9-Pound Pack: Ultralight on the PCT


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.

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.

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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Stephen Regenold is Founder and Editor-In-Chief of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for nearly two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of four small kids, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.