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1995: Interview with Ray Jardine

Interview with Ray Jardine

Britain's leading hiking magazine, The Great Outdoors, March 1995

Long Distance backpacker Ray Jardine outlines his extraordinary lightweight doctrine

Ray Jardine, lightweight enthusiast and visionary.

We've all heard of the lightweght backpacking freaks who saw the handles off Their toothbrush, but what do you have to leave at home to achieve a pack weight of only 8.5 pounds for a three-month trip? At a recent gathering of the American Long Distance Hikers' Association, I met up with climber, inventor, and long distance backpacker Ray Jardine, who outlined some of his extraordinary lightweight doctrine.

Let me say right away that Ray Jardine is a remarkable character. A scientist, inventor, and multi-disciplined outdoorsman, Jardine has taken the accepted doctrine of lightweight back-packing, shaken it up and produced some radical ideas. Some of his suggestions wouldn't be suitable for the unstable weather conditions we experience in Britain, but nevertheless his ideas are thought provoking and challenging and break down a lot of accepted perceptions.

Jardine falls undoubtedly into the power-hiking category of back-packing. Among their many achievements, he and his wife Jenny have hiked the 2,800 mile Continental Divide Trail, the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail, and they have walked the 2,600 mile Pacific Trail three times. Ray wrote The CDT Pocket Planner and The PCT Hiker's Handbook, a book that has revolutionized Pacific Crest Trail hiking.

During a recent trip to the States I attended the annual Gathering of the American Long Distance Hikers Association, of which Jardine is founder and president. Most of the fifty or so hikers in attendance agreed that this was the most intense and interesting event they had ever attended. Afterwards I interviewed Jardine for TGO into a tape recorder, the transcript of which is reproduced here.

Ray Jardine on the Pacific Crest Trail. One advantage of a super-light pack is that you can carry it over one shoulder and keep your back dry.

TGO: Ray, this summer you and Jenny hiked the PCT in a record three months and four days Your packs weighed an average of 8.5 pounds, including clothing. I know there's food on top of that, but this is still amazingly light weight. What prompted you to develop such an ultra light weight style?

RJ: It seems that the more hiking I do the more I tire of carrying useless paraphernalia. Reducing packweight makes life on the trail less arduous and more fun.

TGO: Some people like to carry items in case they need them, but your philosophy opposes this. How do you decide what is really essential and what you can do without?

RJ: Before I go into the details, I would like to say this: The equipment is only means to the end; and there are many means to the same end. A hiker planning to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, should not worry whether he or she has the right gear. I have seen all sorts of equipment travel the full length of that trail. The important thing is simply to go.

But back to your question. I tend to separate hiking equipment into items of luxury and items of necessity. A self-inflating mattress is a thing of utility, granted. It provides a measure of comfort reminiscent of the mattress back home. But at least on the trails of my experience, where one can almost always avoid camping on snow and boggy ground, a thin foam pad works about as well. The mattress might weigh one pound two ounces, let's say, while the foam pad weighs maybe two ounces. On a long hike, luxury items can actually be quite burdensome.

Hikers tend to rationalize by saying they would rather carry something and not need it, than need it and not have carried it. So would I. But I try to go one step further by scrutinizing my actual need for an item. I might not always need the things I think I do. Again the self-inflating mattress come to mind. The person trying to use a thin foam pad as though it were the thick, soft mattress can indeed find it uncomfortable to sleep on. Actually, it is not the pad, but the sleeping postures that might be inappropriate.

The Jardine's home made packs - weighing a mere 13oz when empty.

If the mattress is needed for insulation, that's one thing. But if it is needed only for comfort, that's another. One of the greatest hindrances to light-weight travel, then, is in trying to drag along our home-style amenities. I try to adjust my mindset and my habits to accommodate the environment.

TGO: Right. For the backpacker trying to reduce pack weight, what might be a good first step?

RJ: Well, each item of my gear fits into an overall system like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Each works in conjunction with all the others; and none of my ideas will work properly out of context. Only by looking at the bulk of gear as a system can we even begin to optimize packweight. The two items where the novice might reduce the most weight would be the footwear and the backpack. But note how these are connected: I recommend hiking in running shoes. But before a person can set aside the boots in favor of running shoes, the packweight must be reduced. To do that, we would first reduce the size and weight of the backpack itself. But again, before we can do that, we need to reduce the quantity, sizes, and weights of the items that have to fit into it.

TGO: Let's talk about footwear. The general advice for backpackers is that they need medium to heavy weight boots. Now you don't wear boots at all, but running shoes. What are their advantages?

RJ: I believe that boots fall dismally short of providing the benefits they are l supposed to. In terms of ankle support, I know people who have sprained and even broken their ankles in boots. Of course people have done the same in running shoes. But in my mind, the best - and perhaps the only - viable type of ankle support is not external but internal. I'm talking about strong muscles, ligaments and tendons. This comes from rigorous pre-hike training. But not in boots. Boots generally restrict ankle motion, and in so doing they can actually hamper the ankle-strengthening process. This is particularly so in the lateral direction where such strengthening is most needed.

Boots do protect the bottom of the feet when stepping on sharp-edged rocks. In running shoes, though, it is much easier to avoid stepping on such objects altogether. When avoidance is not possible, the shoes allow us to tread more gently. And incidentally, running shoes impact the earth far less than stiff-soled boots. This is very important on heavily frequented trails.

TGO: You and Jenny hiked the Appalachian Trail in running shoes, didn't you?

RJ: Yes, and the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail. But of these the AT has perhaps the greatest reputation for requiring stout boots. To my way of thinking, running shoes are to boots as sports cars are to dump trucks. The lighter the shoe or boot, the more maneuverability it provides. The more rugged the terrain with rocks and roots and steep slopes and difficult tread, the more maneuverability it requires. The hiker wearing stiff and heavy boots on such terrain is far more likely to slip and suffer an injury than the one wearing lighter weight shoes. This is because the shoes allow the hiker to place the feet far more accurately.

Also, the biomechanics of walking comes in to play. The heavier the footwear, the more energy required to draw the foot ahead with each step. The less weight on the feet, the more mileage can be covered each day- with less fatigue. This is not terribly significant for the person hiking only a few dozen miles, but it makes a tremendous difference over the course of a few hundred.

TGO: That's certainly my experience. You've talked about reducing the weight of the backpack itself. Tell us about that.

RJ: It seems that as gear has become more trendy and technological, it is also becoming heavier. I've seen backpacks weighing nearly nine pounds. "Not to worry," we are told, "Their greater efficiencies more than compensate." I disagree. The heavier the load, the more energy is required to transport that load. The best way to make hiking more efficient is not to design a backpack to carry the load more comfortably, but to reduce the load. It isn't easy nowadays to buy commercially made gear that is ultra-light, but it is fairly easy to make it yourself, which is what Jenny and I do.

TGO: Why isn't this type of gear available in the shops?

RJ: A customer will spend a great deal of money on a backpack, for example but only one that is fully guaranteed. If a seam rips out or a strap tears off, the very displeased customer will return the product for repair or replacement. This is bad news for the manufacturers, as well, who thinks in terms of profit margins and corporate images. So they respond by enhancing their designs, not by reinforcing the over-stressed area, but by increasing the overall weight of components: the fabric, fasteners, etc. Over a period of time, after scores of backpacks have come back for repairs - each with a different problem - the pack has been made massively stronger (and heavier). This is OK for expeditionary use, perhaps, but for long distance hiking in benign areas of the world, it is overkill.

The packs that Jenny and I carried on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer weighed 13 ounces. This worked because we've made enough packs that we know where the potential problems lie. And not only did we construct them with great attention to detail, but we also know how to take care of our equipment in the field.

So, swapping a seven pound backpack for a 13 ounce pack is one of the most effective single measures of reducing pack weight. And it works not only because we are reducing the pack's weight, but also because the smaller pack is not going to hold as much. one must be careful, though not to compensate by lashing things all over the outside.

TGO: OK, I can see that the ultra lightweight gear is fine when you have good weather conditions. There must be potential problems when you get rainy weather?

RJ: Jenny and I have hiked mainly in semi-docile environments. The elements have stressed us, but not nearly as severely as they would have, say, in British or Scottish climes. In these locations hikers definitely need heavier equipment and more of it. Still there might be ideas here useful to hikers over there.

TGO: Tents are usually one of the heavier items in people's pocks. What do you do about cutting weight here?

RJ: On our recent through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail we carried, not a tent but a tarp. It measured nearly nine feet square, and pitched in the shape of an "A" it sheltered a much larger area than a lightweight tent. one off the biggest advantages of a tarp over a tent, besides the weight savings and the extra room it affords, is the fact that it usually keeps you and your gear drier. This is because of its superior ventilation. Tent manufacturers have not yet figured out how to close out the storm without drastically restricting needed ventilation. Normally when camping in this part of the world, we wake up in the morning to find the inside of the tent fly soaked in condensation. More importantly, our sleeping bags and clothing can also be quite damp. This is due to the restricted ventilation. The tarp goes a long way in solving these problems.

We also like the way our tarp doesn't shut us out from the environment. We enjoy staying in tune with what's happening outside, watching the sunset and listening to the sounds of any animals moving about. We like the feeling of openness.

TGO: That certainly makes a tarp sound great. I' m trying to think of potential problems. Can you use the tarp when there are no trees to attach it to?

RJ: We rarely attach our tarp to trees, because trees are rarely in the right places. Instead, we normally pitch it using two sticks, like vertical tent poles, and we use guy lines anchored to ground pegs or rocks. Normally, we start looking for these tarp sticks well before we reach camp, especially in areas where trees are sparse. When entering areas where trees are entirely lacking we might have to carry a couple of sticks along with us. In the deserts we have used century plant cactus stalks as tarp poles. And as a last resort we have even used our umbrellas. The thing to avoid is laying the tarp directly on the sleeping bags, as this will soak them with condensation.

TGO: How about the mosquitoes?

RJ: we sewed a large piece of mosquito netting onto the top of our double sleeping bag. We pull this netting over our heads at night. On hot and buggy evenings we don't use the sleeping bag, but just wear our mosquito proof clothing, and dab some repellent on our faces and hands.

TGO: The weight of the tarp?

RJ: Our current one is made of 1.9 ounce coated nylon, and weighs 28 ounces. in addition, we use 8 aluminum tent pegs that weigh a total of 2.5 ounces.

TGO: So you have a shelter for two weighing less than two pounds, with pegs.

RJ: Right. And that compares with a tent we used for a number of years that weighs a little over four pounds. Under tarp we have twice as much room and a hundred times greater ventilation. And I should note that while this ventilation is not too important for the weekend hiker, it is extremely important for the person spending the entire summer in the wilds.

TGO: Now the idea of currying an umbrella while backpacking is unusual to most people.

RJ: I first saw the idea in Peter Jenkin's book Walk Across America. He and his wife attached umbrellas to their packs for shade, while walking through the desert Southwest. Thinking in terms of traversing parts of the Moiave desert, Jenny and I borrowed the idea for our second Pacific Crest through-hike. As that journey unfolded we discovered so many uses for the umbrellas that we ultimately made them a part of our lightweight system. I look at the umbrella as a moveable tent. Whether it's raining, or it's slanting hard with rain, or if it's snowing hard or slanting with snow, the umbrella offers excellent protection for a hiker on the move.

Most of your readers will know about hiking all day in stormy weather and finally crawling into a tent. It is a wonderful feeling of comfort. Well, an umbrella does much the same thing, only you don't have to wait until the end of the day. All you have to do is deploy the umbrella, and suddenly you have at least some measure of shelter. This can impart a warm feeling to an otherwise cold and blustery day. And the best part is that you're not anchored to the ground - you can continue moving as before. I call the umbrella a half-tent on the move.

The main advantage of carrying an umbrella in rainy conditions is the superb ventilation it provides. I've found the waterproof-breathable parka much less appropriate for long distance, ultra-marathon hiking This is because while hiking hard the body is pumping sweat. A poorly ventilated jacket holds that sweat in. Perspiration condenses on the inside and leaves you just as wet, or maybe wetter, than if you were not wearing the parka. The system that Jenny and I use is this - we wear fast-drying shirts made of 100% polyester. If the day is cold and breezy we also wear breathable lightweight I nylon jackets. If the wind is strong we block it with our umbrellas. Or if it's wet we use our umbrellas.

TGO: Don't you get cold wearing such thin clothes?

RJ: While hiking hard, our bodies generate quite a lot of metabolic heat. We don't rely on our clothing to insulate, so much as on our food to produce both hiking energy and metabolical warmth. Hiking ultra-high daily mileages, we need all the ventilation we can get, and the umbrellas and high-energy food are the answers. Here again, though, we are talking about hiking in reasonably docile areas .

In the Cascade Mountains, Oregon. Jenny and Ray Jardine on Yapoah Crater with Three Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson on the skyline.

TGO: You mentioned using the umbrellas for shade.

RJ: Yes, when hiking in desert-like environments, the main reason we feel so hot is because of the solar radiation searing our clothing and skin. We cover our umbrellas with a film of reflective mylar - a plastic material that looks like aluminum foil. Deploying these in desert climes feels almost like stepping into an air conditioned room. They are amazingly effective.

TGO: That makes the umbrella sound just about indispensable, but in British conditions where it's often very windy people worry that the wind will turn them inside out and rip them to shreds, and then they hove no protection.

RJ: Well, Jenny and I hand hold our umbrellas, and always point them into the weather. In rain or snow, where there is no wind, we hold the Umbrellas upright. But if it's windy and we are traversing a ridge, and the wind is coming in horizontally, we hold our umbrellas pointing sideways - directly into the wind. And if there is rain with that wind, the umbrellas block both.

TGO: Aren't umbrellas rather fragile?

RJ: We've carried them about 12,000 miles with few problems. But I do recommend taking a lightweight back-up wardrobe of waterproof-breathable clothing, in case the wind destroys the umbrella, or in case the conditions intensify.

TGO: This is talking about fairly small umbrellas, isn't it, rather than the large golf-style ones you see?

RJ: About 36 inches in diameter. And I modify ours to reduce weight. First I select a type with the least moving parts, then I cut the handles short and remove the springs and other non-essential components.

TGO: Thank you very much Ray. I know you're working on a new book describing your gear and your light weight hiking philosophies. We'll be eagerly watching for it.

The story has 26 pages. This is page 14.
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