A Balancing Act

No, I don’t walk on tight ropes. I don’t balance bowling balls atop each other. I don’t even balance checkbooks. I balance backpacking gear.

For some years now, lightweight backpacking has held my interest.  I’ve dabbled in the sport, mostly focusing on lightweight stoves and backpacks. In the process, I’ve become acquainted with a number of hardcore lightweight backpackers. These guys throw together eight or ten pounds of gear and head out into the backcountry for a week or two. At first, it sounds pretty awesome, but like any extreme sport, there’s more than meets the eye.

For the extremists, cutting pack weight is rocket science.  Assume a pack weight of nine pounds. Inside you have a tarp – no tent, thereby forfeiting any protection from ants, mosquitoes, flies, wind, and dust or wind-blown rain. Your sleeping pad is thin. The sleeping bag you carry is more like a down blanket – it has no bottom and simply clips to your sleeping pad. To save weight, you’ll carry no stove or cook kit. All food will be eaten cold. Extra clothes are inconceivable, weighing far more than they’re worth. Sounds like fun, right?

On the other hand, you have my former view: maximum comfort requires every accessory. On top of a fully enclosed tent, heavy sleeping bag and cushy inflatable pad, I carried every backpacking item I could lay hands on. My kitchen kit contained two pots, a frying pan, stove, towels, pot handle, large spoon and spatula, a cup, a bowl, fork, knife, and spoon. And everything else was like this. One prized piece of gear was a frame which turned my sleeping pad into a  chair.  The downside of this extravagance became evident when a friend had to help me shoulder my pack. Even after a short hike with the pack, I felt as though I’d float away when I took the pack off.

Between my own experience and the exploits of my friends, I knew exactly what I didn’t like: a miserable 50 pounds of comfort and a comfy 9 pounds of misery. I headed for middle ground.

Lightweight backpacking is a balancing act. Comfort and weight are the opposing forces. I jump at opportunities to practice mastering these forces. Finally, I feel like I found a brief moment of success. While down in Bozeman for a week, a couple friends took my dad and me on a brief overnight trip into Hyalite canyon.

Like so many backpack trips I’ve been on, this outing started at a nondescript trailhead near a small outhouse in a predominantly lodgepole forest. These beginnings are all the same, all rather boring. And like so many trips I’ve enjoyed, a consistent uphill grade brought us out of the boring woods into a fascinating subalpine world. Most snow had recently receded. Glacier lilies bloomed next to the few remaining patches. Stunted, stubby spruce trees with dark green needles stood in clumps, breaking up the rolling rock strewn meadows of coarse grass. I ate a few glacier lilies and breathed in the cold air radiating from nearby snow patches. The four and a half mile hike had passed rapidly. We had reached Emerald lake, a lumpy shaped pool of water in the bottom of a massive crumbling rock cirque.  We chose to camp among a few of the larger spruce trees.

Anyone familiar with backpacking knows the floating feeling one gets after dumping a pack full of backpacking gear. Fortunately, I was denied this feeling when I dropped my pack upon reaching our campsite. I’d forgotten about the fifteen pound load on my back. Now I wanted to see about the comfort side of the equation. My Sierra Designs Clip flashlight, not a particularly light tent, had proven itself on backpacking trips many times before. The ultralight Mont-Bell sleeping bag in my pack had seen significant testing, too. But my sleeping pad and the stove we’d brought were both unused. Instead of my much used “Big Agnes” – a comfy 2.5 inch thick air mattress – I now carried a half length inflatable pad full of holes. A 13 ounce savings, but perhaps a mistake? I’d know in the morning. The stove, too, posed some unknowns. Used to canister-powered stoves like MSR’s pocket rocket and the ubiquitous Jetboil, the 3.2 ounce titanium setup sitting on the ground worried me just a bit.

On the whole, though, all gear behaved admirably.  The alcohol stove consumed roughly twice the fuel we’d expected, and proved quite finicky when even the lightest breeze stirred. That said, we boiled half a gallon of water and enjoyed hot dinners. There was even enough fuel left to warm up a little water for oatmeal in the morning. The sleeping pad performed even better than the stove. Once I got the pad oriented inside – yes, inside – my sleeping bag, the hard ground disappeared and I promptly fell asleep. During the night I rolled over a few times and discovered that my new pad provided adequate comfort in any position – sleeping on my back, my side, or my stomach made little difference.

Overall, I had a grand time. My pack weighed next to nothing, I had every comfort necessary, and all gear worked acceptably. Now I need to really get out and see how many consecutive nights I can maintain this harmony between weight and comfort.

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2 thoughts on “A Balancing Act

    • I can’t say I’ve ever smelled shooting stars… (allergies have something to do with that). However, I’ll have to check next time I see one in bloom!

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