Thru-hike Toothbrush Review (Backpacking/Ultralight)

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:

Colgate Wisp Max Fresh Peppermint Mini-Brushes, 24 count

The Colgate Wisp (5/5): By far my favorite backpacking toothbrush… I discovered them on my 2014 PCT thru-hike and have used them on almost all of my backpacking adventures since:

  • Usability(5/5): Easy to use, seems effective, minimal practice required
  • Weight(4/5): for a weekend trip (5/5) because I only take one… for a thru-hike with 5-7 days between resupplies I would take a few (0.3lbs shipping weight for 24 including packaging)
  • Cost (5/5): ~$0.21/each ($4.96/24)
  • Availability (5/5): Walmart and many convenience stores/gas stations
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… On the PCT where water was a premium I was loath to waste water on wetting my toothbrush, spitting out toothpaste, and cleaning my toothbrush… This little guy solved all those problems in one fell swoop
  • Hygiene (5/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when they get funky. Individual results may vary, but I was willing/able to use each brush at least 2-3 times before the minty goodness wore off (more if I cleaned them and didn’t mind the loss of mintiness).
    • Bonus: does not involve sticking your fingers in your mouth!!

Rolly Mini-Toothbrush(3-4/5): The lightest weight option, which is awesome, but seems to requires some skill to use effectively (without sticking your fingers in your mouth… Note: if you are super sensitive to strong flavors you may find its mintyness  overpowering at first.

  • Usability(3-4/5): Some skill required to get used to rolling around my teeth… I’ve used them 5 times so far, and with practice I expect that I will come to appreciate them more
  • Weight(5/5): Certainly the smallest and lightest weight toothbrush I’ve encountered… Just make sure you don’t accidentally swallow it! (0.3 oz shipping weight including packaging for 6 or them)
  • Cost(3/5): $0.60-$0.99/each
  • Availability(3/5): Available at some Walgreens stores and on Amazon
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… and small… nothing to complain about there
  • Hygiene (4/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when you’re done using them… the fact that you have to directly handle it to put it into your mouth (and to take it out), makes it more squeamish for re-use… for single use no problem (Mintiness lasted through 2, 2-minute uses for me)

GUM Folding Travel Toothbrush(4/5): For my 2013 AT thru-hike I eventually settled on this folding toothbrush because I found the lighter alternatives to obnoxious to use for such a long trip. I hiked over a thousand miles with it! For general travel I give this a 5/5… It is my favorite reusable travel toothbrush!

  • Usability(5/5): If you’re looking for a travel toothbrush that fits in your hand like a normal toothbrush, doesn’t break in two while you’re brushing, and still folds up nicely for travel, this is the toothbrush for you.
  • Weight(3/5): It’s not ultralight by any stretch of the imagination
  • Cost(4/5): ~$4.50 each, typically sold in two-packs, reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Available at Walmart and on Amazon
  • Convenience(4/5): They are handy and reusable… they still require water, toothpaste, and washing, but it’s a toothbrush, what do you expect?
  • Hygiene (4/5): If you have plentiful access to water and can wash them regularly then hygiene is not an issue… I didn’t have any issues beyond what I’d expect with a normal toothbrush.

Safety First Finger Toothbrush(2/5): I would call this (along with all the other finger toothbrushes I’ve tried) a failed experiment.

  • Usability(2/5): the bristles didn’t seem very effective for me, and having to put my finger in my mouth seemed dubious (especially as a thru-hiker)…
  • Weight(3/5): much lighter than a normal toothbrush, and lighter than my travel toothbrush with holes cut into it…additional weight could be saved by trimming excess bits off of it, but then you have the hygiene issue of having your dirty finger in your mouth… I’m not sure that its worth it :-P (0.8 oz shipping weight; leave a comment if you know the weight of just the brush)
  • Cost(4/5): $1.99 is not bad considering that its reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Easy to get at Walmart (or similar) at Dollar Generals along the AT, which is how I ended up experimenting with one.
  • Convenience(3/5): Required washing, toothpaste, and usual care and maintenance of toothbrush
  • Hygiene(1/5): Didn’t clean my teeth well, required me to actually put my exposed finger in my mouth to clean rear teeth, and if water etc got into it, it tended to linger… yuck!

Do you have a favorite backpacking and/or travel toothbrush? Share your favorites in the comments! (Also, if you know the individual weights of the toothbrushes I’ve mentioned, let me know and I’ll update the post… I don’t have a scale with me.

Links to other backpacking/travel toothbrushes/reviews:

The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List)

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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!!!

As my gear list grew, however, I noticed another thing that was quickly adding up… the weight of my pack! My pack was on the heavy side. When I was backpacking on the AT in the early 1990’s carrying a heavy pack was something that people boasted about; it was a point of pride. Back then my pack was lighter than most of my peers, and people gave me sh** about it because a lighter pack meant that I wasn’t working as hard as they were. Since the ’90s, however, there’s been a cultural revolution in the world of backpacking, and the lightest packs are now the packs that people admire and boast about…

“With a pack that small you’ve gotta be ultralight… You must be a PCT thru-hiker!” exclaimed a southbound John Muir Trail (JMT) hiker admiringly.

“Me? Ultralight? I’m a thru-hiker, but I’m definitely not ultralight,” I laughed. Many of the PCT thru-hikers I knew were striving to be ultralight (they’d reduced their packs to a minimum and they used all of the latest, greatest, lightweight gear), but I wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I had gotten so used to being razzed about my ‘big’ pack that after ~1000 miles of hiking amongst fellow PCT thru-hikers I’d embraced the idea that my pack was ‘big,’ which is why I was surprised when the JMT hiker commented on the petite size of my pack… I was also surprised that he’d picked me out as a PCT thru-hiker since I was on the JMT (headed to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley) and not the PCT at the time. He was partly right though, compared to the JMT hikers I’d seen, my pack was small.

“Not ultralight?!” he re-iterated with surprise as he shifted his 60+ lb pack around uncomfortably. He eyed my pack, which weighed ~30 lbs less than his, suspiciously. “Nope,” I assured him, “not ultralight.” In the High Sierra I had all of my heaviest gear, but even in the desert when my pack had been at its lightest, with a base weight (the weight of my pack and everything in it except for food and water) of ~17 lbs, my pack was ‘light’ (< 20 lbs) and not ‘ultralight’ (< 10 lbs). “Well,” I conceded, “I have a lot of lightweight gear, and I try lighten my load when I can, but I don’t want to be ultralight. People that are ultralight tend to have different goals than I do… they are usually trying to cover as many miles as they can, as quickly as they can. Me? I’m on Vacation! My goal is to take my time, to relax, and to enjoy my PCT thru-hike… To that end: I started almost a month early, I carry ‘luxury’ items (like my Patches, my camp shoes, and my camera), I go sightseeing, I take a lot of photos, and I hike a lot of side trails… It’s a different backpacking philosophy.”

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As I tallied up the weight of my ‘luxury’ items for my gear list, it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning any ‘ultralight’ backpacking awards. On the trail, people frequently talked about their base weight… bandying around numbers between 12 and 15 pounds, but my cold weather base weight for the North Cascades was going to a lot higher than that… closer to 23 lbs… I carefully scrutinized my gear… I’d love to have a lighter pack, but what was I willing to sacrifice to get there? There were a lot of painless upgrades (except in terms of $$) and small sacrifices that I could (and would) gladly make to decrease my base weight in the future… Changes that would drop my cold weather base weight (to <20 lbs), but that wouldn’t alter the vacation-like nature of my thru-hike.

But what about my camera? That was my biggest luxury item, weighing in at ~ 2 lbs. If I were to do another solo PCT thru-hike would I leave my camera behind? No. Would I be willing to trade it for a point and shoot? No. I loved standing alone in the middle of the trail with my camera capturing bits and pieces of its ephemeral beauty as I hiked… My camera gave me an excuse to linger and interact with the beauty of the trail and its inhabitants… It enhanced my appreciation of my hike, and it was worth it… It was worth the weight… all two pounds of it…

Throughout my 2013 AT thru-hike and my 2014 PCT thru-hike, my gear was constantly evolving as I tried to maximize my enjoyment of the trail and minimize my pack weight. So, what did I have in my pack at the end of the PCT? Was any of it the same as what I started with at the beginning of my 2013 thru-hike? How many miles did my gear last? If I were to do the PCT again, which gear would I change/upgrade? What follows is the answer to these questions and a bit of gear geekery: first my comments on the gear that’s gotten me through between 1000 and 5000 miles of thru-hiking, then a detailed list of all of the gear I carried on my PCT thru-hike and the upgrades that I would make.

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5000 mile club: This is the gear that I carried from start to finish on both my AT and PCT thru-hikes!

  • Patches (3.8 oz.)
    • My patches are the source of my trail name and are full of memories of the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been… I’ve had them for over a decade.
  • Tent (9/10): Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (1 lb, 15 oz.)
    • I purchased the Fly Creek UL2 in 2013 for my AT thru-hike. I loved the UL2
    • After  ~3000 miles of use, the zipper on the body of my tent ran off of it’s track. I called Big Agnes from Mammoth Lakes (mile 907) and they sent me a replacement tent body in my next mail drop. Check out the full tent review that I did after the AT! The tent fly and stakes are still the originals I started out with in GA.
    • Upgrade: Z Packs Splash Bivy (6.4 oz., $225) with the Hexamid Solo-Plus Tarp w/ beak (7.4 oz, $280). Even though I loved the UL2, I would consider switching to a bivy/tarp setup. I discovered the joy of cowboy camping on the PCT, and cowboy camped whenever I could. This meant that I didn’t use my tent as often on the PCT as I had on the AT, and switching to the lighter weight bivy/tarp combination might better suit my PCT/CDT needs in the future.
  • Spork (10/10): Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Synthetic Insulated Jacket (9/10): MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • I love this jacket as a good basic layer that will keep me warm even when wet.
    • Upgrade: If I had it to do over again, I’d switch to the version without pockets to save 1.8 oz: Montbel UL Thermawrap Jacket (8.4 oz., $145).
  • Gloves (8/10): Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
    • The gloves were great, but sometimes I wished I had something a little warmer and that I could leave on while using my phone.
    • Upgrade to: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Headlamp (10/10): Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • I ended up changing the batteries about once a month.
  • Trowel (9/10): REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
    • My 9.6 inch long snow stake worked as well as any camp trowel I’ve used for digging cat holes.
  • Camera (10/10): Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers)
  • Trekking Poles (9/10): Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)
    • I love hiking with trekking poles… The middle segment of one of the poles sheared as I was coming down Glen Pass in the High Sierra, I called Leki from Mammoth Lakes and they mailed a replacement to Tuolumme Meadows for me.
    • The original trekking pole tips got me from GA to ME, and then from the Mexican Border to Idyllwild. A second pair of tips got me from Idyllwild, CA to Ashland, OR. I’m on the third pair now (I was told to expect ~500 miles per $20 pair of tips).

4000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping Pad (10/10): Thermarest NeoAir Women’s Xlite (12 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. It’s made it through with no leaks so far! Blowing it up is currently my least favorite camp chore though.
  • Sleeping bag liner (10/10): Western Mountaineering Whisper (4 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. I used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet on hot nights. I also slipped my sleeping pad into it whenever I was cowboy camping (PCT) or sleeping in a shelter (AT) to protect it.
    • Upgrade: If I get the ZPacks bivy I will eliminate my sleeping bag liner.

3000+ mile club:

  • Hydration reservoir (10/10): Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • ~ 3750 miles: PCT Thru & ½ AT. I borrowed it from my mom when she visited me on the AT in Virginia… I wonder if she wants it back now?
  • Knife (10/10): Randall (10.4 oz. with sheath)
    • ~3750 miles: PCT thru & 1/2 AT. I love having my Randall at my hip. I started the AT with a couple of small, ultralite blades, but I got tired of every single person I met asking me if I was armed. After I started carrying the Randall on my belt people stopped asking me if I was armed. Mission accomplished.
  • Emergency beacon (9/10): Spot Locator Beacon (4.4 oz)
    • ~3700 miles: PCT Thru & ~1000 AT miles. As a solo backpacker, I try not to leave home without it.
  • Synthetic Insulated Pants (9/10): Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
    • ~3000 miles: PCT Thru and ~600AT miles. I’ve had these pants since my Kilimanjaro ascent in 2010… they double as my hiking pillow.
    • Upgrading to the newer version would save 3.5 oz.: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).

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2000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping bag (10/10): Marmot Lithium Zero Degree Bag (2 lb, 15 oz.)
  • Ground cloth (10/10): Tyvek Sheet (5 oz.)
    • 2665 PCT thru: I absolutely loved cowboy camping on my ground cloth. I also kept the ground cloth handy to sit on during breaks during the day… (If I upgrade to a bivy/tarp combination I would leave out the tyvek sheet).
  • Cook Stove (8/10): Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru! The only trouble I had with it was that the piezo-starter was unreliable.
  • Raincoat (2/10): Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru: I had a Helium II for the ~2200 miles of the AT, but it wasn’t waterproof so I returned it. They sent me a new one for the PCT, but it wasn’t waterproof either!
    • Upgrade: The ZPacks  Challenger Rain Jacket Large (5.8 oz., $260)
  • External battery (8/10): Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. It worked great, but it was more than I needed
    • Upgrade to the Anker 2nd Gen Astro E3 10000mAh (8.1 oz).
  • Camp shoes (9/10): New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. I used them for river crossing, and around camp every night.
  • Sun hat (10/10): MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Mt. Laguna to Canada

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1000+ mile club:

  • Backpack (8/10): Osprey Exos 58 Backpack (2 lbs, 8 oz.)
    • ~1700 PCT miles. I used an Osprey Exos 58 on the AT and loved it to pieces, so Osprey replaced it and I started the PCT with a brand new Exos 58. At Kennedy Meadows, I switched to the ULA Catalyst (2 lbs, rating: 4/10) because my bear canister (required for the High Sierras) didn’t fit into the Exos very well. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to hate the Catalyst until I’d hiked at least 100 miles in it. After hiking ~900 miles in it I was still grumbling, so I switched back to my beloved Exos. My dream pack upgrade would be to a 62L Arc Blast from Z-Packs (1 lb, 4 oz., $320) with a custom torso length (my torso is short: 15.5 inches).
  • Rain Pants (8/10): Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
    • ~1000 PCT miles: I’ve had them for about 10 years, but they need to be replaced now.
    • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).

****

When I finished my PCT thru-hike in the North Cascades, Washington I was carrying most of my cold weather gear and the total base weight for my pack (everything except the loophole weight*, food, and water) was 23.4 lbs. If money were no object, and I could convince myself to leave my ‘good’ camera behind, I would spend $1529 and make all of the upgrades I list above (and in my detailed gear list below), and I’d drop my cold weather base weight down to 16 lbs… But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t leave the camera behind…

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***

Detailed PCT Gear List:

The Big Three (8 lbs, 11 oz):

Cook System (1 lb, 3.5 oz.):

  • Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
  • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz, I used 3 on the PCT)
  • Fuel canister (11.8 oz): I cooked 1 hot meal a day and a canister would last me ~3 weeks.

Wearables:

  • Outerwear (2 lb, 4.6 oz.):
    • Raincoat: Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • Rain Pants: Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
      • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).
    • Waterproof gloves: 1 pair vinyl gloves (0.2 oz.)
      • Upgrade? ZPacks™  Challenger Rain Mitts (1 oz., $65)
    • Synthetic Insulated Jacket: MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • Synthetic Insulated Pants: Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
      • Upgrade: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).
    • Rock On Fleece hat (1.4 oz)
    • Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Camp shoes: New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz) – luxury item
  • Clothing (1 lb, 8.6 oz.):
    • 2 – Ex Officio underwear (2 oz., 1 oz/pair)
    • 2 – Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (3.2 oz., 1.6 oz/pair)
    • Mountain Hardware Hiking Pants (10.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (3.8oz., $84.95) or Montbel Dynamo Wind Pants (2.6 oz, $69). This is the first pack upgrade that I would make!
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Bottoms (5.2 oz.): Pajamas
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Long-Sleeve Crew (3.8 oz.): Pajamas

Technology (4 lbs, 10.2 oz):

  • Headlamp: Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • lighter weight headlamps are an option.
  • Verizon iPhone 5 ( 7.8 oz. with cable and charger)
    • 679 miles: Bend, OR to Canada. My iPhone 4 made it ~4000 miles, through most of the AT and the PCT, before it decided it had had enough rough treatment and took a forbidden swim in Obsidian Creek.
  • Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers) – luxury item
  • External battery: Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable) – luxury item
  • Spot Locator Beacon ( 4.4 oz)

Extreme Weather Gear:

  • Desert (8 oz.):
    • Chrome Dome (8 oz.): 942.5 miles, I shipped it home with my ice axe. – luxury item
  • High Sierra (5 lbs, 4.8 oz): I wrote a review of my high sierra gear from the trail
    • BV500 Bear Vault (2lbs, 9 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Kahtoola Microspikes (13.6 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Hanz Waterproof Calf – Length Socks (3.2 oz.): 318.5 miles, Lone Pine to Kennedy Meadows North
    • CAMP Corsa Ice Axe (7.2 oz.): 290 miles, Lone Pine to Tuolumme Meadows
    • Montbel Plasma 1000 Down Jacket (4.8 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
      • Upgrade? Montbel XLite Down Anarak (6.2 oz., $219)
    • Sunglasses (?): Necessary in the High Sierra. I went through ~3pair on the PCT because I kept losting them. I’d put them on my hat, forget about them, and then, at some point, I’d take off the hat and I wouldn’t notice that the sunglasses had gone flying until the next time I wanted to use them… I didn’t use any sunglasses in Oregon or Washington.

Health & Hygiene:

  • Water (11.7 oz.):
    • Aquamira (2 oz.). ~5 aquamira kits for total PCT thru.
    • Sawyer Squeeze Mini (2 oz.).
    • Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • 3 – 1L Water bladders (0.8 oz. each). 6L capacity thru the desert, dropped to five later
  • Trowel: REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
  • First Aid kit (1 lb, 2.4 oz.):
    • includes emergency asthma medications, sunscreen, compass, bear bag rope, 2 epi-pens, 2 spare AAA batteries etc (Most people can drop this down to < 6 oz.).
  • Daily med kit (1 lb, 1.4 oz.):
    • includes one month of daily prescription medications, inhalers, contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. (Most people can drop this down to < 4 oz.)
  • DEET & Headnet (~2 oz.):
    • Critically important during bug season in the High Sierra! Pick them up in Kennedy Meadows if you don’t have them before.

Loophole Weight (3 lbs, 6.6 oz.): *The stuff that didn’t go into my pack (or on it), and isn’t included in the base weight of my pack.

  • Daily Clothing (1 lb, 1.6 oz):
    • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Long-sleeve yellow Saucony shirt (4.8 oz.)
    • Rab t-shirt (2.4 oz.)
    • Arc Teryx hiking skirt (4.4 oz.)
    • Ex Officio sports bra (1.8 oz.) – doubled as bathing suit top.
    • Ex Officio underwear (1 oz.)
    • Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (1.6 oz.)
  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 1.5 ( 9.9 oz.). 4 pair of shoes total for PCT:
    • Altra ~850 miles. Truckee, CA – Bend, OR
    • Altra ~600 miles. Bend, Or to Canada
    • Check out my AT shoe review and my thoughts on shoes from the PCT!
    • Other  PCT Shoes:
      • Merril Moab Ventilator’s (1 lb, 8 oz.): ~700 miles, Campo – Kennedy Meadows, CA
      • Oboz Traverse Low (16.6 oz.). ~450 miles, Kennedy Meadows – Truckee, CA
  • Randall Knife (10.4 oz. with sheath) – luxury item
  • Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)

Questions about my PCT gear? Leave a comment below. I’m hoping to write full gear reviews for some of the things I carried in the upcoming weeks.

Thru-hikers: What was your favorite luxury item on the trail?

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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?

 

Does pack weight come from fear?

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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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.