The Way I walk
Quite a number of years ago I started going on fairly serious walks with a bunch of more experienced mates. Four or five days in the mountains, carrying all we needed.
Of course, we got pretty tired while doing it, exhausted, sometimes; but that was all part of the fun.
It slowly dawned on me , though, that just when we were beginning to get fit enough to really enjoy the walking, it was time to go home.
I started thinking about making longer walks. I now focus on walks of around 2 weeks... the result is the kind of walk you'll find elsewhere on this blog.
Then one day, while cleaning my rucksack, I noticed how heavy it was, even though it was empty. I weighed it, and discovered it weighed more than 3 kg. That made me think a bit.
Like most people, I was setting out on walks with about 20 kg on my back, a fair weight. More than a quarter of my body weight.
Gradually over the next few months I thought about this, and started weighing everything that went in to my pack.
Do you need it?
I always used to take too many spare clothes. 'Just in case,' I told myself. And, once I had started admitting it to myself, too much of everything than I really needed.
Just for fun I made a list of everything I usually took, and thought carefully about each item. Did I really need it? What would happen if I left it behind. Could I use something else to double-up, to perform two tasks instead of only one?
For instance, my habit had been to undress each night and climb into my lovely warm sleeping bag. Not bad if I didn't mind carrying or wearing lots of clothes and a kilo and a half of finest down sleeping bag too. What would happen, I wondered, if I got a lighter sleeping bag, and got into it each night fully dressed? Or at least, half dressed?
Did I need a change of clothes? Did I need to carry both a pair of shorts and a pair of trousers, or would a pair of trousers with zip-off legs do the trick? Wouldn't they smell? Well, yes; but they could be washed en route. But they would take ages to dry; what were those new, super-light quick-drying trousers like to wear?
What about that incredibly expensive Merino thermal underwear... they claim they don't stink even after weeks of wear... is that true? Could I carry a couple of those instead of a jumper?
And what about waterproofs? As soon as you are walking in the rain you sweat buckets and get soaked from the inside, even wearing Goretex, so why worry about getting wet? Or is there some way you can keep the rain off without getting soaked with sweat? In Europe they tend to wear capes rather than jackets... would they work?
Lighter load, lighter rucksack
You don't have to read much rucksack advertising to realise that you really need a sturdy well-designed harness if you're going to carry much weight in comfort... and that was a good part of my 3 kg plus rucksack - well-made, durable, comfortable... and heavy.
If you cut down on the overall weight of the load, do you still need such a hefty, heavy harness?
The answer is no.
Most modern rucksacks are designed to carry both weight and volume, with 70 Litres being about average. And, as I discovered, if you've got room, you're likely to find a reason for carrying it.
So could I manage with a smaller, lighter rucksack? I had bought my son a 30 litre Vento Rucksack many years before, described as a day-pack. It was well-made but weighed around 1.5 kg, roughly half the weight of my full-sized pack. Could I fit everything I needed into that pack?
I gave it a go, and found I could, if I bought a few new items: a smaller, lighter, sleeping bag; a smaller, lighter 3/4 length sleeping mat; a smaller, lighter, stove.
I bought a bivvy bag, too, one of the lightest ones. By careful investment and ruthless cutting out of volume and weight, I discovered that I could get by with a total base weight (that is, the weight of my pack before including food and water) of around six kilograms. Off I went for a long weekend by myself into the mountains to try it out.
To cut a long story short, it worked. Not everything, but most things. I have never carried my old pack since. In fact I've given it away.
Next I turned to food, and made a lot of experimentation, mostly at home.
All food should be light and require very little cooking, as cooking equals fuel and fuel weighs.
So breakfast is always some sort of cereal, measured into a zip-lock bag together with a couple of spoonsful of powdered milk. Unzip the bag, pour in some water, shake it around for a while, and eat. Drop the bag on the fire. No washing up. Lick the spoon clean.
Lunch is always a knob of salami and a similar sized knob of cheese. A knob is something like 30 mm square. If I can find some sort of unleavened bread to go with it, that's fine. I usually pre-wrap the salami and cheese in a piece of unleavened bread (or wrap) and put them in another small zip-lock bag, one for each day away. Both salami and cheese will go gradually rancid over time, but that won't effect the nutritional value, nor will the food go bad... both foodstuffs were originally invented as ways to keep food for much longer. No washing-up again, you'll notice.
Dinner is always some sort of noodles, pasta or rice, always of the 'two-minute' sort where one simply adds boiling water and waits a while. If I have scraps of lunch left over, I usually add them to the dinner.
I have started carrying 2 soup sachets for each day, too, as comfort food, and I won't be giving those up in a hurry. However, I have recently noticed that they vary enormously in weight, both the weight of the contents and in the weight of the packets; I've been using the lighter ones recently, with no loss of 'niceness'.
Add to this tea, coffee and Milo (with powdered milk mixed in), and you have my total food intake - roughly 300 grams a day, dry weight.
I have been told a million times that I couldn't possibly survive on just that, but I do, and never feel hungry. The longest period I've lived on this diet is fourteen days, and I've never experienced any feeling of deprivation over it. I do sometimes find that the food can be boring, and I search supermarket shelves for variety with obsessive diligence, which makes my wife chortle.
I generally return from a trip many kilos lighter than I started out, and this is in fact one of my many motivations for walking. However, I usually put lots of weight back on within the two weeks following my return, the biggest increase being the first few days. I reason that I must be dehydrated during long walks, and that hydration returns very quickly when there is plentiful water.
At 300 grams a day, I can easily carry a week's food, which weighs just over 2 kg.
Incidentally, I am 64 years old (2008) and weigh around 80 kg when I'm at home for any length of time. I am 174 cm (5'10") tall (growing smaller every year!)
My list of items changes a little as new bits come on the market, sometimes saving a heap of weight, sometimes adding to it. For instance I have done away with my rainproof jacket recently, and now carry a very expensive but wonderfully light cape made of silnylon. So far I've never used it in rain for more than a few minutes, but it replaces not only my jacket, but also my pack-cover. It allows lots of air to move around under it, encouraged sometimes by a flap of my arms, and so far it's worked marvelously. I might change my mind sometime.
I did away with the bivvy bag and its associated triangular shelter some time ago, immediately after a night in a forest with a million biting insects, including mosquitoes...
Instead I bought a wonderful little wedge-shaped Hallmark 'Hangout' tent, which uses a walking pole or a rope over a branch to pitch it. At 1.3 kg, this tent suits me fine, and keeps creepy crawlys and biting things at bay.
My newest rucksack is a 35 litre bag from Macpac, the Amp Light 35 (I wrote earlier that it was from Mountain Designs, but I was wrong), weighing, I think around 1 kg. It is big enough but not too big, and very comfortable.
On the outside of it I strap my tent on one side and my water-bag on the other side. Underneath it I strap one of those closed-cell mats which I now use as an extra.
Inside it I have my sleeping bag (+2°, I think it is), a self-inflating ultra lightweight ground mat (3/4 length), my metho cooker, the lightest and smallest Trangia with a home-made windshield copied from their bigger kits. One litre of metho to last 7 days. 1 pair spare socks, one extra merino thermal long-sleeve top, a pair of trouser legs which zip on to the shorts I'm wearing. One spare pair of knickers. Food for anything up to seven days, perhaps a little longer.
Then a few rucksack pockets full of bits and pieces: a light warm hat (I wear a sort of arab wraparound headgear that keeps the sun off), a pair of light gloves, a headlamp, a map-case with appropriate maps, washing gear including a sawn-off toothbrush, and string, scraps of firelighter, that sort of thing. Bandages and painkillers, strapping tape. Protractor and compass. An Epirb.
All up, before adding food and water, around 8 kg.
Though it sometimes seems like a waste, I have capacity to carry 6 litres of water. I always try to carry 3 litres and top-up when I can. I carry a mug on the outside of my pack so that I can drink from streams as I pass without putting down my rucksack. I've never been ill because of this, though I pick my spot carefully - no drinking untreated water near human habitation or camping spots.
I use sterilising tablets when I have doubts about the water quality. Modern ones seem to add no taste to the water, and as I have never been ill, I have no problem with them. The cheap ones are fine.
On the top of my rucksack I have recently added a solar battery charger from Silva. This can charge four AA nimh batteries each day... since I have been using it I have never run out of batteries for camera, torch, telephone and GPS.
On the straps
I carry a gps (Garmin Legend) and a pair of glasses in a case taped to one of the straps.
Base load plus food for a week plus 3 litres of water equals around 13kg. I would not go out carrying more than this.
In my pockets and in a small bag at my waist I carry a number of other items - Swiss Army penknife, a mobile phone and a dry-cell charger for it, a PDA (Palm) and a fold-out keyboard, which allows me to write easily anywhere I go. Also a small digital camera. I don't count the weight of these items... I should weigh them sometime.