Backpacking Gearheads

appalachian_trail_mapAnd the Antarctic cruise continues, giving me plenty of time to write between bouts of penguin, seal, and killer whale watching. Still not terribly effective as a training regimen, but the scenery is amazing!

Before dashing off for the Antarctic Circle and points south, I had finished gathering together the major pieces of gear that I will be taking on my foray into the semi-wilds of Georgia and onwards.

Gear is one of the most popular topics of discussion when two or more people who hike come together, online or in real life. Probably even in the afterlife. It is a topic that causes a considerable amount of passion. Similar to religion, or comic book fandom.


As I understand it, back in Ancient Times, real manly men (and one or two women), walked the trails of this country, carrying packs that towered over them, containing over two hundred pounds of camping gear. Tents were made from waxed canvas with cast iron reinforcing beams, and covered a quarter acre once erected, not counting the entryway, portico, and the gazebo out back. The average hiker carried a forty-pound bag of flour, dozens of eggs and a gallon of maple syrup, and that was just for breakfast. Naturally, the cooking gear consisted of a full set of cast iron pots and pans, though they did save on the weight of a stove, since back then everything was cooked over a campfire kindled from a whole redwood. Hiking boots weighed fifteen pounds each, and were made of the finest mastodon leather, and lasted so long that they were bequeathed from one generation to the next.

But times have changed. Thanks to NASA and the space program, from the 1960’s on, research into new materials blossomed. Then a bunch of hippies refused to get real jobs with IBM or Xerox, and instead created hundreds of small companies making lightweight camping gear, clothing, and energy bars. Thanks to all of these factors the average weight that a backpacker has to carry has fallen considerably in the last forty years. For instance, my backpacking tent weighs a grand total of 28 ounces, which is probably what the poles for a high tech tent in 1970 would have weighed, alone.

The arrival of lightweight, super high-tech backpacking gear may have resulted in the genesis of first Ultra Lightweight backpackers, but I have my doubts. I believe that as far back as 15,000 years ago, a hunter-gatherer of Central Asia was extolling the virtues of sabre-toothed tiger skin tents over those old fashioned heavy mammoth furs. The Ultra Lightweight (UL) backpackers are a subset of the backpacking community that seek to reduce the amount of weight for gear that they carry to the absolute minimum. The current optimum weight for these hardy adventurers appears to be less than 10 pounds, not including water and food. In order to get equipment weight totals like this, a few corners have to be cut of course.

I’ve seen arguments that a simple tarp (but made of super high-tech material) is sufficient for shelter needs in all but the most violent tempest. Alcohol stoves that are made from cat food cans. Clothing reduced to the absolute minimum, which is apparently a t-shirt and shorts, as long as the temperature stays above 20 degrees. I expect, someday soon, to see a post suggesting that shaving all the hair off your body will reduce overall weight by at least 3-4 ounces. I mean if you’re really dedicated…

So, much as I feel like I need another passion in my life, especially one that requires a significant amount of money (high tech ain’t cheap, bucko), I think I’ll pass on joining the UL team. I’m not going to be taking a camping mini-expresso maker along, but I’m also not going to hack off the handle off my toothbrush to save a fraction of an ounce, either.

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