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Why you shouldn’t learn from those amazing through-hikers

Yes, we admit that the title is just to catch your attention. But there is a point we would like to make, and that is that not everyone who backpacks is a through-hiker, and everyone should not only hike your own hike (HYOH) but also PYOP—pack your own pack.

There are tons of articles these days on what you should learn from through-hikers. That’s all well and good, but through-hikers are a unique breed. They focus on hiking big miles day after day, and they do that for weeks and even months on end. Does that sound like fun to you? Good. You should go on a through hike. But if that sounds like something between a survival test and a nightmare, don’t worry. Backpacking doesn’t have to be like that, and you don’t have to hike like a through-hiker.

Case in point? Most through-hikers focus enormous attention on keeping their pack weights as light as possible, which allows them to hike as many miles a day as possible. Some choose not to take any stove or cookware, because that adds weight to their pack. Instead, they eat only cold or dry food—and they do this for weeks at a time.

We like our warm meals on the trail. They help us relax at the end of the day, and we like to think of them as outdoor dining, not refueling. We start with a cup of miso soup for each of us, followed by a freeze-dried or dehydrated dinner. After that, we’ll enjoy a selection of dried fruits from our trail pantry and follow that with dessert—usually some kind of sweet trail bar. And to top it off, we’ll sip a little hootch—we take a few airline mini bottles with such delights as Chartreuse, Amaretto, Scotch, Anisette, etc. For us, that equates to luxury on the trial. After all, we’re on vacation, and we like a little luxury from time to time.

Not so much for through-hikers. Many through-hikers even choose to pass up breakfast entirely. They pack up quickly each morning and hit the trail, only eating when it is time to take a short break farther along in the day.

Sound like fun? Not to us. We like a warm breakfast in the morning, usually oatmeal and hot cocoa, with Via added for those who want caffeine. So we take along a stove and fuel, and a cook pot and plastic dishes, so that we can enjoy that each morning. Yes, it adds two or three pounds to our combined pack weights, but we’re willing to live with that. That first hour after we get up is one of our favorite times of any backpacking trip, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if we followed those through-hiking systems.

And it’s not just in terms of food that we carry a bit of extra weight. I like to take a bit of fly-fishing gear to amuse myself when we camp on a stream or lake—which we almost always do. And M sometimes takes a book to read. You’ll never find those items in a serious through-hiker’s pack, and not only because they add “unnecessary” weight. Through-hikers don’t have time to fish or read—they have to keep moving to make those miles every day.

We also take along some camp shoes that also serve as water shoes. Yes, we know that through-hikers recommend trail-runners that can get wet and keep on going. And they will wear those on their feet until they wear out. (The shoes, hopefully, not their feet.) We take along a lightweight pair of Crocs that we wear when we’re wading streams, and also around camp. It feels lovely to take off your hiking shoes or boots and slip into something else once the trail miles are behind you. They camp shoes weigh about a pound, and we’re happy to carry them.

Another case in point is our tent. Many through-hikers do without a tent and opt for a lightweight tarp or even a bivy sack. Those are the lightest options and might make the most sense for somebody who is going to be carrying them for ten or twelve hours a day, month after month.

But we want more room and more comfort than that. We do have a lightweight tent (a Henry Shires Tarptent) but it comes with a floor and bug netting, and it’s a three-man tent for the two of us. If you don’t think that’s luxury, you’ve never camped in a two-man tent. We have room for both packs in addition to ourselves and our sleeping gear. We have room to move around a bit in our tent. And when the rain comes (and it is going to rain at some point when you are backpacking) hanging out in a three-man tent is way better than huddling in something smaller.

That’s especially true if you have a day of rain and are hoping to dry things out a bit in the tent. Yes, our three-man tent weighs a bit over three pounds, and a tarp alone might weigh less than a pound. Fair enough—we’ll take that trade-off.

Through-hikers do have a point, though. Every extra ounce adds up, and it’s easy to add an ounce here and a couple of ounces there, and quickly turn those ounces into extra pounds you are carrying in your pack. That’s a good thing to keep in mind. But we also think it’s a good thing to keep in mind the point of your backpacking trip. If you are dead set on covering as many miles as possible then, by all means, slice your pack weight to the bone. But we actually backpack to go on vacation, and we don’t mind taking a bit more weight so that we can enjoy the down time on our trips.

Instead of aiming for fifteen or even twenty-five or thirty miles a day, we generally hike fewer than ten, and sometimes as few as five or six. Some of our trips are even designed around a base camp, so that we really only hike for one day, and then spend a couple of days exploring the area before hiking out again. We’re happy to carry a few extra pounds for that one day that we hike in, knowing that our days in the base camp will be more luxurious because of them. And that includes a nice warm breakfast every morning, a five-course dinner, and a tent with room to spread out just a bit.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll note that the combined weight of all of this stuff is about three to five pounds more in each of our packs, and maybe even more than that compared to a true, ultra-light through-hiker. That’s fine. We’re only hiking six to ten miles a day and we’re willing to carry a bit more weight for those three to five hours a day that we’re hiking. Because we know they will help us really enjoy the free time we spend hanging around in camp.

And spending time in camp is the one thing that through-hikers rarely do.

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