Ultralightweight gear puts bounce in backpackers' stride
When Demetri Coupounas came bounding out of the Vermont woods earlier this month, he knew exactly how long it had taken him to hike the 280-mile Long Trail solo: 12 days, 19 hours, 53 minutes.Skip to next paragraph
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But more remarkable than Mr. Coupounas's brisk pace was the lightness of the "base load" he carried on his back - just 13 pounds of gear, weighing about as much as a bag of groceries.
"Most people didn't believe I could go the whole way without resupplying," he says. "I wanted to prove those doubters wrong."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, on the same afternoon Coupounas exited the New England wilderness, Ryan Jordan was standing at a different trailhead in the northern Rockies with 12 pounds of gear on his back, not including food.
Embarking upon what he called a "leisurely" weekend getaway, family-man Jordan began a round trip jaunt 80 miles into the remotest corner of Yellowstone National Park.
Coupounas and Jordan, regarded as the "wizards of ultralight backpacking," are leading a revolution that strips conventional hiking down to its sparest essentials, enabling adherents to go further, faster, and reportedly with more joy in their stride than their modern counterparts.
Although once considered the domain of fanatics who resorted to extreme measures - including rationing toilet paper down to individual sheets and cutting the caps off tubes of toothpaste - the light backpacking movement is now creating a buzz even among mainstream trekkers.
"As a mother of two young children, lightweight backpacking has huge appeal for our family and holds the promise of making the outdoors accessible again," says Bridget Cavanaugh, a working mom in Bozeman - the cultural capital of lightweight backpacking. Cavanaugh had given up hope of getting out with the kids but she's overcome the obstacles.
The trend toward light backpacking isn't only appealing to those who live to hike into the woods, it's also drawing in new adventurers, and even convincing those who struggled with the sport to try again. Now with lighter burdens, more backpackers are discovering the thrill of being surrounded by wilderness - while others are finding they can go further and faster than they had thought possible.
For instance, two hikers, Sarah Janes and Nate Oliver, made headlines this week when they completed the first known continuous trek along the 1,800-mile West Coast Trail. While they may not have been lightweight practitioners in the hard-core sense, their trip does speak to the growing fascination for people who want to travel longer distances along famous trails like the Appalachian or the Continental Divide, especially during warm weather months.
But while light backpacking holds the promise of exposing more people to breathtaking vistas, critics caution that it also exposes novice hikers to the risks of facing the elements without enough equipment. Yet trading in creature comforts for lightness of foot seems a risk that more are willing to take.
The lightweight philosophy, coupled with innovations in technology that transforms sleeping bags and tents into items weighing ounces rather than pounds, can easily cut the heft of a camper's gear load in half from 40 pounds to 20, Jordan says.
More radical reductions can be achieved by doing what he and Coupounas do: Using the same clothes they wear as a sleeping bag, turning rain ponchos into tents, and cooking food with a super light and efficient alcohol stove.