“Toothpaste?” I said to my girlfriend as we ran our own orbits around the rainbow-colored pile of gear in our cramped apartment, pre-packing for a seven-day backpacking trip. “No way I’m taking toothpaste. I can live without minty fresh breath for a few days. That’s just dead weight.”

Then I packed a DSLR with two lenses, two extra batteries, a remote (which we never used), and a tripod, the total weight of which I didn’t calculate, but you can bet it was at least 100 times the weight of a travel-size tube of toothpaste (which might have been nice).

This is the moment of shame, and we’ve all been there, whether we acknowledge it or not. You would like to think of yourself as a purist, an expert on ultralight backpacking or fastpacking or just fitting everything inside your pack. You are sawing the handle off your toothbrush. You are calculating calories per ounce of certain foods to determine which will be the most effective for your trip. You are hanging your packed pack from a luggage scale, then rubbing your chin. You are cutting extra straps off, removing zipper pulls, doing everything you can to cut your pack weight.


Then you throw a flask of whiskey in the top of the pack (what are we, savages?). Or an Aeropress (am I supposed to sacrifice everything, including good coffee?). Or a book (what if I get bored?). In that second, you go from the disciplined shaving of every possible ounce to rashly rationalizing the items that you think will bring you joy, no matter what the weight cost. You are not immune. But you are not alone.

Do you scrutinize other people’s backpacks out there? OMG, I can’t believe you brought that heavy-ass, cushy, very comfortable pack for a three-day hike. I would never do that. But I brought a pair of flip flops to wear around camp in the evenings. Whoa, Nalgene bottles? Those things weigh six ounces-when they’re empty. That’s why I always carry re-purposed plastic soda bottles.But don’t ask me about the 667-page paperback copy of Moby Dick shoved into the top pocket.

Everyone, from newbies to thru-hiking ninjas on Day 100 of their PCT trek, has this issue, whether glaringly obvious or sneaked somewhere into our packs. It may weigh a pound, or just three ounces. This item, whatever it is for you, whether you’ve told someone about it or not, is your Backpack Mulligan.


You have discipline, but not quite enough. You are human, just like the rest of us, with our superfluous bottles of olive oil, multiple beers (just for the first evening!), pillows, our toothpaste, strings of AAA-powered lights we like to hang in the tent, or our ridiculous coffee-making apparatus that we just can’t bear to leave at home.

Everyone gets one Backpack Mulligan per trip. Some people’s packs contain a half-dozen (and those people are usually comfortable walking much more slowly). You may know what yours is right now, or you may not realize it until you throw it in at the last second before cinching your pack shut. The important thing is to realize that you are no holier than anyone else, no matter how ridiculous their mulligan is.

You are thrifty with weight, you are smart when you pack, but when the cold, hard, results of the x-ray examination of your pack see the light of day, you’re no better than anyone else. Admit it, embrace it, and maybe even tell your friend at the start of the trip. “You might think this is silly, but I really love whiskey/taking photos of the tent lit up/time lapse photography/this stuffed Muppet I’ve had since I was nine years old/whatever.” Or even better, “You might think this is silly, but I’m bringing this half of a cherry pie up there-and I’ll split it with you. Trust me, it’s worth it.”

Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.

Photo by Karin.

Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.


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Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.