The pack was blue. Bright blue, with a shiny aluminum metal frame. I walked all over the house with it, stuffed with my dolls and animals and my plastic bow and arrow and at times, the cat. I couldn’t wait to join my dad in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, canoeing and hiking and fishing for 2 weeks. I was 5.
The rule then, in 1975, was that if I wanted it on the trip I had to carry it. Dad wasn’t going to carry it, Mom wasn’t going to carry it, my 2-year-old brother certainly wouldn’t carry it. If I wanted to bring it, it had to go in my pack and I had to schlep it. If we were in the middle of the wilderness and I didn’t want to carry my prized stuffed dog named Emmitt anymore, well then that matted bit of fur was going to be left in the middle of the wilderness, all alone. That was enough to scare me to leaving the dog at home, as well as the plastic standing robot that actually shot darts with suction cups, the bow and arrow set, and my indian headband. Even then, I was setting myself up to go ultralight.
I spent much of my youth hiking and camping with my parents, on long odysseys out west in the back of a huge blazer with no air conditioning, sleeping in 6-man Eureka! tents with our flannel sleeping bags side by side. It was awesome. But every trip the mantra remained: we are not carrying any of your toys. If you want to bring it, you are carrying it.
I started backpacking by myself in college, but I didn’t have much money and the car camping kit doubled as my backpacking one as well. I carried that 6-man Eureka! A-frame tent that belonged to my parents because, well, it was free. I used a fancy internal frame pack I had purchased for a trip to Scandinavia - it weight 8 pounds empty. My sleeping bag was synthetic, and bulky. But who cared? I was backpacking.
I managed to do this for years, always wishing I could spend more time in the backcountry, more time car camping with my friends, just more time in the wilderness. I had heard of ultralighters - crazy wilderness people who liked to sleep under logs and cover up with forest duff. I had no interest in that…I liked my tent thank you very much. Even if it did weigh 12 pounds.
The years went by, and I found myself going out less and less, frankly because it really wasn’t very comfortable. Kind of funny when I look back on things, because I kept carrying all that heavy gear (and extra stuff!) because I thought it made me more comfortable. Yet it was so hard to carry a 60-pound pack over the rolling hills of southern Indiana, and northern Michigan, that I really never went anymore. It just really wasn’t much fun.
But I missed being in the forest. A lot. A friend of mine casually mentioned how much she liked to backpack, and I thought, I really need to get back out! So we agreed to a trip on a great little 2.5-day trip in northern Michigan called the Manistee River Trail. It makes a loop with the North Country Trail, and this would be CharlieDog’s inaugural backpacking trip as well. I couldn’t have been more excited!
I packed my 8-pound-empty Gregory front loader internal frame behemoth with my 15-year-old synthetic sleeping bag and my ultralight! REI 4-man Half Dome tent (a mere 9 pounds!) that I had purchased for a car camping trip the year before. My friend brought along the MSR Whisperlite white gas stove - because that’s exactly the appropriate stove for a 3-day, 2-night trip to Michigan in July... I wore my brand new, $300 Zamberlan leather boots (my Vasque Sundowners finally died after nearly 2 decades) and we hit the trail.
As I mentioned, this was my first CharlieDog trip, so there was a huge learning curve in that department. But this was also my first backpacking trip in probably 10 years, and my backcountry skills in general were quite rusty. It was brutally hot, Charlie was pretty miserable and when we lost the trail junction to the NCT we ended up just calling it a night and backtracking. We got back to the car tired and achy after very few miles overall (maybe 15 total for the whole weekend?), I had the largest blisters I’ve ever had, and I decided I needed to get out more.
So that fall we headed further north to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan's upper peninsula. This would be more miles (25!), more days (4!), so more food (=more weight). Again I packed up the trusty Gregory, the REI half dome that sleeps 4, the MSR Whisperlite white gas stove, and the heavy Zamberlan boots.
This time the pack was maybe 50 pounds. And it would be Charlie’s second backpacking trip.
That first day we were passed by a group of three backpackers who carried what looked like day packs, wearing little gym shoes and using trekking poles. I scoffed at them, thinking they were the types who would sleep under a log and use forest duff for a blanket, being eaten by bugs all night and having snakes and spiders crawl all over them while they slept, eating nothing but GORP for food because they weren’t carrying a stove.
We ended up in a campsite along Lake Superior relatively close to the under-log-sleepers-with-teeny-packs. Charlie, who still did not have good trail etiquette (and apparently neither did I…), kept wandering over to their site to say hi. Which meant I kept going over to get him back.
But what I saw at their campsite amazed me: tents! a cook stove! eating utensils! their camp looked pretty much exactly like my camp. And yet their packs were just so tiny…and their shoes so, um, not boots. They weren’t sleeping under a log, they had really nice spacious tents that kept the spiders and snakes away; they ate warm food cooked on a stove; it made no sense to me.
The rest of that trip we kept being passed so easily by these folks, they were just flying along like they were on a day hike. We were laboring under these crazy heavy loads with crazy heavy boots trying to be agile over rocks and roots and down some slippery descents.
When I got home after that trip, sore, tired, and again blistered from sweating so much in my all-leather waterproof boots, I fired up The Google and came across a website called BackpackingLight. I read everything on that site, all the forums discussing gear I had literally never heard of. They talked of these packs and shelters and cooksets and -gasp- QUILTS! like it was the easiest thing in the world to do.
I started to realize that I could lighten up without being a crazy woodland creature, that I could actually be comfortable on the hike without giving up the comforts I liked in camp. I learned about the difference between CAMPING and HIKING, and that I could actually choose gear based on which kind of trip I was going to take.
So down the rabbit hole I went, and made the same mistake so many others made before me: instead of drinking ALL the kool-aid, I just took sips. Which meant buying a new pack that weighed just 4 pounds empty instead of 8.
Huge difference, yes - but I would then go on to purchase 7 more packs before finding the right one. Now I have a frameless that clocks in at 16 oz, and a bigger framed pack for my larger water carries here in the desert (34 oz)
I bought a high quality down sleeping bag - and luckily I only swapped that out for a quilt (or 2…) before stopping.
My MSR Whisperlite was replaced by a 4 oz canister stove, which was replaced by a caldera cone/alcohol set up.
I’ve pretty much stuck to Exped synmat UL7 and downmat UL7 pads through the years - I’ve tried a few others but keep coming back to these.
Then there’s the tent.
The 9 pound 4-man REI Half Dome was replaced by a 2-man REI quarter dome. Which was replaced by a Big Agnes Fly Creek 2.
Which was replaced by a Zpacks Hexamid Solo Plus.
Which was replaced by a TarpTent Stratospire 1.
Which was then replaced by a Mountain Laurel Designs cuben Duomid.
Which was then replaced by a Zpacks Solplex.
Then I went back to the Duomid.
There was a MLD Cricket tent, a Six Moon Designs Deschutes tarp, an MLD Trailstar, and probably quite a few others in there, too. But I’m sticking with the Duomid. For now, anyway. But I did buy some UL fabric to try to make my own……
I bought some heavy “shock absorbing” poles, then some Black Diamond cork handled monstrosities, and now I have the awesome Locus Gear poles that I can’t imagine replacing with anything else.
As my gear lightened up, I found myself flying over the trails and leaving my friends behind when normally I was the slow poke (my trail name was even Mosey for a while).
They would need to rest every 15-30 minutes, sitting down and taking off their packs; I would stand there, my pack still on and I didn’t care, and then I wouldn’t even feel tired when the rest of the group would be clamoring for a campsite or a nap. I lacked for nothing at camp. I had everything I needed, including an e-reader for those wonderful afternoons with my feet in a river, or lying in my cozy quilt and my spacious Duomid listening to the crickets and the coyotes.
I’m getting older, and my joints don’t work as well as they used to, or as well as I’d like. Going ultralight was not some crazy cult I joined, or even a “movement.” It was a way to simplify, to ease that burden of carrying a ginormous pack over rocks and roots and hills and mountain passes, and to make it to the end of my hiking day with energy to make camp with a smile on my face, and eat a wonderful cooked meal with my friends or next to my dog.