Backpacking Heavy is a Pain in the Neck
It’s been two days and my legs are still sore. The bruise on my right big toe is still tender.
After returning from a weekend backpacking trip with my Boy Scout troop, I was in pain. My neck and shoulders were stiff and sore. My lower back was tense. My knees were revolting. What had I done to myself? I was in good shape, I exercise often, and I frequently go backpacking, so what was so different about this weekend to put my body into such misery?
Our plans put us into the east end of West Clear Creek in northern Arizona, following the Maxwell Trail #37. The trail to camp was only a mile (according to my GPS device), but it did descend 1,000 ft (305 m) from the trailhead to the canyon bottom. I had backpacked this this trail before, and while it is rocky and steep, I wouldn’t consider it terribly difficult. At least not with a lightweight pack. This time was different. I was heavy.
Since returning to Boy Scouting as an adult volunteer, my pack weight has dropped considerably. I started off with a traditional pack weight with the “Big Three” items (backpack, sleep system, and shelter) each weighing close to 5 lbs (2.25 kg) each. I now take trips where my entire pack weight for a typical weekend trip (including food and water) is between 15 and 17 lbs (7 and 8 kg). For this trip, I thought I would “treat” the scouts with a surprise breakfast and lunch, which necessitated bringing a few “heavy” items, including a cast iron skillet and Dutch oven lid (about 17 lbs/8 kg). I also lugged a gallon of milk (9 lbs/4 kg) and the food required to feed 8 for two meals (about 8 lbs/3.6 kg).
My first problem was finding a pack that would hold it all. I have all but eliminated all my high-volume packs because my lightweight gear packs down so small. My current pack is a Gossamer Gear Gorilla, and while I could have probably fit everything in the Gorilla, the material isn’t designed for weight more than 35 lbs (16 kg). I needed something bigger and more durable.
Thankfully, I still had my external frame pack from several years ago that I now only use during pack demonstrations with the scouts. It’s practically brand-new, having only been used a few times before I abandoned it for lighter options (the pack is 5 lbs (2.25 kg) empty!) The external frame was great for type of gear I wanted to carry, but I questioned my decision after trying to hoist it. My calculations put my pack weight at more than 50 lbs (23 kg).
My knees were the first to groan under the weight. Every step was miserable. For the entire hike to camp all I could think about was, “Why do people do this to themselves?” Because of the heavy pack, I had to use my heavy-duty hiking boots with stiff ankle support. I was glad to have them, yet I longed for the maneuverability and breathability of my trail runners and sandals I typically use with lightweight packs. As I continued to descend I could feel my toes jamming against the thick leather of my boots. I’ve been lucky to have had very little foot problems such as blisters or hot spots while I hike, but the added weight in my pack was having an immediate effect.
Another challenge I noticed was balance. An external frame positions weight differently than an internal pack and it isn’t the best for scrambling or lateral movement. I had to hike slowly and carefully, watching every step, and being careful not to get unbalanced. The trail posed problems that I hadn’t noticed with a lighter pack as I had to round switchbacks differently and slowly navigate obstacles like fallen trees and large rocks. With a lighter pack, I could literally jump and high step over such terrain, but my knees and legs wouldn’t take that abuse with the weight I was carrying.
To some, 50 lbs (23 kg) doesn’t seem like much. I have scout leaders who routinely boast of carrying 60 or 70 lbs (27 to 32 kg) in their backpacks. Was I just being a wimpy kid? As I hiked I thought about training with 50 lbs (23 kg) to “get in shape” so I could bear it better. I audibly laughed. Why? Why burden myself when I can be equally equipped but with lighter gear? With a lighter pack weight, I enjoy the hike so much more. I am more nimble around obstacles. My body is more responsive. I can “stop and smell the roses” instead of “stopping to catch my breath.” Less weight means I can meander and still cover more miles and not be exhausted at the end of the day. I’m also less prone to impact injury. I quickly dismissed the idea of “getting tough” with more weight. There are no winners in the “who can carry the most weight” competition.
Once we made it to camp and I was able to dump my gear I felt so much better.
The rest of the trip (sans the pack) was enjoyable. We explored the creek, visited some petroglyphs, and basked on pebbled beaches when the sun came out. The scouts (and leaders) were excited not to eat instant oatmeal in the morning. Instead, we baked buttermilk biscuits and homemade sausage gravy that was delicious. For lunch we cooked up tortilla pizzas.
My pack weight was considerably lighter hiking out, having dropped 10 lbs (4.5 kg) in consumables, but I wasn’t out of the woods. Hiking out of the canyon was a slog. I haven’t taken so many rest stops in years and my heart rate was high throughout. As we reached the trail head, I considered whether I would do this sort of self-inflicted punishment again.
Carrying the heavy weight was a good experience because it reminded me why I never want to do this again. I can understand why people dislike backpacking if they have to carry these kinds of loads. I also thought about my scouts and what they carry and I felt a great deal of empathy for them.
Most expert opinions recommend carrying around 20 to 30% of your body weight in a pack. For a 115 lbs (52 kg) scout, that equates from 23 to 35 lbs (10 to 16 kg), which doesn’t sound like much, but for a 200 lbs (91 kg) adult, that is 40 to 60 lbs (18 to 27 kg)! If 60 lbs is heavy for an adult, than 23 lbs would feel about the same to the smaller Boy Scout.
Lightweight backpacking recommends going even lighter, to the 10 to 15% range, making that 23 lbs (10 kg) melt into 12 lbs (5 kg). I won’t describe how to pack lighter in this post, but there are dozens of authors who have written books on the subject of lightweight backpacking. The key point for me was to work with my scouts to help them reduce their pack weight significantly so they can enjoy these trips more.
Was the cast iron worth it? Maybe. At the time, it was the best option I had to feed as many people in the most efficient manner in a short notice (I really didn’t want to eat instant oatmeal if I could help it). If I ever do this again, I think I will invest in a Fry-Bake pan or other lightweight option. Backpacking heavy gear, even for short distances, is miserable. In fact, it’s a pain in the neck.