Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Heavy backpacking hall of shame

Just before my recent trip with the scouts I saw a post by a friend on a backpacking board who goes by Phat entitled "Anti-Light Gear" in which he was asking for nominations for the worst weight offenders that we commonly see backpackers bring. He suggested the following quite insightful, though humorous, categories.

1) Most often oversold (they needed a volkswagen, but got sold a lambhorgini)
2) Best Newbie trap (market to the clueless! it works!)
3) Most Overbuilt/Overweight (How much heavy crap can they put on it)
4) High Maintenance Prince/Princess Magnet (Attracts those who have to make the woods just like the suburbs)
5) Machismo Magnet (being a lawyer/stockbroker/computer geek isn't that manly, but carrying *this* in the woods is)
6) Gets taken for a ride (it always goes, but never gets used)

I had to laugh at this categorization but I think he has really hit it on the head in some areas. I decided to do a little research while on the scout trip. Many of the scouts were burdened down with heavy packs so I tried to figure out why. Here's what I found.

Interestingly the worst offenders seemed to be the backpacks themselves. Here is one that I saw.

It's a Kelty pack called the Yukon 3000 and one of retailers online says it is "popular with scouts". I think that ought to be a warning, not a recommendation. This monster is 4 lbs 9 ounces empty. That's the youth size. Several of the adult leaders have the large size and it's several ounces heavier. Want to talk about useless features? It has a separate metal bar called a "hold-open bar" which is needed for what exactly? Perhaps it's to hold the pack open so this beast doesn't bite off your arm while you are reaching in.

The irony is that this pack isn't even that inexpensive. It sells for $110 (although I saw a sale price of $89 somewhere).

By comparison the larger of my two packs (the Mariposa) weighs 16.8 ounces and has more internal space (I guess the Kelty people expect you to strap your sleeping bag to the outside so it can get rained on). I think it cost about the same when I bought it. It's been discontinued now but there is a boy-sized one on sale right now for $50. Some parent should grab that quick rather than dooming their scout to being a beast of burden. But even if that one is gone it is always possible to get a very nice, lightweight, but still high capacity pack for under $150.

Interestingly this wasn't the worst pack I saw. Others had multitudinous compartments and straps everywhere. Some were very nearly as big as the kids carrying them. I don't think any of them were under 4 pounds.

Interestingly Gossamer Gear was started by an engineer who got involved with his sons scout troop and then began thinking about the problem of pack weight.

Extra Clothes
Okay, time for truth here. A scout's worst enemy is his mother. It's a case of loving your kids to death. Moms worry so much that their little boy won't have something he needs that they load his pack for him and cram it full of "just in case" stuff. The funny part is that the boys don't know it's there and wouldn't use it even if they did. So all that stuff is just "along for the ride".

I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if they didn't pack things like jeans and other things made of cotton. Cotton is a terrible thing to wear while camping. Try this sometime. Get your jeans wet. Hang them outside and come back occasionally to check if they are dry. How many hours does it take? A pair of nylon pants weighs much less and dries very quickly. But mom's dress their boys in jeans and what do they do in case they get wet? The pack more jeans.

I only carry the clothes I'm wearing. My "just in case" clothes are layers I would put on top. All my stuff is either nylon or wool. Nylon dries fast and wool will still keep you warm even if it is wet, unlike cotton.

News flash moms. Boys don't change their clothes anyway. So don't burden junior with extra weight.

I don't now what it is about scouts and big knives. I guess it's the Rambo spirit in every boy. He wants a knife that could be used to kill a bad guy or field dress a moose. In reality the most you will use a knife for is to cut cord or open a package of food. Many backpackers carry no knife at all.

But what about other tools? We've all seen those swiss army knives with 15 different things.

A corkscrew, what are they thinking? good thing the swiss are neutral in every war if they think a bottle of Chardonnay is battle fare.

Granted my Leatherman Micra P4 has a few things on it but they are the things I need (mainly the blade and the pliers) and the total weight is only 2 ounces.

Nalgene Water Bottles
These are nearly universal with scouts. They are made of Lexan which is amazingly tough, you just about can't break them. Recently the government of Canada banned them because of a chemical used in their manufacture. Now they are made of something different. But the story is still the same. HEAVY. A bottle that carries 32 ounces of water weighs over 6 ounces.

By comparison my water bottle carries 2 liters and weighs only 1.5 ounces. More than twice the capacity for less than 1/4 the weight. Platypus makes one that is very similar and probably more common. I like the Evernew brand because you can't lose the cap.

Sleeping Bags
Actually this one is hard to get very upset about. A good, lightweight pack is cheap but a good, lightweight bag is expensive. But still I think parents only look at the temperature rating of the bag and ask themselves "will my poor boy be warm enough?" when they should be asking "do I really expect my boy to carry this for miles and miles?"

The lightest bags are quilts as I've stated in previous posts. But also the material makes a difference. Down is the lightest option but there are different qualities of down. The best weighs very little but insulates very well. But it's expensive of course. So people need to do the best they can. That's why I'm not too critical of bag choice.

Often money isn't the issue. Sometimes people get a bag that is too much for them because they let themselves be oversold. I was in an REI this summer and I met a girl who was just graduating from law school and wanted to do a long distance hike before selling herself into the white collar wage slavery we call a career. She planned to go somewhere close like the Ozark trail and was planning to go sometime in August. The saleslady was enthusiastically showing her the top of the line bags. A sleeping bag in August? in Missouri? During my August hikes I slept in my underwear in my hammock. No bag is what is needed.

I haven't talked very much about shelters (like tents) or camp stoves. That's because on this trip the scouts were told to sleep under the stars and to bring food that didn't need to be cooked. I'll talk more about lightweight options for stoves and shelter in another post.


Ashley said...

Wow...such good information to have for when I do pack a boy off to a scouting trip.

Rule #1: Forget I'm his mother. Maybe I'll just have to intensely remember labor pains to "forget" the stuff I'm sure he'll need. Got it.

Laura said...

So sadly true! The most interesting thing that I fall victim to is the cotton clothing. I just assumed that denim is necessary for hiking, but the thought of it getting wet is horrible!! I'll have to remember your great recommendations! You should recommend your "preparing for a hike" knowledge to the scout moms on some Enrichment lesson. It's important stuff that could make a huge difference to their sons!!

Maz said...

This is all so true. Hopefully, given this is a 2008 post, the US (which seems to have been the foremost proponent of UL and SUL principles) is starting to learn not to pack ridiculously heavy and unnecessary kit...!!