During a trip in the Sequoia backcountry earlier this summer, I was descending from the morning’s summit when I spotted two figures prowling around our campsite below. My faint alarm turned to intrigue, however, when I realized that one of them was carrying what looked to be an inflatable kayak. Clearly, it was time to make friends.

When I arrived at camp, I laughed at the realization that I actually knew of one of the guys—it was my pal Errin, who’d huffed a six-pound Alpacka Classic several miles off-trail and up a stout 3300’ of elevation gain, almost half of that along a series of excruciatingly steep granite slabs, while testing his system for future bike-rafting adventures. I thought he was kind of a masochist for hauling all that extra weight—that is, until I started paddling the lake myself, a dopey grin spreading across my face with each stroke. It was nothing short of bliss. Maybe he was onto something.

I began to realize that I had traded the physical suffering of a heavier pack weight for the mental suffering of not having what I needed—or wanted—out there. Wasn’t this whole thing supposed to be fun?

While I haven’t abandoned solid foods or filed any toothbrushes into minty-fresh prison shivs, I have adopted a rather ultralight mindset when it comes to backpacking. I was first introduced to the concept by my buddy Justin, a gram weenie if there ever was, who, early in our friendship, explained his obsession as such: “I backpacked the JMT four years ago with a 45-pound pack and it was the turning point for replacing virtually all of my gear with ultralight gear. My legs almost filed a restraining order against me after that trip.”


To illustrate his methodology, Justin emailed me a maniacally detailed spreadsheet that included stats not just for big-ticket items like his tent and sleeping bag, but also for much smaller things like a singular packet of hydrocortisone (1.5g), a pair of earplugs (2.3g), and five individual cotton swabs (2.0g—really, I think he could have pared down here). He even weighed his contact lenses, for crying out loud.

I was both impressed and slightly freaked out by his dedication, but remained somewhat resistant to the idea of paring down myself—I wasn’t trying to break any records out there; I just wanted to have fun. However, as I began logging bigger miles in pursuit of longer trails, I started to understand the merits of going lighter. Considering it a career investment of sorts, I used a good chunk of my book advance for a hiking guide to upgrade to a sleeping quilt, an ultralight tent, and a more streamlined mess kit. I swapped my roomy low-top boots for trail runners. I snapped up a cheap dehydrator and began filling my pantry with all manner of dried and powdered foods. And then I painfully banished all of my “luxury” items to Car Camping Only status: Deodorant. Books. Playing cards. Inflatable pillow. Hawaiian sarong. Industrial-sized packets of Swedish Fish.

Delicious, but not at all ultralight.

In the span of a few months, I had come just short of kneeling at the altar of ultralight guru Ray Jardine, stopped only by the fact that I am horribly ungifted in the ways of needle and thread and could never have constructed my own trailworthy pack or tent based on his iconic designs. Still, the results (and money spent) were worth it, I thought. My backpack was lighter. Packing itself was a simpler affair. I was thinking less about gear (now that I’d chucked half of it toward the dark recesses of my closet). And of course, I felt slightly less burdened as I moved down the trail.

But there were downsides, too.

I decided to forego my stove on the Pacific Crest Trail in lieu of cold-soaking my food; it saved weight, sure, but as it turns out, eating cold macaroni and cheese can really deplete your stoke. On the Colorado Trail, I thought I was being slick by hiking in a pair of running shorts and sleeping in an extremely thin pair of wool tights; a brisk, hail-filled monsoon season suggested otherwise, and I ended up shelling out $80 for a pair of thicker leggings, since my own were tucked in a drawer several states over.

Then there was the time my water filter broke and I didn’t have any sort of backup because I was trying to cut weight on a short, but tough trip. And the time I was damp for days slogging through miles of stubborn late-season snow, because I refused to carry extra pants or socks (I did have whiskey, though). Oh, and the time I slimmed my first aid kit down so desperately that a relentless bout of backcountry runs went unchecked for days because all of my anti-diarrheal medicine was still stowed in the medicine cabinet.

I began to realize that I had traded the physical suffering of a heavier pack weight for the mental suffering of not having what I needed—or wanted—out there. Wasn’t this whole thing supposed to be fun?


Wanna bring a raft? Bring a raft. Who cares what it weighs?

As the ultralight haze slowly dissipated, I began tossing previously banished items back into my pack. I devoured John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley on the PCT and Blair Braverman’s Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube on the CT. I lugged cans of beer and slabs of cheese into the backcountry with a group of girlfriends who believe that the joy of breaking bread is more important than saving a few aches and pains en route. I started bringing a lightweight bocce ball set when in a group; playing has never failed to provide laughter and memories. Same goes for a set of handmade playing cards, crafted by a friend in her tent while we waited out an hours-long afternoon thunderstorm in the Rockies. And a few months back, I began carrying a set of watercolors and a notepad upon which I paint terribly mediocre, but awfully satisfying scenes that remind me of the special places I’ve been.

I learned a lot from my ultralight attempts: to live with less, to be creative with my gear, to be in the moment. And the practice certainly influenced my desire to go full Konmari on my apartment—and in a way, my life, prompting me to ponder the question: What do we really need out there, or anywhere?

But I also learned that it’s not always what you carry on trail; it’s often what you carry away from the trail that truly matters. Memories. The way you change as a person. The people you meet—and the things you share with them. Like a ferocious game of elimination bocce, played beneath peaks draped in alpenglow. Or a hunk of sharp cheddar passed between friends curled up around a campfire. Or maybe even a surprise paddle around an alpine lake.

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