A Mountain Personified

A Mountain Personified

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“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey

The mountains are my mentors, and my most trusted advisers. They constantly challenge me, forcing me to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow in unanticipated ways. When I take a wrong turn, or stumble and fall, they patiently wait for me to regain my footing and continue my journey. They demand respect, and through their silence, force me to gain confidence in myself and in my own voice. When I get to the peak, they proudly share their beauty and understanding, all the while reminding me of the vastness of the world, and the infinite possibilities awaiting me as my journeys continue.

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Cowboy Camping (PCT Days 35-37)

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“Mreh,” I mumbled and swatted at whatever had just landed on my face. I was all curled up and cozily sleeping in my beloved zero degree sleeping bag under the stars. Even though I wasn’t quite awake yet my brain was turning its gears as another thing landed on my face. This time when I swatted at it my hand came back wet. I knew what this was! It was rain! Barely half awake, I rolled over and quickly stuffed everything into my backpack and three my pack cover over it.

Considering I was in Southern California, in the Mojave desert, and the weather forecast said that there was a 0% chance of rain for each of the 10 days in the forecast I figured it was probably just one little cloud misting on me and would blow by quickly. I didn’t mind getting a little damp as long as all of my stuff (especially my electronics) was going to be safe, secure, and dry.

As I lay back down I looked up at the sky, the moon and some stars were still visible, but clouds were definitely moving in. Some bigger droplets fell on my face. I checked my watch, it was 2 am, and I was definitely starting to get rained on. Setting up my tent still seemed like a lot of work, so I just pulled out my tent fly and rolled myself up in it figuring that it would keep both me and my down sleeping bag plenty dry.

At that point I still didn’t believe that it was really going to rain. I’d started trusting southern California’s weather forecasts, had started to trust that the low humidity over the desert was a cloud killer. I had come to terms with the fact that a 20% chance of rain meant that I was going to get soaked, but 0% chance, that should mean that I’d stay dry!

As I lay curled up in my rain fly shroud the winds began gusting and moisture continued to drip from the sky. With temperatures in the low 40s or upper 30s I couldn’t afford to let my sleeping bag get wet. *sigh* This was not just one poor misguided cloud weeping at its desert fate, this was an actual storm!

Until that moment I’d been able to make all of my rain preparations without ever really waking up or getting out of my sleeping bag, but as soon as I came to the conclusion it was a storm and not a tiny misguided cloud I was out of my sleeping bag and setting up my tent.

As the winds whipped around me I quickly scooted my sleeping pad and sleeping bag into the tent before staking it out, erecting it, and throwing the rain fly up. It was so windy at that point that I put rocks over the stakes/bottom corners of the tent to help anchor it before quickly scooting into my tent to ensure that it wasn’t going to become a giant kite.

As I crawled back into my tent I could hear the wind howling around it and the rain slamming against it. I threw a bunch of heavy stuff into the bottom my tent to help anchor it down and put the rest of my stuff on the windward side to help buffer against the winds even more.

It had been less than five minutes between when the first drop of water hit my face and when I crawled back into my sleeping bag after getting my tent set up. I was impressed with my half asleep self, and I wondered if the tent was overkill… It was Southern California after all, And I was sure it wasn’t going to rain… At least not much.

The other person cowboy camping nearby heard the commotion I made, realized it was raining and set up their tent as well, so our little camping area was full of excitement at 2 am! As the night progressed the excitement didn’t end. Temperatures dropped, wind speeds increased, ice started mixing in with the rain, and people’s tents started blowing over.

Though my tent was getting whipped around by the wind and making lots of noise, it held it’s ground, and didn’t collapse or lose any stakes. Throughout the night, however, there was intermittent swearing as other people’s tents lost the battle against the wind and collapsed on top of their occupants.

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It seems like a lot of people on the PCT cowboy camp (just sleeping out under the stars without a tent) most of the time since we are in the desert and the chance of precipitation is so low. As I started to get used to the desert I started to join the people cowboy camping.

For me the real appeal of cowboy camping is the night sky in the desert, which is absolutely phenomenal! Since the best time to view the stars seems to be well after hiker midnight (sunset), when I pitch my tent the only time I get to see the full night sky is when I get up in the middle of the night and inevitably have to make a bathroom run. When I cowboy camp every time I wake up I can just look up and stare at the stars. Since I often have insomnia this means that I get to look at the stars a lot, which I absolutely love…

Though getting rained on in the middle of the night is not awesome, I expect that the joy of star-gazing from my sleeping bag will eventually tempt me to continue cowboy camping! If I ever wake up with a rattlesnake curled up on my sleeping bag, however, I expect I will be permanently cured of my cowboy camping habits!

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Blister Busting! (PCT Day 21-22)

Blisters happen. Having dry feet and shoes that fit perfectly are the best ways to avoid blisters. That’s not always possible. On the AT I hatched a monster blister on the heel of my right foot. In that case I blamed my blister (named B.B. at one of the shelters in the Smokies) on the fact that my feet were constantly wet for the first 200 miles of the AT.

For hiking the PCT I employed all of the blister avoidance techniques I’d learned on the AT. I tried to keep my feet dry, I used my anti-chafing stick on my feet every morning, I used my favorite socks, I got boots that were plenty big, and as soon as I got any hot spots I covered them with athletic tape and that seemed to work really well for the first 200 miles or so.

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Despite all of my efforts I ended up with a big blister on the heel of my right foot at around mile 400 of the PCT this year. I knew that I had a blister brewing.

To get shoes with a big enough toe box for my feet, the heel cup tends to be looser than it should be. At the beginning of the hike I was keeping my shoes laced tightly which seemed to be working perfectly to prevent my heel from lifting.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to Warner Springs I was getting a little bit of bruising on the tops of my feet from having my laces tied too tightly and was worried that I might be creating a perfect storm for stress fractures. At that point I made a conscious decision… I was going to loosen my laces, increasing my risk of blisters but decreasing my risk of stress fractures. Blisters I can walk through, stress fractures would take me off of the trail. It was an incredibly easy decision for me to make. I would much rather have the blisters.

Sure enough, within a couple of days I’d started developing blisters, but the pain on the top of my feet was going down, so I suppose that I’d achieved my goal. I treated the blisters with athletic tape, which was still working until… I ran out of athletic tape. Doh! I tried using duct tape and relearned what I’d learned on the AT… Duct tape doesn’t stick to my feet.

The blister got bigger… I tried using moleskin… It didn’t stick, the blister got bigger. In a desperate last ditch attempt I tried covering it with a bandaid…and the blister got bigger.

When I made it into town next I needed to do two things… Pop my blister and buy more athletic tape!

*** my mom says all the information beyond this point is too much information, but I say enquiring minds want to know! Comment at the end and let us know which one of us is right! ***

B.B the blister was not allowed to make a comeback so I prepared to eliminate my blister. Different people have different strategies for popping blisters. My illustrated strategy for blister elimination follows:

1. Head into a town or hostel where you can take a shower and prepare a relatively clean environment.

2. Clean and disinfect the area around the blister (I use one of my alcohol prep pads for this.)

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3. Sterilize a needle. On the trail I carry safety pins and use one of those as a needle and I use the lighter I carry to heat the pin until it’s red hot. You could also disinfect it with an alcohol wipe.

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3. I then pierce the blister in two locations (one to act as a drain and the other to act as a vent or pressure release). *note: before removing the needle make sure you have a towel under you foot for when the fluid (just the plasma component of your blood, unless it’s a blood blister) comes gushing out.

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4. After the blister is drained I apply antibiotic ointment to it.

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5. If I’m a clean environment (a hotel or hostel) I the leave the blister uncovered overnight so that it can dry out and toughen up a bit. If I’m on the trail (I still deal will my blisters at night so that they get at least 8 hrs of rest before I retraumatize them) I put on a pair of clean socks to wear overnight (town clean not hiker clean).

6. The next morning I reapply antibiotic ointment and then I cover my blister with tegaderm to protect it. I then cover the whole area with athletic tape as usual (since it’s the only thing that sticks to my feet and it holds the tegaderm in place.

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And that is how I deal with my blisters on the trail!

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (PCT Days 14 – 16)

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Near one of the road intersections I came across the above sing warning hikers about potential mountain lions in the area and suggesting that “hikers should bear side arms.”

Over the winter I’d seen a mountain lion in my home state of Massachusetts and there had been a lot of discussion about why government officials might be reluctant to confirm sightings. Though I’m not sure whether the reluctance is real or not, signs like this one certainly make me understand why there may be a reluctance to confirm sightings. It seemed to me that the sign was trying to encourage fear, panic, and a shoot to kill attitude towards mountain lions (cougars).

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As I continued up the trail I kept my eyes open for cougars and rattlesnakes and bears, and whatever else might be lurking in the woods, but figured my odds of running into a mountain lion were probably just as good as they would be anywhere else on the trail (fairly low, and preferably at a distance).

Within the next five miles the trail intersected with a dirt road and saw what appeared to be mountain lion tracks. big mountain lion tracks. They made my men’s size 10 wide boots look small! Was it a hoax? It seemed a bit suspicious to me being so near the warning sign.

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I followed the tracks up the road and away from the trail and human tracks until I was confident that the tracks weren’t likely to be a hoax (if anybody knows a tracker that could provide verification or thoughts on the tracks I would be interested in hearing their thoughts!). The pressure, the variation, the spacing, and the number of tracks all suggested to me that the tracks were real though I have to admit I’m definitely not an expert tracker by any stretch of the imagination!

I have to admit, after seeing those giant tracks I may have slowed down a bit so that the friend hiking behind me could catch up to me. I figured the tracks were at least a day old and were going away from the trail, but it made me feel a bit better to hike near someone else for a while!

As I continued hiking I got the dialog from the wizard of oz stuck in my head, “do- do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?” Asks Dorothy and the tin man replies, “Um, some. Mostly lions and tigers and bears.” I almost skipped along to the chorus, “Lions and tigers and bears. oh my!” It seemed possible, even probably that at some point on my journey I would encounter mountain lions and bears, but I had no idea that later that same day I was going to encounter actual lions and tigers and bears!

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When I rounded the corner it was the smell that hit me first, kind of a fetid, rancid, nasty smell. I looked up and saw rows and rows of chain link fence. In the corner of one there was a large brown blob. As I approached, it became clear that it was a large brown bear intermittently panting in the sun and chewing on the metal bars. It appeared to be a 12×18 foot cage without any enrichment and without any shade. It seemed very sad to me. It was not the way I wanted to see a bear, or any animal really.

As I continued up the hill I saw more animals lying down in their cages in the sun. There were lions and tigers and bears, oh my! And they all looked very sad to me. I heard later that they were retired stunt animals. I just wish they at least had larger cages and some kind of environmental enrichment. If they spent their lives working to entertain us isn’t there something more that we could or perhaps even should do to make their lives better?

I may not feel comfortable seeing the big wild animals up close and personal in the wilderness, but I definitely think that that’s where they belong. We are guests in their world, and if we pull them into our world, we should treat them as respected guests if we can.

AT vs PCT: The first 150 miles

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Lots of people have been asking me how the PCT compares to the AT… At least in the first 150 miles there are lots of differences!

The AT is a green tunnel, the PCT is either a red racetrack or the yellow-brick road.

The AT has lots of tree cover and the trail was mostly mud or hard-packed earth. The PCT by contrast is incredibly exposed. There is rarely tree cover and much of the trail is yellowish beach sand or reddish rocks.

Walking on the AT was mostly walking on hard surfaces, walking on the PCT is mostly like walking on the soft part of the beach.

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On the AT I never used my sunscreen, on the PCT I use it four times a day.

On the AT I used my rescue inhaler four times a day, on the PCT I haven’t used it at all.

On the AT it seemed like there was water everywhere, on the PCT the creeks and streams have mostly been dry. The water caches, however, have been impressively stocked.

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On the AT almost 80% of the thu-hikers I met (in the first 150 miles) on the trail smoked cigarettes, on the PCT I haven’t encountered any smokers yet.

On the AT the birds started chirping an hour before dawn (a reliable alarm clock), on the PCT the birds start chirping sometime between dawn and an hour after dawn.

On the AT views were a rare commodity, on the PCT it seems there are spectacular new views around every corner.

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On the AT the lows were in the 40s, on the PCT the lows were in the 20s.

On the AT the highs were in the 70s, on the PCT the highs were in the 90s.

On the AT it’s possible to stay at shelters every night, on the PCT there are no shelters.

On the AT mice out number people, on the PCT lizards outnumber people.

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On the AT the crowd was mostly 20 something’s, on the PCT the crowd seems to be mostly 60 something’s (because I’m starting the PCT early and I started the AT late?).

On the AT people would look at you crazy if you hiked 20 miles on your first day, on the PCT that seems like the norm.

Blister prevalence seems the same for both the AT and the PCT. I’ve seen fewer knee injuries on the PCT so far though.

The PCT truly believes in switchbacks, Georgia thinks that it’s trying sometimes.

On the AT there are gaps, on the PCT there are canyons.

On the AT I never used my sunglasses, on the PCT I use them every day.

I didn’t seem any mosquitos the first 150 miles of the AT, I’ve seen tons on the PCT already.

There seems to be a higher default level of education on the PCT relative to the AT (could be due to the older demographic.

On the AT I hung a bear bag every night, on the PCT I sleep with my food on my tent.

On the AT I resupplied out of grocery stores and ghetty marts, for the PCT I am sending myself maildrops.

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Despite raining 4/5 of my first days on the PCT, it has generally been much sunnier on the PCT than on the AT.

When packing for the PCT I made a few adjustments to my gear. The main one was switching my alcohol stove to a jetboil sol. I loved my little alcohol stove, but because of the fire danger California has banned them this year.

In the first 150 miles I’ve also switched some of my gear. I traded out my baseball cap for a more desert friendly cap with a neck guard. I bought down booties to keep my feet warm. I bought a chrome dome umbrella for shade, I bought extra sunscreen, and I bought some Chapstick with sunscreen in it. I also realized that having a v-neck long sleeve shirt meant having extra sunburn area to worry about so I would definitely get a high-colored shirt if I were to do this again!

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Backpacking Science and Privilege: Food

On long-distance backpacking trips we don’t take the same things for granted that we do at home and as a result we can gain some insights into our privilege and how it affects the way we hike our hikes, and pack our packs. In this series of three posts I’m going to talk about how science and privilege influence the way I pack my pack. Using science as my guide, I’m going to break the discussion into three parts (requirements for physiological homeostasis in the wilderness):

  1. Food: Our ability to regulate blood sugar levels (glycoregulation).
  2. Water: Our ability to regulate water and minerals (osmoregulation).
  3. Shelter/Heat: Our ability to regulate body temperature (thermoregulation).

Unpacking my Invisible Knapsack: Food

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh wrote a famous essay in which she likened privilege to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” What follows is a list of food based privileges that hiking the trail has made me more aware of:

  • I don’t have to be hungry. Middle-class privilege means that this is usually true for me. On the trail, as long as I plan appropriately this remains true.
  • Being hungry won’t hurt me or interfere with my ability to function. I am hypoglycemic, so both on the trail and at home I need to be careful about what I eat.
  • I’ve never had to try to sleep with hunger gnawing at my stomach. Middle-class privilege means that this is usually true for me. On the trail, I run calorie deficits so large that this is no longer true… sooo hungry.
  • I know that if I need food other people will share their food with me. White privilege, middle-class privilege, and being a woman all probably contribute to the fact that this is a privilege I’m likely to get. On the AT this privilege becomes more obvious, and some people seem to rely on it.
  • As long as the food I eat is fit for humans it won’t make me sick. Food allergies and intolerances mean that this is not a privilege that I can always rely on.
  • I have enough body fat reserves to run a calorie deficit without compromising my short or long-term health. This is typically true for me. When I started the AT I was overweight and could definitely afford to run a calorie deficit and lose a lot of weight without compromising my health. As I head out to hike the PCT, I can’t rely on that nearly as much (see the science section below).
  • There are stores accessible to me where I can exchange money for food. Middle-class privilege means that this is typically true for me. On the trail, there are not always stores accessible to buy food when I am hungry. Access is limited by the remoteness of my location.
  • I know how much food and what kind of food I need to bring with me on a five-day backpacking trip. I have a lot of backpacking experience as well as access to resources that all allow me to have a good sense of what to pack for food and how to pack it.
  • What I eat, how much, and/or how often is not something people make comments about. I think that this should be true, but it isn’t. I thought gaining thin privilege would make this true, but it didn’t. Do you get this privilege?
  • My appearance and social standing are independent of my metabolism, what I eat, and how much I eat. On the trail this was true.
  • The research that I use to determine how much food I should eat is based on people who look like me. White privilege means that this is largely true, however, most of the data is based on men and not on women.
  • I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Middle-class privilege means that this is usually true for me. On the trail, figuring where your resupplies are going to be and where your next meal comes from becomes more important.
  • I can afford the healthiest, lightest weight food available. Middle-class privilege.

Though all of the above are likely to influence the amount of food I pack and the type of foods I pack, there are some guidelines based on science that you can follow to help determine the minimum amount of food you should carry.

Packing My Pack: Food

The amount of food that you need to carry depends on the number of calories you are likely to burn during your trip. The military probably has some of the best research about calorie consumption while hiking (marching) over long distances on rugged terrain with a pack. They suggest that people engaged in prolonged physical activity (like backpacking) need to consume 4000-5000 calories per day and that those numbers are even higher for cold conditions. The numbers calculated for recreational backpackers (using the heart rate method of energy expenditure by Hill et al ) are similar to those determined by the military, suggesting that backpackers typically expend 5000 calories per day. Despite burning 5000 calories a day, most backpackers were only consuming about 2000 calories a day, which is consistent with what I observed among 2013 AT thru-hikers.

Why don’t backpackers carry more food? Food is heavy. Most trail food is 100-200 calories/ounce, so to get 5000 calories/day you need to carry between 1.56 and 3.13 lbs of food per day. Assuming an intermediate calorie density and assuming that you want to maintain your existing body weight, you should be carrying about 2 lbs of food per day. So, assuming a five-day interval between resupply options, you should carry about 10 lbs of food. If there is significant probability that you will encounter detours, delays, or want ad hoc flexibility to extend the amount of time between resupplies, you may want to pack extra calories.

If you have sufficient body fat reserves to healthily maintain a calorie deficit you can carry less weight in food. Most AT thru-hikers carried between 2000 and 3000 calories of food per day, which works out to be about 1 lb of food per day. On my AT thru-hike I ran a significant calorie deficit. I lost 50 lbs.  Assuming that each pound of lost body fat is equivalent to 3500 calories burned, that means that I ran a net calorie deficit of 175,000 calories. Since I was on the trail for roughly 150 days, that works out to an average calorie deficit of 1167 calories/day.

For my PCT hike, I can’t afford to run a calorie deficit that large. Based on my current weight I figure I can lose a total of 10 lbs (a net 35,000 calorie deficit) on my hike of the PCT without becoming unhealthy. Assuming that the trip takes 150 days (the same amount of time I was on the AT), I can run an average daily calorie deficit of 233 calories.

As our calorie deficits on the trail climbed we put more and more effort into maximizing the calorie density of the foods we carried. Though the range of calorie densities for trail food was typically 100-200 calories/ounce, we all started to add more calorie dense items to our resupplies as we got further into our hikes. Which foods are the most calorie dense? Fats! (Here’s a list of the most calorie dense foods). Fats have 8.8 calories/g or 246 calories/ounce, and so high fat foods become very popular on the trail. To get more fat into my diet I carried things like Justin’s Maple Almond Butter (190 calories per 32 g or 166 calories per ounce) and packets of olive oil (240 calories/ounce).

In addition to carrying more calorie dense foods, we tried to help make up for our on trail calorie deficits with calorie surpluses in town. Ice cream, pizza, oreos, doughnuts… all of the most calorie rich foods we could find we ate. Though fats are the most calorie dense foods, the runner up (Ethanol, at 7 calories/g or 196 calories/ounce) was incredibly popular in town. Using ethanol as your major source of calories has some significant downsides however, including (but not limited to) hangovers and dehydration. If you get dehydrated in town, you need to carry (or otherwise procure) more water on the trail and water is heavy (1 L is 1 kilogram, or 2.2 lbs)!

In the next post I’ll discuss how privilege and science influence the way that I deal with water on the trail.

 


 

Are there other ways that privilege and science influence your relationship with food and how much food you carry?

 

Things that have been weighing on me…

Bullying and trying to shame people into reducing their pack weight is relatively new to the backpacking community (Does pack weight come from fear?), but it has been commonplace in American culture as a way to try to motivate people to lose weight for decades. Though I’m sure (or at least hope) that the people who coined the term “pack weight comes from fear” were not intentionally tapping into the very sensitive issues surrounding size/weight-based prejudice, they stumbled into it anyway. Issues of bullying and weight shaming have bled over from mainstream America into my idyllic community in the woods and I don’t like it!

Americans obsess about food and weight.

I was shocked when I returned home from the trail and was immediately inundated with commentary about food, eating, and beauty. The culture I’d been immersed in on the trail viewed food and eating very differently from mainstream society, and I had forgotten the pervasiveness of our cultural programming about food and body image. On the trail, I lost count of the number of complete strangers that walked up to me and offered me Snickers bars or other kinds of food. On the trail, the Snickers bars and other unexpected treats were referred to as “trail magic,” and the strangers providing them were called “trail angels.” Meeting a trail angel and getting unexpected trail magic was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I still smile thinking back on those Snickers bars! On the trail I’d stopped being ashamed of my hunger. I’d stopped being ashamed of eating. I’d stopped being ashamed of taking food from strangers. If I went into a restaurant and ordered 2 appetizers, 2 meals, and then every dessert off of the menu my friends and acquaintances would look at me with approving surprise and say, “You go girl!” while the wait-staff would laugh wholeheartedly and say, “You must be a thru-hiker.” On the trail, the pervasive attitudes about food and eating were all very positive. No one ever said, do you really need that candy bar?” or “You’d really look great if you just lost another X (fill in a number) pounds.”

According to Weight Watchers, a healthy weight for my height (5’10) ranges from 139-174 pounds, which is consistent with my internal metrics (I know that if I drop below 140 pounds, I become amenorrheic, which is a sign that I’m underweight). The CDC on the other hand suggests a normal range of 129-174 lbs. In the five months that I was on the trail I had gone from being over-weight (185 lbs and a size 16) to underweight (135 lbs and a size 3). When I returned to civilization I felt like a completely different person on the inside, and had forgotten that my outward appearance had changed too. My weight was often the first thing people noticed and wanted to relate to me about, not my experiences or my personal growth. I was surprised by how complicated my feelings about that were, both personally and culturally. Suddenly I had ‘thin privilege’… All of the women on TV looked like me, all of the food advertisements seemed to be saying that women should look like me, and people kept telling me that I was beautiful.

None of it quite felt right though. I definitely was not at a reasonable long-term stable weight for me. At first it seemed laughable to think that people would look at me and think that I was. It was ridiculous! But then I realized that I was the weight that the media was telling me I should be: I was the weight where everyone on TV looked like me. Suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was horrified. This was compounded by the fact that I knew I was underweight and people were already starting to shake their heads and make comments like, “You better start watching what you eat or you’ll gain it all back!” It was incredibly unnerving. Though I enjoyed the privilege and praise that came with being thin, the message that I needed to be careful if I wanted to keep my new found privilege was coming through loud and clear. Being a size 3 meant thin privilege, but would I get to keep that privilege at a healthier, more stable weight? I wasn’t sure.

What I do know is that whether I am underweight or overweight, what I was eat, how much, and how often is a topic of conversation whether I want it to be or not. Typically when I am heavier, the comments are more critical and less positive than when I am lighter.

Being heavy, overweight, obese or fat in America, “is associated with being ‘lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power.’ As a result, ‘fat’ isn’t a description like tall or redhead – it’s an indication of moral character: fat is bad.” According to the CDC, 35.7% of American adults are obese (having a BMI or body mass index greater than 30) and many more are considered to be overweight (BMI greater than 25 but less than 30). Given the stigma associated with weight and the large number of people that are considered to be overweight or ‘fat’, it’s not surprising that many people in our culture are sensitive about weight issues. Is it reasonable to be concerned about the health risks associated with being overweight or obese? Yes. Does weight discrimination help people evaluate and improve their health? No. Weight discrimination can make it even harder to navigate the health care system since doctors respect their patients less as their weight (BMI) goes up. Is weight shaming an effective way to motivate people to lose weight and to combat America’s obesity epidemic? No. “Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity,” (according to findings published in 2013 on PLOS ) and discussed in the Huffington Post.

Hikers obsess about pack weight.

Just like Americans seem to have a pathological obsession with body weight, backpackers are obsessed with pack weight (See my previous post: “Does pack weight come from fear?”). Is it reasonable to be concerned about the weight of your pack? Yes. Should we adopt pervasive American attitudes about body weight and apply them to pack weight? No. Like body weight, there is no single number that you point to and say that it is an ideal weight that all people should strive towards in all conditions. However, we can use science to help define a reasonable range of pack weights that people can then tailor to their individual needs.

The upper limit of pack weight that you should carry is defined by human structural load carrying capacity. The US Army Science Board in a study suggests that 50 pounds is the maximum load that should be carried by a soldier for any length of time based on physiological constraints and musculoskeletal concerns. In addition to a cap of 50 lbs, the optimal backpack load for soldiers in combat has been determined to be 30% of their body weight. Research in recreational contexts suggests a similar threshold for pack weight of of not more than 30% of body weight. Based on these studies, the maximum pack weight you should carry is 30% of your body weight unless you weigh 167 pounds or more, at which point you shouldn’t carry more than 50 pounds (note that the % body weight calculations are based on an individual’s ‘fit’ weight or ‘ideal’ weight).

The lower limit of pack weight or “base pack” weight (defined as pack weight excluding consumables eg food, water, and fuel) is currently established by experienced ultralight backpacking enthusiasts like Ray Jardine (who pioneered the ultralight movement in 1992) who are able to get their base pack weights below 10 lbs. Food and water then get added to the base pack weight depending on availability and local resources. For most people, a reasonable pack weight is somewhere between 12 and 50 lbs, but will vary with personal experience, financial constraints, and the science of survival.

Knowing a “healthy” range of pack weights provides a rudimentary (at best) guideline about pack weight, but doesn’t actually help when it comes to figuring out what you should put in your pack when venturing off into the wilderness. When I pack my pack, I use scientific guidelines to determine the minimum that I need to carry for survival:

  1. Food (for glycoregulation).
  2. Water (for osmoregulation).
  3. Shelter/Heat (for thermoregulation).

In the next three posts I’m going to discuss how the science and privilege around these requirements influence the way I pack my pack and hike my hike.