I take after my mom perhaps, in that, if you forget a warm layer or kleenex or some medicine or somehow hurt yourself, I probably have an extra of whatever you need in my pack. I could lend you a jacket, a ton of Ibuprofen, a kleenex and an ace bandage. Of course sometimes I forget to lug all this around with me, but usually I remember and that insures that I am ready for almost any situation. This is super convenient for you, if you are with me because should you need anything I have it to give you and I am the one carrying it. The thing is, how often do we really need these things? Probably not that often. And if we did need them, how many do we really need? And if we did not have them could we make do with other things?
My preparations for my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, showed me I was an ultra-newbie when it came to ultra-light backpacking. I started reading and researching and thinking about the way that I live my life. I explained it to my dad one night.
It’s a Walk in the Park
You pick up your shoe and disgustedly make your way over to some wet grass to wipe dog poop off your shoe. Nature struggles to decompose the many piles of dog poop scattered in parks. You walk down the sidewalk accompanied by an unpleasant smell until you see a mound of dog poop. NO ONE likes dog poop that does not get picked up. So most dog-owners pick up their dog poop with dog poop bags. Now here is my problem, I sighed and reached over to grab leftover newspaper bags that my family repurposes as dog bags. My dad and I were preparing to give the dogs their night time walk. In our current living situation, dog walking responsibilities fall almost entirely on my dad, often on me and rarely on my mom. Tonight my dad and I would walk them together guaranteeing it would be a walk full of exciting conversation and tonight the conversation was the ultra-light philosophy. So my problem is, I always bring two dog bags just incase when I only really need one. That is so not what an ultra-light backpacker would do. He laughed. How many bags do you bring? I asked. One, he answered. Or sometimes I find one I have left near the trashcans that can still easily be used and just use that. I stared at him with envy. Of course! I thought, that fits so well with his lifestyle. You can almost assuredly count on Pat NOT having Kleenex, and only caring Ibuprofen if he is actually in pain at that very moment and layers… he is often the one needing to borrow them. He is a good improvisor though, positioning himself in less windy places to stay warm, using napkins as an extra little layer of warmth when sitting outside at a restaurant. Luckily I inherited his tendency to successfully improvise. This means though that I usually live my life comfortably over-prepared with a knack for improvising should I need to. So basically, I am usually beyond over-prepared. Let’s be ultra-light backpackers tonight, Pat, and just take one bag. I said, he smirked and off we went.
During the walk I thought to myself, I had almost always been fine bringing one bag. In fact, once or twice I had forgotten a bag all together and managed to fashion a scooping device out of leaves or take some neighbors newspaper bag instead. Really it was quite overkill to bring more than one bag, it was preparing for a scenerio that was a) unlikely to happen and b) easily solvable if it did. And so was born my way of explaining ultra-light backpacking to those who are unfamiliar with it; it’s just like heading out with only one (or maybe even zero) dog poop bags on your walk. (Note: I understand these numbers may differ slightly with type of dog and number of dogs 😛 ). It has now become a joke between Pat and I, with one of us always asking, Are we going ultra-light? Before heading out on a dog walk together.
The American Dream
The ultra-light philosophy goes against American culture in many ways as my brother pointed out to me. Michael, my brother, called me to discuss his impractical daydream of buying an airplane. We began discussing what type of plane his dream plane would be and what size plane he would get. At some point I said, well that one would not be big enough to take a whole bunch of friends anywhere or anything. He paused, see, he said, I think this is an issue with American culture. Everyone always wants to be prepared for “what if” situations, that really are not all that likely to happen and if they did happen could easily be addressed. It’s like big cars, many people do not need big cars, but they buy them in case they need to drive around a whole bunch of people one day. In reality, that day may never come for many of these people and if it does they could take two cars or rent a bigger car or take cabs or public transit. It’s a very odd tendency, but very tempting for me to fall into to. What he said was strikingly similar to my dog walking tendency to unnecessarily over-prepare. We hung up the phone very distracted from where the conversation had began fantasizing about airplanes.
The Ultra-light principles
1) Only bring what you really need, considering the likelihood of various occurrences. (Still have some things for common emergencies, even if they are unlikely).
2) Avoid duplicates.
3) Improvise systems that allow you to use one piece of gear for multiple purposes or get by without certain gear items.
4) Get lightweight things.
Have I succeeded in doing these things? Yes and No. I think I would put myself more in the category of lightweight backpacker instead of ultra-light backpacker. I have tried extremely hard to meet prong one, two and four with certain exceptions like bringing duplicate underwear. Prong three I have not been as faithful too and this will likely cost me some in terms of pack weight.
My very good friend asked me if I was ready and prepared. I said, no, not yet. He laughed and said, oh right, I be you are over-prepared. Preparing for the PCT is one of the only things in my life where I feel like being over-prepared can result in you not being prepared, because you will have too much stuff. While being under-prepared will also result in you not being prepared because you will not have what you need. I am still in my few weeks left before my start date tweaking to achieve that balance.
As I finalize my gear, I will update you on where I stand on the continuum, how heavy my pack is, and what it is I am bringing on my journey.
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