Understanding Comfort and Misery in Backpacking

Backpacking is becoming more mainstream, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is doing it comfortably. How many times have you thrown your pack down in frustration over its weight, realized you had packed way too many things, or even cut a trip short because of discomfort?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing tips from our new book Backpacking the Light Way by Richard A. Light on how to lighten your load while backpacking without sacrificing any gear or comfort.

I have been miserable on many a backpacking trip. So comfort and lightweight are something I really appreciate! Ultralight gear and comfort are often considered an oxymoronic pair, yet there are many ways to accomplish comfort. My new book, Backpacking the Light Way, helps people transition from conventional (and usually heavier) backpacking gear, methods of using that gear, and ways of thinking, to a lighter-weight approach. This lighter approach is based on ultralight backpacking methods, gear, and thinking, but is tempered by (1) the often unrecognized effort required to transition from one paradigm to another, and (2) the desire to promote comfort to maximize happiness and minimize frustration in the backcountry.

All of us have limitations to our physical fitness, our endurance, our strength of joints, and our suppleness. When we exceed these limitations, we enter into the world of pain, possible injury, suffering, and misery. When planning for backpacking, these limitations must be considered in order to ensure our own health and safety, but also to make the backpacking fun and pain free. When I say pain, I don’t mean the “normal” pain of being tired after hiking 10 miles and feeling a bit stiff and achy. The pain and misery I’m referring to is that associated with overexertion, extending beyond our abilities such that we either injure our bodies or strain the system to the point of early fatigue, the unpleasant pain of pre-injury activities on the verge of damage. All of us have a threshold at which this pain begins. It’s the point at which our bodies begin telling us to stop. If we pay attention to this message, we can prevent injuries, misery, and pain.

This paying attention to our pain threshold could be called finding the “misery index,” the measurement of our abilities to carry a pack comfortably on a specific trek. We all have this index. Perhaps we’ve never known about it or used it, but it’s always been there, warning us, guiding us.

Backpacking the Light Way, Rick A. Light, Wilderness Press, ultralight backpacking,

Those who have hiked with a full pack know that on some trips the weight of the pack and its effects on our bodies can cause us to reach our threshold of misery: pain begins; old injuries act up; fatigue sets in more quickly than expected. Life is just not fun. This phenomenon is what I call the “misery point” for that pack, on that hike, for the particular hiker involved. The misery point is specific for these sets of circumstances. The same hike with the same pack (or perhaps a lighter pack) filled to less weight can cause no pain, and the hike is fun since the misery point is not exceeded.

Backpacking the Light Way is about how to lighten our packs so we can stay misery-free. It provides the means to minimize our pack weight for specific trips so we never encounter the misery point. By being aware that the misery index exists, we can be more aware on our backpacking trips, noticing when we hit the misery point and taking action to lighten our load so the trip (and future trips) can be less painful and more fun. This book shows how to navigate the paradigm shift in mindset required to create a lighter load. It is about learning how to apply your various misery indices, that is, how much weight you can safely carry under different circumstances. It’s a skill appropriate for all backpackers who wish to stay comfortable and misery-free.

Come join me on this adventure in learning a new way to enjoy the wilderness.

Richard A. Light

Santa Fe, NM

Tanya Twerdowsky
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