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A weight obsession and it’s not my body

Image of the October 2019 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
October 2019 Issue

Lightweight or super-lightweight? Jo Stilwell gets down to the bone and muscle of making her pack lighter

Later this year I will celebrate my 50th birthday.

I’ve never really worried about weight, but recently I have become a weight fanatic, obsessed with every gram. I’m not referring to my own bodyweight – I like the fat, muscle, bones and other bits that collectively make up my body as it allows me to go tramping. And there’s no way I would want to weigh any less; if anything, I’m a woman who has thigh-envy of female sprint cyclists as I wonder if bigger quads might make carrying a heavy pack a bit easier.

At 1.68m and 60kg, you could say I’m a bit of a lightweight.

As I’ve become older I’ve found my body hasn’t appreciated the loads I’ve asked it to carry. So I’ve become fanatical about every gram I put into my tramping pack. I have an Excel spreadsheet documenting the weight of each piece of outdoor kit I own. Another one details the weight savings I have made from changing specific items of gear. Any new purchase is carefully researched for weight comparisons with similar products. I examine the calorific value per 100g of the food I carry and know which crackers give me the most calories per serving. I love reading online discussions about lightweight hiking and learning what others do to lessen the load they carry.

I haven’t always been like this. For me, the obsession started on a multi-day trip a few years ago. I was very unfit and during the first few days my pack was offensively heavy. Even as the trip wore on and we diligently ate our food, the pack never felt easy. My girlfriend and I whiled away the hours by discussing in minute detail how to reduce the weights we carried. Which food had the highest water content? Which foods were the most calorie-dense? What heavy gear did we have that could be replaced? I didn’t want to become an ultra-lightweight hiker, but I wanted to be more efficient with what I carried in order to be kinder to my body.

Two of Jo’s favourite pieces of kit are her sleeping bag and collapsible two-litre drink bottle, shown next toa1-litre Nalgene bottle for scale. Photo: Jo Stilwell

The first thing I did when I got home was to sell my pack on TradeMe. It was a new pack – this had been its virgin trip, but it was heavy, huge and total overkill for what I needed most of the time. I replaced it with a super-lightweight 48l pack and made money in the process. Then I weighed everything my husband and I owned for tramping. Plates, sporks, old packs, new packs, billies, pot holders, ice axes, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, PLB, the various pieces of holey clothing we had collected over the years – nothing was excluded. I even weighed the drawstring food bags and the different size snap-lock bags we packed our food in. Consequently, we sought out and purchased quality lighter weight alternatives to our older heavy gear such as sleeping bags and raincoats.

Finally, I started scrutinising the food we took. I started taking more butter, coconut cream powder, ground almonds and other calorie-dense foods. I now dehydrate my own food and weigh and measure portions before each trip. I managed to reduce my food weight for longer trips to around 750g per person per day without becoming hungry. Years ago, I used to allow 1000g a day. That’s a significant saving on a long tramp. I also changed the way I cook and now pack a super-efficient burner which is really only used to heat water for rehydrating food and making fresh coffee.

Yet, despite all of this, I’d never be admitted into the lightweight hiker hall of fame. I’m a mammoth contradiction. I don’t know or care what my base-weight is (even though I could easily work it out from all my accumulated data). I know which brand of spork is the lightest but my leather tramping boots weigh a tonne. Apparently, the weight on my feet takes 4-6 times more energy to lug around than the weight on my back but I’m too in love with my heavy boots to swap them for something lighter. I’m in awe of our daughter Hannah and her partner Owen who are competent runners and wear their light trail running shoes on all types of mountain terrain. Their 30-40l packs hold all their gear for four or five days (including a tent and without compromising safety), and they cover massive miles with their minimalist footwear and light loads.

Fully packed for a five day tramp, Jo’s pack is both small and light. David Norton

Similarly, I’m a little illogical when it comes to food. I’m ridiculously precise when measuring out my milk powder, yet I’m happy to carry real coffee even when the heavy, non-calorific grinds get discarded. The brewing of fresh coffee on tramping trips has become a highly anticipated and treasured ritual. On long trips when the pack weight is approaching something nasty, I might limit it to one coffee every two days but it’s a non-weight-efficient luxury that I doubt I will ever forfeit.

There are also other compromises I will never make. I don’t want to sleep under a lightweight tarpaulin, and I don’t want to carry a frameless pack that hangs on my back like a sack with no waist-belt. And my heavy camera comes with me on all of my trips.

I’ve spent a few years now tweaking and fine-tuning what I carry. It’s an on-going process. I find it fun and a challenge – how much more weight can I shed without compromising safety and enjoyment. I’m happy with the changes I have made. Shedding the initial 3-4kg of weight was easy. A lot of it came from changing the pack, sleeping bag and raincoat. But it’s important to remember that every gram counts and small gains have been made in many other areas.

My favourite piece of kit is my sleeping bag and it makes me smile whenever I pack it because it is so small. And I love my two-litre foldable water bottle. I’m very happy with my 48l pack and it has been stuffed to the brim for a 10-day trip. I know this pack won’t last as long as my previous canvas pack, but I’m okay with that – it was significantly cheaper so I wouldn’t expect it to. I have recently purchased a larger alpine pack for longer winter trips when the gear is bulkier and also to use when tramping on my own – on a recent solo trip when the tent, cooker, and safety gear could not be shared with others, I needed to leave my Kindle behind due to lack of space. I’ll never do that again.

My weight obsession will never see me evolve into an ultra-lightweight hiker. My pack will never be light. I like long trips, fresh coffee and my warm tent. For me, it’s about being efficient with what I pack. The way I see it, my body has a finite amount of time carrying a pack around the hills and I firmly believe I can make my body last longer by reducing the load I ask it to carry.

As I enter my sixth decade of orbiting the sun, I love knowing that on a 10-day trip my pack weight is 6-7kg lighter than it used to be – and my body loves it too.