The Case for Hiking with a Heavy Pack
Everyone's quick to tell you all the reasons to go lighter. Allow me to explain why they're wrong.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
It was July in upstate New York, and the forecast called for a hell of a day: unusually hot and humid. I planned to start my summit hike at dawn and left my farm while it was still dark. My border collie rode shotgun as my truck’s headlights illuminated the way up mountain roads to the trailhead. We would only be out for the day, but with my busy schedule as a farmer, recreational time outside is precious. I had flagged the date on my calendar weeks in advance and planned the route to a T. The night before, I prepared my daypack with all the things I’d bring to get the most out of my time outdoors. If all went according to plan, by 11 a.m. we’d be taking in a view of the Adirondacks while sharing bites of mochi.
I hike because it’s a chance to experience primal pleasures. For me, that means a hard walk uphill in miserable heat to what feels like the one cool breeze in the entire county. When I find it, I am staying put for a good while—sometimes until dusk, finding my truck by headlamp. That is why I carry a heavy pack. It has the magical ability to alchemize sore muscles and sweat into gratitude and instant nostalgia.
I love the weight. For a day hike, I find the novelty of discomfort that goes along with it appealing. I am only out for a matter of hours, and I know full well that I’ll return home to a hot shower and my comfortable bed. The burden of distance isn’t mine to carry, so instead I carry books and stoves and sometimes even a shelter. I’m not looking to cheat hardship. I’m actively embracing it.
My heavy pack, dog, and I would cover just seven miles of trail that day, but mileage wasn’t the point. We hiked together all morning, feeling the day turn uncomfortably warm. This meant a lot of water breaks. We rested near some puffball mushrooms. In fall, the foam balls turn into husks with spores that, when flicked, explode like puffs of smoke—which is why their Latin name, Lycoperdon, literally translates to wolf fart. But right now they remained intact as my dog finished her water and we continued on.
When we finally arrived at a well-earned view, I was coated in sweat and my heart was pounding. I flung off my 20-some-pound pack and soaked in the bliss of being weightless again among rolling mountains and puffy clouds before sitting down to split a sandwich with my dog, something we’d both looked forward to since dawn.
While she napped in the shade, I dug into my pack. This was the best part of the day. Out came a hammock, a travel pillow, and a beloved hardcover novel. I set up the hammock before making a cup of coffee on my stove and pulling out the thermos of crushed ice to chill my fresh brew. For the next few hours—the hottest part of the day—I swung in my mountain paradise, sipped iced coffee, and read a book about a lute player.
If you’re an ultralight hiker who made it this far into this essay, I am frankly shocked. I was certain I lost you somewhere around pillow and hardcover book. But I wasn’t exaggerating. I carry at least 20 pounds of gear for a day hike, and I do it with gusto. Sure, I like backpacks, headlamps, and boots as much as the next hiker with an internet connection, but I am a little weary of the ultralight trend. It’s borderline gear worship seemingly targeted at people more excited about purchasing outdoor equipment than actually being outdoors.
Making your pack as light as possible seems to be the new goal, even for people just heading out for a day. So many gear reviews focus only on this quality, suggesting the value of Dyneema over nylon, paring down first-aid kits, and forgoing cooking altogether in lieu of cold-soaking mush. When I watch a 22-year-old video host who could pass as a linebacker warn his viewers to be wary of the hidden weight of tortillas, I can’t help but laugh.
Listen, if consuming expensive thru-hiking gear gets you excited about being outside, enjoy your dopamine where you can get it. It’s your money and your hike. But I urge you, at least every once in a while, to be a draft pony instead of a race horse on the trail. Be gloriously selfish in your carried treasures! Bring everything you need to bake a pizza on a flat stone by a sunset campfire. Pack your tent just to take a nap in the shade. Tote around guidebooks and learn how to tell an elm from an ash. Bring a suit and towel to swim in a river. Or perhaps start by changing your online views to people who teach you about mushrooms and campfires instead of titanium spoons.
For most of us, hiking isn’t a race you can win. If ultralight is your thing, enjoy it, but make sure your entire reason for being outside isn’t to justify a purchase or test gear. Take time to savor the fresh air, the sunshine, and some sweat. Throw in all the creature comforts, regardless of how many ounces they weigh, to make the effort worth it. And for the love of Sisyphus, take some time to stop and smell the wolf farts.