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Thursday, August 24, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GET OUT

When uphill side of 40, ultralight gear packs interest

Special to The Seattle Times

These 47-year-old bones and muscles of mine, as the years take their inevitable toll, rebel each time I insult them with the crushing weight of a backpack. As I ease the weight - between 40 and 60 pounds, depending on the length of the trip - down onto my shoulders and take a few awkward steps, I feel more like mule than man.

But there's a movement afoot, kindled in the past few years by a handful of enterprising mavericks, that might add a few (and perhaps many more) years to a middle-aged backpacker's career. It aims to dramatically downsize the weight a backpacker carries, a sort of wilderness walker's equivalent of the "simple living" movement.

One of the most visible and outspoken proponents of the ultra-lightweight backpacking school is Ray Jardine, a former aerospace engineer who lives in Central Oregon. He is the author of several books, including "Beyond Backpacking," a 500-page tome published earlier this year that details his philosophy of packing light.

While most backpackers try to save a few ounces by cutting borders off maps and handles off toothbrushes, Jardine swings a heavier ax. Jardine lops his pack weight (which he defines as a pack and everything in it except food and water) from a typical 30 to 35 pounds to a mere 8.5.

"You've got to be kidding" is the usual response of long-time backpackers when they hear about the notion of quartering one's weight on the trail. But Jardine, 56, knows whereof he speaks.

Between 1987 and 1994, he and his wife, Jenny, backpacked more than 15,000 miles, including five long-distance trips more than 2,000 miles long. They started out with monster 60-plus-pound loads, using traditional store-bought equipment. Jardine wondered why no manufacturer offered lighter gear, and reasoned that it was because they overbuilt everything to reduce warranty repairs and returns. So Jardine began designing and sewing his own pack, sleeping bag, clothing and tarp.

He came up with strong, super lightweight, functional gear that cost and weighed significantly less than standard backpacking fare. And in 1992, with the publication of his "Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Guide," the world was introduced to his revolutionary ideas. Since then he has become something of a guru, with profiles in major outdoor magazines, a Web site (www.rayjardine.com), and a company, called Go-Lite (www.golite.com), that manufactures the equipment he designed.

Putting it to the test

In an effort to see how the stuff works in the field, I tested the Go-Lite pack, tarp and rain jacket recently on a multi-day trip.

The first thing I noticed was that it was awfully hard to load everything into the pack, which weighs only 12.5 ounces (vs. up to seven pounds for a traditional pack) and is about the size of a very large day-pack. Part of the problem was that I couldn't bear the idea of sleeping on a 3/8-inch foam pad, as Jardine advocates. So I brought along my cushiony Therm-a-Rest, which weighs more and is bulkier.

Fully loaded, my pack weighed 28 pounds, far less than the usual 60. The first mile was a delight, but after several miles I found the well-padded shoulder straps digging uncomfortably into my shoulders, as there is no hip belt to help distribute the weight.

As Jardine advised, I wore running shoes instead of heavier hiking boots, and found they gave me a lighter, quicker step on the trail. But unless your ankles are strong and flexible, wearing light shoes on a rocky trail could lead to injury.

When I set up camp, I tried to attach sticks to the ends of my tarp (23 ounces with stakes) to make shelter, but found it difficult. Two people (and more experience) would have made the chore much easier. After wrestling with the tarp for about 30 minutes, I crawled underneath just as pellets of sleet began falling. It was cozy, dry and spacious, and the tarp stayed taut and stable despite winds.

Because it was still early in the season, bugs weren't a problem, so I didn't need to hang the optional mosquito-net enclosure (18 ounces) from the tarp. For most summer backpacking trips in the Northwest, however, you'd need some sort of nighttime protection from bugs. At 3 pounds, 2 ounces, the combo tarp and net enclosure approaches the weight of the lightest two-person tents on the market, so the savings are negligible.

Jacket effective but clammy

The Go-Lite Rain Jacket I tried uses a waterproof-breathable coating that proved as effective as my Gore-Tex jacket. But it wasn't significantly lighter and felt clammy against my skin. It also didn't have enough overhang on the hood.

The hiking industry sat up and took notice of Jardine's less-is-better philosophy a few years ago, according to Herb Nesbitt, owner of Wilderness Sports in Bellevue. While he says there's been increasing interest in ultra-lightweight hiking gear, that segment of the market is very small, which prompted him not to carry Go-Lite equipment in his store.

But to satisfy what Nesbitt calls "weight Nazis," several major hiking-equipment manufacturers are producing ultralight gear. Integral Designs makes a 6-ounce tarp of silicone-impregnated parachute cloth, for instance. Sierra Designs offers sleeping bags that weigh less than two pounds, and Kelty has a lightweight, high-tech pack in its line. An outfit called Kayland makes a Kevlar hiking boot that weighs only 20 ounces.

While the idea of reducing trail weight is brilliant (especially for hikers older than 40), I suspect that the way Jardine achieves the goal may be too extreme for most people. Some things I think would be worth the added weight, such as a Therm-a-Rest pad for a better night's sleep, and a pack with a hip belt to help take the strain off the shoulders.

From now on, however, I'll definitely leave out the portable espresso machine and cast-iron frying pan. But I might be tempted to take along Jardine's thought-provoking, insightful new book.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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