Back in 2003 I was struggling to reclaim control over my life, and figured some wilderness therapy might help. I purchased a copy of Backpacker magazine, and read a short paragraph about a section of the Ice Age Trail. Further data gathering led me to realize this trail was 1000 miles long, stretching across Wisconsin as it followed the terminal moraine from a glacier that has been gone for nearly ten thousand years. Without knowing a thing about long distance backpacking, or even that people undertook such voyages, I rustled up a back-breaking traditional hikers load and set off with the intention of clearing my head.
Holy cats, did I learn a LOT.
I learned that all that gear I carried added nothing to my enjoyment of the woods. My knees ached, blisters hobbled me the entire way, and only stubborn determination allowed me to finish the trail. My trip was plagued by mosquitos, terrible food choices, and inappropriate gear. It was a miserable experience…but I loved it. I loved it so much I set my sights on the Appalachian Trail in 2004.
For the AT, I did some research on gear. My baseweight on the IAT was around 35 pounds, but I started the AT with a 22 pound load. This made the hiking much more enjoyable, and I felt incredible. My knees and back didn’t hurt! Blisters never appeared! Hiking was an enjoyable activity, not a drudging death march. But I met other hikers on the AT that year who fully embraced ultralight backpacking and seemed to float down the trail. Their tiny packs amazed me, and I picked their brains for information on how I could shed pack weight as well.
2006 had me at the border of Mexico, staring down the 2665 mile Pacific Crest Trail that would lead me to Canada. This year, my baseweight was only 9 pounds. I had finally broken the 10 pound barrier. I eventually cut the hip belt off my pack since it served no purpose with such a small load. 30 mile days were possible day after day, and I gathered more ultralight tips from the trail veterans.
For 2007 I decided to tackle the Continental Divide Trail. My pack now weighed 8 pounds, and even under the brutal conditions along the CDT, I managed to hike comfortably and safely. Well, I did have a few cold nights, but at 12,000 feet on the exposed divide, it was expected.
My 2008 thru hike of the Colorado Trail, followed by a return to the PCT in 2009 and AT in 2010 had me tinkering with gear, trying new things and continuing to learn. I now feel completely comfortable with my ultralight set-up in nearly any conditions. The ultralight path is an ever changing process, and even with 13 thru hikes under my feet, I still am learning how to “lighten up”.
- Mountain Laurel Designs Burn backpack (lined with trash compacter bag)
- Random tarp…I’ve been experimenting with many versions
- Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt
- Gossamer Gear Nightlight torso length sleeping pad
- Gossamer Gear polycryo groundcloth (medium)
- Titanium stakes (7)
- Plastic container for soaking (re-hydrating) food
- Titanium spoon
- Synthetic running shorts
- Synthetic button up shirt
- Injinji socks
- Baseball cap
- Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes
- Native sunglasses
- Enlightened Equipment Torrid Parka
- Synthetic long underwear bottoms (occasionally I leave these at home)
- OR Helium 2 rain jacket or Frogg Toggs (depending on trail conditions, I sometimes only bring a wind jacket)
- Mont-Bell wind pants (only brought for cold weather conditions)
- Fleece beanie hat
- Extra Injinji socks (1 pair)
- Laughing Rabbit Photon light
- THRUNITE Ti3 flashlight (with spare battery)
- Tiny dropper bottle of bleach (for rare water treatment)
- 1 liter plastic water bottle
- Platypus water bladders (quantity depends on water availability)
- Bear bag hanging rope (only in bear country)
- Mylar coated umbrella
- XL custom bug netting
- Watch (I cut off the straps and sew it to my backpack shoulder strap)
- Ziploc ditty bag (toothbrush sans handle, toothpowder, athletic tape, compass, maps, mini Bic lighter)
- Camp XLA 210 ice axe (only carried for icy conditions)
- Phone with charger & headphones
This gear list represents what I carry for most of my thru hikes. I’ll often omit warm gear if I anticipate high temperatures (Appalachian Trail) and carry warmer gear for cold weather alpine trips (Continental Divide Trail) but my baseweight hovers around 6 lbs regardless of where I’m hiking.
Isn’t ultralight expensive?
I hear that a lot. Read my take on purchasing ultralight gear..