lightweight backpacking

All posts tagged lightweight backpacking

Ever since I became a NOLS instructor, I’ve been interested in the school’s Lightweight Backpacking Prime courses. Lightweight backpacking is a very small part of NOLS’s course catalog, and very different from any other NOLS backpacking course for a myriad of reasons. Rather than a full trip report here, I’ll try to give a general overview of the course, and what you might expect if you plan on signing up for it. My gear list is also provided at the bottom of this post.

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

A standard NOLS summer backpacking course consists of three instructors and 10-12 students, aged 16 to 23, on an approximately 30-day course. Students resupply food and fuel in the field twice (either meeting a truck at a trailhead, or a horse-packing group on the trail), so they carry between 7 and 13 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. Packs, at the beginning of each ration period, generally weigh between 40 and 50 pounds. The courses put a strong emphasis on cooking elaborate meals from scratch, traveling and navigating off trail, and leadership in a wilderness setting that can be translated very well to a frontcountry setting.

The Lightweight Backpacking course consisted of two instructors and between 6 and 8 students, aged 23 and up (my particular course had six students, aged about 45 to 60). We spent 12 days in the field, with one resupply on day 6, so we carried about 5 and 7 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. We only weighed packs just before getting on the bus, so I didn’t get base weights for the students. Almost all of them started with full packs weighing about 30 pounds, so my guess is that base weights were between 15 and 20 pounds.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Before you get all grumpy and say “30 pounds isn’t lightweight backpacking!”, let me remind you that this is a LIGHTWEIGHT (not ultralight) backpacking course for beginners, and that for many of the students, adding a few pounds to their base weight was a conscious decision made with the instructors’ input– A 50 year-old first-time backpacker doesn’t need to prove anything by taking a sub-10 pound base weight. Also, this isn’t a course for teaching people how to through-hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, where you can easily get into town for resupply and gear replacement every four or five days. We were pretty deep in the wilderness for a solid 12 days, with no detours into town.

Where most NOLS courses consist of students who are still finding their ways in life, the older student age on this course made for a very different emphasis in course teaching. The leadership curriculum wasn’t first and foremost, since most (though not all) of our students were already well-established in their careers and had signed up for the course specifically to gain confidence in wilderness travel rather than to lead groups. Cooking was also a much smaller part of this course, since we used pre-made just-add-water meals rather than a set of basic ingredients to feed ourselves (NOLS has a set of recipes for making these meals, rather than using Mountain House or similar fare). We spent much more time teaching navigation by map and compass, and how to use general lightweight gear, than any of the classes I’ve gotten used to teaching on prior NOLS courses.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year's NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year’s NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

With the shorter course length, I feel it would have been difficult to get through any more of the leadership classes in much depth compared to a 30-day course, but that may have just been the circumstances of my particular course. In my opinion, the greatest value of NOLS is as a leadership school first, and an outdoor skills school second, so the specific type of skills you go to NOLS to learn are probably less important than the length of course you take, although I know most students probably don’t sign up for courses thinking that.

Here’s my gear list from the course, so you can get an idea of what might work. This is definitely not the exact gear list that everybody should use, but it worked for me. If our weather conditions had been much more harsh, I might have wanted a little more rain protection and insulation, but for the summer conditions in the Wind River Range, this did very well for me.

Clothing Worn

  • Outdoor Research wide-brimmed hat
  • Chilis sunglasses
  • Railriders Adventure shirt
  • Columbia athletic shorts
  • Patagonia Capilene boxers
  • Darn Tough 1/4 cushion socks
  • New Balance Leadville sneakers with Dirty Girl Gaiters

Packing (19.6 oz)

  • Gossamer Gear Kumo* (16.8 oz)
  • ZPacks small dry bag (0.6 oz)
  • Trash compactor bag pack liner (2.2 oz)

Sleep System (27.8 oz)

  • Stateless Society down quilt** (18.2 oz)
  • Gossamer Gear Airbeam short sleeping pad (7.4 oz)
  • Klymit Pillow X (2.2 oz)

Clothing Carried (22.2 oz)

  • Spare socks (Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion) (2.2 oz)
  • Montbell Tachyon Wind Pants (2.9 oz)
  • Westcomb eVent rain jacket (9.2 oz)
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap jacket (7.9 oz)

Toiletries & Such (10.1 oz)

  • Swiss Army Knife classic (0.7 oz)
  • Sunscreen (4.0 oz)
  • Guthook’s bidet (0.8 oz)
  • Lip Balm (0.3 oz)
  • Travel toothbrush (0.7 oz)
  • Dental floss (0.4 oz)
  • Pill bottle with 6 days medications (0.8 oz)
  • Hand sanitizer (2.0 oz)
  • QiWiz Potty Trowel (0.4 oz)

Water Carrying (3.1 oz)

  • Dropper bottle for Aqua Mira (0.2 oz)
  • Bolthouse Farms 1L bottle (1.5 oz)
  • Platypus 1L bottle (1.4 oz)

Accessories (13.2 oz)

  • Petzl e+Lite headlamp (1.0 oz)
  • 2 sets spare e+Lite batteries (0.5 oz)
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite w/ trash case (6.6 oz)
  • Pen (0.2 oz)
  • Notebook (3.1 oz)
  • Bug headnet (1.0 oz)
  • Lighter (0.4 oz)
  • Sea-to-Summit long-handled spoon (0.4 oz)

NOLS-Supplied Group Gear (66.5 oz)

  • USGS Topo map set (11.3 oz)
  • Compass (1.7 oz)
  • Bear Spray (14.2 oz)
  • Tarptent Squall 2 (39.3 oz)

NOLS Instructor-specific gear (32.3 oz)

  • First Aid Kit (12.5 oz)
  • Epi Kit (2.9 oz)
  • Garmin Gecko GPS (3.2 oz)
  • Satellite Phone in soda-bottle case (13.7 oz)

Total Base Weight***: 12 pounds, 1.9 ounces.

*The Kumo was definitely a little small for this trip, and in the future I’d go for a Gorilla. The students carried several different packs, including Osprey Exos 48, Granite Gear Crown AC, Hyperlight Mountain Gear Southwest 3400, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and Gossamer Gear Gorilla.

**This is essentially a home-made quilt that is equivalent to Enlightened Equipment’s down quilts with a 30 degree rating.

***You may notice that certain items are conspicuously missing, like stove, cook pot, toothpaste, etc. The course was split into several 2-person tent- and cook-groups, so we shared as much as possible. The Caldera Cone stove, toothpaste, cook pot, and so on for my group were carried by my co-instructor in order to even out the weight carried.

That's where we're going...

That’s where we’re going…

I just finished my first summer of being a backpacking instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), working two two-week courses in the Palisades Range and the Wyoming Range, both on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Both courses were Adventure courses (for students aged 14-15 years), and they both opened my eyes quite a bit about the school.

NOLS has a reputation for teaching ultra-heavy backpacking, and perpetuating the idea that heavy packs are the only way to hike. While there is some truth to the reputation, there’s a lot more to how NOLS teaches backpacking, and the school does pay attention to weight. But there are many more factors than weight and hiking distance that influence what goes into a NOLS student’s pack.

How heavy are the packs?
For both of my courses, I used my ULA Circuit pack, and one of my co-instructors used a 2nd generation Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The students generally use large packs, which weigh between 4 and 6 pounds empty, but the total weights of their packs were between 30 and 37 pounds at the start of the course. That includes about 11 pounds of food and a few pounds of fuel in each pack, so base weights were probably around 20 pounds. Hardly back-breaking.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

What is NOLS’s attitude toward lightweight backpacking?
As far as I can tell, NOLS doesn’t have an institutional opinion on pack weights, other than that they shouldn’t exceed 40% of the student’s body weight. Individual instructors have opinions on lightweight backpacking, for sure, but there seem to be more and more who are interested in carrying less. The main reasons for carrying more weight are that there is a lot of camp time rather than moving time on a course, and that certain course locations and seasons require more equipment for safety reasons (my instructor course in 2012 was very snowy, so we packed more fuel, insulation, and cold-weather gear). Summer courses in the Rockies, or spring and fall in the southwest, see little rain or frigid temperatures, so they are able to carry less equipment.

Why doesn’t NOLS use lightweight packs and tents?
NOLS sends hundreds of students into the wilderness each year on backpacking courses (not to mention mountaineering, paddling, climbing, and other course types), many of whom have no prior experience in the outdoors. Courses are either two or four weeks long, with no trips into town to replace broken gear. Resupply happens on trail, but only food and fuel are sent in. Backpacks and tents need to be sturdy enough to survive the stresses of novice hikers (14 year-olds in this case— not an age group known for taking good care of their possessions) for that time period. We sewed several tears in equipment and replaced several zippers in the field, both common fixes for NOLS backpacking equipment. Between courses, we patched many more holes in tents and fixed more rips in backpacks. Since most students rent packs from NOLS, those packs need to stand up to years of heavy use before retirement. As durable as my lightweight packs have been over the years, they wouldn’t hold up to the level of use NOLS packs see for very long.

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Why doesn’t NOLS use lighter stoves?
One of the most universal classes at NOLS is cooking. Not freezer-bag cooking, or one-pot-meal cooking, but serious camp cooking. Pizza, cinnamon rolls, cobblers, fudge, and lasagna are just a few of the complex meals that get cooked on a whisperlite stove on NOLS courses. Alcohol stoves wouldn’t cut it, and canister stoves would generate tons of trash to haul out of the field. Whisperlites are easy to fix in the field, and they’re versatile. I doubt NOLS will go with anything else for backpacking anytime soon.

Will the school ever truly go lightweight?
I talked about this often with my co-instructor. For now, NOLS summer packs are “light enough” in that they don’t totally crush the students (at least when the instructors are into lightweight packing enough to teach the students not to bring ten pairs of socks, three fleeces, and so on). Gear will get lighter because of the industry trend, but the big equipment that students get from NOLS (packs, sleeping bags, tents, cookware, etc.) won’t get lighter until the school can be certain of getting many years of hard use out of each item before retiring it. Any school needs to make money to survive, and buying packs that would only last a season or two would basically be throwing money away.

What about NOLS lightweight courses?
NOLS actually offers lightweight backpacking courses, but there are few compared with the number of standard hiking courses, and they are restricted to students 23 years and older. I’m hoping to work on one of these courses next year, so hopefully I’ll have some more to report on them next year.

Duff, Trigger, and I left Front Royal after a half day at the Quality Inn, drying out and recovering from the nasty conditions of the previous day. I’m always amazed at how quickly the body can heal with just a half day of rest on a long backpacking trip— my feet had been in a lot of pain when we got into town from the huge miles I’d done in the national park, plus the mad dash to town on the rainy final day (14 miles to town in the rain by 11 AM), but by the morning my feet felt totally fine. My mind wasn’t quite back to 100%, but I’ll get to that later.

Welcome to the jungle... of Northern Virginia.

Welcome to the jungle… of Northern Virginia.

We all decided to hike on the same schedule to Harper’s Ferry, since I had a train ticket, Duff had family meeting her, and Trigger was right on schedule hiking, all of us aiming for a Monday arrival. So we set out into the last bit of the AT in Virginia, the section between Shenandoah and Harper’s Ferry, a section that is often overlooked because it just flies by for most AT hikers. It is, after all, a section with no major mountains, little exciting terrain, and a lot of filler where the AT is routed between tightly packed roads and private property. Much of the trail in this area was practically a jungle, with undergrowth so thick it was impossible to get off trail for anything like camping or using the facilitrees.

What few views the trail passed were mostly overlooked by the through-hikers I saw, everyone focused solely on getting to the 1000-mile mark of their grand journey. I must admit, I felt much the same way, as I was now in the stage of the hike where I was mostly just eager to get home for some rest and relaxation before heading west to teach at NOLS. The heat and humidity weren’t as oppressive as they had been in southern Virginia, but they were still more than I ever care to deal with. To add another nasty side to the hike, pulling ticks off my legs was now a daily occurrence. At least none made it past my shorts, with their heavy duty permethrin treatment.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

The last few days before Harper’s Ferry highlighted the biggest problem of this trip for me— as I had feared from the beginning of this trip, I had wound up right in the middle of the giant herd of through-hikers. The crowd had thinned out since Shenandoah, thankfully, and the folks I hiked near for the last few days were all wonderful people, but the trail was packed none the less. Being so close to Washington DC, being in the middle of the through-hiker crowd, being in an area that has such mellow hiking— I can’t even count how many people I ran into on a given day.

Before long I was standing in the little office at the edge of Harper’s Ferry, just as I had seven years ago, feeling a little bittersweet about the end of the trip. I stayed at the Teahorse Hostel, a fine place within walking distance from the ATC headquarters, with a great group of fellow hikers. We all had a relaxed evening in town, with dinner and a World Cup match at a bar, and that was it. Early the next morning, I was on a train to DC, then Boston, then Portland. I had my parents send my computer to me at Harper’s Ferry, so I was able to get right into working on updating my apps.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

It’s always best after a long hike to stay busy to avoid post-trail depression, but that doesn’t stop you from missing the hiking lifestyle. I have a love/hate relationship with long distance backpacking, and this time was no different. I was so sick of the heat, the blisters, the younger partying hikers, the crowds, the humidity (again), but as soon as I changed into some cotton clothing and packed my things up for the train ride, I felt like I was leaving home rather than going there. Luckily, I had a few days in Portland with my best friend before heading further up the coast, and then a big dinner at Conte’s with one of my best hiker buddies, Uncle Tom. And I’ve been plenty busy ever since.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte's 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte’s 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

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From my 2007 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I have only two memories of Shenandoah National Park: that it was easy hiking, and that it was fairly boring. This time through, I wasn’t so excited for hiking this section of the AT, but I did learn that my old memories weren’t entirely accurate.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Coming out of Waynesboro, I had lost all of my previous week’s hiking partners. A few had gone into the park earlier in the morning (I chose to take a half day on the first day in the park), but most I had just lost track of in the large town. So for the first three days in Shenandoah I saw no other hikers I’d met before there. With the easier hiking on mellow grades in the park, I was moving faster without trying, wandering through many grassy meadows and crossing Skyline Drive almost a dozen times each day. There were more day-hikers out now– I mostly ran into other backpackers at the few campsites at the end of each day.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

My memory of Shenandoah being fairly boring, with all the views concentrated on the road, turned out to be just plain wrong. There were several jagged peaks and cliffs with wonderful views down into the valleys below. The humidity this week was just as bad as ever, so I would try to hike early in the morning and late at night, as the haze and stickiness in the air was settled in the valleys. This turned out to be a good plan. Some of the best views came when the sun was low in the sky, there were fewer people crowding the trails then, and I was able to move faster by hiking long hours. On my third and fourth days in the park, I covered 60 miles of trail, the highest mileage I’ve hiked since the PCT.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Then there was the food. Since Shenandoah is primarily a park devoted to motorists, there are several Waysides and camp stores near the trail. I was able to eat town food almost every day in the park, which turned out to be good and bad. I ended up spending a lot more money on this trip than I’d expected, and probably lost a lot of time that I could have been hiking while I lay on the lawn of the Waysides, incapacitated after gorging myself on pancakes, burgers, ice cream, and soda. Not exactly a healthy diet, but burning 4000 or more calories per day, I finally let my inhibitions go.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

That was the good part of hiking through Shenandoah. Unfortunately, being crowded in with a new crowd of through-hikers at cramped campsites in the evenings began to take its toll on me. As I’d feared before this trip, I was smack dab in the middle of the partying, obnoxious, entitled crowd of mostly early-twenties hikers, and I did not care for them. I started to lecture one hiker after he’d complained that the trail maintainers didn’t do enough for through-hikers, which is utter bullshit, but I realized I was essentially talking to a brick wall. In the past few weeks I’ve seen more than two dozen coolers left at road crossings, and countless instances of people going out of their way for through-hikers, but none of those people or the hikers have ever done any trail maintenance themselves, or even joined their local trail club. I’m so sick of the attitude that the hikers matter more than the trail itself, but it seems to be the prevailing mentality.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

The last night in the park summed up my feelings pretty well. After having lunch at the last of the Waysides, I stopped at the next campsite, which was already overrun by backpackers at 4 PM. The site was a reasonable size for a campsite, with a shelter and half a dozen tent spots, but by evening there were more than thirty hikers crammed into the dense woods around the site. Without any space for tents, most of us ended up camping on trails around the site, wedged in next to the spring, next to the shelter, and all around. That’s when the mother of all thunderstorms hit, flooded every tent in the area, and left everyone grumpy and soaked. With the ground so heavily compacted by overuse, water had nowhere to go but into pools under each tent. I was up at 4 in the morning, headed out of the park and into the town of Front Royal to dry out in a hotel room with a few of my new hiking friends (including Duff, whom I’d hiked with in Washington on the PCT).

I had a lot of time to think in the night about the overcrowding at the campsite, and in the National Park and Appalachian Trail in general. There’s been a lot of talk about this on the trail this year, since the numbers of hikers continue to grow. I don’t fault anyone for the overcrowding, since the trend has always been that the numbers are growing, but the problems of overuse can’t be fixed by complaining about trail conditions and not doing anything to help the trail maintainers. That’s the only behavior I saw in Shenandoah, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth about the state of through-hiking. At least I was able to sleep well on a hotel bed the next night to raise my spirits.

With the snow in the northern mountains disappearing into slush, I headed south and west to find dry, low elevation hiking last weekend. The trails were far from dry, but they were more than adequate to test out my legs on some long backpacking in preparation for this summer’s AT hike. So on Thursday night, I drove to western Massachusetts and camped at the Falls Brook Shelter on the Tully Trail, aiming to hike the entire 22-mile loop on Friday.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

A dizzying drop into Royalston Falls.

The Tully Trail was almost entirely new territory for me– for about a mile and a half it coincides with the New England Trail, which I’d hiked five years ago, but that short distance was fairly uneventful, aside from stopping at the same lean-to. The rest of the trail circles around Tully Lake and a few low mountains, stopping to admire several of the Trustees Of Reservations’ fine natural areas.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

Moss and ice at Falls Brook.

The first of these, on Friday morning with ice still forming in my water bottle, was Royalston Falls, a downright scary-looking waterfall flowing down a gorge not far from the shelter. The falls are less than a mile from the northern parking area for the Tully Trail, so they seem to be a fairly popular spot to visit. But the Tully Trail is in what may be the most remote corner of Massachusetts. Look at the area on the map, and you won’t see much of anything but forest, which is just the way I like it.

The trail continued along Falls Brook through deep, dark evergreens, until coming out onto old woods roads through more remote forests. Much of the trail for the day was re-purposed woods roads, probably from pre-19th century homesteading and logging. The trail is relatively flat compared to more mountainous regions, but the trail has its own set of challenges. As I soon discovered, several areas along the trail were partially flooded, making dry hiking nearly impossible. At 9 AM, before the crust of ice had melted from many puddles, I had to wade through ankle-deep flooding near a beaver bog. I guess it’s never too early in the season to hike with wet feet.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

From The Ledges, looking out at Tully Mountain and Tully Lake.

The next Reservation in the Trustees’ Easter basket was Jacob’s Hill, with two viewpoints across the Tully River valley, and another tall waterfall. By this point I’d hiked more than ten miles and seen not a soul, though the views from Jacob’s Hill and The Ledges looked out over miles of forest and wetland. Aside from the dam on Tully Lake, and a bench at The Ledges, there were no signs of humanity at all. This kind of wilderness isn’t something I usually imagine in Massachusetts, but if you search hard enough, you can find it.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob's Hill.

Spirit Falls coming down from Jacob’s Hill.

More woods roads eventually brought me to Tully Lake Campground, and around the lake itself. I ran into my first people of the day there, a few of the campground staff working on getting the area ready for summer crowds. The lake is surrounded by recreational opportunities, with the campground, a picnic area, and boat launches, but on a weekday before the full season begins, it was a quiet as could be. I chatted for a bit with some of the campground staff before moving along the lakeside, imagining an easy part of the walk.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

The trail around Tully Lake was a little wet.

Instead, I found that much of the lake had flooded, submerging large sections of the trail around it to near waist-depth. As my feet were just beginning to dry, I opted not to wade. Instead I had to bushwhack, road walk, and rock hop around some flooded areas. So much for easy walking.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

More flooded trail thanks to the beavers.

The last big scenery for the day came atop Tully Mountain, with a small cliff overlooking the valley below. I couldn’t quite pick out Jacob’s Hill, where I’d been earlier in the morning, but it was definitely out there. Tully Lake was easier to see, as was Monadnock, striking an imposing figure on the northern horizon. When viewed from any of the low mountains in the region, Monadnock is absolutely awe-inspiring. These mountains have a pastoral charm to them, but the rocky top standing above southwestern New Hampshire is every bit as rugged as the high peaks of the north.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

Tully Mountain, looking down at the Tully River valley.

The last ten miles of the day were quiet and uneventful, with more walks along old woods roads, gushing brooks, and forested hills. Part of this hike was meant as a wake-up call for my body as I prepare for a much longer hike in May and June. According to my GPS, the day’s tally was just over 28 miles after taking side trails and backtracking into account. I felt surprisingly good after that mileage, the longest day I’d hiked since early last summer, but I promptly fell asleep at 8 PM back at the lean-to. There were a few other people there that night, but I was out cold.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

Another gorgeous brook through deep forest.

For most people, I’d recommend doing the trip in two halves, starting from Tully Lake Campground, hiking to the Falls Brook shelter on the first day, then back to the campground on the second day, since the shelter and campsite almost perfectly split the trip into two halves.