Sunday, December 14, 2014

I like big packs, and I cannot lie

As much as I have lightened up my backpacking gear, there are times when I miss the 1990s. Specifically, the backpacks. I recall the joy of entering the wilderness ranger cache to pull out a brand new pack, mine for the season. Gregory, Dana Design, Mountainsmith. I happily surveyed each pack. Look at all the pockets! The loops, the straps! What was this strap even for? There were sleeping bag compartments, top lids you could unbuckle and use as a day pack, and side pockets galore. You could even buy cool little pockets to buckle onto the pack and put stuff in! The more stuff that hung off the pack, the better. I hiked on, a plethora of straps fluttering in my wake.

Sure, those packs were seven pound behemoths, and my pack weight often soared to seventy pounds when I counted the Forest Service radio, search and rescue gear, a pulaski wedged in the ice axe loop, and all the trash I could possibly find and carry (hammocks, old shoes. Tents. Cans, bottles,  cast iron frying pans, grills, tin foil to the max). But those packs were built so well that the load carried like a dream. Today's packs are feather light but they will never carry like that. I was young and fast and the weight didn't bother me then.

I wouldn't carry a seven-pound-empty pack today, because I need to be kind to my knees, just like I wouldn't carry the high tech gear we had available then: Whisper-Lite stove, first generation. Ceramic water filter. Cotton sweatshirts. Four pound one person tents. I have to laugh when people earnestly ask about saving four ounces, one puffy over another. Just cowboy up and hike, I want to say. We did it in the old days! And look, we are still alive!

This is a newer version of the pack I carried for years as a wilderness ranger. I think we had more straps!
I know weight matters. You can definitely hike farther and faster when not dragging a seventy pound load. Most of the time my full pack with water and food, for about 100 miles, weighs in the mid-twenties. I'm okay with that. I have seen too many near disasters to go lighter. Helicopters and I only work well when fighting fire, not for being plucked off a ridge.

I won't really change my mind on packs though. I tried one that was less than a pound, and it was amazing. But then I had to do a 24 hour water carry to a dry camp, and I didn't pick that pack. I knew it would drag on my shoulders and wouldn't stand up to 6 liters of water. What's the point of being superlight if you are miserable? Now I am in between. My pack is a well constructed one that tops the scale at (GASP) three pounds. It definitely would not hold up to the kind of wilderness rangering I used to do, but it works for what I do now.

Still, I'll always miss my behemoth packs. I carried them with pride through the mountains, off trail and across snowfields and clinging to the side of cliffs. I never once thought about cutting off straps to make them lighter. Instead of your base weight being "cool" now if it is below ten pounds, it was cool then to be able to carry a heavy load. We would have scoffed at people with UL gear. What was wrong with them, why couldn't they carry a load and still hike 4 mph? We could.

We hung our packs on the scale and groaned at their weight, but secretly we wanted them to be heavy, because it meant we were tough. Misguided? Probably. But we were twenty-five and thought we could do anything. Thought our seasonal jobs would be enough to sustain us, thought that people who could love us and put up with our wandering would always come along, thought we would never get old. So we hiked with what we had. And it was fine. We survived, and we always made it over the next summit, and we walked on to the rest of our lives, which did not include big, heavy packs and all the other things we left behind in that decade.

22 comments:

  1. I like your style of writing - casual, descriptive, but quick. We have a lot of similar interests. So glad I stumbled into it! Hope it is ok if I link to it from my blog?

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  2. This also helps explain why some choose to carry on with a system that works. If it ain't broke . . or if the budget says no .

    I remember the pride I felt with my first packs but as an older hiker just getting started the weight pained me and limited my enjoyment. I was thrilled to learn of lighter options. I find joy though in partaking in the excesses others bring. Cheese Whiz, in a giant spray bottle, for example plus loads of alcohol or fresh veges.

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    1. I often wonder what I would be focused on now if I hadn't started so young. I still try to be light but I see the value in some of the older stuff. For example I still wear an Rei lon underwear top I got in 1991.

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  3. I still haven't brought myself to get rid of my big old external frame pack (it loads so well!), but this might be the year...

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    1. I still have tons of old thermarests. First generation. And a backpacking Coleman stove. I need to purge but it is hard!

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  4. I hike with a lot of Mazma members (Portland mountain climbing club) and they like to be prepared. My friends carry huge packs with lots of extra food, water and clothing, even for dayhikes. Their preparedness has rubbed off on me, and I now carry a fairly large backpack, even though most of my hikes are of the dayhike variety. I'm with you - I'd rather be prepared and comfortable.

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    1. P.S. Loved the title to this post! :)

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    2. It's such a balance...I would hate to have to be rescued or not be able to assist someone because I only brought the minimum. I'm getting there.

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    1. Thanks! And I bookmarked your blog also!

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  6. I used to carry those great big packs too. I still have my gigundous Mountainsmith pack that I used for Search and Rescue in Western WA. Nothing could be outside our packs and the pack had to be lined with trash bags and your sleeping bag in its own trash bag inside as well. wet, wet, wet. Now I use it as a game hauling bag for hunting season. My first summer field work job (electroshocking/stream surveys - hiking 10 hrs/day) I was still carrying 'everything but the kitchen sink'. My medical gear alone weighed several pounds. But it felt doable and I was in heaven getting paid to hike 10 hrs/day! When my husband first started talking about 'ultra light' I thought he was being a pansy but after a bad horsewreck that required some slow and careful knee rehab, I decided to try it out and I was sold. My backpack fits so well that my back hurts less when I'm wearing it than when I'm hiking without it (weird I know).
    The aging thing sucks, but I've had to shift my pride (in lbs carried) to the side and be glad I can still hike and backpack. I don't carry all the extras anymore, and I hope I don't someday find I need something I've given up carrying.

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  7. Yes I think some people are stupid light by which I mean they are one snowstorm from hypothermia. It's definitely a balance. For example, because I lived in Idaho where it can snow year round I always carry a hat and mittens. Even during a good forecast.

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  8. Great post! I'm on my 5th pack now, my first internal frame. So many years of external frames, but hey, I was younger, stronger and even though we tried to keep the weight down, we had things we NEEDED so, we had to bring them. Got stuck in bad weather this year and really regretted all my "lightening up". Still trying to be light, but not stupid! Thanks for the reminder to blend the best of my past with the best of my future!

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    1. Plus you carry your fears. I fear being cold. So I carry a hat, mittens, puffy, long underwear and sometimes even a fleece!

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  9. Everything is a trade off. I would rather carry more chocolate and cut the handles off of my toothbrush and cutlery.

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  10. I remember an ultralight backpacker camping with us on one of our longer adventures -- as we cleaned ourselves up, put on our sleeping clothes, and cozied up in the tent in our plush sleeping bags (by ultralight standards), reading a little and having hot chocolate and cookies, he wrapped himself in tyvek or something for the night. I gave him a sympathy cookie.

    I'm sure it's pretty nice going ultralight at times, but I also really like being comfortable and enjoying camp time. His pack was incredibly small, but mine feels fine enough, especially when I'm enjoying that hot chocolate and cookies.

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    1. Wrap in Tyvek! I love it (and have seen it). If you are doing 25 plus miles a day I guess you don't really need to be that comfortable, but it sure looks miserable to me sometimes!

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  11. I love my ceramic water filter, but I've got a sherpa husband to split the load with me. If I did a lot of solo overnights I'd definitely have to cut back (probably start with the tent, not my Chex Mix).

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  12. Sherpas make a big difference. That being said, I love my sawyer squeeze water filter, probably way too much than is normal.

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