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Making light of a heavy load

When you hike with lightweight-gear guru Demetri Coupounas, you learn that overloading your pack may not yield the richest wilderness experience. Mary Forgione recounts some lessons learned from the prince of lightness.

May 17, 2005|Mary Forgione

For the next few hours my pack goes off and on as I make my way through the twisted mass of branches and roots, sometimes crawling upslope or down to get around the fallen trees. If ever a test was devised for the virtues of packing light, this would be it. With each unsteady move, the pack bites into my back. Coup, on the other hand, never removes his snug-fitting rig, easily maneuvering through the debris. Occasionally I surrender my pride, and he helps me haul my load up and over the blowdowns. Score one point for the lightweight.

By the time we reach a summit and clear the forest, my legs feel rubbery from all the tree vaulting, but the test isn't over yet. Spreading across the trail is a grainy sheet of hard, crusty snow. My feet lose traction as we start to plod our way across. Coup doesn't seem to have as much trouble; perhaps it's his lightweight trail shoes. Eventually we descend to a forest of scrub oaks and vines.

That's when Coup delivers the bad news. First the downed trees, then the snow, and now, he says, we're going in the wrong direction. We're heading, according to his compass, west, and we should be making our way southeast. We also should have reached the car by now. We backtrack, and then, with night falling, decide to cut our losses and bed down amid shrubs and sagebrush in a spot I still can't find on the map.

I have a cold dinner of string cheese, tofu and pita -- Coup hasn't yet run out of dried mango -- when I remember that we never made it to the spring. Maybe Mother Nature has her own test in mind.

I check my pack; I've got one quart of water. Mr. GoLite, however, has none. I offer to share, but Coup waves me off. Instead he finds a snow field where he scratches down under the surface and nibbles handfuls of watery snow.

Score one for the heavyweight.

The final numbers

So was the adventure, this friendly competition, a draw?

In the morning we vow to stay on the trail until we find the car or walk all the way to Los Angeles trying.

Now the air is drier, the terrain less chiseled. We glide through canyons and finally arrive at the long-awaited spring.

A couple of miles later we reach signs for the campground where the car is parked and discover that we hadn't overshot our destination; we simply hadn't gone far enough.

Back at Kennedy Meadows, I drag out the scale. Coup's pack weighs a mere 8 pounds. I'm lighter than when I started, but my pack is still four times heavier than his.

"Who has carried the heaviest load up Everest?" Coup asks me as we pack up to leave. It's a question I've heard from him before, part of his pitch. But I play along.

The team that dragged the Imax camera up the world's highest mountain? Or Sir Edmund Hillary?

Then comes the punch line: "Who knows," Coup asks rhetorically, "and who cares?"



Get the lead out

Some tips on how to start downsizing your load

Think big: Lighten up the items that weigh the most -- starting with your tent, sleeping bag and pack.

Think ahead: Bring only what you need -- and what you know how to use.

Think twice: Use your gear for more than one purpose. The down jacket you wear around camp can also provide extra warmth when draped over a summer sleeping bag.

Think smart: Compare lightweight lines offered by GoLite, Marmot, Black Diamond, Mountainsmith, MSR, Osprey and other companies. Talk to the pros at free gear clinics, such as one offered May 31 at Adventure 16 in West L.A.


-- Mary Forgione



A bunch of items that just don't add up to much


Demetri Coupounas carried just 16 pounds for three days (it helps that he used gear his company makes). So what was in his pack?


2 fleece hats

1 pair women's lightweight trekking poles (carried or used with shelter)

1 pair lightweight gloves

Sun hat

Ground sheet (half of

a space blanket)

Half a full-length

sleeping pad

Headlamp (no extra


Small LED squeezer backup light


Lip balm

Two 1 1/2 -liter water bottles

Medical kit

Emergency blanket

Water treatment solution

1/2 roll of toilet paper

Toothpaste, toothbrush and floss

Lighter and waterproof matches

Esbit cube (fuel stick)

Sports ointment



1 pound coconut-dusted dates

2 pounds dried mango

6 ounces pecans

6 ounces almonds

8 ounces cacao (pure chocolate)

12 ounces buffalo jerky

1 ounce kelp

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