Are We Not Men?

Give it up, cut it out, travel light—because nobody wants to be a pack mule

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
We roared into the parking lot at dusk, loaded our packs in the dark, donned headlamps, and set off up the trail. We hiked for three hours, made camp under a shotgun blast of stars, and didn't get up until the morning sun turned the tent into a sauna.

We'd been in such a hurry to get off work, get out of town and get into the mountains that it was only when we finally decided to whip up some breakfast that we discovered things were missing. I'd apparently left my stuff sack of extra clothes in the car—gone were my long pants, fleece vest, extra socks, and my baseball cap. Mike dumped his pack and did inventory. Somehow he had forgotten his cup, the extra bottles of stove fuel, his windpants, and worst of all, one of the food bags.

"Guess we'll just go without," said Mike, grinning goofily.

And we did, hiking the Medicine Bow Range from Elk Mountain in Wyoming to the Rawahs in Colorado. I wore what little I had, put on my windbreaker when it got cold, and wrapped my sleeping bag around my shoulders in the evening. We saved fuel and rationed the food; Mike used the pot as his cup. None of this caused hardship. On the contrary, our packs were lighter and thus so were our hearts.

On the next trip, loading up in the parking lot, Mike grabbed my sack of spare clothes and threw it back into the car. "Cut it!"

"Then you gotta cut everything you forgot last time."

"Already did," he said.

Not to be outdone, I pulled the stove bag out of his pack and tossed it back into the car.

"Excellent, man, excellent," crooned Mike.

We did that trip eating breakfast and lunch cold and building the tiniest of campfires to cook dinner. It was a spartan trek. Unburdened by dead weight, we moved quickly and smoothly through the mountains, covering more country more easily than we had ever done before.

Mike and I decided to call our game "the big cut." Pushing further, we added variations. On any adventure, before leaving the parking lot (or the airport), each of us was empowered to remove one item from the other guy's pack. Our trips became ultralean and efficient. For every pound of gear we cut from our packs we were rewarded with an extra mile on the trail. More for less. More of the wilderness in exchange for less equipment. Instead of sweating underneath monstrous loads, moving as slowly and ponderously as beasts of burden, we cruised the trail like coyotes, heads up, alert, eyes on the horizon.

Here's the real trick to traveling light: Scrutinize every piece of gear. Why take a three-pound, multi-zippered, multi-pocketed, expedition jacket when an eight-ounce windbreaker is sufficient? Why take a heavy full-length air mattress when, with the right campsite selection, an eight-ounce foam pad is enough? Why carry a ten-pound tent "tested on Everest" when, if the point is to be outside, a four-pound tent is terrific? Why take a bulky sweater when a featherweight down vest is adequate? Why carry extra food when you'll never eat it? Why carry extra water when you can move from stream to stream and purify what you need? And now that you're carrying half the weight, why use a seven-pound backpack when a three-pound pack is fine?

Why? Because it goes against everything we've learned to crave. Ours is a maximalist culture—the bigger the better. Minimalism is discouraged, even denigrated—but take a minute and think about the last time you were on the trail. A fat, plush Cadillac may be fine for the highway, a big-screen TV just the thing for home theater thrills, but carrying a heavy backpack is backbreaking work. It crushes the body, flattens the spirit, and makes about as much sense as carrying a picnic table when you would be just as happy sitting on the grass.

In the end, the decision to go light and fast is an existential one. To enter the wilderness is to dispossess ourselves of the burden of possessions, to slip smooth and clean as Houdini from the thousand invisible chains of stuff. Once inside, we become, however briefly, part of the wild—lithe, lighthearted and free, loping across the landscape.

So next time you're getting ready to head out, identify every single thing you doubt you'll really need. Then forget it.

The topographic map is the essential tool for moving swiftly and efficiently through the backcountry. But that's only the beginning, because a waterproof topo map—especially one from Earthwalk Press Maps ($8; 800-742-2677)—is actually a two-dimensional book of natural history. The wriggling brown ink of its contour lines will tell you if the pass will be high and choked with snow or low and dry, where the elk will be in summer (high and in the shade on steep forested slopes), and where the buffalo will be in winter (near the hot pools where the grass is still green). A topo map is as deep as a lake. The surface will show you where, but it's the depths that whisper why. —M.J.

Trojan-Enz 12-pack ($4). Beyond its primary use, a nonlubricated prophylactic will hold one liter of water.
Polar Pure iodine-crystal water treatment kit ($10; 408-867-4576)
Outdoor Research Windstopper Alpine Hat ($22; 206-467-8197)
Butler GUM unwaxed dental floss ($.99). It's the best sewing thread going.

Kootenay National Park, British Columbia: Well-maintained trails in this mountain Valhalla include the Rockwall, which works its way along a 2,300-foot-high limestone escarpment. Contact: Kootenay National Park, 250-347-9615.

10th Mountain Division Hut Association, Aspen, Colorado: Hop from one alpine hut to another on 300 miles of skiable (in winter) and bikeable (in summer) trails in the White River National Forest. Reservations required.Contact: 10th Mountain Division Hut Assn., 970-925-5775.

Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine: Katahdin, the top end of the Appalachian Trail, rises 5,267 feet above 202,064 acres of wilderness. Watch out for blackflies, and hikers spouting Thoreau. Contact: Baxter State Park, 207-723-5140.

Yosemite National Park, California: Leave the Tuolumne Meadows behind and hike north into spectacular Sierra wilderness, where the pine cones are a foot long.Contact: Yosemite National Park, 209-372-0200.

Henry Mountains, Utah: Take the rough Back Country Byway 20 miles south of Hanksville up to Bull Creek Pass. Keep an eye peeled for the occasional wild bison herd, then head up to Mount Ellen to explore the abandoned gold mines.Contact: BLM, Hanksville, 435-542-3461.

"The more our camping style depends on the paraphernalia of the world we are leaving behind, the more we dwell in contradictions."

"It's really seductive to take along complicated-looking gear, but when it comes down to it, I think you're better off without that battery-operated egg beater.

Mark Jenkins is The Hard Way columnist for Outside.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

What You Missed

Our most important headlines, sent to you every weekday.

Thank you!