“How long?” the woman asked, pointing to my backpack.

“Twenty days.”

“Twenty days?” She smiled. “That’s why you look like that.”

I looked down at my pants, which were stained black on the thighs from caked dirt and sweat. They were torn around the ankles and sewn back together with burgundy thread. I’d been on the trail for nearly three weeks, and I looked like it.

After a quick look at the woman’s clean clothes and heavy pack, I figured she was among the John Muir Trail‘s recreation hikers. She probably wasn’t hiking more than five or 10 miles a day.

I smiled and walked on.


I was on the last leg of a 28-day, 529-mile trip through the California backcountry. On the hiker’s hierarchy, that put me in a middle class—below the PCT demigods hiking from Canada to Mexico, but well above those people poking along the 222-mile JMT.

PCT hikers are known to carry ultralight 15-pound packs, while JMT hikers often haul 40 pounds or more. The former hike more than 30 miles each day, while the latter almost never go beyond 15. I averaged slightly over 20 miles per day, and carried a 23-pound pack.

Where pack was concerned, this middle ground was the product of judicious (but not quite unforgiving) weight trimming.

Unlike many JMT hikers, I left the slackline, climbing shoes, and Bowie knife at home. I ditched all unnecessary stuff sacks. My tent, sleeping bag, liner, and mattress all fit into one. And forget razors and deodorant—they couldn’t possibly keep me clean anyway.

A few luxury items separated me from the PCT die-hards. I left room for a small waterproof e-reader, a Tenkara fishing rod, and a pair of cheap earbuds. While I didn’t carry the fresh beans, grinder, filters, and drip-funnel that some JMT hikers carried, I did stash some packets of instant coffee.


Where gear was concerned, I focused on the multifunctional and carried just enough to get out.

I splurged on a pocket rocket stove, but I only carried one pot. I cooked, ate, and drank out of that container—no need for plates or cups. Jackets doubled as pillows, and I hung wet clothes on my pack midday instead of a clothesline.

For toiletries, I carried travel-sized tubes of toothpaste, hand sanitizer, bug spray, and sunscreen. A full-sized tube would have lasted the entire month of hiking, but I’d have carried the last day’s toothpaste every step of the trip.

Ounces add up to pounds, so it’s worth it to bring smaller quantities of everything. Frequent resupplies make this possible, and make it less irresponsible to eschew backup systems (I did bring a chemical treatment in case my water filter went out).

The key is this: take everything you’ll need to make it to your next resupply point and very little else.