Into the Ultralight

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Huntington State Park, CT circa 1998: my favorite local park in high school to mountain bike/trailrun/hike.

Somehow, someway I was introduced to the outdoors around the time I entered high school in Newtown, CT around 1997.  I had not grown up camping or hiking, but distinctly remember seeing a North Face catalog with one of their yellow mountaineering tents precariously perched on a snowy ledge.

That’s what I wanted to do.

It’s with great disappointment that I can report, now almost 20 years later, I have never been on a mountaineering trip, nor have I slept on an exposed ledge in the Himalayan Mountains.

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Not the Himalayas: Appalachian Trail in Connecticut.  About 45 min drive from my high school house. Circa 2000.

However, I also just happened to stumble through the Danbury Mall’s Eastern Mountain Sports in 1998 and picked up the Backpacker Magazine that featured Ray Jardine.

And that kind of changed everything.

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The iconic one-shoulder carry by spandex-clad Ray Jardine.

In a nutshell, Peter Potterfield’s Backpacker article told the story of an engineer who revolutionized climbing technology (inventing “friends” cam locks) but then, in the 1990s, completely changed the way long distance backpacking was “done.”

Running shoes, tarps, and a tiny backpack had Ray and his wife, Jenny, often mistaken for dayhikers in a time of large packs, freestanding dome tents,  and heavy leather boots.

Ray and Jenny thru-hiked the the Triple Crown (America’s premier long distance trails: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails) and kept thru-hiking.  All with about 7-8 pounds of homemade gear. In fact, as of this writing in 2016, Ray, at the age of 71, just hiked about 1/3 of the Appalachian Trail in 45 days. All with his own homemade gear and clothes.  Again.

Though Ray and Jenny are considered super-human athletes by some, Ray’s writing struck chords because it was so radical and counter-culture and spoke to the common man. Voluntary simplicity; DIY;  and anti-consumption ideas were not being talked about in other “how-to” backpacking guides.

Reading that 1998 article sent me down the rabbit hole.

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My blue tarp: sewn in 2000, but seen on the Bartram Trail (Whiterock Gap, NC) in 2016! Seen along with the 2005 Tarptent that hiked the AT with Amber and I.

I started sewing and I started training to be a hiker.  I eventually made a blue tarp, using the directions in his book, with my mom’s sewing machine while in high school.

I became a disciple of the Ray Way.

However, Ray was the exception rather than the rule and there were some tragic flaws in his backpacking paradigm (for me).

The elephant in the room was that I KNEW I was highly reactive to insect bites.  I couldn’t contemplate just being a sitting duck, under my totally-open-to-the-bugs tarp.  I’m always the person mosquitoes swarm first (or exclusively).

In 1998, Ray had not written about or conceived his inner “net tent” for his tarp (which he later touts as an indispensable piece of gear, especially for Appalachian hiking). Instead, he wrote that he and his wife avoided bugs by wearing homemade wind shells and draping netting over their heads. With some bug spray as a last resort.

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The “approach trail” of the Long Trail, 2001. Look, I’m an adult now!

In 2001 I graduated high school and set off to thru-hike my first “long distance” trail, the 275 mile Vermont Long Trail. I started the trail with a tarp-like shelter (not the one I sewed) and planned to sleep in a head-to-hip netting tube.  After getting destroyed by mosquitos in this half-coverage set-up, I quickly had my mother overnight me my trusty 4-pound solo tent to finish the rest of the hike.  Still, though, 19 pounds of gear was NOT bad for my first hike (link to a hysterically old and comical website that contains my gear list and “reviews”). I certainly could not have gotten there if it were not for having read Ray’s books.

I had the great fortune to not only complete the Long Trail, but to meet the love of my life in college in Florida.  After a fair amount of hiking trips together on the Florida Trail, we set our sights on my high school dream: to hike the entire Appalachian Trail!

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On the Florida Trail near St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge.  The college years, circa 2003.

We planned and researched meticulously.  We trained and did everything to maximize our chances of success.  We got our pack weights down to about 15-17 pounds baseweight, which wasn’t the heaviest for the hikers that we saw out that year.  And we were fortunate enough to accomplish our goal of hiking from Maine to Georgia!

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Amber and I heading southbound on our AT thru-hike.  Max Patch, NC, 2005.
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On the AT in 2005. Probably near Roan Mountain, TN. Baseweight 15-17lbs.

As it happens, years pass and one thing leads to another.  Family and children and a busy life put backpacking on the backburner, while trailruning and ultramarathons became my way of “maximizing time in the woods” while avoiding “dad bod.” Ain’t nobody got time for long distance backpacking!

Backpacking wasn’t so much something that I do, but something that once I did.

I still wanted adventure, but had more limited time to find it, so moving faster seemed like a logical conclusion.  Plus, as athletically-inclined folks age, there is probably some reluctance to go quietly into the night.  My best years were NOT behind me.

But I sure did miss the freedom of the hills. And soon started hearing them calling for me again.

When my brother-in-law (also a southbound AT thru-hiker, class of 2011) and I planned to thru-hike the Chattooga River Trail in early 2015, I dusted off the old AT gear and had a great time.

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Thru-hiking the 40 mile Chattooga River Trail (river on which much of Deliverance was filmed) in January 2015 with my brother-in-law.  Epiphany moments and whatnot.

Such a great time that I had been bitten by the backpacking bug again. We had been gone for 3 days, but I felt like I had been in the woods for weeks.

I knew I needed more of this in my life again.

But I  knew I needed to approach backpacking differently than I once had.  The ultramarathoner inside of me wanted to travel fast and light.  Hell, I wanted to run.  To float down the trail.

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Back to the Future: ultralight on the AT, heading south in 2016 as part of my 85 mile loop to complete my section hike of the Bartram Trail.

Luckily, the backpacking world had changed significantly from 2005.  Ultralight was certainly more mainstream.  Leather boots and slow hikes were now the exception, and there were plenty of companies using innovative materials and designs, ultimately building on Jardine’s movement.  There were even people calling themselves “fastpackers” that did mountain running with ultralight backpacks!

One of the biggest differences was that I was no longer just a lone wolf sitting at home with my copy of Ray Jardine’s books.  The increasing presence of the Internet and smart phones since my 2005 backpacking glory days meant that all nerdy gear heads, like myself, didn’t have to just sit at home readingand sewing their own tarps; they could virtually geek out with each other on Reddit! I joke, but tapping into so much knowledge, information, and experience is powerful.

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MLD Bug Bivy under the tarp but not yet suspended. Stealth camping on the Bartram Trail in 2016.

However, despite so many changes in technology and fabrics and cottage manufacturers bringing ultralight gear to the marketplace, I saw and read how Jardine’s ideas still formed the foundation of an ultralight backpacking philosophy.

Plus, there was a whole new generation of ultralight backpackers continuing to push the limits and document their travels online.  Reading about the endless ultralight adventuring of people like Cam “Swami” Honan or seeing the amazing video documentary journals of John Zahorian, it’s hard not to start planning your own adventures! I would be lying if I said I didn’t constantly remind my daughters that Heather “Anish” Anderson is a true badass and holds the (ultralight) thru-hiker-style speed record (fastest known time, or FKT) for both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, beating all other men and women in the world.

So, 16 years after sewing it, I dug out my blue tarp from the attic and decided that it was time.  I’m not getting any younger, stronger, or faster, so why not experiment again with paradigm and gear.

To finally solve my bug/tarp problem, I bought the lightest bug netting I could find: a Mountain Laurel Designs bug bivy.  I made some tweaks to my current gear, and spent a little too much money on some new stuff.

For my 2016 Memorial Day weekend trip (link to blog post about it) I was happy to have finally, after almost 20 years of backpacking, stepped into the Ultralight.

What a gift! To move quitely and powerfully through the mountains, propelled by only my own body and the hunger for adventure!

I don’t know where the next trail is or where it may lead, but I’m happy to call myself a backpacker again.  Present tense.

And maybe if we’re all lucky, we’ll one day get to be kooky 71-year-olds moving mountains too.

See ya’ll out there on the trails!

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Thanks, Ray!
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7 thoughts on “Into the Ultralight

  1. Pingback: the Bartram Trail: My 110 mile, 8 month section hike – Ryan M. Ignatius

  2. Pingback: 2005 Appalachian Trail thru-hike: 15 rolls of film – Ryan M. Ignatius

  3. Great article! Really enjoyed reading through it! I wish I had gotten into backpacking earlier… Lord knows it would have kept me out of a lot of trouble back in the day… as it is though, I didn’t even think about it until March or April of 2009. While on a tram in Gatlinburg, the operator spoke of the lodge atop Mt LeConte… that intrigued me (and my wife to some degree) to look into it… And as you said, the internet is a powerful resource. By this time the “UL” movement was well underway, and while some of my first bp gear didn’t reflect that idea, it only took me one hike in September of 2009 to figure out that there had to be an easier way to do so… and the rest is history… Since then I have come way down in my weights, even had a few “SUL” trips (although, my preference is more “UL” – if you go by the numbers…) At this point though, I have still yet to do any long hikes, being that I got into it later in life, as you are aware, family and work tend to eat up much of my time. But I get out when I can, with the knowledge that one day my kids will be grown, and I will miss them severely, but I will then have more time to get out, and then maybe I can hit up the PCT like I dream about… Anyway, thanks for the article, really enjoyed it! ~Stick~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Stick! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment!

      I didn’t know your backpacking story! So cool. Our stories are so much like a lot of folks: even with the know-how right there in front of you (whether it be book or internet or whatever), it still takes experience to KNOW certain UL techniques will work for them personally.

      When I started to get “back into” backpacking, I was so impressed with your blog and the information you made available to everyone. Truth be told: there are a lot of young single men and women doing all sorts of thru-hiking adventures. I was particularly inspired that you were a married and had a family…having those adventures! I was inspired! Since your recent break from blogging, I have enjoyed your pieces even more because they reflect the perspective of a father/husband/hiker that is really trying to have a balanced life.

      So, thanks for your contributions to UL tradition!

      The PCT will be amazing! And certainly: the older we get, the more an UL paradigm can help us meet our athletic goals!

      Maybe I’ll see you out on the trails soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: AT 2005, Roll 6: Through MA, CT, and NY – Ryan M. Ignatius

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