Law of Diminishing Returns

Saber, a current thru-hiker, asked me a really good question the other day.  Should an AT thru hike more a hike or a camping trip?  The answer that question profoundly affects how one approaches a thru hike.

This raises profoundly philosophical issues along with all the purist and more liberal arguments about how the AT should be hiked.  Don’s Brother, a 2013 thru hiker I’ve been following, told me recently that he tries to spend every night in a town.  He said that to date he’s only slept in shelters for a handful of nights.  That’s one approach.

Saber’s question crystalized a conflict in my head that I didn’t even know I had.  The nub of it can be explained by the law of diminishing returns.  What is the optimum ratio between the quality of the hiking experience and quantity of stuff needed to create it?  The lines cross on the graph at a different point for everyone, but there is an optimum point for each of us.

Everyone has to have a basic load.  High performance clothing and equipment is lighter, but costs more.  But, after basic safety considerations – food, water, warmth, shelter, sanitation and hygiene – the weight of all the extras, photography, creature comforts, light, entertainment, fashion, and back-up systems quickly add up.

The answer to Saber’s question came to me in a twist on the old chicken joke.  Why did the hiker cross the road?  To get to Mt. Katahdin, of course.  In this context, camping on the AT is a means, not an end.  In my case, I’d walk nonstop if I could.  Why schlepp anything for months on end that doesn’t make a direct contribution to hiking up the last rock and hugging that sign?

Think about it for a minute.  Not only is a 2,000-mile hike a demolition derby as far as your body is concerned, even a single ounce adds up if lugged five million steps and up and down the equivalent of 13 Mt. Everest elevation gains.  Why add insult to injury potential?

Taken far enough, weight reduction could become an obsessive-compulsive exercise.  For example, remind me to shorten my shoestrings, cut off my toothbrush handle, and shave my head, not that I have that much extra hair to spare, but everything helps.

Let’s not go too far. Without my personal pocket philharmonic entertainment center, how will I find the right playlist to help me sing the blues?

The problem is that most of us weekend warriors don’t behave like thru hikers.  Packing up for a three to seven day adventure, weight really doesn’t matter that much.  “Stuff” finds its way into my pack that is nice to have just in case, but not really necessary.

My favorite candle lantern jumps immediately to mind. Like Liberace’s candelabra, its comforting warm glow has always been there to read by after hiker midnight. But, in the headlamp/Kindle era, it’s obsolete.  Now I’m wondering how many more of my old favorites will not be serving active duty, but vicariously following my blog.

This reminds me of a hiker I ran into last week at the 950-mile mark in Shenandoah National Park. Her name was Fatty – though she was anything but.  She said she got the name because she could eat most guys under the table.

Truth is that Fatty is a ringer.  In real life she is a Canadian ultra marathoner.  More to the point, what struck me as she floated by was her dinky backpack.  It couldn’t have weighed more than 20 lbs.  With a pack that lite, she was bookin’ – believe me.

I would love to know what’s not in that pack, ‘cause I want to fly like Fatty!

Post Script:  Unfortunately, a week later Fatty’s hobbled by shin splints a hundred miles further down the trail.  Note to self:  Your body needs more rest than a 20-something like Fatty, and never quit on a bad day, right?  Mental health days off are a good idea too.

That brings me back to Saber’s question and the packing list.  For me, this is a long march, not a 180-night camping trip.  Less pack weight equals less force on my knees and feet.  It’s time for some serious rethinking.

A couple of months ago I bought a REI Mars 80 pack to use during the winter months.  It’s big, and I never thought I’d actually fill it up, I just wanted a pack large enough to carry my basic load of arctic gear.  Since then, I’ve realized that gear designed for double digit sub-zero temps is overkill.  Not needed.  Back into storage sacks you go.

I also bought a Deuter Act lite 40+10 pack for summer use.  It’s about two-thirds the size of the Mars 80 and weighs a lot less too.   Change 1 from original plan.  The Deuter goes all the way.  New rule:  If “stuff” doesn’t fit.  It doesn’t go.

Best of all, I’ve arranged to buy lunch for several thru hikers when they hit Harpers Ferry.  Most of my final gear decisions will be made after debriefing them.  More to come on that.  Meanwhile, gear testing continues.


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