On my first hike my base backpack weight was about twenty-eight-and-a-half pounds. On the second it was over forty-three pounds. Oh, and my packs weren’t the only difference. When I stepped off from Happy Isles in 2009 I weighed about 227 pounds. Last year, after several years of creeping weight gain, I was near 240.
I finished the hike last year in about the same number of days, but it was nowhere near as fun as the first time. It was time to make some changes.
I got to test out those changes last month on a three-day jaunt through the Desolation Wilderness, including a walk to the top of Mount Tallac. On my back was a pack a little more than twenty pounds lighter than the one I carried last year on the trail. The morning I left for the trailhead I weighed in at 198 pounds. That’s more than sixty pounds lighter—counting pack and body weight. I jokingly commented to Kathleen, my wife, “I wonder if I’ll be able to tell the difference?”
I did, but not as I had expected.
I expected the hiking to be easier. For the most part, it wasn’t, and I have a theory for why. Most people hike, for lack of a better description, as fast as they can without going anaerobic. Exercise physiologists have a name for the point where one’s heart rate rapidly increases into the anaerobic range: the Conconi Point. Stay below the Conconi Point and you can exert yourself more or less indefinitely (with obvious limitations after several hours). The same person, given two different sized packs on different days, will accelerate up to (and just short of) their Conconi Point. They will be working just as hard, regardless of the pack weight.
If the same person is hiking just as hard with a twenty-pound pack as with a forty-pound pack, something HAS to be different. You’ve probably already guessed what: their hiking speed.
That was the first change I noticed. On level terrain I’d estimate I was hiking about a third faster than I had last year—nearly four miles per hour instead of around two-and-a-half. On moderate to strenuous uphill stretches I easily doubled my previous uphill speed; in some cases I’m pretty sure I more than doubled it. Even hiking downhill I was able to walk significantly faster, especially if the trail was uneven and had lots of “steps.”
The other big difference was something that hadn’t occurred to me: wear & tear. I hit the ibuprofen pretty hard last year on the JMT, and when I weened myself off it once I was back home I found that I had almost crippled myself by carrying so much weight. Quite frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t cause more permanent problems, especially in my knees.
This time around I took nothing on the trail, and took one dosage when I got off the trail. I probably could have skipped that, but on my last day I walked as fast I as I could—probably faster than I safely should have—because the wind direction had changed and the smoke from the King fire was headed in my direction.
So, after all that work to lighten myself and my pack the only differences were hiking speed and fewer aches and pains? I suppose so, but it would be hard to overestimate just how much more fun the experience was. When you move faster you see more, get to take longer breaks, and are less affected by the climbs. I even experimented with treating short ascents as sprinter’s hills, where I would allow myself to go anaerobic for a few minutes to zip to the top.
Most importantly, though, is the less wear & tear. I’m about two years from retiring to within twenty minutes of my beloved Sierra Nevada. I think I’ve just added several years to my hiking life.
Good hiking, Ray