You don’t realize how much you don’t actually need until you have to fit it all into a 75 litre backpack and carry it over mountains for days on end. You can get by with a lot less than you think, even in extreme circumstances.
As I packed for the John Muir Trail, I tried to keep it to a minimum. Learning from past experiences on smaller treks, I knew that there was always room to make things smaller and lighter, but that how to do it might not always be obvious. I just never put much thought into it before, because I never had to.
In the past, the most food I had to carry was a few snacks, and maybe a lunch for the day. On the Inca Trail, my food (and most of my gear) was carried by porters; on the Tour du Mont Blanc and in the Dolomites, I hiked hut-to-hut, where multiple course meals were provided almost on arrival; on the Laugavegur Trail, food and camp gear was transported from one camp to the next in a van (though, at the time, I knew I’d be hiking the John Muir Trail and had opted to carry most of my own gear as I hiked, in preparation). Still, compared to all my past experiences, this trek was a whole other animal – it was time for me to start thinking about ounces.
I meticulously considered each and every item I had in my pack. I had:
-A lightweight Therma-Rest and sleeping bag
-Two pairs of pants
-Two pairs of underwear (one of each to wear, and one of each to wash)
-Three pairs of socks (one to wear, one to wash, and an extra in case my washed ones didn’t dry in time – I figured it would be worth it to splurge on dry feet for this one)
-Long johns and a thermal base layer
-One long sleeve shirt
-A fleece sweater
-A rain coat, rain pants and a rain cover for my pack
-A pair of running shoes to wear at camp each night
-Such essentials as water bottles (two one-litre Nalgene bottles), sunglasses, a Swiss Army knife, a headlamp with spare batteries, a pack towel, a spork, and collapsable cup and bowl.
-My toiletries consisted of my toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, and the smallest bottle of bug repellent, sun screen, hand sanitizer and first aid kit I could justify.
-My luxury items included my camera and a spare battery, my iPod, and a pair of tweezers and a travel-sized mirror.
-I also had a book to read, and my journal for writing.
Keeping in mind that I’d still be carrying several days worth of food, a bear can, part of a tent and group gear, I wanted to keep it light. For a 23 day trek, I thought I’d done alright.
The morning I was to begin my trek, I picked up my beautifully organized pack and experienced the mélange of feelings that I would imagine many through-hikers experience as they lift their pack for the first time. I was both shocked and disappointed by its weight. I was also a bit intimidated. How would I carry this, for 23 days?
As I took another mental inventory of the contents of my pack, I was stumped and overwhelmed. The only thing I felt willing and able to sacrifice was my book. I had solid reasons for keeping everything else (not to mention, everything in their was on the packing list provided by my guides). As much as I looked forward to reading the book, I figured I’d be busy enough either living the magic of the trail, or writing about it in my journal that I could do without it (I found myself bored enough in the mountains, I could pluck my eyebrows).
I knew, though, that I needed to get rid of more than a book to save weight.
One of the perks of staying in hostels is the people you meet. Hostels are full of people from all over the world, and time spent in hostels are full of fleeting conversations with them about their varying travels and experiences. In Mammoth Lakes, my hostel was full of hikers – day hikers, section hikers, and through-hikers of both the John Muir and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Awesome were these people.
Awesome are not only the stories they shared, but also the encouragement they offered as I picked their brains over the course of my 3 days in Mammoth Lakes.
Especially awesome is the woman, whose name I never did actually catch, who took time that morning to help me pare down the contents of my pack. With her help, I was able to do so without sacrificing anything. She suggested I cut my pack towel in thirds and bring only one third, that I mail things to myself in resupplies (like that extra t-shirt and pair of socks) that I wouldn’t need right away, and convinced me to bring a pair of flip flops rather than my running shoes. Without her help, I probably would have never thought to cut the handle off my tooth brush, leave the deodorant behind (it’s futile, anyway), or tear my book into sections (each to be sent in a resupply along the way). These things that might seem insignificant, but do add up to make an enormous difference in weight. Without her help, I probably would have found myself trudging along the John Muir Trail with a monster of a pack that not only would have held me back, but probably would have put a damper on my experience.
To all the hikers I met in Mammoth Lakes: nakurmiik for your stories, help, and encouragement!
All organized and ready to pack!
My pack, which didn’t normally have things dangling from it, but it was laundry day in the wild.