The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

May 19, 2013

Hiking light is best way to travel


Last October, two friends and I went backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. We hiked 107 miles, the length of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. It was a great trip, but at times it seemed more like hauling than hiking.

My pack probably weighed 35-40 pounds. Imagine hiking up and down mountains for 11 days with a pre-schooler hanging onto your back and squeezing your shoulder blades.

Next week, I’m going backpacking in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest with our older daughter, Ruth. This time, my pack will weigh no more than 20 pounds. Period.

“Ultra light” backpacking is the rage these days. With less weight on your back, you feel less like a beast of burden, you enjoy your hike more, and you cover more miles.

Some ultra light zealots take weight reduction to disgusting extremes. For instance, they don’t use toilet paper, they sleep on the ground beneath a piece of thin plastic sheeting and they don’t change clothes. Yuck.

Rule 1 is simple: Ditch the boots. Every extra pound on your feet is equal to an extra 5 pounds in your pack. With heavy boots, you’re lifting tons of unnecessary weight every day.

My Merrill “Wilderness” boots were made in Italy of smooth, top-quality leather. I’ve had mine for seven years, and I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in them. They even have new soles now.

But they are really heavy — nearly 4 pounds. And when they get soaked, they weigh even more.

So next week, I’m wearing trail running shoes — heavy-duty sneakers, really. They weigh 14 ounces and dry quickly.

Last fall in Virginia, we were chatting with an athletic young buck who was hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. His little pack weighed only 15 pounds and he was averaging 20-25 miles a day — double our mileage.

One key, he said, was that he never cooked anything. When on the trail, he ate bread, cheese, peanut butter, granola bars and candy bars. For variety, he visited every restaurant he could get to.

Hot meals are nice, but this time I’m forsaking the alcohol stove, the wind screen, the alcohol, the fuel bottle, the cooking pots, the freeze-dried dinners, the soup mix and the heavy packets of hot chocolate. My pack will weigh less, and there will be no fire to make, no pots to wash and no slimy, soapy water to dispose of.

I’ll still sleep in my nylon hammock, but the sleeping bag will stay at home. By taking a little fleece blanket, I’ll trim 3 pounds. Kentucky in May is warm, anyway.

My sturdy aluminum canteens will be replaced by disposable, ultra light plastic Coke bottles.

A few “extras” will stay with me: a little transistor radio and ear buds for late-night entertainment; an aluminum hiking staff for extra stability on rocks; and an ice pick for slaying rabid Kentuckians.

I’m taking clean clothes too. I’d hate to gross out Ruthie … or the bears.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at