I don't like to advertise my age, but suffice it to say that I'm getting to that point in life where I no longer throw things in my pack "just in case" I might need them. ;) My knees / back and shoulders have taken quite the beating over the past decade and after hundreds of Rocky Mountain summits, many canoe trips and thousands of kilometers of walking and skiing with everything from light day packs to huge expedition sized (90+ litre) back packs overflowing with gear.
In order to fulfill my dream of continuing to plan and participate in many more tough trips as I get older, I've had to do a serious analysis of my outdoor gear and my philosophy towards living and traveling in the back country. I've always been a big believer in going as light and 'bare-bones' as I thought possible, but now I have to get serious about it. Really serious. I've lost weight on my body a number of times over the years and losing weight from my gear had to follow the same basic process. At first glance the losses are so small they seem inconsequential. It's only after adding up a large number of small weight savings that the numbers become impressive.
There is a great article on Hyperlite Mountain Gear's (HMG) web site on the going light philosophy as it applies to adventuring and outdoor travel. The article specifies what is generally accepted as light (20lbs), ultralight (10lbs) and super-ultralight (5lbs) weights for base packs (not including food, fuel or water). I am somewhere between light and ultralight at a base pack weight of less than 20lbs. This includes all basic camping gear such as a tent, sleeping matt / bag, warm clothing and even photography and climbing gear such as extra lenses, batteries, climbing helmet, crampons and even a crevasse rescue device, ATC, harness and an ice screw! I'm pretty sure I could get my base pack for just a few days of scrambling / hiking to around 12lbs if I tried hard to eliminate any unnecessary gear.
NOTE: The easiest, most obvious and least-fun way to save your knees / back and go light, is to lose body weight. :) I can speak to this unpopular topic because I've always struggled with my own weight and am often a good 10lbs over my optimal weight for hiking / climbing. Obviously 10lbs adds up over kilometers of hiking and climbing. Working out and maintaining a good fitness level is the best way to have fun and be safe in the back country - at any age. There are no shortcuts to these two obvious first steps to going light and having fun. Just lots of hard work!
The first task was easy. I bought a $25 digital kitchen scale from my local grocery store and proceeded to weigh my gear. This included everything from mosquito spray to bear spray to sunscreen to toilet paper. At the end of the day I knew what my top heaviest gear was going to be but some items in the top 12 surprised me. Here's some of the biggest weight savings that I targeted first, roughly ordered by the amount of weight saved;
|Category||Old Gear||Old Gear Weight||New Gear||New Gear Weight||Weight Savings|
|Tent||BD Hilite (no pegs) w/ Groundsheet||1582g||HMG 2-Person Ultra Mid||499g||1083g|
|Sleeping Bag||MEC Raven (-7)||1150g||FF Vireo UL (74")||474g||676g|
|Backpack||BD Mission 55L||1660g||HMG 3400 Ice Pack 55L||980g||680g|
|Sleeping Matt||Exped 7 Down||888g||Neoair xlite Regular||350g||538g|
|Down Booties||MEC Regular||346g||Goosefeet socks w/ over-liners||111g||235g|
|Crampons||Grivel Full Steel||980g||Grivel Aluminum||580g||400g|
|Hiking Poles||BD Regular||490g||BD Ultra Distance CF||290g||200g|
|Water Bottle||Nalgene Regular 1L||175g||Vapur Element 1L||40g||135g|
|Mountaineering Ax||BD Raven w/ Leash||408g||Camp Corsa Nanotech||278g||130g|
|Ice Screw||BD Regular||170g||Petzl Laser Speed Light||100g||70g|
|Headlamp||BD Storm||114g||BD Ion||48g||63g|
|TOTAL WEIGHT||8355g||3959g||4396g or 9.69lbs|
Notice that total weight saved on just these 12 items is almost 10 lbs! There are other tricks and tips that I've learned over the years that save me pounds of weight compared to a lot of trekkers and climbers without compromising too much on safety or even comfort;
Some readers are probably wondering if trekking without all the extras is even 'fun' anymore! Only you can decide what you need to make life in the back country worth getting to and staying in. Contrary to what you may think, I will still carry the following extras some times - depending on the type of trip of course!
Nothing in life is free. Saving 10-20lbs on basic gear weight is far from free! Even though I can still use most of my old gear (i.e. my sleeping bag for car camping, my heavy crampons for ice or my large head lamp for canoe trips), I still spent hundreds of $$$ switching over to lighter gear. The biggest expenses by far were on the shelter, pack and sleeping gear.
But the cost of going light has to be weighed in terms besides just the money. According to me, the benefits of enjoying tough mountaineering, hiking and canoe trips into middle and hopefully old age are far more important than a few hundred bucks invested now. My knees were weak when I started climbing mountains almost two decades ago. Through careful training and using poles and light'ish gear, I've managed to keep them reasonably functional so far. Now I have to invest some more in them to keep the rest of me going another 10, or 20, or 40 years!
There is another cost to going light. I might lose the occasional summit or end goal due to compromising on equipment to save weight. South Twin is a good example of where this already occurred for me. Thinking there'd be plenty of snow on the climb, a bunch of us left our full steel crampons at home. This meant we weren't confident climbing the 35-40 degree hard glacial ice on our flimsy (and light) aluminum crampons. When one of our party tried going around the bare ice to make tracks for the rest of us, he fell in a crevasse and our trip was over for the day. To this day, I still don't have South Twin... I've been pushed to the edge a few times thanks to crampon issues. On Mount Fryatt my aluminum crampons felt skimpy too, and I really wanted a second ice axe for one of the icy gully moves.
As I mentioned earlier already, on Mount Alexandra we carried way too much rock gear. We should have realized that the route is done fairly often (thanks to ACC camps) and would be bolted and fairly easy. The approach on Alexandra is long and brutal so we didn't want to fail, but carrying the extra weight cost too - just in more subtle ways, like wear on our knees and muscles. The cost of going light can be a missed route. If you count on Mount Assiniboine being dry and are very confident in your free climbing abilities you might leave too much gear behind and miss out on the summit of one of the Rockies most majestic mountain peaks.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another potential cost of going (too?) light. Unlike hiking where leaving that extra coat behind might mean a cold night or two, leaving climbing gear behind to save weight can either leave you stranded (best case) or even injured or dead. I've done ski trips on the Columbia Icefield in May when it was +15 degrees at the parkway and we all got frost bite while skiing in a blizzard above - I'm talking small areas of black skin on my face. :( Leaving warm gear or climbing pro behind can do much more than cost you a summit if you're not extremely confident in your abilities, the weather and your ability to adapt to changing scenarios, which only comes with experience.
I want to end this section with a strong caution to beginner hikers / climbers / skiers that it's still safer to pack a few too many items than not enough. As you gain experience you'll discover what "too few" and "enough" means for you - everyone has different definitions!
Many folks assume that because I'm in a 499g tent instead of a 1500g one, I'm less comfortable or compromising on space. In this case, the opposite is true! The HMG 2-person UltraMid is a wonder of new materials and manufacturing abilities. It provides 63 square feet of space under a completely water / storm proof pyramid that is just as comfortable hanging from a tree branch or set up on an icefield in a howling blizzard. I've only ever stayed in a tent once in winter, every other time has been in a 'mid' of some sort. They are delightful for winter camping. Cuben Fiber is the miracle material that Hyperlite Mountain Gear uses for their gear. I also have their ice pack, which not only weighs much less than other 55 liter mountaineering packs, but is completely waterproof! No need for a pack cover. Excellent. I also use their stuff sacks for organizing gear in my pack. Due to it's very limited manufacture and distribution, Cuben Fiber is not cheap! I managed to score some good prices on Black Friday and sold some of my gear, or I never would have afforded the UltraMid.
As mentioned earlier, you don't have to freeze either, just because you're carrying a smaller / lighter sleeping bag than before. If you carry a warm down jacket and booties, just wear those to bed if it's cold! Voila! Nobody is cold when wearing a 900 fill down jacket to bed... ;)
In a strange way, I find going light to be more enjoyable than carrying everything and the kitchen sink. For example I like carrying only a few camera lenses. I find when I carry too much gear (usually on canoe trips where you can get away with carrying a lot of extra crap) I just end up not using it or always debating about which piece of gear to use. When I am 'forced' to live simply I spend less time worrying about my gear and more time enjoying the natural world that I'm part of. And for me that's the entire point of it all in the first place! I've used camera's with only one fixed lens before and really enjoyed the experience (and still got some fantastic images).
Another benefit to using lighter gear is that it's usually smaller - it takes up less bulk. This means you carry a physically smaller back pack (in my case a 55L instead of a 85L) which has all sorts of side benefits from being easier to climb with, easier to bushwhack with and more balanced. You can also use the same pack for day trips from a base camp - you don't need to lug your huge pack around or pack a separate day pack.
Finally, I would like to stress that discovering what works for you in the 'go light' philosophy is a personal journey and is unique to each individual. It should not be a contest to see how extreme everyone can go relative to each other. I've seen that script and I know how it ends. :(
I am trying to 'go light' in my personal life too. I live in a small house, drive smaller vehicles and try to leave a 'light' foot print on the environment both at home in Calgary and when I live in the wild. Going light in life is a huge relief and a huge stress-saver.
I'm a big believer in letting people go their own journey rather than dictate what everyone 'should' do but I do think we need to live responsibly with our environment wherever and however we can. There are over 7 billion of us and we all have unique needs, ideas and dreams. Let's try to be responsible with our big, beautiful planet and leave it a better place than we found it, so our kids can enjoy the same wild places we do!
Invest now in good, light gear for the future and you will be able to use the same equipment for many adventures while saving your body for even more trips in the future.