags under 2 pounds, two-person tents under 4 pounds, and packs less than 3 pounds. Unfortunately, high-tech gear can be expensive. Primus’s Titanium stove lightens your wallet while it lightens your load. Weighing (without fuel) a mere 4 ounces, it costs $250.
Now the deep cuts: Can you do without a tent? Eat cold food and skip the stove altogether? True fanatics shorten their shoelaces, cut off the handles of their one allotted spoon, snip the labels from clothing and even allow less food for less-demanding days on the trail.
Of course, leaving stuff behind means no photography, no reading at night, no fresh trout and no tunes, not to mention the fun of espresso makers, collapsible ovens, lanterns, portable showers, water filters, self-inflating mattresses, GPS receivers and walkie-talkies. Some people like their gear and don’t mind carrying it. I know a woman who packs wind chimes.
Perhaps the best advice comes from Peter Koedt, 54, a Wyoming mountain guide and lifelong wilderness wanderer. “It comes down to what’s worth carrying, and that’s a personal matter.”
For example, he considers his collapsible chair a necessity. “It’s hard for me to avoid pretty severe back pain without the chair, especially after carrying a heavy pack all day.”
While admitting that the chair adds weight, he says it gives him pleasure to create a cozy personal space in the wilderness, and the chair is part of that pleasure.
But then he thinks how it would feel to carry Jardine’s pack. Compared to his usual 50-pound load, he says, “It would be fantastic.”
I think it’s worth trying. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back talking like John Muir of my “sweet, free, cumberless rovings.”
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