June 11, 2019

My backpacking journey

On Mount Ruskin

I did my first backpacking back in my high school days at the age of 16 or so, maybe sometime in 1967 or so. Yes, I am an old timer and expect to be crossing the 60 year old line in several months. I have slowed down some, but am most assuredly still going.

I began with heavy leather boots, frame packs, and almost no budget. I did my first trips in the San Gabriel Mountains north of the Los Angeles area. The Sierras in California were (and still are for me) the holy grail of backpacking.

Some buddies and I got involved in a Sierra Club class they ran back then called the BMTC (basic mountaineering training course). We used the book "Freedom of the Hills" as a text, learned about rock climbing, ropes and knots, belaying, snow climbing with ice axe, self arrest, and many other things, including of course: backpacking.

After far too many cold nights freezing in a cheap sleeping bag, I made my first serious investment - a North Face down sleeping bag (an Ibex - long discontinued). My next purchases were a Kelty frame pack and a Sierra Designs tent, both excellent pieces of gear. Trips were made to the Sierra in California (Kings Canyon Park), the Grand Canyon, the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, and countless places in southern Arizona where I had moved to attend the university and where I afterwards got a job and decided to make my home.

I became quite involved in rock climbing and to a lesser extent in mountaineering. I was always carrying packs in excess of 50 pounds, and took pride in doing so. I don't think I ever weighed one of my packs. If I could get it on and manage to stand up, I would be satisfied and enjoyed my companions amazed comments about how heavy my pack was. (Yes, I look back on this as foolishness).

Somewhere in the midst of all the rock climbing, I began to seriously question why I had been taught that I needed heavy leather boots for "ankle support". I was regularly doing cross country approaches with quite heavy packs to do climbs wearing absolutely trashed running shoes - without any problems whatsoever.

In June of 2006, I went on a backpack trip to the Valley of the Gods in southeast Utah. I was carrying my usual giant heavy pack (now an internal frame Dana Designs "Astralplane") and was asking myself some serious questions about how much I was enjoying the experience. Beyond that, I was asking myself how much backpacking was going to be in my future and whether perhaps there was a better way. We met a trio from southwest Colorado who were head over heels into ultralight backpacking. Somehow, my attitude of knowing everything and having been backpacking for all these years managed to take a back seat to observing how they were doing things.

I asked a lot of questions and with their help, revised how I was doing things. I thought I had really accomplished something (weighing my pack for the first time ever) getting my pack down to 45 pounds for a week long solo backpack into the Sierra. I still was not happy (and my mentor told me that I had by no means yet found the lightweight realm, never mind the ultralight). This was the first time I had made it a goal to reduce my packweight, and the first time I had actually weighed my pack at the trailhead. I can only imagine what some of the packs I had previously carried must have weighed.

I have made a lot of progress since that first start. Now I leave the trailhead for a week with something like a 30 pound pack. I find this mildly unpleasant for the first few days and probably can do better, but once my pack is down to 25 pounds or so, I hardly notice the pack is there. I recently got sloppy and did a trip with a 34 pound pack and regretted it. This is what happens when you let down your guard and start carrying items "just in case".

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's backpacking pages / tom@mmto.org