The Perfect Summer: Shed Those Pesky Pounds

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

The Perfect Summer: Shed Those Pesky Pounds

Advice on lightening your backcountry load
By Michael McRae

In outdoor product design, the grail of going light is forever being resurrected. In the sixties Gerry Mountaineering introduced a 13-pound camping system that included a sleeping bag, tent, stove, windbreaker, and Gerry's C.W.D. (controlled weight distribution) pack. Twenty years later, Sierra West developed L.I.T.E. gear and vowed that a week's backcountry pilgrimage required no more than a 20-pound load. Today MontBell offers a weekend packing list that totals 13 pounds, two ounces. A company primer on the go-light ethic is titled "Light and Fast: An Idea Whose Time Has Come."

You can buy your way to featherweight heaven, but as alpinists and seasoned wilderness roamers know, going light has more to do with philosophy than equipage. "Don't forget that a pile of lightweight gear is still a burden," mountain guide and equipment designer Doug Robinson reminds us in MontBell's primer. "You're not setting up housekeeping, just passing through."

And if ever there's a time for passing through unfettered, summer is it. Ask yourself: Do you need a big tent? A stove, fuel, and pots? That cappuccino maker, candle lantern, and other camp-catalog tchotchkes? Longtime experts offer these words of wisdom on lightening your load:

The pack
If your backpack weighs seven pounds empty, forget going ultralight. A lighter pack won't necessarily be flimsier, however. When pack designer Wayne Gregory had heavyweight Cordura tested against lighter grades of packcloth and ripstop nylon, the latter proved stronger and more waterproof. His standard 3,945-cubic-inch Alpenisto in 500-denier Cordura weighs four pounds, 11 ounces ($220); a forthcoming version in 210-denier packcloth will save a pound (800-477-3420). MontBell's 210-denier Ultralight Granite 35 Pack weighs but two pounds, nine ounces. ($155; 800-541-2015).

"When the tent comes along, you've made a decision to go heavy," says Robinson. Not necessarily. Ultralight guru Jack Stephenson makes a two-person tent of silicone-coated parachute nylon that weighs just three pounds ($395; 603-293-8526). A lighter alternative that Robinson favors is a bivvy sack. Either is a necessity in buggy or rainy conditions. If insects aren't a problem, a guyed-out rain poncho makes a swell shelter.

A sleeping bag is essential in almost every situation, but a summer-weight one weighs only two or three pounds. If you're cold, don't take off your clothes. Ascetics suggest using a pack loosely stuffed with clothing in place of a sleeping pad.

"Humans do not need hot food to survive," notes Tim Wilson, a senior instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, so scrap the kitchen. PowerBars, polenta-vegetable journey cakes, granola, powdered milk, salami, cheese, pumpernickel, dried fruit, nuts, hard candy, and drink mixes--these will get you through, and you won't go hungry. If you must cook, an MSR Whisperlite stove ($49; 800-877-9877), two-cup pot, and three days' fuel weigh under two pounds. Plan on bringing one pound of dry food--pasta, couscous, soup mixes--per person per day. "Pack the food after eating a big meal," suggests Stephenson.

"When it comes to clothes, I can pack lighter than anyone else," boasts Moonstone Mountaineering's executive vice-president Dave Hall. His versatile outfit: paddling shorts, fleece tights, a long-sleeved shirt, Gore-Tex jacket and pants, lightweight boots. Variations on this theme, adding perhaps a zip-neck top or fleece vest, will keep you dry and warm even at high altitude. The only clean clothes that you're really going to need are spare socks.

Common sense
Tim Wilson's motto is, "Never carry what you can drag, never drag what you can roll, and never roll what you can leave behind." Still, for novices, the Ultra Slim Fast approach to going light has risks: Although acumen can substitute for equipment, extra layers of clothing and spare food provide a margin of safety in the mountains. It's best to start learning what you can live without close to home.

And everybody needs a bailout plan. "If the weather is awful," says Robinson, "put on your rain gear, hike out, and go dancing in town."

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