Ultralight Intentions and the Triple Crown of Hiking

Our friend Robin Standish is nothing if not committed. Her dedication to life on the trail takes many forms: stacked up thru hikes, beautiful photographs of wild places and in this case, a well-thought-out, soulful investigation of the sidecar realities that going ultralight carries—out there, in actual practice.

Expect more dispatches from Robin this summer as she sets out to complete the last leg of the Triple Crown of hiking on the CDT.

My body trembled with equal portions of determination and uncertainty. My feet tingled with hot spots and fleshy sores across my lower back and shoulders stung with fresh sweat. Step, step, trip, ankle twist. I clumsily danced to the repetitive tune while navigating the bulging tree roots that I came to know as Maine.

The forest was alive with vibrant green moss dripping down the cedar trees, spider webs glittering like sun catchers, and the song birds’ sweet chorus tangled amongst it all, but I was too consumed by discomfort to appreciate any of it. My pack felt like a small child clinging haphazardly to my back,  two “absolutely necessary” bandanas hanging lifelessly off a strap in the still, sticky air.

Trail Novice to Tackling the Triple Crown of Hiking

I had never backpacked before and could count day hikes on one hand. Now, I found myself walking forward, hauling 20 Mountain House meals and wishing I had paid more attention to how to hang a bear bag and the seriousness of the 2,187 miles that snaked wildly ahead of me.

It wasn’t long after I learned of the Appalachian trail that I was stepping foot on it. I was quickly consumed by the romantic adventure that lay before me: cooking food over campfires, bathing in rivers, all the while living an ancient kind of nomadic life like our ancestors’. I would write, meditate, do yoga, walk barefoot and really connect with myself.

During the next four months I was going to figure out my life. I would become enlightened and find the answers to life’s big questions hiding beneath rocks, scrawled into insect tunnels, and carved into tree trunks. Most importantly, I wanted to slow down and step away from the constant buzz of the “real world” and list to the quiet voice telling us all that there is a different—if not better—way to live.

It all sounded like a rather dreamy affair. But in reality it wasn’t. I walked with swollen ankles and tender feet through thick East Coast humidity from the moment I woke. Black flies darted into my eyes and scrambled in the pools of sweat that dripped from places I didn’t know existed. Toenails lay loosely in their beds, darkened from kicking rocks while my legs burned from incessant uphills, stiffened with shin splints.

But I was alive, feeling the moments for better or worse as they passed. I could feel the raw vulnerability and unprecedented happiness vibrating and growing in me every day. 

The reality was that I was too tired to care about yoga or meditation, the rivers too cold to swim in, the campfires too inefficient to cook over; but my world had slowed and quieted, I found freedom and simplicity in this new life.

The more I walked the more the trail taught me about minimalism and practicality. For instance… two bandanas? How about half of one? Also, it turns out that a Mountain House for every meal will wreak havoc on your digestive system and your bank account.

For many of us the AT is our first long trail, but ends up being the prelude to the triple crown of hiking. Inevitably, the more seasoned we become, the more our conversations revolve around achieving the elite status of ultralight thru hiker. We focus on going further, faster, moving between towns in half the time, whisking by weekend warriors who murmur in awe of our tiny packs, seeking out the lightest food with the most calories possible, devoid of any nutrition. Being ultralight might make us feel important, superior even.

READ: ROBIN’S PREVIOUS POST ON “THE JOURNEY TO ULTRALIGHT”

And yet regardless, the trail will still scoff at us—the only one who will never care about our base weight. “Stay present,” she’d whisper to me every time I tripped.

Months later I found myself under the roof of Pacific Crest Trail angels Scout and Frodos in San Diego. Excited to spend the evening among hikers, I was taken aback when the only interactions anyone seemed interested in having revolved about pack weight and making excuses for the less favorable things they choose to carry.

When planning my second hike I noticed how the ultralight obsession was creating a division within the trail community. There was a newfound stature associated with being the one with the smallest pack, the least and lightest gear—a common misconception that pack weight alone would be the deciding factor in a successful thru.

Were we forgetting about the trail pioneers who walked with bulky, towering external frame packs? They made it to Canada without any of the ultralight resources we have today, relying on little more than their own determination and grit.

Last summer, while crossing the high Californian desert, I sat in the shadow of a mangled Joshua Tree and waited for the hot sun to dip below the ridge line.  I floated in and out of consciousness, the heat making me too lazy and tired to notice the ants crawling across my dirt stained legs or the hiker who approached. Unperturbed by the blistering elements, her hair bleached by the sun and her freckled skin permanently tanned, deep crows feet at the corners of her eyes crinkled in unison with her grin.

There was no doubt that she had done this before. She looked perfectly at home strolling across the sandy, arid landscape. Without missing a beat she swung her pack off, propped herself up against a rock, and busied herself with snacks and introductions. It wasn’t long before she was recounting her thru hike back in the 90s, telling stories of canned food, an enormous pack, long periods of solitude, and heavy hiking boots.

Her wide smile and bright eyes radiated the happiness that emanates from a thru hiker lost in their bliss. “Gear is only the means to an end,” she chattered away as dusk began to envelope us. “I wasn’t lightweight, but it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. What matters is this…” she said, sweeping her arms out towards the landscape. “This moment, these spaces, the wilderness and what the trail teaches us.”

Looking back on the PCT now, many months and several thousand miles later, I remember how my heart raced climbing the glistening ice face of Forester Pass and the relief I felt cresting the highest point on trail. I remember camping alone and waking up with cougar tracks near my shelter, feeling a strange mix of vulnerability and belonging. I remember the millions of steps I took, and the people I took them with.

What I don’t remember is how much my pack weighed on any given day. With all the time I spent stressing over grams I wonder now if it ever really mattered. It’s all too easy to become enamored with cool new gear and slick marketing techniques that promise to help us meet an arbitrary weight goal. And I think it adds to the intimidation new hikers feel when contemplating a thru hike. We spout aphorisms like ‘hike your own hike,’ while insisting that they put the experience in a box and do it in a certain way.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ gear list. Every hiker has to discover what best suits her own needs and the demands of the trail upon which they’re embarking—that’s part of the journey.

With the hiking season approaching I find myself inexplicably drawn to the craggy Rocky Mountains, which I’ll call home for the summer.  As I set out on the Continental Divide Trail, I’ll be incorporating items I’ve never used before and getting rid of things that I’ve carried since I started walking. In true ultralight thru hiker fashion, I have replaced some items with lighter versions. However, my priority is no longer on numbers and labels. Instead, I’m working on ensuring that my head and heart are in the right place before embarking on another 2,600+ mile trail.

READ: ROBIN’S GEAR-WISE GUIDE TO TRANSITIONING FROM THE AT TO THE PCT

I do not question my physical capabilities but instead my mental aptitude. I hope that I’m able to look at this trail with the same awe and excitement that I found back in the Appalachians. And I ask myself if I’m doing this for the glory of Triple Crowning, or simply for my love of the trail. I try to remind myself that titles will come and go, but the memories of this journey will be timeless. Therefor my intentions must be, too.

There is little doubt that I will quickly fall into the steps of those who walk ahead of me, content to be back under the wide open sky and vast landscapes that will consume my everyday. If I have learned anything from trails past, its that sometimes the downhills will feel like uphills, that absolute elation and frustration often go hand in hand. I know I will never be able to fully articulate an honest answer when people ask why I do this. All I can explain is that there is a quiet voice that tells me it’s a better way to live.