Ultralight Gear Won't Get You to Canada
I will be amending this post after my hike and I look forward to some head shaking at my own inexperience, but this isn’t a post about gear, it’s a post about perspective. I am not a doctor, nor an experienced long distance hiker, but I have lived in the Wilderness for the last 5 years, where I do a fair bit of hiking and watch 20 people juggle their own gear successes and failures every season. Without fail I have learned the same lesson: the stories we tell ourselves determine our future.
Warren Doyle said, famously, “Your pack weight will be directly proportional to the sum of your fears,” and I tend to agree with a man with a 36,000 mile resume. But fear hides inside most of us, and it manifests itself in ways we don’t always notice. Some thru-hikers carry teddy bears or books, and others dehydrate toothpaste and spend $700 on 14 ounces of mesh and cuben fiber. I see fear in both these choices, and while reading thru-hiking blogs and counting the weight of my gear to the quarter ounce, I realized that I was shaving ounces because it’s the one thing I could control in a situation that's in many ways frightening.
Fear of failure is what causes a lot of people to cut toothbrushes in half. I know it’s what motivated many of my gear choices, even when I know that adding $200 to drop 4 ounces won’t buy me a completed thru-hike. Good, expensive, comfortable gear will without question help you hike 2,659 miles, but so will tenacity, self-confidence, and the ability to tolerate suffering. I have lived in a tent in the Wilderness for 75% of the last 5 years. Good gear has saved my life, bad gear has made me miserable, and I have beaten the shit out of countless backpacks, hiking boots, tents, and sleeping bags, most of them midweight, some of them ultralight, and all of them subjected to months of constant use. I’ve never hiked more than 800 miles in 6 months, but I did once hike 800 miles in 6 months while swinging a pick and moving boulders for 40 hours of each week.
I was terrified entering my first traiI season and my gear was was my insurance policy. It was the thing I could obsess over to set myself up for the most success. I spent $2k on the best gear I could find, and amidst trips to REI to find the perfect stuff sacks to organize everything into my perfect, overstuffed pack, I realized that gear wasn’t going to save me. The realization that you are responsible for your own success and failure is a hard one, as is confronting your powerlessness to control the future. There will be sections of the trail this year that present incredible challenges that require expensive, life-saving gear, and no amount of moxie will make up for an ice axe or crampons when you need them. But no amount of money will buy you an express ticket to Canada, and a $300 bear canister is not going to save you from going crazy when the air is thick with mosquitos or when your feet are wet every single day for weeks. I have experienced both of those things working in the backcountry, and I was grateful then for the gear that served me well despite my general discomfort, but $300 wet boots are still wet boots.
I often ask myself how much an ounce is worth. There is a price on every ounce of gear in your pack, both literally and figuratively, and it is tempting to spend $200 to cut a few ounces of weight when you’re in the process of spending thousands. Some people pay a premium for ultralight gear and still end up weighed down with kindles and cameras and travel pillows. It’s obviously easier and cheaper to cut weight by removing the number of items in your pack than it is to buy the lightest gear available, but that's a much less satisfying solution. I say this as someone who appreciates the sheer joy of owning an expensive, well-designed piece of gear, and as someone who is packing a camera and tripod and cigarettes. We all want the best that life has to offer, even when it comes to the trowels we use to dig our cat holes, but sometimes the best is what you can comfortably afford.
You can’t buy success, but you can improve your odds. The human body is a resilient, magical bag of bones, and carrying lots of weight makes it function less effectively. If you are reading this you have probably already read horror stories about carrying too much weight for too many miles. Shin splints, sprained ankles, torn ACLs, and pinched nerves can end a thru-hike, and long term stress on your body will eventually come back to haunt you. Ask a trail worker, their backs and knees creak with stories of the many things they have carried. You are more apt to be injured the more weight that you carry. This is irrefutable fact and no amount of positive thinking will change it, but it's just one part of a long story about the human race and the human body.
Human beings evolved to survive in the Wilderness. We did it with loincloths and wooden spears, and then canvas tents and leather boots, and more recently with external frame packs and heavy Gor-Tex jackets. Your body was carefully crafted from the best attributes of your long dead ancestors, and your DNA tells the story of the human capacity to thrive in the wild. You are born of the best runners, fighters, hunters, and survivors of the human race, and your blood runs thick with potential.
Our soldiers haul 100 pound packs across the desert while wearing full uniforms and clunky armor, and they pay for this with hours spent training to be strong enough to cope. You can lighten your load by cutting weight, but you can also "lighten" it by being strong, flexible, and fit enough to wield weight more comfortably. If ultralight gear isn’t something you can afford, consider spending more time training with the gear you can afford. My pack always feels lighter after a season of adjusting to its weight, and all the pizza I ate this winter will hurt me more this summer than the 2 pounds of weight I’m trying to eliminate from my pack.
Do not let having “bad" gear ruin a good hike. I know that when I started researching the PCT it seemed like I had to spend $600 on a Zpacks Hexamid Solo and $500 on a down quilt because that’s what people who hike the PCT do. I compiled a list of what makes up a thru-hiker uniform, and I thought that I needed that uniform to succeed. I without question wanted to fit in and be taken seriously by other hikers, and thru-hiker culture puts a huge emphasis on carrying a light pack. Your base weight speaks to your knowledge and dedication, and I very much wanted to convince myself that I had the knowledge and dedication to thru-hike successfully.
Every single American is a public lands owner with the right to access our collective backyard, and there is joy and pride in inviting over our foreign friends so that they too can appreciate the wonders of the American wild. Do not confuse owning things with belonging to a community or with being capable, and do not sacrifice your financial security to conform to a standard set by other hikers. Hike your own hike, even before your feet touch trail, and do not let other people spend your money for you. Remember that no one needs to own anything to belong in the Wilderness, besides a body and a good measure of desire. Your body was designed to climb mountains and cross rivers, and it’s been restless as you’ve trained it to sit in front of a computer and wait in line at the bank. The potential to hike 2,659 miles lies inside of you, and no amount of money will replace the spark of courage that brought you to the decision to hike, or the incredible, completely free, irreplaceable piece of gear which is your own body. Enjoy its utility, treat it with kindness, and thank it for helping you.
I will be hiking with about 15 pounds of gear, some ultralight and carefully chosen, some cheap or already paid for. I have no doubt I will spend miles hating each and every last quarter ounce. I am meticulous and curious, and so I have weighed each item in my pack, but I no longer doubt my ability to hike 2,659 miles because of things like the weight of my socks or headlamp, and you shouldn’t either. For those of you hiking on the cheap with less than ideal gear, I salute you. You and I are hiking the same trail, but your hike will be more difficult in some ways, and your ability to transform your experience will be greater. I hope your hardship is not so much that it subtracts from your experience, and I hope you finish proud of everything you accomplished. Thru-hiking with a heavy pack says a lot about the strength of your mind and body, and I hope you take good care of both.