Jettison the tent, the candle lantern, and that copy of Moby-Dick. Ultralight through-hiking takes you farther, faster. Just don't take it too far.
By Daniel Duane
With a light pack and nimble feet, Janine Patitucci goes rock hopping in Evolution Basin on the John Muir Trail.
So many omens, on that hot summer morning in 1996—so many signs that a four-week hike of the 211-mile John Muir Trail wouldn't be the cakewalk I'd imagined. For starters: the sheer weight of my pack. I called it the Pig, and it was so heavy—70 pounds sounds about right—that I couldn't strap it onto my back without first planting my steel-toed boots in the high-desert dust, breathing deep of that pine-scented air, and putting my entire body into an explosive heaving motion just to haul it atop a low rock, as an intermediate step. After catching my breath and wiping my brow and wishing the August sun weren't so blindingly bright, I carefully backed into the harness. As the shocking bulk toppled forward against my neck, I slipped my arms into the shoulder straps and staggered in a circle to keep from collapsing, then immediately set out across the quiet parking lot to avoid losing heart.
A backpacker rests above White Mountains National Forest on the Appalachian Trail.
Not everybody has the trouble I did. Plenty of people pick a big trail—like the John Muir Trail (JMT), the Colorado Trail, or the humongous Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, or Appalachian Trails—and toil joyfully as the days turn into weeks and sometimes months. For elite through-hikers like Andrew Skurka, Roman Dial, and Demetri "Coup" Coupounas, thousand-mile walks have become so easy and fun that they've made the pastime a kind of competitive endurance sport, seeing who can move the farthest the fastest, all while carrying the very least. Backpacking Light magazine has become the de facto organ of this subculture, full of riveting articles like "Adventures in Laminating Silicone-Impregnated Fabrics" for hikers inclined to customizing featherweight gear. And for those who prefer shopping, companies like GoLite manufacture backpacks, sleeping bags, and rain shelters that weigh—this is true—less than one of the four spare headlamp batteries I'd opted to bring on my ill-fated JMT trek.
In my defense, ultralight backpacking was still an underground pursuit when I decided to add completing the JMT to what I considered a tidy little list of outdoor accomplishments: I'd climbed the classic Nose Route on Yosemite's El Capitan, albeit in a pathetically slow four days, and only after chickening out three times. I'd surfed a lot of California's best breaks, albeit badly. And I'd even done some high-risk backcountry skiing.
In Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, the Continental Divide Trail offers a broad vista of the Wind River Range.
So how hard could John Muir's trail be? Especially for a guy who'd grown up backpacking and done big wilderness trips as a teenager. As far as I was concerned, I'd already graduated from backpacking.
"Why on earth would you want to do that?" asked my main climbing buddy, Jonathan, who'd always hated that first part of every vertical route, in which you have to walk to the bottom of the cliff. "Isn't that pretty much all approach and no climb?"
Because I'd have such deep thoughts out there! Rambling the wilderness, sleeping under the stars, far from cars and phones. Also I'd just finished a Ph.D. in English and couldn't find an academic job, so I had a lot of thinking to do. And how better to do it than while walking from Mt. Whitney, the trail's southern terminus, on up to Yosemite Valley, where it ends in the north?
At his store beside the Appalachian Trail, Winton Porter (left) helps hikers de-accessorize and ship the excess home (center). Through-hiking kingpin Andrew Skurka (right) blazed a 7,778-mile trail from Maine to Washington State.
Looking back, I blame my failure on two things: my fear of loneliness and my insatiable gear lust. I really do love company, and since I couldn't find anybody willing to walk the whole trail with me, I'd booked a surf buddy, his wife, and his wife's sister to join me for week one. For week two, I'd booked an ex-girlfriend. Then I'd hike solo for a few days before a two-day rest with my mom. After that, I'd alternate between short solo hikes and hikes with old friends, right on through to Yosemite.
Great plan on the face of it, but I hadn't figured on something: The JMT traces the Sierra Nevada, deep inside the range. And it's hard. For the first couple of weeks, you climb over a gigantic mountain pass every other day, meaning that half of your days involve crawling out of bed to slog miles and miles uphill as your pack hauls backward on your shoulders and your aching neck cranes forward, just to crest a crushingly difficult pass by noon. Then you stumble downhill for the rest of the day, battering your knees until you pitch camp. As for the other half of your days, they involve the exact opposite: stumbling downhill all morning, then grinding upward all afternoon on yet another pass so giant you can't imagine reaching the top before dark.
And here's how my fear of loneliness made all this so much worse: Every time I met up with a new companion, I had to leave the JMT, detouring clear out of the mountains to rendezvous at some exterior trailhead. Then I had to turn around and walk with them back into the mountains to rejoin the main trail. This meant that every rendezvous required an entire day of humping up and over an otherwise completely unnecessary mountain pass in each direction.
As for the gear addiction, that's been a lifelong weakness, responsible for much of my ongoing financial difficulty and garage clutter. And it turned out to be an even bigger burden. I not only loved gear but also had unprecedented access, via the mountaineering store where I worked, Marmot Mountain Works, in Berkeley, California.
For years, I'd been spouting off like an expert, all day every day, convincing myself along with my customers that everybody ought to buy gear the way they were buying houses back then: aspirationally, stretching for the best they could afford, acquiring packs, tents, and sleeping bags guaranteed to endure multiple Himalayan treks and Alaskan climbs. I'd also persuaded my customers and myself that a smart packer carried creature comforts, such as our handy kit for converting your plush sleeping pad into a chair, so you needn't ever sit on a log, and our brilliant aluminum candle lantern and a dozen extra candles, to supplement your halogen headlamp with a soothing natural-flame ambience, for whenever you felt like reading the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, or Moby-Dick, all of which I brought on the JMT. (Hey, I was looking for answers.)
I'd also made a logistical error that set me back from the get-go: I'd applied too late in the season to get a wilderness permit for the Mt. Whitney trailhead. This meant I had to start 35 trail miles south, at the bleak high-desert Cottonwood Pass trailhead, and connect with the JMT from inside the mountains. And that's where I hoisted my pack onto a boulder and went stumbling down a trail so pounded out by packhorses that it looked like a sand-filled roadbed. Not two hours in, I passed a pair of those horses dead beside the trail, their bodies bloating in the sun.
In all, I spent 28 days on the trail, and I did have some fun: breathtaking sunsets, bracing dips in snowmelt streams, great views and birds and deer and deep rocky gorges riven with waterfalls. My journal entry from day three describes a damp green meadow "alive and bright as the sun sets down-canyon over the trees . . . many bugs aglow, zipping around like airborne expressions of the yearning flowers." But the same journal records a later encounter with a southbound through-hiker who said in passing, "I don't know what possessed me to think this would be fun."
As the guy walked away, I made the following note to myself: "Here these mountains are teeming with suffering, miserable souls with huge packs, and I'm radically inventorying and wanting to shed every [expletive] item."
By day four, that sentiment had begun to harden, as you'll see in the following excerpt (bear in mind that I'd been hoping for a journey of the spirit):
August 4, 1996
The body. This . . . is all about the body, about blisters, sore feet, a very sore left hip creaking at every step, knees tender, pelvic wings bone-bruised such that I've already torn up my backup sleeping pad to cushion my hips, twice. Phenomenally stupid pile of stuff: extra maps and books and binoculars and this insanely heavy gourmet food—paella the first night. Thai peanut sauce with steamed cabbage last night. Indian food tonight. Scotch, hot cocoa, truffle bars, cheese and salami, turkey jerky. Ban cha green tea in the morning. Muscles that lift the hip gone entirely to hell. Thinking raw fury all day. Nothing but. Gritting teeth and vowing violence, all day long.
Eight pounds—that's how much Andrew Skurka's long-distance pack weighed, minus food and water, when I met him. (He typically consumes 2 pounds of food and water each day and rarely goes more than five days without resupplying, so I'm guessing his pack weighed 18 pounds total. On my JMT trip, I started out with at least 35 pounds of stuff to eat and drink.) This was in 2007, when a now-defunct magazine sent me out to the Rockies to interview the reigning king of international through-hiking. A cheerful, clean-cut Duke University grad, Skurka is a child of East Coast privilege who, upon finishing his econ degree, cleared his mind by walking the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, alone. Finding that he enjoyed the lifestyle, Skurka then blazed a 7,778-mile route from Maine to Washington State. Next came what he calls the "Great Western Loop." He set out from the Grand Canyon, walked across the wild bleakness of the Southwestern deserts, picked up the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California, followed it to the Canadian border, scurried eastward, then headed back south toward the Grand Canyon, along the Continental Divide Trail, which was where I found him, in a restaurant in a tiny Colorado town called Twin Lakes.
Skurka had detoured into town to collect some food he'd mailed to the local post office. Over breakfast, he seemed so terrifically happy that I had to wonder why I'd been afraid of solitude. But what I really found staggering was that pack, all eight pounds of it, and the clear relationship between a featherlight load, a blissed-out smile, and a blistering pace of 33 miles per day.
As I watched Skurka vacuum up the eggs and bacon on his plate, and as I contemplated those eight pounds, it occurred to me that he played the same role that world-class athletes play in every sport: showing the rest of us mortals the outer limits of what's possible. Not just ditching Moby-Dick and the candle lantern, or opting for ultralight gear, but stripping your kit down to the absolute minimum—eschewing extrawarm clothes, say, on the theory that a sleeping bag can double as a parka, and dumping your Gore-Tex jacket, Gore-Tex pants, and multi-rod tent in favor of a 10-ounce tarp that can supersede all three. All in the serene confidence that a featherlight load liberates the spirit.
I gave up. That's what really happened. I made it through the first week with my surf buddy—though our friendship cooled for about three years after. And I made it through the second week with my ex-girlfriend, who has since forgiven me. I made it to the rendezvous with my mom, who brought along a dozen eggs, a pound of butter, and a pound of cheese—all of which I ate in a single night. By the time I kissed her goodbye, I'd begun formulating excuses to bail from the trail.
I had a few enjoyable solo days after that, but I just couldn't stop thinking about double-shot lattes and carne asada burritos. Then came a morning when I decided not to hit the trail early.
Instead, I cooked up a freeze-dried omelet, devoured it in seconds, and spent an inordinate amount of time watching a hornet enjoy the ridgelike scraps in the pan. It seemed thrilled by the bits of red pepper, working its feelers, walking all over the escarpment of reconstituted, processed, heat-fixed chicken biota. It lifted off and scouted the rest of my camp before returning to the pan. I imagined that it had spent a prior life as a great rancher and exploiter, or as a trucker on the Seattle-to-San Diego corridor, flirting with waitresses at diesel stops, and then, through some mechanism it couldn't understand, had found itself reincarnated as a hornet, malicious and hungry and trying to nibble tiny bits of reconstituted egg. This is where my brain had gone— projecting my anguish onto an insect.
Shoving the dirty pan into my pack, I decided I was done. I'd planned to meet that afternoon with another friend, and I resolved to simply ask him for a ride back to the Bay Area.
The next summer, smarter, I headed back to the Sierra Nevada to try it again. I set aside four weeks, packed a much lighter pack, left the Melville at home. But a funny thing happened at the last minute. With my pack loaded, ready for JMT take two, I bumped into some old friends in front of a store in Tuolumne Meadows, as I was preparing for the long drive to the southern trailhead. They were headed for Wyoming and asked if I'd like to come. I told them I'd love to. And that was that. I left my car behind and spent two weeks on a Jackson Hole porch, smoking cigarettes and drinking bourbon and refusing even to go on day hikes.
Something similar happened on my return to California later that summer, when I talked another buddy into ticking off a section of the JMT with me. His antique Porsche broke down on California Route 120, and we got towed into Yosemite Valley, where we spent two days drinking beer on the Ahwahnee Hotel's veranda while the mechanic waited for a part.
My fourth JMT attempt marked the beginning of my conversion to ultralight hiking. Eight summers after my original fiasco, having since married and acquired a kid and a mortgage, I talked my wife into joining me on a 35-mile stretch of the trail, a sort of mini-through-hike from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows.
By that point, I'd heard stories about people doing long hikes with very little gear, and I decided to give it a try. The only move I considered truly risky was to wear running shoes instead of hiking boots. Without buying any new high-tech lightweight gear, I got my pack down from a no-food weight of 50 pounds to about 25. I simply followed a process akin to the one famously practiced by Winton Porter, owner of Mountain Crossings, a supply store that sits astride the Appalachian Trail, 30 miles from the southern starting point. Whenever Porter sees overloaded hikers, or hears them complain about pack weight, he makes them dump everything out. He plucks out what they don't need and ships it home for them. "We ship back about 9,000 pounds a year," Porter says. "UPS is here once or twice a day."
I told my wife I'd averaged about eight miles a day during my original JMT bid, and we plotted accordingly, giving ourselves four days to get from Mammoth to Tuolumne. Our day-one destination was Shadow Lake, only six miles in, because I knew that first days are always the worst, when your pack seems to weigh too much and you haven't acclimated to the altitude.
We got a late start, not hitting the trail until about 9:30 a.m. And yet, just before noon, we found ourselves on the shores of Shadow Lake. Somehow we'd walked six miles in two and a half hours. We considered dropping the packs and resting all afternoon, but we simply weren't tired. So we rushed on, reaching our planned day-two destination well before dark, and still were not tired.
It was all very confusing. We finished so quickly we ended up getting a hotel room for a couple of days.
Other curious discoveries: Far from hurting more, my feet felt precisely the way they always feel in running shoes, which is to say terrific. And because my feet felt terrific, my legs did too. Better still, I was having thoughts while walking, instead of just numbly enduring pain. That, coupled with my wife's company, led in turn to a novel backpacking emotion: happiness.
The current speed record for hiking all 211 miles of the John Muir Trail, I'm told, is just under four days. At that rate, I ought to be able to knock off my unfinished portion—about 25 miles—in a matter of hours, especially if I can prune my accoutrements down to almost nothing. I mean, think back to our hominid forebears: How much did they really need?
When I ask Demetri Coupounas that question, though, he's surprisingly quick to steer me away from the extremist's path. It turns out that he's had some experience with that ancient super-ultralight approach to hiking known as "stark naked."
"You don't even make it a few hours and you realize, 'This sucks,'" he says.
Point taken, but I'm happy to say that I've been steadily jettisoning accessories with each outing—my gallon-
capacity water bag, for example, and my skillet, and my binoculars. I've replaced my 30-blade Swiss Army knife with a puny penknife. I've chopped my toothbrush handle in half and sliced two feet off my sleeping pad, knowing I need cushion only from shoulder to hip. Foul weather still scares me, so I've yet to abandon my head-to-toe Gore-Tex rainwear or a proper tent, but someday I'll probably take that leap as well and dump it all for a single tarp.
The impact of such minimalism is twofold: First, if you like dayhiking with nothing but water and a candy bar, then you'll love ultralight through-hiking, because it feels exactly like dayhiking, except without limits. You simply wander off into the unspoiled world, and keep going, and then you keep going some more, and you sleep, and then you keep going. And here's the most surprising part of all, the part for which nothing can prepare you, psychologically: It's fun.
Daniel Duane, a frequent contributor to Sierra, last wrote "Private Places" (March/April).
ON THE WEB See John Dittli's photographs of the the John Muir Trail.
America's most popular through-hikes, big and, um, small
Continental Divide Trail
Length: 3,000 miles
Average time to complete: 6 months
Highest point: Gray's Peak, 14,270 feet
Least traveled of the three great U.S. long-distance trails. Like the Pacific Crest Trail, it runs from border to border—beginning in Antelope Hills, New Mexico, and tracing the Rocky Mountains through rugged sections of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Pacific Crest Trail
Length: 2,650 miles
Average time to complete: 5 months
Highest point: Forester Pass, 13,153 feet
Stretches from Mexico to Canada, from desert to rainforest, linking every great West Coast wilderness (Anza-Borrego Desert, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier) into a single epic journey.
Length: 2,175 miles
Average time to complete: 6 months
Highest point: Clingman's Dome, 6,643 feet
By far the most popular of the big trails. Winds through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, rarely far from country towns.
Length: 484 miles
Average time to complete: 40 days
Highest point: Coney Summit, 13,334 feet
Denver to Durango. Runs through the most mountainous of Colorado's Rockies. Its western portion—the remote stretch from Monarch Pass to Durango—has become a classic through-hike in its own right.
John Muir Trail
Length: 211 miles
Average time to complete: 20 days
Highest point: Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet
Encompasses the most remote and spectacular legs of the
Pacific Crest Trail, but branches off to summit Mt. Whitney,
the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
Length: 272 miles
Average time to complete: 25 days
Highest point: Mt. Mansfield, 4,395 feet
The oldest long-distance trail in the United States, constructed between 1910 and 1930. Traverses nearly every major peak of Vermont's Green Mountains.
Photos, from top: PatitucciPhoto; Jerry and Marcy Monkman/Green Stock Media; Scott T. Smith; Reed Wislar; Winton Porter; James Q Martin. "Carried Away" photos by Lori Eanes.