9-Pound Pack: Ultralight on the PCT

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Sunlight burned the desert. Rod Johnson kicked sand, hiking north from the Mexican boarder, one foot in front of the next from the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Ahead, snaking north for 2,650 miles, the PCT would climb mountains, ford rivers, and push for weeks through wilderness from California to Washington state.

Johnson, owner and founder of Midwest Mountaineering, an outdoors shop in Minneapolis, began his quest on the trail last April wearing nothing more than a vest crammed with gear. His goal: To hike the PCT with the least amount of equipment as humanly possible to survive. “It would be an ultimate gear test,” said Johnson, who turned 60 during his three-month trip.


Rod Johnson at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
(Click for ULTRALIGHT PCT GALLERY)

Many backpackers carry at least 40 pounds of equipment, food and water for a multiday leg of the PCT. They wear big backpacks with tents and sleeping pads stuffed inside, their boots laced tight for the day’s hike of 20 miles or more.

From the trail’s start in the desert, Johnson trekked north alone in shorts and running shoes. His VestPack — an eight-pocket shirt of his own invention — stowed gear and food. He was a backpacker without a pack.


The VestPack, Johnson’s own invention.
(Click for ULTRALIGHT PCT GALLERY)

He wore a sun hat and clutched carbon-fiber hiking poles. His total extra weight from the start — including food, stove, fuel, first aid, water, clothing, and gear — was a meager 9 pounds. “Every ounce or gram of extra weight was trimmed away,” said Johnson, who switched out his sleeping pad for a sheet of bubble-wrap envelope padding.

Going as light as possible is nothing new in backpacking circles. But Johnson’s unorthodox techniques cut every corner — and then they trim the edge back some more.

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continued on next page…

Posted by JD - 11/12/2009 06:44 PM

So let me see if I have it straight. He advertises that he had a 9-lb pack weight but only for a few days and he got almost 40% of the trail. In addition the food weights don’t make any sense. He went 100-miles with (the second weight list) 20-cliff bars, 8-packs of oatmeal and 28-oz of freeze dried food. Using 8-packs of oatmeal for 100-miles indicates a small distance of 12-1/2 miles a day. So he ate 2-1/2 Clif bars a day and 3-1/2 oz. of freeze-dried food for lunch and dinner. This is 12-1/4 oz. of food a day. No wonder he didn’t finish, he was starving himself. He had no 1st aid kit, no tootbrush or tootpaste, no head gear or an extra pair of under-shorts. Yeah, right. Where’s Paul Harvey when we need “the rest of the story”?

Posted by JackH - 11/13/2009 02:12 AM

Yep, pretty bogus. Almost like a publicity stunt. Bubble wrap for a sleeping pad? Come on.

The last picture shows him wearing a jacket that isn’t tallied in the weight. I’m sure there is a lot more.

Posted by Tracy Stewart - 11/13/2009 09:23 AM

I cannot believe I just read this — a food bag pillow on a hike. Seriously. I have tried to keep myself safe from [hikers] on the Superior Hiking Trail who toss a food bag into the woods and hope for the best (where bear/human confrontations are on the rise) and now some [hiker] tells people to put their food in a bag and make a pillow. Yes, the website states they’re odor free and help keep bears out camp, but have they been tested? Are they truly bear proof? I highly doubt it. By the way, if Rod Johnson hiked the portion of the PCT through Sequoia or Yosemite National Park he also broke the law. Bear canisters are required. They are tested and they work. I’m sure anyone managing those parks reading that article would be stunned. Please, please, run an apology a tell people that this is not an approved or recommended standard for backpacking or camping before someone gets hurt, or another bear gets killed. I don’t care how light it is. If you don’t sense the urgency, you can start by reading “Night of the Grizzlies,” or go to Yosemite’s website and research their food storage guidelines.
Thanks,
Tracy Stewart

Posted by Craig - 11/13/2009 10:18 AM

Quote “Please, please, run an apology a tell people that this is not an approved or recommended”

So, everyone that reads this will just follow like sheep and say “by golly, if he did it, it must be what I do”?

Posted by JB - 11/13/2009 10:33 AM

Craig, I’m stunned. Don’t you know that this sort of irresponsible, scofflaw-praising, politically uncorrect (yes, “uncorrect”) journalism puts millions of millions of people, and trillions of bears, AT RISK? Won’t you think of the bears, Craig?

They’re at risk, Craig. AT RISK.

You clearly don’t sense the urgency. You need a reeducation.

Posted by JD - 11/13/2009 11:00 AM

Tracy – I hadn’t looked at the photos before, the entire article was an irresponsible fluff piece by an inadequate “journalist”. Photo 3 shows a Bearikade container and the Jetboil. So if he just got the Jetboil at the end of the Trail, then he could have had the bear canister most of the hike and since I recognized pictures from the JMT, he just “overlooked” a number of items in the gear list he provided and the inexperienced writer chose to accept on faith the incomplete information provided. A photo also shows a plastic spork that is not mentioned in the “article” or as a weighted item. Gearjunkie should review their articles before publication. Due diligence may be a concept with which they should acquaint themselves.

Posted by d'Lynn - 11/13/2009 11:03 AM

I have been backpacking since the early seventies – from alaska to mexico – and in all the books and articles I have read – all the gear I have tested/used – this story is simply ‘bunk’ – someone needs to check his medication. Going ultralight is very do-able – but this ‘story’ is an insult., not only to ultralight’s, but the enitre backpacking community.

Posted by MJ - 11/13/2009 11:16 AM

I only did the entire 230 miles of the JMT to Whitney Portal from Yosemite. Did it 3 years ago, too. Ultralight with a base weight of 12 lbs.
It is illegal to hike the Sierra Wilderness without a bear proof food canister. The lightest one still weighs 2.5 pounds.

Posted by Craig - 11/13/2009 11:27 AM

I’m just saying that a few people seem to be making tons of snap judgments, seemingly without reading the whole article (mainly JD and Tracy). He hiked 1000 miles of a trail that is 2650 miles long. There’s a damn good chance he didn’t hike through Sequoia or Yosemite. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Crest_Trail

I don’t praise Rod’s methods, nor do I think most (if anyone) would attempt to do something on this order just by reading an “editorial” article on it (the writer doesn’t seem to be saying “wow, do this hike with these methods!”). It’s an interesting piece of writing on a guy who’s obviously been hiking for a while. You should check out Rod’s blog

Posted by Collin - 11/13/2009 01:14 PM

I find this article useful because it describes the decisions he had to make, at certain points on the trail, based on certain factors or changed conditions. That perspective will help me make my own decisions based on conditions, weight and preferences. Useful effort – - just wish there was a final discussion from him, looking back on some of his decisions (weight vs. comfort).

Posted by andy - 11/13/2009 02:19 PM

Craig- clearly he DID hike through Sequoia National Park . There is a photo of him at Forester Pass which is on the boundary of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks . If he didn’t have a bear canister ( the only approved food storage for this area ) then he was definitely breaking the law . I don’t think having food for a pillow would fly with any of the backcountry rangers out there .

Posted by JackH - 11/13/2009 04:17 PM

There is so much bunk to this report it’s not even funny..

Look for the other photos of his trip. Yes, he had a bear canister. Where is that in his weight? It’s the same place as all of the other crap not listed in his “9 pound” vest pack that lasted a few days because the conditions allowed it and he wanted to pull a stunt.

One of the strangest things… He hiked 1,000miles (we are told) but one of his photos shows a peak in the north cascades. Did he skip trail? What else has been omitted?

A fair number of PCTers use their food bag as a pillow. This guy definitely didn’t pioneer that. No reasonable hikers do it in bear country however. And at least one PCTers has been attacked by a bear for sleeping with their food. I’d say most PCTers, most of the time, just keep their food on the ground next to themselves during the night. Yes, I’ve hiked the PCT.

One thing that I extrapolate… Owners of outdoor stores rarely are part of the “hardcore” outdoor club. This guy seems more like a newbie.

Posted by bm - 11/13/2009 04:57 PM

I enjoyed this article. Since I cannot do most of the hikes in articles because of back problems I live vicariously through others. I’m also tired of everyone crying foul about every little detail. If you don’t like what was written then get off your a55 and hike and detail it yourself for us to read and pick apart. I also really get a kick out of people, Tracy, who cry “he broke the law”. Get over it. Great article and trip by someone trying to advance the art of ultralight backpacking. I applaud you.

Posted by Jerry Cleveland - 11/13/2009 08:25 PM

I know Rod. I don’t know the excruciating details but I think the basic story is much as he describes.

Posted by Jb - 11/14/2009 08:00 AM

Bears have a remarkable sense of smell. I promise you that the aformentioned odor-proof bags are NOT odor-proof to a bear though they may be to humans. Better get some definitive testing (at least with dogs) before trusting these.

Posted by Josh - 11/14/2009 10:56 AM

Great article, and fun ultralight techniques.

Most of all, I love the crazy comments.

Bear canisters required: Bear canisters are not required in all Sequoia, only in the lower areas (Rae Lakes, etc). This is clearly described on the NPS website. (I know, it’s hard to access unless you have a web browser and too much time on your hands. Oh, wait…) Though we don’t know where he camped, we can infer from the photos that it was mostly high country.

Hiking the entire trail: It’s clearly stated that he didn’t hike the entire trail (“He did not complete the entire trail. But over three months, Johnson hiked more than 1,000 miles of the route, including a dozen sections he says are the trail’s highlights.”) Maybe next time read the whole article before getting all riled up.

Odor-proof sacks: Thanks, Jb, for the insightful comment on the “aforementioned odor-proof bags” NOT being odor-proof (and you made sure to put it in all caps). I used Google to find the testing you’re looking for. It’s this crazy search engine that finds things on the World Wide Web.

Extra gear in the photos: The spork (looks like a Light My Fire) weighs 0.35 oz. This could easily fit in the 1oz “personal items.”

The jacket in the photo is presumably the listed Patagonia Houdini (3.5oz) – awesome jacket, btw.

It does look like there’s a bear canister in one of the photos. Odd that it’s not mentioned in the article. Maybe he borrowed it from a nearby camper to use as a chair. There are many possibilities, though I think any reasonable person would properly attribute it to the author’s “inexperience.” Based on this site, his articles in the NYT, and in other publications, Regenold is clearly new to journalism.

Somehow, even after all the blatant falsehoods in this “fluff piece,” I’m able to get over the existence of ultralight hikers who use extreme techniques, odor-proof bags, no bear canisters, and in general do things differently from me. There must be something wrong with me. Oh, wait, it’s beautiful outside and I have better things to do than get upset by an article I found on the Interwebs. (Though you wouldn’t know it from my long-winded comment.)

Posted by Rod Johnson - 11/14/2009 02:14 PM

Update from Rod Johnson:
My mission, as owner and founder of Midwest Mountaineering 39 years ago, is getting people active. One way I do this is to get people to have more fun backpacking by carrying a lighter pack. My bio is on my blog, rodspct.blogspot.com. My first ultralight hike was over the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska in 1986. Since then I have co-authored a book (booklet), Comfortable Ultralight Backpacking, with my wife, Sharon. We have presented our program on how to lighten your pack to several thousand backpackers at our Outdoor Adventure Expos. I occasionally go much lighter than my 9 pound pack. I have hiked the 76 miles from Sonora Pass to Tuolumne Meadows, straight-through, with no pack; just my pockets filled with energy bars. I don’t recommend most hikers go as minimally as I do. My trail name is “Minimal Rod”. I believe a total pack weight of 20 pounds is achievable for many backpackers.
A note on OPSAK odor proof bags. Their odor proof quality was demonstrated to me at an Outdoor Retailer trade show, with chopped onions. I only used a bear canister when I was required to.
A note on bubble wrap: the point is to contour the ground to fit your back for comfort. The first time I hiked the JMT, I used no pad. Bubble wrap is a step up from no pad. Multiple sheets are required for cold temperatures.

Posted by Heidi Ahrens - 11/15/2009 09:27 PM

I like your readers comments more than the article, although I was intrigued by the vest and the quest, even though it seemed to bring a lot of controversy.

Heidi Ahrens http://outdoorbaby.net

Posted by Craig - 11/16/2009 03:03 PM

Thanks for the update Rod :)

Posted by Paul Sibley - 11/17/2009 12:27 PM

I agree with most post about risking more by not taking the basics. On the JMT, my total pack weight (TOTAL) was just under 19 pounds with all basics. But pushing lower, you keep tossing some basic needs to ‘survive’ and comply with park regs.

Posted by Shawn Jeppesen - 11/17/2009 05:47 PM

I really like Rod’s spirit for adventure.

It looks like he addressed the concerns people have.

From what I understand modern humans (as far as we know now) came from Africa about 195,000 years ago.

If you think what Rod did was risky you’re ripping off 194,900 years of collective and acquired information on basic survival from all of your ancestors.

If you were going to die from not having a high tech sleeping pad we would not even be here.

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