RVers can hit the trail with backpacking gear that lessens the load.
By Phillip Meeks
Back when I was in Boy Scouts, much of my hiking and backpacking gear was Army surplus — rugged but heavy. I was young and strong, and carrying as much on one’s back as possible was honorable so long as it ensured a level of preparedness for the backcountry. In those days, the recommended pack weight for a multiday trek in the wilderness was a fourth of one’s body weight.
In my college years, I clung to that recommendation closely. I was a solid lad of 180 pounds, and my external-frame pack, stainless-steel cook set, two-person tent and two changes of jeans meant that I easily bore 45 pounds during a weekend excursion.
Conventional wisdom shifted with the ultralight backpacking movement, which saw its heyday around the turn of the century. Since then, packs, shelters, and clothing have become lighter and lighter, and outdoor enthusiasts who go on weeklong hikes with 15 pounds (or less) on their backs aren’t sideshow-worthy anymore.
For RVers who enjoy casual hiking, the change in equipment and philosophy means more stowable gear can be kept handy for impromptu trips into the woods. With a relatively small cubbyhole available in your motorhome, it’s possible to stash away a pack for every person in your travel party with enough gear to spend several days in the backcountry.
Even if your trail ambitions don’t extend beyond an afternoon or a couple of miles, ultralight backpacking equipment still can allow for greater luxuries. A stove and cook set aren’t typically thrown into a knapsack for day hikes, but hot tea and a warm lunch can be appealing even on short treks. Likewise, an ultralight tarp can provide a spacious reprieve when you’re caught in an afternoon rain.
Updating The Pack
If it’s been a few years since your hiking gear was updated, perhaps you’re more familiar with the classic external-frame packs. They had many advantages, including better ventilation across the back and the fact that they offered a place to hang cups, clothes, or other items.
The ultralight movement, though, leaned toward internal frames, and from there came a selection of packs with no permanent frames at all. Adhering to a dual-use philosophy, these latter offerings rely on the stiffness of a foam sleeping pad to provide the support originally offered by metal stays.
While a pack can account for a large chunk of your gear’s weight, it’s wise to update it only after reducing the weight of your other equipment. The reason is that modern ultralight packs are designed with finite weight limits, and if your gear surpasses these, the pack could fit awkwardly.
A Change In Mindset
Many hikers overpack. Although it’s easy to imagine scenarios that involve running out of food or needing a change of clothing, be reasonable when planning for emergencies. Experience will teach you how much food you can eat during an outing. Toss in one extra pack of instant noodles, just in case. Make it a goal to return from a trail excursion without an exorbitant amount of leftovers.
Successful ultralight backpackers have made peace with the concept that they can wear the same clothes over and over, and then freshen them up with regular, vigorous rinsing in cold water.
Another concept that many ultralight hikers embrace is the choice of a tarp rather than a tent. Sleeping under a tarp for the first time can be intimidating, but a tarp is significantly lighter, and the increased ventilation can greatly reduce the possibility of getting soaked from condensation. If bugs make you squeamish, a mesh insect barrier, which adds just a few ounces of weight, can be used in conjunction with the tarp.
Light On Your Feet
It’s said that one pound on the feet is the equivalent of five pounds on the back, and along with the ultralight gear movement has come a renewed look at footwear.
Because pack weights have dropped so significantly, the clunky hiking boots of yesteryear have given way to high-tech, featherweight options. In fact, many ultralight backpackers simply rely on trail running shoes for their excursions.
If you prefer more ankle support, even high-top trail shoes are relatively light.
Buy It Or DIY?
Transitioning all your hiking gear at once can be expensive. Modern, ultralight materials such as titanium, silicone-impregnated nylon, and Cuben Fiber are rugged and lightweight, but they’re not cheap. A quality down sleeping bag easily can cost double that of a comparable synthetic bag, and a titanium spork and pot can cost more than a backcountry stove.
It’s not uncommon for hikers to make some of their own gear, and a wealth of how-to information can be found online. For instance, tarp shelters made from leftover house wrap are popular, and so are stoves made from soft drink cans or cat food containers.
If you’re good with a sewing machine, online instructions describe how to make sleeping “quilts” that are light, compressible, and warm. A quilt differs from a traditional sleeping bag in that the former provides little to no insulation underneath you. The assumption is that a foam or closed-cell sleeping pad will offer sufficient protection.
One caution about sleeping bags and insulating clothing: They are designed to be tightly compressed only for short periods of time. When you’re not on the trail, these items should be stored loosely so as not to damage the insulation qualities.
Lightening your hiking load is something that can be done over a period of years. For instance, think about trading that heavy PVC rain suit for a silnylon poncho, or swapping the heavy coat for a compressible down jacket now, and then replace other items with lighter options as they wear out or as funding allows.
Regardless of whether your next motorhome outing includes one day or 10 days of trekking on trails, newer equipment options can contribute to more comfortable hiking. The key is to research what’s out there now and decide what makes sense for you.