Ultralightweight gear puts bounce in backpackers' stride

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

"People keep telling me that what I'm doing is fringe, that I'm insane and playing with trouble," Coupounas says. "My response is that there are several natural forces in the universe and one of them is gravity which isn't going away. The only way you can defy gravity is by going lighter."

At the recent Outdoor Retailer's convention, held each summer in Salt Lake City, talk among manufacturers focused on how lightweight products were bucking market trends.

Over the past six years, studies show that the number of regular backpackers - once pegged at about 2 million - has decreased by 20 percent. During the same period, the number of those individuals who engage in lightweight backpacking - about 360,000 - has increased 350 percent. About 10 percent of lightweight hikers spend, on average $1,000, to acquire new lightweight necessities, with even novice hikers are asking for cutting edge products.

Jordan publishes an electronic magazine, www.backpackinglight.com, and says the number of new subscribers is doubling every six months. His own "awakening," he says, started in the 1990s when he was an expedition leader for Boy Scout trips in Washington State.

"I noticed how the grueling loads were taking a toll on the scouts' enthusiasm for being in the great outdoors," he says. "The kids weren't having fun."

At first, his experimentation with lightening loads was considered heresy because it contradicted the fail-safe methods of redundancy - carrying extra sets of dry clothing, a thick sleeping bag, a thick tent - taught in the scouting handbook. But then he took out a group of scoutmasters and won them over.

Critics say the movement is potentially dangerous because its preaching may result in some people going into the wilderness unprepared. "I know ultra-light backpacking is seductive, but please be careful," warned Helena, Mont., trail-guide publisher Bill Schneider. "It can kill you."

Jordan, who field-tests gear in the worst of weather conditions, admits that he has sometimes courted the edge of peril, if not serious physical discomfort.

Coupounas says hikers are tired of being chronically weighted down. The trend in shedding is visible at Neels Gap, Ga., a legendary resupply point 30 miles up from the start of the Appalachian Trail. Hikers have been dumping - not adding gear - in recent years. More than 8,000 pounds of clothing, cooking, and camping supplies was mailed home last year from the local Neels Gap post office.

Along with his wife, Kim, Coupounas founded a company called GoLite, headquartered in Boulder, Colo., and their sights are set on trying to capture a bigger slice of the estimated $5 billion retail-gear marketing pie.

Kim Coupounas notes that with America in the midst of an obesity crisis, lightweight products, whether for hiking, biking, or trail running, help encourage more people to stay physically fit.

"Lightweight has clearly entered the consciousness of the common backpacker," says Matt Colon, a recent convert. Mr. Colon, a lawyer by profession and a recent private school teacher in Massachusetts, was so smitten by the newfound pleasure of going light - and reaching places he never thought possible - that he quit his job, moved West, and became general manager of the Bozeman-based webstore, www.prolitegear.com.

"This is a revolution that's changing people's lives," he says. "The folks who grew up backpacking during the 1960s and 1970s, but gave it up because it was too much work, are coming back."

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