You Can Leave Home Without It

Putting the Ray Jardine ultralight way to the test.
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Putting the Ray Jardine ultralight way to the test.

Ray Jardine shakes his head at the things hikers do to reduce packweight. He's seen them cut off toothbrush handles and trim the margins off maps, then proceed to heft a 60-pound pack on a weekend trip. Hikers, he says, grow attached to their gear after using it, seeing others use it, or seeing it advertised. "Marketers' hype," he thinks, saps a person's objectivity about the weight of a given piece of equipment versus its utility. There is a better way.

Start with the smallest, lightest, best-made backpack you can find, rather than opting for a backpack designed to shoulder heavy loads. When you're limited in what you can carry, says Jardine, you're forced to think long and hard about any gear you bring.

Next, scrutinize the heaviest items you carry. While you may not be inclined to go all the way Ray and sleep beneath a tarp instead of a tent, at least choose the lightest pack, tent, and sleeping bag your budget allows. The weight savings on these big items can really add up. For instance, an ensemble consisting of a 3-pound pack, a 3 1/2-pound tent, and a 2 1/2-pound sleeping bag would spare the average backpacker about 10 pounds.

Forget the home-style amenities, too, like candle lanterns and self-inflating pads, to realize further weight savings. "Adjust your mindset to accommodate the wilderness environment. That way you won't miss the things you left behind and can instead enjoy the hiking," says Jardine. For him that amounts to a pack that weighs under 9 pounds, excluding food and water.

To see what The Ray Way is really about, I put it to the test. Into a formerly retired daypack I stuffed a bivy bag (I don't have any tarps), a lightweight down sleeping bag (1 1/2 pounds), a butane stove with one half-full canister of gas and a titanium pot, a fleece sweater, synthetic long johns, and an uncoated nylon anorak and wind pants. Onto the outside I strapped a three-quarter length foam pad (ok, I cheated on that one). For an overnight in high summer, my pack weighed 11 pounds, until I added Ramen noodles, oatmeal and a couple of lunches, bringing it to almost 14 pounds.

That was it. The Ray Way is merciless.

At the Colchuck Lake trailhead outside of Seattle, I laced up a pair of running shoes and started up the well-trodden trail. The rig was probably 10 to 15 pounds lighter than my regular weekend pack, and when I reached the lake 4 hours later the difference was pleasantly obvious. What really struck me was the way my feet felt. I use lightweight fabric hiking boots most of the time anyway, but the weight savings of going with running sneakers made a dramatic difference in energy expended. I felt light on my feet but sure-footed. Real food for thought here.

I suffered no ill-effects from my go-light overnight excursion. My clothing was fine in the mild weather, even at 5,500 feet. I never rolled over on an ankle. And threatening thunderstorms steered clear, so my marginal shelter wasn't tested. I did run out of cooking gas before the oatmeal water was ready, so saving the weight of another canister cost me there.

Another 10 pounds or so would have made little difference on an overnight hike such as mine: Any reasonably fit person could have handled the load with no problem. But as I flew back down the trail feeling outrageously unencumbered in running shoes and a daypack, I couldn't help but think about attempting something like the Pacific Crest Trail. Jardine's techniques are all oriented for the long haul. This liberating feeling of weightlessness on the trail, day after day, might make a journey like that something else entirely. It might make it a lot more fun.