Ultralight  Backpacking


(This 740th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 5, 2005.)


Yesterday was National Trails Day and I offer a coda to that celebration of hiking.


Some time ago I reported on the cross-continent backpacking adventure of Andy Skurka. To bring you up to date: Skurka, who began his trek on Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula last August and passed through western New York in October, has now reached the Rocky Mountains near Glacier Park in Montana, having completed 5/6 of his 7700 mile journey.


What most impressed me about Skurka when we met last fall was how he had reduced his pack to a remarkable eleven pounds. All I could think of was my own experiences carrying much heavier loads.


One episode in particular came to mind. My wife had driven me to a high wind-swept hill near Ithaca and I pulled my pack out of the car to commence a five-day hike along the Finger Lakes Trail. As I struggled into my pack frame, I sagged under the 50-pound load and Doris asked, "Do you think you are up to this?" Quite frankly, I wasn't sure and I seriously considered getting back into the car and returning home. But the first part of the trail was downhill. I just shrugged, she gave me one of those "I may never see you again" waves and I staggered off on my way. Needless to say, I completed the hike but that heavy pack didn't help.


How I wish people like "Java Joe" Dabes of Dryden, New York had been around to help me lighten that load. Dabes' total backpacking load is 15 pounds, (unlike Skurka he includes food and water making their loads similar) for a three day-two night trip. When his wife joins him, he takes a tent, adding just two more pounds.


(Java Joe on the trail.)

Here is how he carries off this amazing feat.


He buys lightweight equipment from outdoor stores like Campmor, Eastern Mountain Sports, Golite and REI. The competition among manufacturers is fierce and every year these outfitters come up with still lighter items.


Only six pounds takes care of his overnight equipment. These include pack, sleeping bag, tarp, mattress pad, mosquito hood and ground cloth. The tarp I've been using weighs five times as much as Dabes' 18 ounce version and mine is more subject to tears.


Packed clothing contributes less than two pounds: long-johns, T-shirt, storm pants, running shorts, sox and a stuff-sack to contain them. That warm underwear adds the most, eight ounces.


Then comes another big saving: cooking supplies. The weight of stoves has never been more than a pound or two but the butane, kerosene or white gas fuel with their containers always added more weight. Dabes gets away with one pound for everything by carrying only eight ounces of denatured alcohol in a bottle, his 0.4 ounce stove, windscreen, lighter and a 3-cup pot. For longer trips he also carries a twig stove, homemade from a five-inch diameter tin. It weighs an additional four ounces.


For that three day trip he only carries five pounds of food and water, almost half of that weight water. For his breakfasts he takes four oatmeal packets and two coffee bags. For his lunches: six energy bars, a commercial turkey pepperoni and gorp. And for his two suppers: six ounce freeze dried dinners in foil. He also carries a plastic measuring cup and, yes, a lexan spoon. All this goes in a one ounce stuff bag.


Another pound and a half Dabes allots to what he calls necessities: such things as a small folding knife, toothpaste and toothbrush, a head lamp, nylon rope, biodegradable soap, various medications, toilet paper, a radio that carries weather information, a cell phone and maps.


There are a few other items he occasionally carries: a six ounce UV water sterilizer, a memo pad and pen, together weighing only one ounce, and his six ounce digital camera. He carries an eleven ounce hiking pole. Even these extras only raise his weight total by 2 1/2 pounds.


For a detailed listing of the items he packs including sources, e-mail Dabes at kabjnd@msn.com.


I'm all for Dabes' style of hiking.-- Gerry Rising