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Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru

Thirty miles up the trail from Springer Mountain, Winton Porter shelters and feeds thru-hikers–and works tirelessly to slash their pack weight.

A long-distance hiker’s backpack presents a Rorschach test of sorts, the contents revealing clues to its owner’s basic personality. Cautious types cram in oversize first-aid kits, emergency whistles, and Mace. The impetuous will carry a solar charger but no lighter. Control freaks schedule every meal and organize everything in color-coded sacks. What then to make of the 62-year-old thru-hiker carrying 125 Viagra pills? Or the hiker known as “Minnesota Smith” who packed nine rolls of toilet paper? Or the guy who pulls out a snorkel mask and flippers?

Porter makes no judgments. He’s seen it all while dissecting the innards of thousands of packs during Shakedowns. Serafin’s backpack presents no surprises to Porter–but provides plenty of opportunities to save weight and bulk.

“You want to ask yourself, What does each piece of clothing do for me? Does it insulate? Does it stop wind? Does it stop rain?” he says. “Nylon zip-off pants don’t do any of those three. If you wear a pair of nylon running shorts over lightweight long underwear, now you have pants that weigh 3.5 ounces instead of two to four times as much.”

As Porter painstakingly analyzes every item Serafin carried–from ibuprofen to the pack itself–he sets aside discards in a growing pile. Around the main salesroom floor, the wet and rank contents of three other backpacks are similarly stacked, like so many yard sales, as staffers Adam Heath and Felicity Keddie go through the same process. Each Shakedown session typically nets 12.5 pounds in weight saved. But some yield far more.

Porter still chuckles about “Ranger Rick,” who staggered in under an 89-pound pack several springs ago. “It took two of us to carry the damn thing. He had three pounds of coffee and three pounds of creamer and sugar in there. We got him down to 34 pounds. He made it all the way to Katahdin,” says Porter.

A pound here and a pound there, and before you know it you’re up to four tons, which is the weight of discarded equipment Mountain Crossings ships back home for thru-hikers every year. Porter’s pretty certain that UPS uses the Mountain Crossings route to haze new drivers. Another 1,000 pounds in food ends up dumped in the hostel’s “hiker box.”

Over near the dressing room, Porter kills more ounces with Serafin. He reaches for a synthetic-fill jacket from one of her piles. “If I swap in a MontBell Thermawrap jacket and you wear it with a midweight underwear top, you now have a 10-ounce jacket system instead of a 16.5-ounce jacket.” Serafin balks. “If you want to integrate it, great. If not, you won’t hurt my feelings,” says Porter.

The ounce-saving advice notwithstanding, Porter is no ultralight purist. “Going light with the wrong skill set could get you killed. We sell safety and comfort,” he says. “Lightweight is a byproduct of what we do.” By the Mountain Crossings method, the ideal load is 30 to 35 pounds, including food and water, for early spring conditions, or 25 to 30 pounds for summer, all stuffed into a 3,800-cubic-inch pack. To get there, Porter has developed a studied process based on distinct systems–clothing, cooking, water, sleeping, footwear, first aid and personal (books, maps, and journals)–each driven down to as low a weight as a customer’s budget and experience level allows (see “The Mountain Crossings Method” at right).

Serafin lingers at Mountain Crossings an extra day, waiting out bad weather and mulling Porter’s advice. In the end, she buys the MontBell jacket, trusting in Porter that her new layering system of synthetic T-shirt, midweight underwear, insulating layer, and rain shell, when worn in combination, will get her through the subfreezing nights that lie ahead in the Smoky Mountains. When she shoves off, her base load weighs 21 pounds, lighter by 10 pounds than when she arrived. “That’s a good diet program,” she says.
At last report, Serafin had made it through most of Virginia before flip-flopping to the Maine section of the AT to escape the summer heat. The odds are good that Porter will receive yet another testament to the power of his advice. “That’s what we get back,” he says, pointing to the sprawling collection of inscribed photos pinned to every available surface in the store. In the pictures, men and women pose with beaming smiles and arms upraised atop a rock pile on a distant peak in Maine. “I’m helping people with their dreams.”

Jim Gorman won’t tell us what his Shakedown revealed.

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