Sunday, January 19, 2014

Packing Ultra Light

 If you follow this blog then you know there have been a few posts about packing. The following is an article my daughter Squag* wrote about how she packs for hiking. As a parent I'm glad to see she has put so much thought into this particular journey and she's not just diving in without some preparation. Some applies to motorcycles and some doesn't. Enjoy.
 *squag is a nic name one of her sisters assigned her many years ago based on a pre-historic squigward that played the saxaphone. SpongeBob fans know what I'm talking about.

 There’s been a lot of talk around our house about how we pack for voyages and why we lug things around the way we do. Dad has mentioned that he’s always packed pretty heavily on his moo-sucker, and according to his blog he’s got a friend teaching him the ways of packing light on the bike. Lightweight and ultralight packing aren’t specific to motorcycle trips, though. Dad brought me into the conversation because I’ll be going on a mega trip starting in late March that will require some creative thinking about the way I carry around the necessities. I’ll be thru-hiking the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail and will be in the woods for about five months. I’ll be relying on what I haul on my back, what I can pick up from trail towns and whatever I beg people to mail me along the way. For the most part, I’ll need to stuff my pack so I can survive the wilds and be somewhat comfortable while doing it.
  Dad’s buddy JT mentioned that if you ask ten different people how to pack for a motorcycle trip, you’ll get ten different answers. The same goes for long distance hiking. Everyone has their favorite gear, everyone has their favorite shortcuts, and no two packs are quite the same. As a new long distance hiker, I’ve had to seek advice from a lot of experienced outdoorsmen to get a grip on which brands might best suit my needs and what style of packing would work for me. If you’ve never done this, you should know that it sort of feels like hanging a sign on your door that says, “Yes, please, solicit!” and having everyone and their brother come knocking with their handy solution. I mention this so that y’all understand that my style of packing doesn’t work for everyone and that there are thousands of other ways to lose your mind and hike around the woods for a while with all your survival supplies strapped to you like a mule.
  A lot of folks say that thru-hikers can pack to hike or pack to camp. That is to say that we can either be really comfortable hiking or really comfortable at night; if we pack a bunch of trinkets and luxury items to be cozy in our tents, hiking might be hell because of a heavy haul. If we pack lightly, we may not have the toys necessary to have a ball while we relax at night. This isn’t always true, but it offers an explanation for the kind of balancing act thru-hikers have to pull on our journeys. I’d say I have a healthy combination of packing lightly and comfortably. With the luxury of buying most of my gear fresh, I could specifically choose the most lightweight options that don’t break the bank. And, like most travelers, I try to find gear or supplies that will pull double duty. I think JT talks about this with motorcycles as well: find the smallest thing you can that does more than one job. Whether you’re motorcycling or hiking, having a soap that washes everything is like carrying unicorn tears in a bottle—you’re invincible. On the other side of the coin, carrying the Lord of the Rings trilogy to stay entertained at night is out of the question.

  Here’s most of what’s in my pack, minus a couple of lady things that no motorcycle dude wants to hear about (although my solutions for that are seriously awesome, trust me). I’m listing most of my gear, because it’s important to think about details when scheming for strategic packing. The details are what make packing complicated and what can be the difference between a hike to Katahdin or an emergency flight off the mountain range:

-A comfortable internal frame pack (not too big: the more ya fill it, the heavier it gets. I tested mine out on my trip to India last February. Things to look for: weight distribution between hips, chest and shoulders; ways to strap stuff on; preference amongst frame type; ease of gear access)

-Appropriate footwear (lightweight, snug ankle and heel support, waterproof, durable, one size too big for swollen clob hoppers, no sentimental attachment because they will assuredly get chewed up by the Appalachian Gods of dirt, rubble and mud.)

-Map and compass (taking an AT guide and ripping out pages as I pass through areas to cut down on weight in pack; I’ll carry a compass because I’m not an idiot.)

-Water and a way to clean it (Two water bottles, MSR Aquatabs/Iodine or Chlorine Dioxide tablets to clear bacteria and viruses from streams—no one wants to get a digestion problem without a loo around—and a quarter of a bandana to filter sediment from water. This is way lighter than a pump filter and less finicky than a UV light to clean water.)

-Clothes and rain gear (Avoid cotton. Two polypro shirts that dry quickly: one for camp and one for hiking; one mid-layer fleece; one rain coat with pit vents; one ultralight down jacket for colder regions; running pants for base layer; adjustable water resistant pant-shorts; survival undies; hat; waterproof gloves; two pairs of wool socks with silk liners to prevent chafing. Trust me, I’m fabulously stylish in my swishy pit-vented rain coat. It took me over two years to decide on specific articles of clothing, but the wait was worth it because I feel confident that they’ll get me through comfortably and safely.)

-Food and a way to cook it (Imagine a feast of Ramen noodles, bulk couscous, trail mix, beef jerky, peanut butter, dried fruit, repeat, repeat, repeat in freezer bags and a sealed dry bag. I made a camp stove out of an aluminum can that runs on alcohol (that can also be used in my med kit). I have one pot that I will eat out of and one other cup so I can also drink coffee or tea while eating on cold days. A spork for eating. The stove and cup fit inside the pot and the weight for cooking contraptions altogether without fuel is about 10 oz. This isn’t as light as all titanium, but my meager budget couldn’t afford that.)

-Shelter and sleeping bag (ultralight single person tent with footprint, lightweight mummy-style sleeping bag in a small stuff sack, four foot sleeping mat to protect torso from cold ground. Tent and pad are packed on outside of pack, not inside, as are water bottles. I chose a short sleeping pad because mats get bulky and it’s not as important for my feet to be protected from the ground as it is for my back. The mat is aluminized for extra warmth.)

-First aid kit (snake bite kit, band aids, gauze, blister treatment, ibuprofen, antihistamine, tweezers, antiseptic ointment, ace wrap, survival cord, needle and thread, glucose and electrolyte tablets, tiger balm, emergency blanket and/or garbage bag, safety pins, sun screen, etc)

-Dad’s old Buck knife (for all the reasons)

-Other crap (identification and moolah, safety whistle, headlamp, fire starters, duct tape, baking soda, transition glasses, junky phone for emergencies or while in towns, camp suds, small Rite in the Rain notebook and pencil, ultralight camp towel, watch, camp sandals (maybe), rain cover for pack, trekking poles, trowel, chapstick, toothbrush, a few sanitizing wipes, TP for #2, extra bandana cut in half for a pot holder and going #1--it’s genius, really.)

Now, this all may seem like a laundry list of obvious gear that needs to accompany a human on any journey through the woods. In reality, this is a carefully crafted inventory that’s still under revision, with every piece of gear thought out and all foreseeable needs accounted for. Two bandanas offer me a way to stay clean, filter water, and cook without burning myself. Baking soda can be used as an antacid, toothpaste, face wash, de-stinkifier for shoes and pits, insect bite treatment, clean the bottom of my cook pot, fire extinguisher, and whatever else I come up with along the way. (Camp suds are really just an additional luxury so I can smell like something other than baking soda. The suds also have citronella as a bug repellent.) My trekking poles help save my knees and back from all the walking, but can also be used as a clothes line for drying gear or back-up tent poles if one of mine breaks. Duct tape is another World Wonder and goes without explaining.
  There are some things I’m not taking that some folks might. I’m not taking gaiters, because as my hiking buddy James Claiborne would say, “If you’re gonna get wet, you’re gonna get wet.” This is the same logic for rain pants. They are overkill. And with a steady supply of rain waiting for me, I’m also not taking a fancy phone or camera. There aren’t any pictures that I could take that thousands of other hikers haven’t already taken on the trail, unless a bear is after me, in which case I shouldn’t be messing around with a point-and-shoot. I’m also not taking hand sanitizer—I’ll have some wipes if I feel like I really need it. I’m not taking separate shorts. I’ll use my convertible pants until I crack and buy myself shorts along the way. Some people take camp chairs, but that seems downright excessive to me. I’m also not taking a bear bell, because I tend to be goofy and sing obnoxiously while I hike anyway. Other hikers have that to look forward to during what they thought would be quiet, introspective journeys.
 There are a few differences between how I pack for a hike and how a motorcycle trip might unfold. I can certainly rely on money to get me through when I stop in trail towns to reload, and I’ll probably have my sister sending me my pre-sorted food, batteries and back-up gear to post offices along the way. For the most part I can’t “rely on plastic” if I’m hiking in the woods and run out of food. I need to eat (and therefore pack) enough to account for hiking between 8 and 23 miles in a day while rationing so that I don’t run out of gorp before the next stock up of food every 3-7 days or so.
 And as for Leave No Trace, I also can’t just throw things away if I decide I don’t want or need them. Any garbage that I produce on trail (like granola bar wrappers, empty Nutella jars, etc) will be stored in a Ziploc bag until I can pack it into town. This means that I have to pick supplies that have the least amount of waste. For example, as a coffee drinker, I can’t take a bunch of teabag style coffee pods with me; instead, I’ll drink sacrilegious instant coffee that dissolves in hot water.
  Another difference is actually quite similar to motorcycle packing: hikers and bikers get rained on. Where we part is whether or not we have a chance to dry off and clean up. Hikers certainly don’t have a chance to take their wet clothes to a hotel or home to dry out unless they have the luxury of being in town and have the money to hide away in a motel regularly. Camping bikers might understand this. To combat this, all hiking clothes need to be breathable (panting hiker gets sticky) and quick drying (hiker gets rained on and sweaty) while being warm (hypothermia sucks) and stuffed in a sack while not being used (because preventing wet gear is the best way to fight wet gear depression).
  General gear deterioration is another nemesis of thru-hiking. I’ve taken a few precautions to help me out when my gear starts to crumble. My shoes came from REI and can be replaced if/when they totally die from so much daily trekking—to pack lightly, I’m not carrying spare boots with me. My camp stove is easily made from any found aluminum can and my knife, so if the tiny stove gets accidentally crushed I can make a new one the next time I’m around a beer or soda drinker. I’m hiking with a buddy, so we can back each other up in emergency situations. Again, magical duct tape can help keep things in one piece until I can get new gear.
  I think my propensity for closely scrutinizing gear choices comes from my dad, but I’ve gotta say . . . I’m excited to just get started with this thing already. Whether or not I made the right gear choices, I’m ready to get on the trail and limp my way from Georgia to Maine. Like a mule. Or a crazy twenty-something looking for adventure.


  1. Thanks for the tips. I'll make sure she sees them. I've got a p38 around here somewhere from my military days. Remember, this is all about packing light :-)

  2. I have heard from a few people that the Starbucks packets are good-- if I can find it in bulk (so that I don't accrue a ton of small pieces of garbage) that'll be a good solution. Do you think I can fit my ukulele in my pack??

  3. I know you said burning the wrapper is an option, too, but I'm going to try to avoid burning waste whenever possible

  4. Sweet post! As a former Marine grunt I would recommend field stripping your vittles-getting rid of excess packaging. Take care of your feet! I always do a shake-down ride prior to road trips-confirming I am dialed in. USGI polypro tops are warm, dry fast , sweet and inexpensive! Looking forward to hearing about your adventure!

  5. Excellent post! These are definitely some hiking must-haves that we need to have in handy. I particularly like the fact that you were very specific about the clothes. That could be very useful since most of us always resort to using cotton for ease and comfort. Also, I think another important thing to pack would be your phone and then spare batteries just in case any emergency happens.

    Paul Cherry

  6. Iron Vaquero--I'm definitely thinking a lot about comfortable feet on the hike and am experimenting with lots of things to prevent and treat. Feels like one of those things that I may not know the best options until I've hiked a few hundred miles.

    Paul Cherry--Yeah, it took me so long to decide on clothes. I don't necessarily enjoy the feel of the shirts I have now, but they do stay warm and dry. Gotta do whatcha gotta do. I'm also taking a cheapo phone for the trip and hoping I don't have to use it. Also, it looks like you work for a company called VestPac? What's the story with those hydration packs?