The Pains of Hiking Lite
The straps of my 46L pack dug deep, red, pressure marks in my shoulders.
None of the 20-25lb loads stored in the nearly frameless pack, (a now-discontinued Osprey Hornet) was supported at my hips. The hip belt was merely two pockets clipped together.
Every three miles, my left shoulder twitched with sharp pains like an alarm’s signal. (I had rotator cuff surgery on this shoulder.) At first I would fight the pain and not stop, but eventually I listened to the pain, and three miles became the limit to my consecutive steps hiking.
When rain hit I got wet. Going light means sacrificing extra clothing and rain gear is a good place to start. All I used was a Z-Packs poncho that doubled as a ground cloth. I had to hike fast in cold rains to keep my core temperature up.
At the end of my long days, either wet or dry, my feet would pulse after ramming into the ground for long miles. When soaked they were extra tender.
My torso down to my knees got the padding of my small, closed-cell sleeping pad. As for my sore feet, they pressed against the wood shelter floor. Pressure pains built off their own weight, so I turned them throughout the night for relief. Placing my empty pack under them did little, and sometimes made the situation worse when they lay on a clip or zipper.
There are tradeoffs for UL equipment.
Pack size, padding, support, pockets, and zippers are minimal. The fabric is lighter, as well in clothing, footwear, and shelters. With lighter fabrics comes integrity issues that increase the responsibility of the hiker to maintain his equipment even when dead tired at the end of long miles.
To me, long-mile days are the goal of UL backpacking, and what attracted me to the idea of carrying a 25-pound pack. But is it worth going 25 plus miles regularly?
How much do you weigh?
I weighed 205 pounds, mostly muscle, when starting the AT. For every mile my phone’s pedometer said I took roughly 3,000 step. (I don’t think this was entirely accurate.) At the end of a 25-mile day, that is 75,000 steps. 75,000 times the balls of my feet took the impact of 205 pounds, plus the weight of my pack.
By the end of the day my feet were pulp.
Strength wise, your muscle can handle the miles with UL gear. But the impact of long miles can cause substantial pain to the feet.
Most ultra-lite packs do not offer tremendous support. Their small size also does not distribute the weight in the most comfortable way. This can make your stride off-balance, with the majority of the load resting on your shoulders. For me, this caused much discomfort and resulted in more frequent stops.
Shelter and Sleeping:
Resting is likely 8-12 hours of your day. With the most extreme UL backpacking, hikers sleep under the stars or exclusively in shelters. If you pack your own shelter, it will be at most a tarp that sets up with your hiking poles. There is no room for the volume of a full tent or poles in an ultralight pack, and I used a Kelty Upslope Tarp in mine.
Tarps and three-sided trail shelters offer no relief from insects. To find relief you either pack yourself tight into your mummy bag, (or my case a Big Agnes Kings Canyon UL Quilt,) or apply a healthy amount of DEET. I chose DEET on warm nights.
Closed-cell sleeping pads are surprisingly comfortable if they fit your body head to toe. To shed bulk and weight, I took the advice to get a size small Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite, which meant my tenderized feet rested on the hard surface of AT shelters. I never considered that just their weight could cause so much discomfort.
These are the pains and tradeoffs of light-weight gear, and there is nothing much that can be done about them besides endure and accept.
I did not. Instead I traded my 46L Osprey to a heavier constructed 40+10L Deuter pack that had a thick hip belt and wider shoulder straps. I started carrying a 35-pound load, (an extra set of clothes and more food from towns,) and thanks to the longer construction and the previous mentioned my 35 pounds felt better than the 25.
By no means am I dissing UL gear or the companies that make it. This gear is some of the most thought out and well-engineered products on the market. But it is not for everyone, and I’ve seen too many try to push it on new hikers who are putting together their gear for their first backpacking trip.
UL gear is for the purpose of long miles. Not as much to enjoy trail life. I think this should be the goal of all new thru-hikers. Don’t limit your comfort to climb faster, or go longer. Instead go steady and arrive at camp and enjoy the company of trail friends. Don’t crash into an ill-fitted mattress and restlessly sleep through the night.
There are better ways to shed weight than replacing standard equipment with UL gear. Besides food, tarp, quilt, sleeping pad, JetBoil, Sawyer Squeeze, clothes, headlamp I didn’t carry much else. Just a hard box to carry a small first aid kit, cell phone, Goal Zero external battery, meds, and some camp shoes. The only items I carried that could have been considered dead weight were a machete, a small Bible, and journal. But I used each of these items to justify their inclusion.
Remember that all you need to survive is food, shelter, and water… then go from there in deciding what else to pack.
For those who want the challenge and crave the miles? Go ahead and fill the burn. As much as it wasn’t the right choice for me, it is a rewarding experience to go lite and thrive on the bare minimum.
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