Backpackers shouldering lighter loads

    Technology has lightened the load for backpackers over the past few years. This is good news for knees, backs and shoulders.

    "Today you can buy a 15-degree sleeping bag, a two-person tent and a neo-air sleeping pad that together weigh less than my old 5-pound tent," says Bryant Helgeland, veteran backpacker and longtime employee at Ashland Outdoor Store.

    Helgeland remembers an extended trip he took with the National Outdoor Leadership School when his pack, loaded down with a week's supply of food, weighed more than 100 pounds.

    "You could barely move," says Helgeland. "Now you can get out there and really enjoy the journey."

    Clothing, too, has gotten lighter, with temperature-regulating fabrics like merino wool providing a greater temperature range in a single shirt.

    A backpacker's down jacket now weighs less than a pound.

    "You don't need the bulk, either," Helgeland explains. "I bring one on the trail even in summer. It can even double as your pillow."

    Layered synthetic clothing is the lightest and most comfortable way to go. Cotton sucks up body heat and causes blisters, so leave it at home. Helgeland stuffs his pack with five layers for his torso, as well as shorts, rain pants, hat, gloves and two pairs of socks. With his tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove and pot set, CamelBack, water filter, first-aid kit, map and compass, his entire load comes in well under 20 pounds.

    No more feeling like a pack mule.

    Even water-filter technology has changed radically, says Scott Keith, owner of the Northwest Outdoor Store in Medford.

    "We've got the Steripen, a UV water filter the size of a flashlight," says Keith. "You stick it in your water bottle for 60 seconds, and it kills all bacteria and viruses."

    The new filter runs on AA batteries and costs $99. It's more convenient than the old-fashioned small filters, but also more expensive. This is true of the new lightweight fabrics, as well. There's a tradeoff between convenience and price. The lightweight sleeping bags can easily run $400.

    A cooking stove is a camping item that has gotten lighter without getting heavier on the wallet.

    "The Jet Boil system is an all-in-one cook system that nests together," says Keith. "It's a stove, pot/mug and butane-fuel canister that altogether weighs 1 1/2 pounds."

    If you're an ounce shaver, the PocketRocket comes in at 3 1/2 ounces. You'll need a pot and butane canister to go with it.

    When you've got your gear in place, the hardest part of your trip may be deciding where to go.

    "We have the high country, deeply forested mountain lakes and the coast, all nearby," says Keith. "It's almost like you can head toward any of the four points of the compass and get the sense of isolation that's so great when you're the only one around."

    A good starter trip, says Keith, is the Pacific Crest Trail, especially around Pilot Rock.

    "Pilot Rock has 120 documented species of butterflies, more than anywhere outside of the Amazon," says Keith. "You don't have to do the entire PCT, but it's in our backyard, so you should do some of it."

    For mountaineer and SOU student, David Chambers, the Mountain Lakes and Sky Lakes Wilderness areas make good starter trips, as well.

    "I like the higher elevations," says Chambers. "One of my favorites close by is the Red Buttes Wilderness above Applegate Lake. It's rugged terrain and not as well traveled as the other wilderness areas. I like the feeling of remoteness, the areas that are not well traveled."

    Remoteness can bring out the dark side of technology.

    Beginning campers often rely on a GPS and cellphone for guidance and rescue in wilderness areas. Batteries die, equipment fails, phone coverage is spotty and rescue takes hours or even days. Time spent reading guidebooks and learning how to use a map and compass can save not only time but a life, as well.

    When choosing a backpacking trip, match your skill level with the level of difficulty of the terrain, especially if you plan to bring your kids.

    "When I bring my eighth graders on our annual Rogue River Trail trip, we teach prevention," says Marcia Ososke, teacher at the John Muir School in Ashland.

    Each year, Ososke brings 10-13 students for a 35-40 mile, five-day backpacking trip on the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rogue River. She teaches basic medical techniques, like treating blisters, as well Leave No Trace practices, to reduce their impact on the surrounding environment.

    "We have them dig cat holes, teach them to put out fires, how to filter water," says Ososke. "Before we go, we talk about what we're afraid of. This is a way to be extra supportive, build their confidence, allow them to be willing to take more risks."

    It's the simple things that can make backpacking enjoyable for children.

    "Tell stories, it's a way to connect," says Ososke. "But most of all, don't load them down with heavy gear. Just let kids be kids."

    For Ososke, the Rogue River Trail is a perfect hiking and backpacking trip for all ages.

    "You have the river right there, and it's low elevation," says Ososke. "So you can do it any time of year."

    Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at

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