When we happened upon him, he was face down, spread-eagle on the edge of a marshy meadow. The worn soles of his untied sneakers stared into the cloudless sky, and an energy bar wrapper fluttered halfway out of his pocket. A pack was sprawled across the trail, barely visible beneath the cornucopia of cooking pots, fishing tackle, and sleeping gear that had been strapped to the outside.
“Hey, man. You OK?”
He stuck out an arm and struggled to lever himself into a sitting position. “No. Are we close to the lake?”
The trailhead was about a mile back, and the lake was another six miles ahead of us.
“Um. No, not really,” I grimaced. “You’ve got it, though, the beginning is the steepest part.”
He grunted, rolled back onto his stomach, and buried his face in a small tussock. “I can’t carry it,” he moaned. “I can’t do it.”
We assured him that he could definitely probably maybe do it, and that the lake was worth the effort. He made the effort to get this far, so why give up when you can still see the car?
This poor guy was a sweating and wheezing personification of the oldest question in backpacking: to get to camp quickly and easily, or to live like a king when you get there?
It’s a question that hasn’t gotten any less contentious with time, and everyone has an opinion. Excepting extreme circumstances like long through hikes, alpine climbs, or winter camping, no one’s way of packing is really right or wrong, so don’t let anyone convince you that they’re the sole authority on the matter. Figure out what works for you, plan your days accordingly, and everything’ll be golden. That being said, there are (generally speaking) three schools of packing thought.
School number one maintains that carrying anything more than the essentials is a waste of effort. For an Ultralighter, the point of being in the backcountry is to move quickly and go places that you couldn’t if you were weighed down by lots of gear. If you want to check off 40 miles of ridgeline scrambling in two days, going ultralight is probably for you. If you’d rather post up next to a lake in your collapsible chair, reading a hardcover while you wait for your no-bake cheesecake to solidify, it probably isn’t.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find the school number two, also known as the Luxuriators. Represented partially by our heavily laden and aforementioned pal, Luxuriators operate on the principle that being in the backcountry doesn’t mean giving up the creature comforts of civilization. A cooler? Sure, it’ll keep the steaks cold! How about this full-sized cot? Well, I didn’t come all this way to sleep on the ground! For a Luxuriator, backpacking is meant to be relaxing, not character building; it’s all about setting yourself up to enjoy a beautiful place in comfort, not coming home with stories about how you ran out of food and almost died.
“This poor guy was a sweating and wheezing personification of the oldest question in backpacking: to get to camp quickly and easily, or to live like a king when you get there?”
And somewhere in the middle of all this, between bare bones and luxury, is school number three: the Regulators. Regulators prefer to be warm, dry, and well-fed, but also like to put in some real miles between the trailhead and campsite. A Regulator might bring a two-person tent and eat a dehydrated dinner, or hike in trail runners but carry a pair of flip-flops as comfy camp shoes. They eschew the minimalism of Ultralighters, firmly believing that a sleeping pad is worth its weight in gold (thank you very much) but compromise on luxury to make long days more achievable.
Regardless of your backpacking style, it’s important to you know what you’re getting yourself into and to plan accordingly. For example, if you’re saving weight by forgoing a shelter, you’ll want to be pretty sure that it’s not going to snow. Or, on the other hand, if you’re set on bringing that portable generator, it’s probably wise not to pencil any 15-mile days into your itinerary.
Though, don’t forget that being over-packed but under-prepared is a real thing, too. Bring gear that’s actually useful for the place (you’re visiting) and the season, even if you’re three miles away from the car. As we all know, a cast iron dutch oven is cool, but not when it comes at the cost of a warm sleeping bag.
So, plan well and know what you’re getting into, and in turn you can dial in the perfect combination of comfort, preparedness, and weight. When you’ve figured out what works for you, all you’ve gotta do is pick a place, pack up, and get out there.