Saturday, May 7, 2011

lessons learned #6: traveling light

During my 2008 walk, my knees were vulnerable for a number of reasons, all of them weight-related. First there was the problem of my own weight: I began my walk at about the same weight I am now: around 295 pounds. Next, there was the variable weight of my backpack, which hovered somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty pounds, but fluctuated depending on how much water I was carrying.

On the assumption that my calves, if chopped off and set on a scale, weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds together, I surmise that the pressure on my knees-- the weight pressing down on them from above-- was always around 300 pounds, i.e., about 150 pounds per knee. The situation was ripe for some sort of repetitive stress injury, especially on those days when I was walking more than fifteen miles.

Traveling light is important when you're hiking, but not always possible when you're hiking long distances. Although my walks were, for the most part, along roadways, distance is distance, and the stress of the miles adds up. There are various ways to travel light, and I'd like to spend the rest of this essay discussing mistakes I made during the 2008 walk, especially early on, and possible future strategies for the upcoming walk (which is looking more and more like something to do early next year).

First, let's talk about clothing. I had already hiked a long ways, from White Rock, British Columbia to Kent, Washington, when I met Rico Simpkins-- thinker, experienced hiker/traveler, REI employee, CouchSurfer, and all-around guru. He took a look at my pack and declared that I had brought along all the wrong clothing: there were sweatpants and sweatshirts made of heavy weave that simply shouldn't have been there. I ended up sending a lot of this stuff back home, but the pack contained other heavy items, like spiral-bound book-form maps to help me navigate the routes I was traveling. I had also thought about making money along the way by doing some art, so I had purchased and brought along a paint set. Other heavy items included heavy-duty tent stakes (which did, in fact, prove useful at several points along the walk), a set of large carabiners that I ended up using only once (and not for climbing, either), and a pair of boots. Many of these items got sent back to Virginia rather late in the walk, but as I reached the high desert, the pounds I had shed by sending back the heavy items were replaced by the extra water I had to carry.

I know better, now, than to pack so much stuff. The clothing angle is probably the easiest problem to deal with: avoid the heavier materials and stick with the lighter, hi-tech threads. I had done this with my pants, but not with my shirts and jackets. I also learned, while walking down the spine of Washington State, that it was fairly useless for me to wear a rain jacket: I sweated so much inside the the jacket that I still ended up soaked and cold. The remedy for that problem was and is an ancient one: keep yourself warm by continuing to walk. Save the jacket and other dry clothes for later, when you camp.

The map problem is also soluble: take along a smart phone and a decent power source, and you've got access to Google Maps. No more heavy paper maps that way.*

Footwear can be an issue; mountain hiking generally requires boots that can support your ankles, whereas road hiking-- which is generally devoid of tricky roots, boulders, and treacherously angled gravel paths-- requires only a decent pair of walking shoes. Rico took me to the REI flagship store in Seattle to hook me up with a pair of such shoes; I still have them.

Up to now, I haven't said much about actual camping gear, and that's because most of my gear is about as light as it can get. One thing I might change, however, is my tent: although it's a great little tent, it relies on stakes. This time around, I think I'm going to purchase a bivy sack. At two pounds, bivy sacks are slightly lighter than my current tent, and many of them require no stakes. The blow-away problem is worse for bivy sacks than it is for tents, but I've learned my lesson after my debacle in 2008.

Along with the weight-saving measures mentioned above, other measures are possible. The one I've been contemplating for a while is some sort of jury-rigged contraption that can be harnessed to me and pulled along while I walk. Commenters have suggested a pushcart, but I don't like the idea of walking without my hands free. The "wheeled travois," for lack of a better term, should ideally be collapsible, and light enough to store inside my backpack (or be strapped to its exterior) for those times when I either feel like backpacking or have to deal with wheel-unfriendly terrain.

The point of all of this is to minimize the pressure on my knees. Weight loss, the use of lightweight clothing and camping gear, the exclusion of superfluous travel items-- all of these measures will be essential if this new walk is to succeed.

*Some commenters have suggested that paper maps might not be bad a thing, but I recall one of my Army friends telling me that paper maps are a problem in anything but perfect weather. Once you factor in the cost and effort of laminating such maps (which would have to be cut down to manageably-sized panels), you begin to see how much of a burden they are.


Brat said...

You may want to check out game carriers. Try Cabela's. I've bought a lot of stuff from them over the years. Great company.
It's a place to start.

Charles said...

I agree completely with the wheeled travois idea. I also would not want to be pushing something in front of me. Not only is it harder to push than pull, and not only will you look like a homeless person, but you won't be as quick on the draw when you have to whip out your Bowie knife to fend off bears and cougars.

Maven said...

Don't underestimate the merits of extra socks. I am sure there are specialty socks available on the market which help wick away moisture; but on those stops you will no doubt make, take that opportunity to change out your socks. It'll help keep the moisture in check, and also give you a built in habit to be in to inspect your feet to hopefully be ahead of potential blisters that might form. Also: rolls of adhesive moleskin will help WONDERS for when you do have a blister or otherwise have rubbed your feet raw in spots.