The Backpacker Who Carries Too Much

We’re starting to dust off backpacks and tents this first week of spring, and somehow we’ve already packed too much gear even though we haven’t even gone anywhere yet. Made us think of this classic. – Ed.

We must call him Jeffrey. Not Jeff. Not Jay. And certainly not “Turd Head,” which was the nickname we’d given him. Jeffrey was his name. He insisted on it.

Every day at six in the morning Jeffrey would rise from his tent and stride through camp wearing-and I’m not making this up-red and white-striped silk pajamas. He also carried a Dopp kit the size of a German shepherd, and he’d march off through the woods, dragging the kit, in search of water and some quality time with whatever ointments and potions he’d brought.

The rest of us would blearily stare at him from our sleeping bags, where we were happily fermenting in the same clothes we’d been wearing for weeks. Who brought silk pajamas into the Sierra? Who, aside from Hugh Hefner, even owned silk pajamas? And personal grooming? We all brought toothbrushes on our annual two-week sojourn into the Stanislaus National Forest, but none of us would stoop to actually using the thing for anything other than cleaning out a trout we’d just gutted.

I would have forgotten Jeffrey the way I’ve forgotten the other 60 or 70 members of Boy Scout Troop 242 if it weren’t for this one fact: I swore that no matter what happened, I’d never grow up to be like him. I’d never be the dude who stuffed his backpack with grooming gear, a hot-milk frother, and a full-size backgammon set. It would be frivolous, unmanly, and just plain wrong.

Everything is so very clear when you’re 12. Life, however, has a way of making fools of 12-year-olds.

Oof. Photo: Justin Housman

For the record, I’ve never toted a milk frother into the backcountry and I don’t even know how to play backgammon. But who wouldn’t bring a pair of clean underwear for every single day on the trail? And not just one, but two wet-weather outer layers? You need a compass, because I’m sure as hell not going to rely on my Casio to find the way, and a couple knives, because I’m always misplacing those things. And enough white gas to keep all of Norway warm through the next 30 winters. Binoculars, the books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, and all the stuff that I actually can’t do without. My backpack loves me, my back not so much.

Everyone knows not to overpack, but there’s an art to it that continues to elude me three decades after first slipping into a hip belt. It’s directly related to my chronic overthinking. What could go wrong on this trip? No, wait-what could go horribly wrong? Like so wrong that they make a “inspired by actual events” movie out of it starring that guy from Scarecrow and Mrs. King? Because that’s who I’d totally want to play me….What was his name? Bruce Boxleitner? I wonder why he wasn’t in more movies. He was a really good actor.

See? I overthink. But I’m coming to grips with it. My back demands it.

It comes down to this: have faith less in what you bring and more in who you are. Sure, one should be prepared to deal with the worst-Boy Scout’s motto!-but obsessing about the expiration date on your second can of grizzly bear repellant and trying to squeezing a backup GPS receiver alongside your ninth pair of wool socks, well…there’s a line between prepared and paranoid and I’m still trying to find my way back to the lighter side of it.

Backpacking is about letting go. That includes not only the creature comforts, but the deadlines, the constant nagging fears, and the second thoughts. We’re allowed to leave all that behind when we enter the woods. No, we’re supposed to.

I’m still working on it. In the meantime, you can call me “Jeffrey.”

Adventure Journal is free but relies on reader support to make stories like this possible. Please join the thousands of your fellow adventurers and subscribe to our amazing printed quarterly or pick up an issue here.



Four issues, free shipping, evergreen content…