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.

Packs:

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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Comments 12

  • jim : Jun 17th

    I am planning a thru-hike attempt, and have been looking for information like this. Why, because I have a 3lb pack vs a 6lb pack, and just due to the construction differences of the two packs, it is a totally different experience. I don’t have not completely bought in to the “lighter is better” idea. One is for hiking, and the other is for hauling out 80lbs of meat, plus gear. I can place the same 30lbs in both packs, and have completely different experiences. Weight distribution is night and day, and I’m of the belief that using my entire body structure is of benefit.

    The analogy I use this; it’s like driving 8 hours straight in a little fuel-efficient tin-can car or a big luxury sedan. While both will get you there, which one will get you there without wearing you out?

    I am glad you wrote about this. It provides good food for thought!!!

    Good luck on your hike!!

    Reply
    • Joseph Hey : Jun 17th

      Thanks Jim. I believe lighter isn’t always better, and think as long as you don’t pack dead weight you should be fine. If you don’t use it don’t carry it, is my philosophy. I think the 3ld pack should be fine. The pack I switched to weighed 3lds compared to the 1.5ld Osprey. But if you have bad shoulders like I do, or back pain, more stability is always good.

      Good luck with your thr-hike.

      Reply
  • Jon : Jun 17th

    My skin-out weight is sub 25, and I pack rain gear (ok just a shell), a pillow (shut up. It’s awesome), and a full-length insulated inflatable pad…oh and my pack has a hip belt with giant pockets…I think you might’ve gone “stupid light” as some would say.

    Reply
    • Joseph Hey : Jun 18th

      Nice, good job. I wouldn’t say I was stupid light I had every thing I needed. There are full size mattresses that would have packed down smaller than my Z-lite, I chose the Z-lite because one it was cheap, and two, so I didn’t have to worry about repairing leaks.

      Reply
  • Dylan : Jun 19th

    I’d disagree with you about the comfort aspect of it in general. My base weight hovers in between 8-9 lb for most of the year. I exclusively use a hammock and tarp w/ doors for a shelter, and I have a bug net that completely wraps around my hammock that also weighs 5 oz. If I even suspect the temperatures will be chilly, I pack some extra insulation. I use a silnylon rain jacket and cuben rain skirt for rain gear, and never ever leave them at home (had some experiences with hypothermia, not fun). I also use a frameless pack, and as long as I pack it right, I don’t have discomfort with it even with doing long miles. Not trying to start an argument here, just stating my experiences as they relate to yours. I’m glad to see that you figured your gear out and did what was comfortable to you. At the end of the day if I had to choose between comfort and weight savings, I would more than likely go with comfort. I could go much lighter, but I would sacrifice a lot of comfort. As far as hiking goes, I like to push myself and crush out miles, and even at my fast pace I still have time to take in views. Good luck with your hiking bud.

    Reply
  • LongShanks : Jun 20th

    I’m 6’2″ and 200+ lbs. my version of ultra lite is 20 lbs. I use an Osprey 38 in summer and the Osprey 58 in early spring or late fall. Multi day weight, food and water included, 30lbs. I don’t even feel the pack on my back at the end of a 20 mile day.
    To each his own but I find it a little ridiculous when the ultra light community constantly talks about getting base weight to 7-8lbs.
    Pack weight, base and fully loaded, really depends on you height, weight, and physical fitness.

    Reply
  • Mark Stanavage : Jun 20th

    Given the choice between miles or smiles, I will choose smiles every time. I understand the satisfaction some get from it and I keep weight on the back of my mind when making purchases. Some would say I carry too much, but I am happy and that makes all the difference.

    Reply
  • Katherine : Jun 20th

    Carefully with the “lightweight” pack label. Some have frames and some don’t. I couldn’t go entirely frameless, but my ULA Ohm put most — if not all — of the weight on my hips.

    There’s a continuum. I’m currently swinging toward more — but a few small adds can go a long way on safety/comfort.

    Reply
  • Macho Man Randy Savage : Jun 23rd

    You tried to hike without rain gear yet you carried a machete and a bible????? And you are confused as to why things went badly?

    This is a very poorly written article from an author who seems very confused and ignorant. I now think less of thetrek.co for having wasted my time reading this.

    Reply
  • nuuup : Jun 23rd

    probably should go right to a thru hike with brand new UL gear. it takes a good bit of testing to find out what works for you and theres definitely bad UL gear.

    blaming it on the UL stuff though is just.. the whole usual thing people do with everything in life these day – never their fault. well news flash, its your fault.

    Reply
  • boop : Jun 23rd

    Ya done been called out – https://www.reddit.com/r/Ultralight/comments/6j4x1i/something_isnt_quite_right_with_this/

    Reply
  • Mitch : Jun 24th

    “Going light means sacrificing extra clothing and rain gear is a good place to start.”

    No. Rain gear is a terrible place to start, and replacing rain gear with a multi-use poncho is something only the most hardcore ultralighters do. The fact that you went to that extreme and still ended up with a 25 lb pack tells me you made some very strange decisions.

    “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.”

    That’s a ridiculous conclusion to make from a single poorly-researched attempt at UL. My JMT loadout included a proper rain shell, a supportive pack that fit me (yours clearly did not), and a comfy inflatable pad. Fully loaded with water and four days of food, I never exceeded 22 lbs.

    Reply

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