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Stuff either doesn’t fit in, or you can’t lift it – sure signs that you’re packing too much. A heavy pack on a long-distance walk is bound to cause pain, fatigue and misery, which isn’t good enough when you’re supposed to be having fun and revelling in the joys of the great outdoors. I meet many folk on the trail who are overburdened and suffer as a result. By the time they tackle the problem and post the excess weight home, they’re already sporting injuries that need never have happened. A long-distance trek may be something that happens only once or twice a year, or it may be the fulfilment of a lifetime dream, so it seems a shame to spoil it.
Everyone who embarks on a long-distance walk for the first time makes the mistake of getting a big backpack. Kit expands to fill the available space, and you’ll pack far more than you really need. I knew I was carrying too much when a Spanish man tugged at my pack and called me a ‘burro’ (donkey). Now I find that an average-sized day sack is just about adequate. With a capacity limited to 35 litres, it focuses the mind wonderfully, but it takes time to pack properly. There’s no room for bulky fleeces, spare shoes, three changes of clothes, a puffy sleeping bag and a big tent; but there’s room for a carefully chosen selection of lightweight, low-bulk gear.
Tents and sleeping bags now tip the scales at less than a kilo each and squash down very small. Modern wicking and waterproof fabrics mean that bulky clothing is a thing of the past. No one needs more than one change of lightweight clothing for the evening. All of a sudden the little day sack is fine for all the kit needed to spend a month on the trail, sacrificing little in comfort, but much in weight and bulk. An ultra-lightweight backpacker once hefted my pack and declared, ‘Oh, you’re carrying a little bit less than me!’
Packing food is the downfall of many. Too much food weighs heavy and takes up space. Water is a kilo a litre. The lightweight backpacker is easily seduced into packing lots of lightweight meals, then walks past delightful little shops selling wholesome food almost every day on the trail. The obvious thing is to buy food when you need it, and pack only enough to get you to the next shop. On most trails in Britain and around Europe food can be bought on a daily basis, and there is simply no need to carry excess weight. Buying food on the trail offers the chance to indulge in regional specialities, rather than boiling up the same old pasta flavoured with unhealthy chemicals every evening.
A big, heavy, bulky pack is not only a tiresome burden, but an awkward one too. A big pack will stick in narrow stiles, hit low branches, lodge in doorways, catch you off-balance in a gale and probably clobber your mate at some point. Sometimes it may be funny, often it will be annoying, and if you’re unlucky it could cause serious injury. Heavy packs cause the wearer to lean forward, stressing joints and restricting vision to the sight of feet shuffling monotonously onwards. A small, light pack leaves the wayfarer free to stand upright, walk tall and enjoy the splendour of the countryside.
It’s your choice – lumber yourself to the point where you’re not enjoying life on the open trail, or free yourself of the burden and lighten up in every sense of the word. Read gear reviews in outdoor magazines, quiz retailers mercilessly, and continually ask yourself whether you really need everything on your list or whether you can live without some of it. Ultra-lightweight backpackers say every item of gear should have two uses, so roll up your clothes, and you don’t need a pillow. A cooking pan serves as a drinking mug. Some tents can be erected with trekking poles rather than tent poles, so the tent poles can stay at home. Be critical of your gear, even hyper-critical, though it has clearly become an obsession when you start peeling price labels off soup packets!
Spare a thought for your companions. If you plan to trek with someone else, a burden shared is a burden halved. A two-person tent is lighter than two one-person tents. You’ll still need two sleeping bags, but you won’t need two stoves, and with co-ordinated planning both of you can carry considerably less than if you travelled alone.
On some trails there are other ways to lighten the load. Baggage-carrying services operate on popular trails, such as the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast Walk. Some companies that offer self-guided walking tours arrange for accommodation providers to move baggage to the next night’s lodging. All of a sudden, there is no need to think light, and it is very tempting to over-pack. One pub landlord remarked that the ‘walkers’ who turned up after a baggage delivery were unrecognisable when they appeared in full evening dress for dinner. He almost gave himself a hernia lugging their heavy cases upstairs!
Long-distance walkers in America use the US postal service to send a ‘jump box’ to the next post office along the trail. This might contain an ice axe and crampons that were useful on an earlier mountain crossing, but became dead weight in a desert, yet will be needed further along the trail at the onset of winter. Spare clothes, spare footwear and all manner of special treats can be popped into a ‘jump box’ to re-appear at a later date on the trail. A great ploy, but only to be used in countries where the postal system is reliable!
Packing light may result in the replacement of all the gear you have amassed over the years. If you don’t want to be packing a lightweight wallet too, then you will have to beg, steal or borrow some items from lightweight pals, or at least bid for bargains on eBay. At the end of the day, or more particularly at the end of the trail, you’ll be glad you made the effort.
See Paddy on You Tube as he talks about Lightweight gear and lightening your load (two short video clips: 'Lightweight1' and 'Lightweight2')