Ray Jardine and the Revolution of Lightweight Wilderness Travel

By Pete Gauvin

Photos courtesy
of Ray Jardine

Ten years ago, Ray and Jenny Jardine hiked the entire 2,700-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail in only three months and four days with packs averaging less than nine pounds. Their 1994 trip was their third PCT thru-hike since 1987 and followed summer treks on the other two legs of what he referred to as the “Triple Crown” of long-distance hiking – the Continental Divide and Appalachian trails.

It marked the zenith of Ray Jardine’s evolving philosophy of lightweight backpacking. When his hard-earned knowledge, refined by more than 20,000 miles of hiking, was related to an audience of weight encumbered, gear-consumed wilderness enthusiasts in his books – the now out-of-print Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook and the subsequent Beyond Backpacking – it became known simply as “The Ray Way.”
With an inquisitive nature and a problem-solver’s mind, Jardine disassembled accepted practices and tinkered with new ones, over time revolutionizing the thinking of how to travel the backcountry safely,
comfortably and with minimal impact. Speed is a byproduct of Jardine’s lightweight methods, not the goal – a distinction Jardine is quick to make whenever someone, a journalist in particular, confuses his philosophy with in vogue terms like “fast and light” and “fastpacking.”
“I don’t even know what fastpacking is, nor do I want to. I think whatever pack weight someone has, heavy or light, that’s great. The important thing is that they hike and camp,” Jardine related from his Arizona home.

In many ways Jardine’s philosophy of going light—winnowing extraneous gear from the pack and replacing overbuilt “bombproof” gear with gear designed to do the same job functionally and adequately—employs common-sense approaches used by kindred predecessors like John Muir, who would embark on exploratory hikes in the High Sierra with coat pockets filled with nuts and sleep on a bed of soft pine duff. While Muir was a hardened minimalist known for scampering long distances to make first ascents, Jardine’s lightweight philosophy has comfort in mind. “I find nothing comfortable about sleeping on duff with no quilt, nor hauling a huge pack and wearing heavy boots. So I compromise by reducing the weight of gear to achieve the most comfort.”

But the Ray Way is much more than cutting the handle off your tooth brush. And it is certainly not about rushing out to buy the latest in ultralight gear. On a deeper level, it is more about overcoming the commercially promulgated view of nature as an adversary that one must continually prepare to do battle against and adopting a more rhythmic, harmonious approach to backcountry travel.

The simplest way to do that, Ray has found, is to carry less so we can walk easier, with less stress on our bodies and more joy for our surroundings. Many folks who had given up backpacking because of the burdensome loads, sore knees and blistered feet from stiff, heavy “hiking” boots, have rediscovered the joys of packing by following the tenets of the Ray Way.

“The all-inclusive, ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach only detracts from our outings,” Jardine writes in Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine’s Guide to Lightweight Hiking, in which he pricks the balloons of conventional backpacking wisdom one by one over 500-plus pages. “I am not promoting minimalism, but simply a reduction in what is not necessary. And I have found that this reduction, when thoughtfully and skillfully done, actually enhances both our safety and comfort.”
On the trail, pack weight is the number one factor over which we have control that will determine the success and enjoyment of our outings. “The hiker carrying a 58-pound pack expends about the same amount of energy in 10 miles as the hiker carrying 10 pounds does in 30 miles,” Jardine notes in Beyond Backpacking. While his aggressive weight-shaving approach might seem excessive at times, one can glean many useful tips for a more comfortable and fulfilling backcountry experience, whether it’s a weekend or weeks-on-end trip.

“During our first thru-hike, with loads (about 30-35 pounds including food and fuel) that were ponderous to us (but lighter than what most other hikers were carrying) we averaged 17 miles a day. On our fifth journey, with baseline pack weights of 8 pounds (not including food and water), we averaged 29 miles a day,” he writes in Beyond Backpacking. “The reduced pack weight made that much difference. Without the huge load, the hiking was no longer such a chore. In many ways a thru-hike is a series of day hikes; I think that the advantages of lighter-weight packs are equally beneficial to all hikers, regardless of the duration of their trips.”

Flip through Beyond Backpacking and you’ll see photos of Jardine hiking deep in the wilds with a pack about the size of a book bag slung over one shoulder like he was headed to class. Indeed, he was often mistaken for a day hiker, for we have become conditioned to think of backpacking as huffing a load the size of a small refrigerator.

From a casual perspective, it may be easy to mistake Jardine’s focus on pack weight as motivated more by a desire to achieve the lightest, smallest pack possible than an enjoyable wilderness experience. But delve
deeper and it becomes apparent that he is no more focused on weight than he is consumed with exploration. He wants gear that facilitates freedom. In too many instances, today’s gear ends up inhibiting it.

But Jardine doesn’t consider himself a minimalist. “To me, the word ‘minimalist’ denotes long exhausting days, shivering nights, self-denial and suffering … The number of items in my pack is fairly consistent with what most other hikers carry. It’s just that each item is perhaps more carefully thought out, specially built in many cases, smaller and lighter and with fewer redundancies.”
Jardine may be the guru of lightweight gear but in no way is he a “gearhead.” It’s a critical distinction. Jardine’s gear, which he mostly sews himself, is purely about function—designing something to do the job, or perhaps multiple jobs, adequately, without superfluous doo-dads. His gear is well-built but not over built. It’s about “differentiating our wants from our needs,” he says.
“My home-made gear is built better than anything made commercially. The packs we made for PCT ’94 have many more thousands of miles on them and are still going strong.”

Unfortunately, as Jardine notes in Beyond Backpacking, the marketing tactics of many outdoor equipment companies, particularly those that promise to protect us from “nature’s wrath,” contribute to a tendency to over-gear ourselves. While this wilderness-battlefield mentality persists to some degree, Jardine’s philosophy and gear designs have—along with the advent of sports like adventure racing—helped fuel a parallel trend in lightweight, functional gear. That trend has caught fire over the past five years and turned into a full-scale revolution across every sector of the outdoor industry.
Ultimately, as he stresses in his book, people need to abandon rigid thinking and discover what works best for them, apart from the gear marketers and even the Ray Way.

Clues to Jardine’s questioning of prevailing-way methods and his do-it-yourself ingenuity are found in his early training and experiences. Born in 1944, Jardine became an aerospace engineer and worked as a specialist in computer-simulated space-flight mechanics. He retired early to pursue his outdoor interests. He spent nearly 10 yeas as a wilderness instructor, mostly in the Colorado Rockies.

Backpacking is merely the second outdoor sport he has stood on its head until a whole new paradigm has emerged. A pioneering rock climber of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jardine established some of the era’s toughest climbs, including the world’s first 5.12 graded climb, “The Crimson Cringe” (1976), and the first 5.13, “The Phoenix” (1977). In Yosemite, he put up 50 first ascents. Moreover, he helped revolutionize the sport with his innovation of the camming device known as “Friends,” while originating the modern style of climbing that enables far more challenging routes to be climbed.
In 1981, he moved away from Yosemite and stopped climbing, to pursue fresh interests, including global sailing, expedition sea kayaking and long-distance hiking. He is also an avid hang-glider pilot and skydiver.

Making their home in Arizona, Ray and Jenny now teach several outdoor classes each year (see Ray Jardine’s Adventure Page, www.rayjardine.com), when they’re not off on their own truly epic
adventures. Since completing their five thru-hikes in excess of 2,000 miles, the couple has rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in 53 days in a custom-designed 23-foot rowboat and paddled home-built kayaks from
Washington to the Beaufort Sea and down Arctic rivers. This spring, they pedaled more than 6,000 miles on a tandem bike from their Arizona home to the East Coast, to the West Coast, and back home.

“The scope and the means do not matter. What matters is the going,” Jardine wrote in his web log following a hike-and-bike adventure he and Jenny took from Canada to Mexico last year. “For life as we know it cannot be experienced while sitting in front of a TV or computer. Life is what you find beyond your gate. I find that every journey outward, ultimately leads inward. The journey becomes a reminding—of who we are and what we are meant to be. So whether you rove near or far, when you return back through that same gate you will know yourself for the first time.”


Ray-Way Trail Wisdom

Some examples of Ray-Way trail wisdom. For greater detail, consult Beyond Backpacking:

  1. Tarps not tents: As a wilderness instructor in his younger years, Jardine and his students used cheap, plastic tarps with great success in mild and inclement summer weather. Their cost was a fraction of a tent, they weighed much less but provided more sheltered living space, and had no poles or zippers to break. A decade and a half later, when he and Jenny were planning their first PCT thru-hike, they were persuaded by backpacking books and marketing hype to use the latest ‘lightweight’ (four pounds) tent instead. They soon found that poor ventilation and condensation buildup made it a liability, particularly in extended wet weather. By their fifth thru-hike in 1994 they returned to using a tarp, which cost $15 and weighed under two pounds
  2. Lighten your feet: Running shoes and sandals, not hiking boots, are the preferred footwear of Ray and Jenny for most hiking conditions. They’re much lighter, are easier to walk in, provide greater
    breathability, dry quickly, are less likely to cause blisters and other potentially crippling foot problems, and for the cost of one pair of heavy-duty boots, you can buy several pairs of quality running shoes. He recommends carrying a spare pair, rather than rely on one pair of boots. With a lighter pack, the extra ankle support boots provide is usually not necessary.
  3. Rain? Grab your umbrella: Instead of expensive rainwear, Jardine reaches first for an umbrella in all but the windiest, coldest conditions. An umbrella allows you to hike more comfortably, without the clammy feel that rainwear may induce, while covering your head and the top portion of your backpack. Keep a waterproof/breathable parka ready for when conditions demand.
  4. Sleep with your feet uphill: Counterintuitive, yes. Most of us search for flat ground to camp, and if we must sleep on a slope would rather have our head uphill. In potentially wet conditions, a slope may be the best place to camp since rain will not pool. By sleeping with your feet uphill, it prevents blood from pooling in the legs and restricting circulation, and it helps draw swelling from the lower extremities, improving recovery.
  5. Ditch the coffee: By weaning themselves from coffee, Ray and Jenny saved an average of 25 minutes daily preparing and consuming this diuretic, time that could be better spent hiking or sleeping.
  6. Don’t cook where you camp: By stopping to make dinner in the early evening, then continuing to hike for a while, you’ll be less ravenous when you finally stop to camp, more relaxed and much less likely to attract bears.

2 thoughts on “Ray Jardine and the Revolution of Lightweight Wilderness Travel

  1. Ralph Alcorn

    For Ray’s current views, checkout “Trail Life”. It is his newest version his backpacking book. Beyond Backpacking was the 2nd. Also, where are the photos that are credited to Ray Jardine?

  2. Avatar of ASJ StaffASJ Staff Post author

    Thanks Ralph. This article was originally published years ago and we were asked to remove Ray’s photos from our site. We should probably take the photo credit out of this post. Thanks for pointing that out.

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