Weight Shaming

I’ve read a lot about ultra lightweight backpacking, and it makes sense — the less weight you have to carry, the easier it will be. Sounds good, right? But ultra lightweight gear is generally absurdly expensive, and in some cases, those who desire to go ultra light end up with gear that seems counterproductive. For example, some ultra lightweight backpacks are ultra lightweight because they leave off the hipbelt (making the shoulders take all the weight) or making the pack a lot smaller. (Small ultra lightweight packs hold as little as 35 liters, which makes me laugh, thinking about the fellow at REI who refused to sell me a 38 liter pack because it wouldn’t hold enough for a long trek.) And some people don’t carry important emergency items in order to make their packs lighter because they don’t think they will ever need them.

The real issue is the weight shaming that so many of these elitist backpackers indulge in. They look down on, and make fun of people who carry a heavier pack. Some go in for body shaming, too, mentioning the absurdity of heavy people trying to cut back the weight of their pack rather than their body weight, but most shaming goes toward the pack base weight. (Pack base weight is the total weight you carry including the pack but minus food, water, and fuel.)

Apparently, the motive for the ultra lightweight hikers is to chew up the miles. Their method is hike, eat, sleep, repeat. That’s it. They seem to believe there is no reason to take anything to read or to write with because they say if you have energy left at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right. (Apparently, although these folks spout the hiker’s mantra, hike your own hike, they don’t mean it.) The latest thing I’ve been hearing is the importance of cutting back on tent weight (for these folks, often a tarp is enough) and sleeping pad. They say it’s better to be comfortable walking than comfortable sleeping.

Even without checking to see who these folks are, I would bet they are youngish males. No older woman would ever consider the idea that being too uncomfortable to sleep is better than carrying a couple of extra pounds in her pack, even if it means she has to go slower.

The real issue with the weight shamers seems to be the same issue that shows up in any other inter-human relationship — the inability to understand that others might have different values than you. They don’t consider that maybe people are out there to do other things besides simply walk. Writers need to write about their experiences while the feeling is fresh. Photographers want to indulge in their artistry. Readers might find comfort in the familiarity of words in the vastness of the night. Aesthetes need time to appreciate. Nature lovers need time to commune with the world around them. Pilgrims have to search for spiritual meaning in the quest.

So many reasons to embark on a long hike. So many reasons to put other considerations before pack weight.

I don’t know what my base weight is since I have not yet gotten to that point, but the weight of my “big three” (pack, tent, sleep system) is a mere ten pounds, though it’s still considered heavy by some. Regardless, that weight is about as light as I can get it unless I want to invest in an ultra lightweight tent and a lighter backpack that together will cost about a thousand dollars. Even so, the most weight I can save by spending all that money is two or three pounds. (I can’t go lighter on my sleep system or there will be no sleep!)

And anyway, my goal is not to hike, eat, sleep, repeat. It’s to experience whatever I can as deeply as I can. And if that means carrying a bit of extra weight in my pack, so be it.

Actually, the biggest weight in anyone’s pack comes from food (some hikers eat four thousand calories a day) and water if there is no water source. (Water weighs a bit more than two pounds a liter, and we need at least that much every day.) If we could learn to get our food and water from the air, just think how light our packs would be!

Something to aim for?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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The Right Way

I’ve been haunting the various Facebook hiking and backpacking groups, trying to get more information about the right way to do things, and I’ve come across some interesting discussions. In one, a fellow asked if it were possible to hike the PCT without seeing anyone, and apparently, it’s all but impossible these days ever since THAT book and THAT movie. In fact, some people were downright rude in their responses, telling the poor fellow that one of the major benefits of hiking such a well-known trail was the camaraderie among hikers and that he’d be better off hiking somewhere far from them. Very few seemed to understand why he would want the trail to himself; most acted as if he were committing some sort of crime against the community by wanting to be alone on the trail.

One person who did understand suggested other hikes, such as The Desert Trail, which apparently runs parallel to the PCT, but goes through the desert portions of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It sounds interesting, but there isn’t a lot of information about the trail, not like The Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. He also suggested the Ouachita Trail, which is one I actually considered hiking. In fact, before my road trip turned into more of a friend trip than a camping trip, I’d planned to hike the trail. I even printed out all the maps and instructions and rules for the trail. I’ve kept all that information because it still fascinates me, not just because it’s an east-west trail, but because it goes through states I would never have considered, and also because the best time to hike the trail is in the winter rather than the summer when so many people are out and about.

Other discussions center on cost. Apparently, a thru hike on the PCT costs about $1,000 a month. If you add home rent on top of that expense, plus all the extravagantly expensive gear, thru hiking becomes a pricey undertaking. (When I first considered it, I thought I’d be homeless and so the $1,000 a month seemed reasonable.

There seem to be two groups who thru hike, recent college graduates and recent retirees, probably because both groups have the money and the time and little responsibility. A lot of retirees do manage to complete the hike, though many have to bail out because of health issues or bad knees. At least one older woman who completed the trail had to have her knees replaced afterward. Eek.

Many discussions in the various groups are about basic pack weight — the weight of all gear except for perishables such as food, water, and fuel. It seems to be a matter of status to hike the lightest possible hike. In fact, one fellow’s base pack weight was five pounds. Yep — tent, backpack, sleep system, emergency gear, clothes, all less than five pounds.

Outside of the understandable need to carry as little weight as possible, the real reason for ultra light is for thru hikers to be able to go as fast as possible, which seems a bit ridiculous to me, but what do I know. I’m just a saunterer or a plodder or even a trudger, no matter how much or how little weight I carry. This ultra lightweight gear is horrendously expensive (coming near to truly costing their weight in gold), and seems a bit counterproductive. The lightest weight backpack has no hip belt, just shoulder straps, which means all the weight is on the shoulders. If it were just the five pounds of basics that needed to be carried, that’s one thing, but if you add food and water, especially water enough to get through the dry places (six liters minimum at two pounds a liter) that’s a whole heck of a lot of weight to be hanging from one’s shoulders. Some of the ultra light tents are enclosed spaces, but some are not, and if you’re going through a buggy or snaky area, I for one would prefer a totally enclosed tent.

There’s quite a bit of snobbishness when it comes to light weight backpacking. One person sneered at the folks who spent all that money on ultra lightweight gear, but carried many extra pounds of their own weight. So what? At least the huskier folks are trying. And they have as much right on the trail as the thinner ones.

I left one forum when the talk turned political, as if I care whether or not the various companies catering to backpackers aim for diversity or not. All I know is that they are not catering to me. There are clothes geared toward women backpackers now, but very little for hefty women, even though a lot of not-thin women are interested in hiking. For example, the hip belt of the lightest backpack with a hip belt would in no way fit me. And most sleeping pads, especially ultra light sleeping pads, are too narrow.

Which is why I have to go lightweight and not ultra light. My base weight is, at a guess, seventeen pounds, depending on what sort of emergency and electronic gear I would bring in addition to extra clothes. (Unheard of in the early backpacking days, my tent is three pounds, my backpack three pounds, and my sleep system four pounds.) Of course, the ultra lights don’t bring many optional items. As one person said, “If you have energy to read or write at the end of the day, you’re not doing it right.” As if there is a right way or a wrong way. Each person who hikes or backpacks has different goals, and although “hike your own hike” seems to be a mantra of the hiking bunch, they don’t all seem to live by it, at least not for other people. (To be fair, I should admit that most hikers seem helpful and supportive of one another.)

I don’t suppose any of this really matters since there is a good chance neither you nor I will ever meet these folks on the trail.

There’s a good chance you will never meet me, anyway. I’m not sure I enjoy carrying any weight on my back, regardless if it’s ultra lightweight or just lightweight. With what I can carry and for how long, I’ll still be able to do short backpacking trips, dispersed camping, and various other activities that will get me out in the wild and away from people who think they know the “right” way to do things.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.