Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Pack Light?

A few months ago I read a post by a traditional backpacker that pretty much bashed the idea of lightweight backpacking.  His point was that when things get a little rough that lightweight backpackers get in trouble.  They miss out hiking during the colder months because they don’t carry enough gear.  Well I must admit that on more occasions than I care to count I have cut trips short because of sudden weather changes.  However when I’ve planned on less than desirable conditions I have enjoyed hiking in falling snow and sleeping on the ground on a sub-freezing night.

So what are the advantages of hiking light?  What is it that challenges some of us to drop pounds and ounces when others are convinced we are taking chances with safety and comfort?  

In another post I told a story about an adult leader that was convinced a 50 pound backpack was required to hike at Philmont.  If you have ever gone to the Scout ranch in New Mexico and checked out the crews leaving base camp you could easily conclude that many have the same opinion.  At the end of that trip my friend was happy he had cut 15 pounds out of his pack.  He also wished he had cut more.  He was not alone.  Another Scouter in a different crew went the traditional route and has since contacted me several times about cutting weight.  Why?

There are numerous reasons to cut the load you carry on your back.  It’s not just a number game or a contest to see can have the lightest pack.  There are legitimate reasons to cut down on what you and your Scouts carry into the back county.  Let’s start with some of the physical reasons.

A lighter pack results in fewer aches and pains.  It is less stressful on the knees and ankles.  I don’t think I know of a single person that carries around a 50 pound pack on their back almost every day.  Yet many of us would shoulder that weight for a weekend in the woods thinking that we are getting outdoors and doing something healthy for ourselves.  One of the leading problems with our joints including our backs could be contributed to by “Weekend Warrior” activities.  All week we are somewhat sedentary or worse and come the weekend wehead out for an exciting activity.  Our bodies and those of our Scouts who have spent the week sitting in a classroom don’t always adjust to the change.  As a result we twist ankles, strain knees and hurt backs.  No wonder my chiropractor keeps a couple of open appointments on Monday mornings.  

Most of the time these injuries heal and we are all the better and stronger on the next trip.  However repeated damage especially to joints can lead to long term mobility problems.  My Philmont friend also pointed out on the last night of our trip, his lighter pack had not strained him to the point of needing Ibuprofen to sleep much less get up and hike.  I myself experience less soreness after a hike with 20+ mile days than I did at a younger age with much shorted days.  The only difference is the weight in my pack.

If you ask any hiker what is the number one injury their answer would most likely be blisters.  Oh, have I experienced my share of those painful water filled bubbles on my feet.  Blisters are a reaction to the rubbing of your skin inside your shoes or boots.  The first defense against blisters is proper fitting footwear including socks.  However when you strap on that pack the increase in weight puts extra stress on your feet.  Swelling of your feet is the body’s reaction to this stress.  Since your feet are now larger, there is more rubbing.  More rubbing results in blisters.  If the load on your back is lighter, it just stands to reason that the stress on your feet and the resulting swelling will be less.  All I can say here is that the lighter my load the fewer blisters I develop.  Even on days when I’m constantly walking in water I usually don’t have problems.  In 2010 I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.  On the entire trip I only had two blisters. Both were on the rocks in Pennsylvania.  My pack weight was never over 24 pounds.  

One of the sadder moments on my AT thru-hike was seeing the dreams of other hikers interrupted as they left the trail because of injuries.  One that I remember well was in NC near Cheoah Bald.  It’s a rocky section of trail that is seven miles of straight up from the Nantahala Gorge on one side and down over five miles on the other.  The day before I had met a hiker namedBucksnort.  He was an older hiker but appeared in good shape.  To celebrate his seventieth birthday he was hiking to Maine.  On the way down the trail he asked me to go ahead since I walked a little faster than him.  When I got to Stecoah Gap I saw a couple of members of the local rescue squad.  They were hiking up to carry Bucksnort out.  As he came down the mountain with his traditional size pack, he stumbled and broke his ankle.  There is no way to say that a smaller pack would have prevented this injury.  However I find that carrying a smaller pack allows me to be more agile and easily move over uneven ground.  There were many spots on the AT such as Mahoosuc Notch where Trail Trash and I breezed through while others carefully had to pick their way around and over and even under the rocks.  A lighter smaller lighter pack keeps the weight closer to your natural center of gravity.  This makes moving over uneven ground easier and helps avoid falls and injuries.  

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While all of the above reasons could apply to any backpacker this next one is mainly directed at us older hikers.  We didn’t get here without some wear and tear on us.  Some old injuries are work related and others are from sport endeavors.  Either way trying to do too much can cause them to rare their ugly heads when we had plans that did not include nursing a pain from the past.  A bone crushing dive over the handle bars of a bicycle a few years ago left me with a permanent reminder that I’m not indestructible.  Despite the back injury I’m still able to backpack for days at the time.  One of my fellow Scouters in the Greensboro area has a lower back issue and has found a lighter pack helps keep him on the trail too.

So less weight is not just about that light weight load.  There arephysical reasons not to load yourself down with unnecessary gear.  I plan to continue my reasons for lightweight backpacking in additional posts looking at both skills and enjoyment of a lighter pack.