Perhaps I’m just a slow learner, but even after lugging fifty or more pounds of gear, food and water over 220 miles, I’m still not convinced that a ten-pound base weight is the right answer for me.
Furthermore, my target audience on this blog is the beginning and intermediate hiker who wants to walk the John Muir Trail. If you are going to bring nothing but the lightest gear possible, and very little of it, you’re going to need to make up that deficit in gear with a surplus of expertise. Neither I, nor the typical reader of this blog, possesses that expertise in ALL areas.
A good example of that is water purification. Rangers I’ve talked to, as well as hikers who know the Sierra Nevada very well, often tell me that they don’t purify at all, because they KNOW where the water is safe. I know several places where I’ll drink without purifying (mostly springs where the water is emerging right from the aquifer).
But I would never suggest, here, that anyone hike the JMT without a way to purify water.
I’m also a believer in a good night’s sleep, in an effective shelter. I’m willing to tolerate some discomfort, but the point is to enjoy myself on the trail, not set some sort of personal deprivation record.
So, as I go through each item, remember I am intending to reduce weight, but not at the expense of safety or a minimum of comfort, and I am making recommendations that even a beginner can implement.
If you’re going to reduce weight you need to start with the big three: the sleeping system (bag, pad & accessories), shelter, and backpack. In my case those items accounted for more than sixteen pounds. I’m going to venture a guess that there are some ounces that can be shaved there.
I’ll start with my sleeping bag.
My choice was a 20-degree, down-filled bag, and I can think of no better example to demonstrate how flawed thinking on my part led to too much weight.
I will give myself some credit for choosing down. I’ve explored some of the synthetic bags (and the “synthetic down” bags) and I’m still convinced that real down is best. The synthetics tend to be heavier, and people in the know seem to be of the opinion that their performance when wet is not all that much better than with a wet down bag. No one should pack a synthetic down bag without also bringing a waterproof stuff sack to keep it dry. (That seems to especially be true for DriDown.) Real down is still king in my book.
Almost every other choice regarding the bag, however, was wrong.
First, the rating. I hate being cold in the woods—absolutely hate it! Here’s how I got to the decision to bring a 20-degree bag: the nights are likely to get as cold as 40 degrees on the hike, I tend to be a cold sleeper (subtract 10 degrees) and sleeping bag manufacturers tend to exaggerate their ratings (subtract another 10 degrees). Viola! A 20-degree bag!
Ah, no. That analysis assumes you are wearing nothing significant in your sleeping bag; it assumes that it will be 40 degrees for a substantial period of time, and it assumes that there is no downside to having a bag that is too warm.
None of those assumptions were true.
First, what are you planning to wear while sleeping? (You are not one of those people who think you’ll stay warmer if you wear less, are you? Unless the clothes are wet, or you have so much on that you have to cram yourself in like meat in a sausage, you will be much warmer with layers.)
I think the right answer may be silk-weight, long, underwear. First, one can often cut as much as a pound off the bag weight by going with a 30-degree bag, and the underwear (top and bottom) weighs about ten ounces. That’s a net savings, unless you are carrying the underwear anyway, like I did. Then it’s a gross savings of sixteen ounces.
Second, and more important, you vastly increase the range of temperatures where the bag will be comfortable. On most nights I did not put up a tent, and even while sleeping under the stars (and wearing no additional layers in the bag) I was too warm until early morning.
On nights that I used a tent I was even warmer, but I’ll cover that later.
So, here’s what I may carry the next time around: a 40-degree bag, silk-weight underwear (which I was already carrying), rain jacket and pants (which I was already carrying), and a lightweight, waterproof, stuff sack for the sleeping bag. Weight for bag and sack: 21.5 ounces. (The underwear and rain gear are a push since I already carried those.) With all of that on, inside my bag and inside my tent, I would be comfortable down to 20 degrees quite easily, perhaps even a little more.
Weight savings: 42 1/8 ounces. (More than two-and-a-half pounds.)
Grade for my choice this trip: D. (I’m only giving myself an “F” if the choice was unsafe.)
Good hiking, Ray