lightweight hiking

All posts tagged lightweight hiking

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.

After a day off in Roanoke, I was doing much better than when I’d arrived. My aching and blistered feet were well rested. I had a new pair of sneakers, purchased at the wonderful Walkabout Outfitters (whose manager had driven all the way to Harrisonburg to fetch the right sized sneakers for me, which is pretty amazing). I’d filled myself up with good southern food, loaded my pack with six days worth of trail food, and hit the trail once again. The humidity and awful heat of the previous days was now down to a very manageable level, and I was feeling good.


I was now in the section of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a few long climbs up to the ridge before walking easily alongside the road. This is a funny section of trail, since many of the best views are roadside pullouts on the parkway, but I’ve also found plenty of gorgeous mountaintops when the trail wanders away from the road. The first few days, though, I could safely tune out while in the woods, then get the views when I got near the road. That’s kind of unusual for the AT, but it’s a nice that this section has some kind of local flavor.


With my new feet and my new plan to cut my hike short at Harper’s Ferry, I was back to enjoying the trail and just relaxing, even as I averaged about 22 miles a day. I would get up early each morning, walk all day, and arrive in camp around 7 with plenty of daylight hours to rest before bed. I mostly met new groups of hikers each day, since many of the through-hikers seem to be going a little slower at this point. This surprised me a bit, but it has allowed me to meet a lot of new people, most of whom are pretty awesome. Halfway through this stretch of trail I met No Plan B and Torch, a father and son duo who were hiking together until NPB injured his foot, so now he’s driving up the trail providing road support for Torch. They’ve both been using the AT Hiker app extensively, and made me really happy when they told me how useful it has been for them. Check out their website sometime– they’re raising money to build a veterans’ rehab center, and they’re super dedicated to the cause as well as the hike.


My plan for this 150 mile stretch of trail was to stay in the woods for six days and have the full wilderness experience. Things didn’t quite work out that way, though. After three days, I realized I wasn’t feeling very connected to the trail, partly because of the number of people I was running into. Last year, while mapping much of the northern section of the AT, I was alone most of the time and really enjoying it. This time, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being out there, but the connection to the trail wasn’t so strong. I decided I might as well head into town on the fourth night for some burgers and extra snacks. The decision was made a little easier since my food bag was looking just a tiny bit light for the next few days. I made a last minute decision to go into the town of Buena Vista, and arrived at the road to town after all of the day’s traffic had stopped heading over the pass. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought. After half an hour at the road with almost no traffic for hitching, though, the trail provided. A carload of hikers arrived from town to start hiking out at night, and there was my ride into town. It was too late to get a spot at the hostel, but No Plan B and Torch had a campsite at the town park with extra space, so everything worked out just fine. I got my burgers, then a big breakfast in the morning, and an earlier than expected ride back to the trail, and all was well. The only real backfire of the plan was that with all the town food now in my belly, my food bag had a little too much food. I’d been hoping to walk into Waynesboro with an empty pack. Oh well. Sometimes when things don’t go according to plan, they work out better than anticipated anyway.


The last few days to Waynesboro were smooth sailing over some of the last big climbs in the south. The Priest, Cold Mountain, and Three Ridges seemed daunting to everyone out here, but a little time and a lot of sweat were rewarded with much nicer views than I remembered from my last time here. The temperatures fell steadily as well, making the hiking more pleasant. In the last few miles to the town of Waynesboro, the foliage and undergrowth got thicker and thicker, cutting down on the views, but the surroundings still overwhelmed my senses– the sounds of songbirds singing were louder than ever, and the smell of flowering plants was so thick it seemed like walking through a bouquet.


The final leg of this trip will take me through Shenandoah National Park, and then to the town of Harper’s Ferry, home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The terrain is supposedly much easier in the park than elsewhere in Virginia, and with my feet feeling better than ever I could probably be done in less than a week. I’m planning a few extra days, though, just in case I find some interesting side trails or people to spend the last few hiking days with. As eager as I am to get home, I can always spend a day or two more on the trail.