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Challenge The Backpacker Editor: The Ultralight Report

Torrential rain and wind expose chinks in our author's ultralight armor, but don't dampen his enthusiasm for the pleasures of unencumbered trekking.

Background: Earlier this year, after BACKPACKER published a popular story about ultralight backpacking (“Heavyweights vs. Lightniks,” August 2001), we asked readers to participate in an interactive project we called Challenge The Editor. The idea was to take a hiker who loved carrying everything but the kitchen sink and send him backpacking with the bare essentials. Our volunteer was Managing Editor Jonathan Dorn, who for years has carried 60-pound loads, worn big boots, and eaten deluxe trail meals. We figured that Jon was the ideal guinea pig–a diehard overpacker who, as an experienced gear tester and outdoors guy, would quickly find the costs and benefits of radically lightening his load. Almost 4,000 readers participated in the Challenge, casting votes that decided what gear Jon could take on his ultralight hike. When all the ballots were counted, we found that you’d assembled a load weighing a mere 19 lbs., 8.5 oz. (See “Jon’s Gear List” on page 3.) Worried more about his slim food allowance than your refusal to let him carry a change of undies, Jon gamely packed up his gear–it didn’t take long–and headed for California’s Lost Coast, a rugged coastal hike several hours north of San Francisco. His report follows.

Sometime shortly after lunch on the second day of my long-awaited ultralight hike, I realized that only an utter moron would pack a poncho for a place like this. California’s Lost Coast is notorious for its fierce winter storms, and here I was, bending into the teeth of a late November gale without proper raingear. Since breaking camp, we’d been hiking south along a crumbling coastline as 30-40 mph gusts flung sand, seaspray, and sheets of rain against us. Water ran in rivulets from my shoulders to my toes, having blown between the buttoned sides, up the nonexistent sleeves, and under the wildly-flapping skirt of my 10-ounce poncho. The drawstring hood was keeping my head dry, thank goodness, but the absence of a rain visor meant my face and eyes were stung by 50 angry bees every time I lifted my head to marvel at an ocean horizon gone completely white with froth. Or so it felt, thanks to the ferocity of the wind.

Hiking The Lost Coast
Interested in backpacking this rugged section of northern California coastline? Watch the September 2002 issue of BACKPACKER for a story and expedition planner by Northwest Editor John Harlin.

And then, to add indignity to discomfort, a fist-sized rock tumbled from the cliff beside me, bouncing twice on the rubble of a previous landslide before popping up and bashing me in the left buttock.

Later that night, as I lay awake shivering and sneezing, my ass still sore from the cursed rock, I realized that only a complete fool would try to dry four layers of rain-soaked clothing by climbing into a down sleeping bag. Around 3 a.m., my clothes still soaked, the bag now sodden and limp from all the moisture the feathers had absorbed, I began to wonder what “ultralight” really meant. Light on fun, perhaps. Light on comfort and convenience, too. Clearly light on common sense.

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