“I don’t understand why my pack is so heavy,” I mumbled, heaving my pack onto my back, “I have all the ultralight gear.” Peru laughed, “That’s exactly the problem. You have ALL of it!!” I laughed too. She wasn’t exactly wrong.
Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different backpacking toothbrushes, and I’ve hated most of them… They’re usually too small to fit comfortable in my hand, awkward to use, and/or messy! I also find the idea of spitting anything (even toothpaste, maybe especially toothpaste) into the bushes to be contrary to my leave no trace ethos… So brushing my teeth in the back-country has always seemed like a bit of an onerous chore… Unfortunately, going on a thru-hike and not brushing my teeth for 5 months wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I started experimenting with toothbrushes… After 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve found a few that I like:
As I tracked down the gear that I actually carried on the PCT to weigh it and write up my final gear list, I tallied up the number of miles I’d carried each item with me… The miles added up quickly… in the last two years I’ve hiked ~5000 miles (AT 2013, PCT 2014 et al.) and some of my gear has been with me that entire time!!! (Edit: click here for my newest gearlist- CDT 2018 and >8000 miles)
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):
- Food: Our ability to regulate blood sugar levels (glycoregulation).
- Water: Our ability to regulate water and minerals (osmoregulation).
- 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)!
Are there other ways that privilege and science influence your relationship with food and how much food you carry?
The catchphrase “pack weight comes from fear” (Ultralight hiking in Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook, p.66) is gaining popularity in the backpacking world as a way to motivate people to “lighten up” and it is driving met nuts. If you had to choose between packing your pack fearfully or fearlessly, which would you choose? I cringe when I imagine novice backpackers hearing that “pack weight comes from fear” as they accept the unspoken challenge to “live their lives without fear” and dump out the contents of their packs before marching off into the wilderness.
In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” With those words, he established a new definition of fear in the American psyche. The connotation of fear suddenly became unbalanced and strongly skewed towards irrational fear. Assuming the popular definition of fear, my pack weight definitely does not come from fear, and I don’t want other people to assume that it does.
“If you fear being cold, you’ll carry more clothes,” the handbook continued. “If you fear being cold, you’ll stay home!” I grumbled. “If you want to be more comfortable, you’ll carry more clothes,” but it was more than just that. “If you don’t want to die from hypothermia, you’ll carry more clothes.” Hypothermia is a big deal and under-preparing for the cold is a mistake that people on the trail die from each year.
“If you fear going hungry, you’ll carry extra food.” “No,” I grumped, “that’s not why you carry extra food! If you don’t want to run out of food and impose on other hikers, you’ll carry extra food.” I’d gotten tired of the infamous moochers on the trail that would consistently run out of food one or two days before town and look to the rest of us (with sorrowful eyes) to bail them out and share our meager supplies.
The handbook wasn’t done yet, “If you fear floaties in your water, you’ll carry a filter.” Are floaties something that people actually fear? No. “If you dislike being sick, you’ll carry a water filter or some other way to purify your water.” Water contaminated with bacteria or parasites (e.g. giardia and e. coli) can give you the runs, make you miserable, and force you off of the trail (the EPA has a nice report about giardia and drinking water here). My experience with giardia (acquired in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine) was absolutely no fun.
“If you fear bugs, you’ll sleep in a tent (p. 66),” the guidebook finished. “Hrmph,” I don’t carry a tent because I fear bugs. “If you want shelter from the rain, wind, and snow, you’ll sleep in a tent.” Even though I don’t fear bugs, I do fear some of the diseases they carry, “If you fear Lyme Disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, Malaria, and yellow fever, you’ll carry DEET, bug nets, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts, or maybe you’ll just stay home!” Lyme disease in particular affected at least five of my thru-hiking friends in 2013 and forced them to take time off from the trail. Lyme Disease was definitely something I feared, so I constantly checked myself for ticks and tried to keep myself, my pack, and my tent out of the tall grass (check out what the CDC has to say about Lyme disease here).
At the end of the paragraph I grumpily put the book down and tried to figure out why the idea that “Pack weight comes from fear” had touched such a nerve. It implied that the reason my pack was heavy was because I was irrationally afraid of cold, hunger, floaties, bugs etc. Was that the reason that my pack was heavy?
No, it wasn’t and it wasn’t ok for people to assume that it was. My pack weight came from a combination of the things I needed for survival, the things I wanted for my comfort and enjoyment, and the experience to know the difference; experience that I had gained hiking and backpacking thousands of miles over more than 20 years in all kinds of conditions, all over the world. Have I perfected my pack yet? No, but that’s because I’m still learning (and always will be) and improving on things, not because I am afraid.
Have I gotten really tired of people giving me unsolicited advice about my backpack as they point out their smaller, lighter, and clearly (to them) superior packs? Yes. Will this be even more irritating if people assume that my pack weight comes from fear? Yes! If people start assuming that my “pack weight comes from fear” then they are likely to dismiss my rational/experience-based assessments of risk and gear without bothering to have a real conversation with me about it first. Even though I really enjoy geeking out about my gear (and gear weight), I would like it if the conversation at least started by assuming that everyone involved was equally experienced or otherwise on equal footing. Having yet another hurdle to jump before people are willing to take me seriously and converse with me, instead of just lecturing or mansplaining things to me was not something I looked forward to. The emotional milieu of fear, judgment, dismissal, and disrespect surrounding issues of size and weight suddenly felt awfully familiar.
It felt like bullying. It felt like weight shaming. “Pack weight comes from fear,” was forcing people to justify every pound and every ounce of their pack weight so that they wouldn’t be judged as inferior, weak, or afraid just because they had a heavy pack. The metaphor between pack weight and our societies pathological obsession with body weight leapt out of the page and lunged at me. I tried to reign in my thoughts and save that rant for another post.
I took a deep breath and tried to refocus, it wasn’t just the metaphor and issues of weight shaming that bothered me, the whole idea that pack weight comes from fear reeked of privilege. As I thought about backpacks and privilege Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” immediately came to mind. She referred to privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Speaking of white privilege, did you know that 97% of AT thru-hikers are white? (See the National Park Service Use and Users Of the Appalachian Trail guide for 2000.)
How much privilege (white privilege, middle class privilege, male privilege, thin privilege, first world privilege) is embedded in backpacking and in a comment like, “Pack weight comes from fear?” A lot. If you have a lot of money do you have access to lighter, less bulky equipment? Yes. Perhaps then we should say “pack weight comes from money.” Is the threshold temperature at which men and women become cold different? Yes (See the EN ratings for sleeping bags and compare Tlim(men) and Tcomf(women)). Does this mean women have to carry more gear (which weighs more) than their male counterparts? Yes. So, perhaps we should say “pack weight comes from gender.” Argh! I was getting even grumpier as I thought about backpacking and privilege. There are ways that being on the trail changes our relationship with privilege, but there are definitely ways that it does not. I’d stumbled onto yet another topic that I had lots of things to say about (fodder for yet another post).
I had to stay focused though, I wasn’t quite done with talking about “pack weight comes from fear,” and how dangerous that concept could be for inexperienced or novice backpackers. Without experience how do you know which things you need to ensure your safety, which things you carry because they make you comfortable, and which things you carry because of irrational fears? The short answer is that you don’t. Most novice backpackers carry a lot of things that they don’t need and end up like Bill Bryson in “Into the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” with huge overstuffed ‘monster’ backpacks. Providing novice (and experienced) backpackers with advice about how to eliminate unnecessary weight from their packs is a noble goal, but we shouldn’t be trying to motivate people by making them feel ashamed about their packs or their weight. How do you figure out what the healthy range of pack weights is if you don’t have any backpacking experience yet? The engineer and physiologist in me suddenly had a new mission; to compile the research about physiological and mechanical boundaries for pack weight (both high and low) instead of relying on ranges based on hearsay and fear mongering (the idea for yet another set of posts was born)!
If pack weight doesn’t come from fear, what does it come from? It comes from the things we’ve learned from: society, privilege, exposure to other hikers/backpackers, experiences with the wilderness, and experiences with our bodies/health. Though it’s an ongoing process, with enough experience, backpackers learn the difference between what they need to survive, what they want for their comfort and entertainment, and how to make compromises between the two to lighten their loads.
By the time my rant about “pack weight comes from fear,” started to wind down it was way past my bedtime and I was exhausted. Quietly, a quote from the movie Donnie Darko came to mind, “As you can see, the Life Line is divided into two polar extremes. Fear and love. Fear is in the negative energy spectrum. And love is in the positive energy spectrum,” and I laughed to myself. Making the assertion that “pack weight comes from love,” sounded just as ridiculous to me as “pack weight comes from fear.” Sure, it eliminated much of the negative spin, but it still didn’t encourage a rational discussion about how we pack and unpack our packs.