Journal Ultralight Backpacking: How To Wellspring


Sandpipers San Elijo
Sandpipers feeding along the shore of San Elijo Beach, La Jolla, California, USA. 1984

Lately I’ve been contemplating the need for lightening my load. This is meant in all aspects of my life. The idea first took root three years ago when, upon returning from a five day walk in the North Alps, my knees ached so badly from the enormous weight of my backpack that for nearly six months the nerve at the side of my left knee remained numb. I carried all the “right” equipment: all the stuff that the outdoor magazines had insisted were necessary for a safe and successful spell out in the “dangers” of nature. I was protected out there and instead of relying more on my brain for coping with emergencies and circumstances, I limned myself with all manner of gadgets that would make my time in the wild less stressful.

The funny thing is that in the early days of backpacking, without money to buy unnecessary equipment, I managed just fine to enjoy many of the same places I now enjoy. I spent much less time on my equipment and much more time simply immersing myself in the moments that I had come to experience.

My knee injury got me thinking seriously about what I was carrying and about what I was going out into mountains for in the first place. I came across a book called “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”, by Ray Jardine (later rewritten as “Beyond Backpacking”). This book, as it did for a very quickly growing number of other backpackers around the world, literally overnight changed my approach to backpacking, and even to attitudes about how I ought to be living my life daily. The concept behind the book was to create a way to safely and comfortably complete the Pacific Crest Trail, at more than 2,500 miles long one of the longest continuous trails in the world, with the absolute minimum equipment. Ray Jardine and his wife Jenny complete the trail in a record-breaking 4 1/2 months and then again in 3 months 3 weeks, each carrying a backpack not much larger than a day pack, and weighing around 6 to 7 kilos each. Using conventional hiking equipment the average thru-hiker takes six months carrying huge packs that often weigh up to 30 kilos, so these times were impressive.

As suggested in the book and later on a number of websites, I ruthlessly began to go through every inch of my conventional backpacking equipment, cutting out any superfluous item, changing items that were needlessly overweight or large, and trying to come up with ways to make as many items serve dual purposes, such as a hiking pole used as a tent pole at night, or a tarp used as a poncho in the rain while walking, or even getting rid of a redundant down jacket to be replaced by a sleeping bag that I draped over myself when it got really cold.

Such thinking allowed me to reduce my backpacking weight to about 8 or 9 kilos and to carry a pack that barely left me out of breath at the end of the day. Breaking records is not my goal while getting out into the mountains, but walking without the struggle of exhausting weight meant that I could spend time experiencing my surroundings fully.

Recently this philosophy has translated into daily living, too. Over the years while living in Tokyo, and having more money than just after college, the belongs have accumulated in my apartment until now books and outdoor equipment and computer gadgets occupy every corner of the tiny place. I have to step over neat stacks of books around my writing desk in my study. And it’s just getting too much. Trying to keep track of where things are has become a process of digging through piles of notes and files and boxes. Just stuff! Piles and piles of stuff. And what for? It all costs money to accumulate and drags at the carefree trains of thought that allow me to operate with little encumbrance.

My backpack is little more than a loose sack carrying bare essentials now. It is time to apply this thinking to the place I live and to what I plan to do with my life. We are nomads after all.