Learning to go Lightweight

Its been nearly 2 years since we started long distance hiking seriously, and it feels like a good time to reflect on what we have learned about lightening our load and where we still hope to make improvements. To put things in perspective, our pack base-weights on the Norfolk Coastal path at Easter 2014 were nearly 14 kg (so in reality more like 20kg with water, food and fuel!), which was completely mad given the simplicity of the route, benign climate and close proximity to services. Since then, we have shed excess weight as our experience has grown and we have learned what we can do without. Part of this has also involved a gradual process of gear replacement to lightweight and (often) more niche alternatives. Last weekend I did a condition check and inventory of our gear to assess it for this coming season (to my shame an Excel spreadsheet was involved…), and was pleased to see that our base-weights have dipped below 7kg, under half of what they were in Norfolk. There are still times however, when we have a big water and food carries, that I wish we were even lighter, and problems with injuries now make this more of an imperative.

There are some further gear tweaks we want to make in 2017 and I will be dealing with these in later posts.  An updated gear list for 2017 is here.

Cumbria 10

It looks worse than it was!….Barry knackered after scaling the Old Man of Coniston with a 20kg+ pack on the Cumbria Way. The weight of the packs on this hike forced a major, last minute review of our gear for the GR11, including a swap to much lighter backpacks and a conversion to trail shoes among other things.

My ambition is for us to walk ultralight (base-weight of 5kg or less) in the next couple of years, something that will be important for our plans to hike some more remote, wilderness trails in the future. The challenge to carry our ‘home on our back’ was daunting to start with, but there is also immense freedom and satisfaction in doing it well. Refining our gear is not all about reducing our walking weight however, it is also about the ability to live outdoors for days or weeks, and the intimacy with nature and landscape that this provides. Being able to choose and purchase hiking gear is a privilege that I do sometimes feel a bit guilty about, and I try to avoid being too consumerist about it by focusing on carefully selected things that will last us many trips. There is a irony though, that in seeking the simplicity of trail life, we are often supported by high tech gear, and I admire those (hikers or otherwise) that keep it minimalist. More than once in the high pastures of the Pyrenees, as we burrowed into our modern sleeping bags at sunset, we were not far from a shepherd who was sleeping out under the sky with his flock nearby….with just a blanket to keep the dew off and a leather satchel with his food in. I hope that with growing confidence, we too will go more simply.

IMG_20160410_133735With gear we can trust and a lighter pack, we have the freedom to set-off and get lost in the folds of the landscape. (Sierra de Cadi, Catalonia, GR1, 2016).

Learning to hike lightweight can become a pleasantly geeky preoccupation, and we have been on a steep learning curve these past 2 years. Having someone experienced to point us in the right direction from the beginning might have saved us some initial mistakes, but the gear system that is right for us has evolved from our own needs and through trial and error experience. In all our gear decisions and weight-trimming though, we always ensure that we have enough to stay safe, warm, hydrated and properly fed on our adventures, nothing compromises this. I would not want to skip the learning process we have been on, but if we were to go back to the beginning, there are a few key things I would like to tell our past selves! What follows are some of the things that have been important to us personally in the quest to choose and develop a lightweight gear system:

1. Research: A headache to some, a pleasure for others. For me it is the latter. I love to plan and research, and enjoy getting into the minutiae of gear specifications. Like anything, the more we get into something, the more the detail matters. Lightweight hiking is a pretty niche activity, and whenever I research a bit of gear, be it a trail shoe or tent peg, there is always a lot more to consider than I first thought. This is because long distance hiking demands that an item be both lightweight and highly functional….each bit of gear really has to earn its way into our packs and it is rare for anything to hit the nail on the head.  We view our hiking gear set-up as a system in which each component works together, and a poor choice somewhere means that other parts might be compromised. This means that when deciding what we need, we have to balance an item not just on its own merits but how it will fit and perform with everything else, and even if it can serve a multi-functional purpose.

The challenge with gear research is that I never know when I have done enough to commit and make a decision.  Luckily I am not an impulse buyer and typically research something for a couple of months, weighing the options and reading other blogs and reviews. We also nearly always buy gear at a discount too, be it in sales, using a discount card or using a price-match. I find researching from other hiker’s blogs fun and incredibly useful, but I also understand that there is no perfect set-up or ‘right answer’, each person has to tailor their gear to suit their needs and tastes. In particular I find the reviews of ultralight gear systems inspiring, even if we can’t hope to be as streamlined as them yet! The technology for lightweight (and ultralight) hiking gear is rapidly evolving, and with new and possibly better options always around the corner, resisting impulse decisions and researching from a range of sources, helps give me the widest overview of what is available.

IMG_20160408_222856Restored to his hiking form thanks to a lighter pack!…Barry climbing out of a steep wooded gorge in Catalonia,  GR1, week 2.

2. Getting our ‘big 3’ right: A deep breath was needed as the ‘big 3’ (tent, sleep system and backpack) involved our biggest outlay and commitment. The upside was that this investment also gave us one of the best returns in terms of weight saving and, if properly cared for, longevity over many trail miles. When selecting the ‘big 3’ I stumbled upon the ‘3 for 3’ rule in another blog, which suggests keeping the weight of the ‘big 3’ to 3kg or below.  When, after some mistakes, we hit that target of less than 3kg, trimming weight in other areas of our gear set-up (e.g. cook set) was more meaningful.

Our main ‘big 3’ revelation came with swapping our heavy Osprey Xenon/Argon bags for the Osprey Exos 58’s, cutting a surplus 1.5kg each from our base-weight in one move. Our old Rab Alpine 600 sleeping bags were perhaps the biggest bugbear of our ‘big 3’ on the GR11, being fairly bulky…and not warm enough either. Last year we took the plunge, and invested in lighter Western Mountaineering bags. We could have gone with even lighter bags, or a more minimalist solution like a down quilt, but the bags are superb quality and we know we can rely on them when it counts. Finally, at 1.7kg total, our Hubba Hubba tent is a lot of shelter for the weight and suits our current needs well. However, as we look to cut a decent chunk out of our base-weight for wilderness trips, we might have to revisit our shelter options, including looking into a tarptent.

IMG_20161213_134444

Investing in major gear items like our sleeping bags is a big commitment, but they are superb quality and fit our needs/preferences well, so will provide warmth and comfort for many nights on the trail over the coming years.

3. (Trying not) to compromise: Looking back, we made some compromises in our ‘big 3’ choices that we had to correct later, and I wish I’d had my priorities in order and a better understanding of lightweight principles from the beginning. Back then, I was not so good at seeing our gear as a system and lacked the overview to make better long-term decisions. The compromises we made early-on were to try and spread the start-up cost of the gear set-up we needed for lightweight hiking/camping, which was a bit daunting, but this was often a total false economy. If possible now, I try and commit to the item that is best for our needs in the first instance. Our rain jackets are a classic example of this and I will write more about this when I review our new Alpkit Balance jackets in an upcoming post. Our move to lighter and more specialized gear has also demanded that we must be more vigilant with looking after what we have, treating it with greater care out on the trail and making sure it is cleaned, treated and stored correctly back at home. Not that this shouldn’t be done anyway, its just that lightweight stuff is often more delicate and we have to be able to rely on it out in the wilds.

Not all lightweight options are high tech or costly however, sometimes it is possible to go lightweight by keeping it simple. For example, we use sturdy ziploc sandwich bags from the supermarket as dry bags for some of our gear, a strong garden rubbish bag as a waterproof packliner, and a standard (but super-light) plastic Chinese take-away dish to eat from (no need for titanium!). It is satisfying to find a simple low-weight solution if there is one, and I feel there is more progress that we can make in this direction.

4. Looking after the grams: Once we got our ‘big 3’ sorted, we were able (and more justified) in looking for smaller weight savings elsewhere that could really add-up. Obviously we identified items we could cut-out altogether, but also looked at what gear could be multi-functional or chopped-down to size. Examples of what we did include cutting our microfibre towl down to half size, cutting out clothing labels, combining gear into fewer (and smaller) dry-sacks, cutting toothbrush handles shorter, removing the outer lid of my rucksack and replacing the MSR tent footprint with a sheet of superlight polychro. It all seemed a bit extreme at first, but I initially cut out over half a kilo from our combined weight without any compromise to functionality. I wrote about this effort to cut grams prior to the GR1 in my post here and our final gear selection for the GR1 (which changed over the course of the hike) can be viewed here. I still habitually cast an eye over our gear in spare moments and think ‘where can I trim off a bit more?’

E lite Kit Shakedown 4

 

 

 

 

Downsizing gear: Swapping my old (and deteriorating) head-torch for a tiny Petzl E-lite and removing the outer lid from my pack- weight savings that add up.

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The geeky bit. Digital scales are an easy way for us to see where unwanted weight is creeping in and where we can make savings.

5. Separating our ‘needs’ from our ‘wants’:  I started planning our gear needs for the Cumbria Way by making a list of every conceivable thing we could ever need (it was a long list and a big mistake). I maybe should have asked the question ‘what can we do without?’ Of course, the answer to this question has to be tailored to us as individuals and the requirements of a given hike, it will also change with time, so is not a fixed list. After watching an excellent gear shakedown video on youtube, I found it a useful technique to try and separate out our gear into ‘needs’ and ‘wants'(i.e. optional), initially in list form and then by physically laying it all out. Laying it out allowed me to really study what we had and to try and move more items from the ‘needs’ to the optional pile. It was initially hard to overcome attachments to what I thought we needed, but with more trail miles behind us, I find it gets easier to move more items across to the ‘optional’ as I learn more about our comfort zone and capabilities.

We aren’t aiming to be purists on this one though, a few luxuries are great for our morale and, with everything else so stripped-back, these extras are more appreciated than at home. In both our cases, a book and Mp3 players loaded with good music and lots of podcasts are just two examples of important optional items that we wouldn’t do without. Despite the high weight penalty, Barry will also not hike without his binoculars as they add so much to his experience of the wildlife we see.   

readingReading material on the trail is luxury I am happy to bear the weight of- lunch break in the heart of the Picos Regional Park in week 9 of the GR1.

5. Learning from experience: Probably our most powerful way of reducing pack-weight has been reviewing performance in light of successive hikes, both how the gear performed and how we performed with it. There is no short-cut to this experience and it is something that we will continue to learn from on future trips. Had we not walked the Cumbria Way before the GR11, and realised how ridiculous our pack-weights were for example, we might not have managed to walk through the Pyrenees at all. We saw several hikers on the GR11 with dead-weight packs who were really struggling, and ended up having to replace heavy gear at trail towns and/or send stuff home. For us, training hikes like the Cumbria Way and White to Dark Trail were critical not only to help tweak our gear system before doing a our first major hike, but becoming familiar with how to use our equipment and to start building routines to help us function on the trail more generally.

Because of it’s minimalist nature, I don’t think jumping right-in at the ultralight end of the gear spectrum would have been wise for us either, because we probably wouldn’t have had the competence to use such gear safely and enjoyably anyway. I remember camping in a small clearing one evening in the Pyrenees and another hiker set-up a small tarp nearby. I loved the simplicity of his set-up, the way it kept him more in touch with nature, it was very picturesque with the wood smoke from his stove that curled into the cold air. I aspired for us to be capable of that, but knew at the time, we were not ready for that level of immersion. I know we still have some way to go to approach that 5kg base-weight, but I like the fact that our gradual conversion to ultralight is keeping pace with our confidence level on the trail, and I am looking forward to where it will take us.

Cumbria 15Camped high on Wet Side Edge (Day 2) on the Cumbria Way, we learnt a lot about our gear on this training hike, not least using our new Hubba tent for the first time. 

6. Avoiding last minute ‘cramming’: A typical scenario is that I spend weeks fine-tuning our gear before a hike, only for Barry to come along at the last minute and stuff a load of extra things he wants into his pack…..many arguments have ensued! While I try to resist the urge to panic-pack before departure, there is still a temptation, especially on a long trip, to worry about all those things we ‘might need’ and various ‘what if’ scenarios. After remonstrating for a bit however, I usually concede that his comfort zone is different to mine and he simply ‘wants’ to take more than me, he likes a few more luxuries…..it is his weight to carry after all 😉

So, thanks for reading about our journey to ever lighter hiking, it really is a personal ‘quest’ with no right or wrong approach. The effects of travelling lightly on the trail have also increasingly translated into our life at ‘home’, where we are finding it easier to live with less around us materially, giving more freedom to enjoy the experiences in life that make us happy. On the trail, the rewards of our weight-saving pay us back with a unique sense of independence and the privilege to spend quality time in all those splendid, lonely places.

Next post: Our ‘rain jacket dilemma’ for lightweight hiking, and first impressions of our new Alpkit Balance jackets.

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One thought on “Learning to go Lightweight

  1. Hi great article, I have saved it in my In box to read and only just found it, we are also trying to work out gear for the GR11 , but as we are away for a year then I know my pack weight is going to go up to what we carried on the GR5 as I have none trek stuff in the load, but I’m sure a dive computer will be handy in the mountains…. not !
    Happy walking x

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