Thursday, December 29, 2016

Losing Weight on a Long Distance Hike

Carrying a bit more weight than I need
As I spread things around on the Interwebs, I have written a new article for The Trek (formerly Appalachian Trials).  I talk about weight.  Not the weight in my pack, but the weight I have packed on my body.  Enjoy.

The Weight Factor: Losing Weight on a Long Distance Hike

EarthTone and LoGear

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

LD-06: Life on the Trail

Life on the Trail

Doing a long distance hike is a bit different from a day hike or weekend adventure. I like to think of it as continuous section hikes, one after the other. After a few days out there, your attitude changes. You start to feel comfortable out in the woods, even as you work through all your aches and pains.
What's it really like out there?
One thing a long distance hike isn't is a simple walk in the woods. You are living out here. Everything you need is carried on your back. You are climbing mountains all day, every day. Your feet hurt. Your clothes and body stink. You may not be totally dry for several days in a row. It's not easy. It is a real challenge. The trick to success out there is to let all of this happen and still find a way to smile each day. The smile may only last a few seconds, or it may stretch into a huge belly laugh, but to find the good in the days hike and the people who are out there with you is important.
Eating and drinking
Keeping yourself fueled and hydrated are super important. Carrying food that is light and easy to prepare helps. The longer you stay out there, the more food you will need. As you spend each day hiking, you use up all your calories quickly and start to lose weight. Your body actually eats itself. Keeping your calorie intake at the proper level will take more and more food as time goes on.

I usually carry foodstuffs that only need for me to add boiling (or hot) water to make them a meal. If I'm only heating water in my pot and using freezer bags to prepare the food, then cleanup is a snap. The bag becomes my trash bag and the pot just needs to dry. I will also carry food that doesn't need cooking, like peanut butter and tuna. As you move along and your tastes change, you will try new things and keep trying to liven up your meals. When you hit town, you can eat huge meals that someone else has prepared and add fresh (and heavy) fruit and veggies to your diet. It all evens out.

Water is also your most precious possession. Dehydration is no joke. If you don't treat the water you find along the trail, you may suffer the consequences. Giardia is pretty much everywhere. It comes from poop. Not just beaver poop, but also human poop. Having a filter or other form of treatment will lessen your chance of water borne illnesses. You must have water and it weighs a lot. One liter is 2.2 lbs. So, you find it along the way. I like to find springs that I can see coming out of the mountain. I sometimes don't treat when I see it coming out, but I'm not saying everyone (or anyone) should do that. That's just how I roll. I tell people it gives me a strong constitution. If your body gets used to the little critters, it can fight them better. At least that is what I tell myself.

Luckily in today's informational world, you can know how far the next water source is, if you have a decent trail guide. The A.T. Guide or Thru Hiker's Companion will get you there. Sometime though, that water source is dry. You need to be able to plan ahead and I have learned, that is almost always a bad idea to pass up a water source. What I do when I come upon a good source and still have water, is I camel up. I drink all I have and fill up. I carry an extra empty 1 liter platypus for when I know I will be heading to a dry camp or an extended dry stretch. It's always nice to have the option of gathering extra water. Of course, you now have to carry it, but the tradeoff is worth it.

I also will flavor my water from time to time with powders or MiO, because drinking plain old water all the time, gets old after awhile.
Making camp
Each day you must find a place to lay your head for the night. Since you are continuously moving, it will be in a different place with different circumstances than the night before. Each hiker creates their own routine.

Some will make their way to the next shelter and grab a space. This is always more likely to happen if the weather is turning wet or cold. Others, will do some socializing at shelters, then move a way from that area to disperse camp.

Wherever you lay your head for the night, it will be a new challenge every day. The best place to camp (for the trail) is at or near a shelter. This keeps the wear and tear to a constrained area. There are also a few of the rare amenities (if I can use that word) at shelters. A privy, fire ring, tent pads, table and water are some of what is usually near a shelter.

As a hammock hanger, all I need to do is find two appropriately spaced trees with nothing dead above. Rocks, don't care. Slanting grade, don't care. Under story plants, can easily avoid as my shelter is hanging above all that. To me, tenters have more of a challenge finding a place to place their tent for the night.

If you do disperse camp, always try to use leave no trace techniques that minimize your impact on the forest. Try to leave it as if you weren't even there.

Tricks for the long haul
They say that accomplishing a long distance hike is about 80% mental. You need to find what works for you to keep yourself motivated and positive.

Try to think of the long distance hike as nothing more than a long series of short (multi day) hikes. Create goals that aren't 2000 miles away. Maybe 100 miles or so and strive for that. Think about where your next resupply will be and work on getting there just as you eat your last snickers bar.

Keep your mind active and engaged. You will spend a lot of time in your own head. I have solved many a problem, just by mulling it over in my head as I hike along.

This may seem impossible on some days, but try to find a reason to laugh and smile during the day. Even on the worst day of hiking, you can still find something to smile about.

Hiking a long hike is just like eating an elephant. It seems impossible at first, but the way you eat an elephant is one small piece at a time. You can try to hike the long hike the same way. One small section at a time.
Trail etiquette
It is important to not only avoid pissing off those who hike with you, but to also minimize your impact to the trail and surrounding terrain as you hike along.

There have been dozens of articles of trail etiquette. How not to "be that guy". A quick google search will give you many examples of what not to do. I try to keep it simple.

I basically just invoke the Golden Rule. Don't do anything to another hiker (or the forest) that you don't want done to you. Be considerate, be grateful and be generous.

The Leave No Trace movement gives you lots of things to think about when you are out there. Simply put, do whatever you can to minimize your own impact on the trail and those you encounter when you are out there. Plan properly, don't litter, don't be inconsiderate of other hikers and wildlife, don't be irresponsible with fire.

One final piece of advice (and I think I have been guilty in the past) is don't be that person who thinks they have all the answers. Who knows it all. Everyone can learn something out there, so always be open to other's opinions and ideas. When we work together out there on the trail, we all excel.
Safety basics
One of the best safety skills you can develop is situational awareness. If you can recognize a potential hazardous situation and avoid it, then you are halfway to not encountering something that can end your hike.

Don't take unnecessary risks. Is that a storm coming in? Maybe I shouldn't hike up on that exposed ridge. Do I really need to jump off of that bridge? I'm pretty sure I can make that jump from that rock to that one... Take your time, think it through.

Carry a first aid kit, but it should be small and simple. On the A.T. you are never very far from help, so you don't need a battle kit with large blood sopping bandages and an I.V. drip. A few band aids, some Triple Antibiotic ointment, blister treatment, duct tape, Vitamin I, tweezers, a needle. That's about it.

Being weather observant gets you a long way to being safe out there. Recognize the potential of hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration. Take actions to prevent it if you can.

Always having something dry to get into is pretty important. If you find yourself unable to maintain a safe core body temperature, you need to take action quickly. Get out of wet clothes and into your bag. Sip on some warm drink. Shiver until you are warm.

Be leery of "hikers" who don't seem right. Observe, question is need be (and safe), decide whether or not to stay where you are or move on. Intuition is a real thing.

Hitch with a friend if possible. It is ok to change your mind about a ride if something doesn't feel right. Just thank them for stopping, but that you decided to wait for your friend or some other cleaver lie.
Safety for women
Common sense also plays an important part in keeping yourself safe as a woman on the trail. This in no way says that women are weaker out there or need special help in being safe, but to point out a few things that might need to be thought about as a female hikes.
Especially if said female is hiking solo.

There is always the "don't publish your location" piece of advice. Delaying your log entries on line can help keep it fuzzy as to where you actually are on the trail. Of course, this can also hinder someone beneficial who is trying to locate you, but it is better to err on the side of caution. There is also the "my hiking partner is right behind me" phrase. Even I use that one from time to time.

When hitching, try to find someone to travel with. If it is a scraggly guy, you are actually doing him a favor as it seems woman can get rides easier than men, especially scraggly men.

If something doesn't feel right, trust your intuition. If you can remove yourself from the situation safely, do so. If you can't then being able to defend yourself is a good idea. I'm all for carrying the small pepper spray canisters. It can be quite the deterrent.

It seems that every female out there acquires a lot of "brother" and "uncle" figures. These people form a protective bond that makes any neer-do-well rethink messing with a lone female that he may think is vulnerable. The Tramily is a strong force.

Lastly, if you are receiving unwanted attention (Pink Blazing), the best advice I can offer is to just confront and explain to the Pink Blazer that you are not interested. Try to do that in the presence of your trail brothers, uncles. It would be unfortunate that you have to alter your hike (jumping ahead, taking an extra zero or leaving the trail) because of some asshole that can't understand the word No. Your trail brothers will support you and can even help "convince" the PB'er that they need to move on.
Special concerns for older hikers
Just because your body has aged and started to betray you doesn't mean you can't still get out there and hike long distances. There are many older hikers who have hiked thousands of miles in their later years.

Some of the things older hikers encounter are mechanical failures. Knees, hips, ankles. You aren't as flexible as you were at 20, so keeping your pace and mileage at a reasonable level, at least for a while is important. Older hikers may also have more concerns with heart issues, that young'ins don't usually need to worry about.

If you are on medication, you need to figure out how to resupply those meds when needed. It can be challenging, but is always do-able.

There are a lot of older hikers out there. They are able to complete their long distance hike because they were aware of their limitations (if they have them) and they use patience to ensure they can maintain a pace that chews up miles, but doesn't overtax the aging body they live in.
Each Hiker will experience the trail a little bit differently.  If you always keep your head clear, your decisions flexible and your attitude adjusted, there is nothing you can't do.

LD-01 - LD-02 - LD-03 - LD-04 - LD-05 - LD-06 - LD-07 - LD-08

Friday, December 2, 2016

Adding Another Stick to the Blogging Fire - Appalachian Trials

I have decided to join the Appalachian Trials team as one of their bloggers.  I will post articles on there from time to time as I think up interesting topics to write about.  

Here is my intro post.  

The Quest of Pamola

Here is how it starts:

You have to admit, Pamola is a badass looking dude.  Well, god actually.  As the Penobscot stories go, Pamola is a god of thunder and protector of the Greatest Mountain, aka Katahdin.  That’s where he lives and no one comes into his house without paying the price. Read the rest...

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Preparation Work and Purchases


While my Subaru sits in the shop with a leaking transmission, our preparation plans continue.  That current repair may dig into our gear purchasing fund, but we only have a couple of things to buy to make our kit complete.  Truth be told, we could hit the trail today with what we have and be OK, but these last purchases can cut more weight while making us a bit more comfortable.  All we really need besides a few consumables are some quilts (both top and under) and maybe some new hammocks.  These items will cost somewhere over $1000 for the both of us.  

That's tranny fluid all under the truck
Something I had been thinking about was the best way to check our packs when we fly down to Atlanta.  I don't want to just throw the pack as is, with its hanging stuff onto the luggage rack at the counter.  I want to lessen the chance of losing things or having them messed with.  I found a nice duffle bag made specifically for that purpose at REI and purchased two of them.  They arrived yesterday and I threw all my gear into one to see if it fits.  Not only does it all fit (including trekking poles and crocks), but there is still room to spare.  Now, it looks pretty huge, so I don't want to fill it to the brim and risk being charged for oversized luggage, but these should work nicely.  One thing I really like about them is they collapse into their own zippered pocket that is pretty small.  We will mail them back home once we get to Georgia.  

From this, to this.
I also pre-ordered two copies of AWOL's A.T. Guide.  (one for us and one for home base).  They have a nice early bird deal going and having two copies will help with coordination with Brandi "Home Base".  I also plan on getting a pdf copy for my phone when they are available.  

I have started to make some inquiries down in Georgia as I plan our arrival and transportation to the trail.  We plan to fly into Atlanta and take the MARTA train up to the northern terminus where we will be shuttled to either a Hostel, Amicalola Falls or Springer.  The planning continues. We will also need to pick up some fuel and any last items that we are missing before starting the hike as you can't pack canisters filled with a highly flammable gas.  We have some tentative plans to get some help from a friend down in Georgia, but those plans are still in their infancy and are still very nebulous.  When they firm up, I will talk about them.

The preparations continues and will most likely do so until we head to the airport.  As of today we have 158 days until we hit the trail, but who's counting.  

EarthTone and LoGear

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Together AS One - The Wedding of Shauni and Alex

Alex and Shauni John and party.  Freshly married.
These past few weeks we have been gearing up for something that wasn't hiking related which consumed most of our time.  Last Saturday, it all came to a head as my first born daughter, Shauni, married the love of her life Alex.  

Just like hiking, things weren't "ideal", but thanks to my daughter's meticulous planning, preparation and flexibility, it ended up being "perfect".  

For the last two weeks or so, we have been checking the weather. Fretting a bit here and there as the forecast constantly changed from cloudy, to rainy, to windy.  It ended up being a bit windy, with temperatures in the 50's, but hey, it's October and we half expected it while hoping for a burst of Indian Summer to come along.  

Shauni had always wanted an outdoor wedding and I'm proud to say that Lisa and my influence had a little to do with it.  Here's a quote from her card to us.
"Thank you for instilling the love of the outdoors in me so that I had the desire to have a wedding outside.  Rain or shine.  I'm glad to begin this new journey surrounded by nature."
All her life, we have been camping and hiking with our kids.  One clear memory I have of Shauni is walking (and carrying) her up a steep trail in Yosemite to the top of a raging waterfall.  It was raining or misting and a little chilly as we continued to the top, singing "rain, rain, go away" together.  She was only about two at the time, but I could see the wonder in her eyes as we watched the power of nature in that waterfall.  Another memory is when we were being transferred back East after a tour in California.  We had stopped for the night in Utah, camping on the edge of the salt flats.  The wind kicked up fiercely in the night, pulling the tent stakes from the sandy soil.  Lisa and I spread ourselves out to each side to hold the tent in place as Shauni slept soundly in the cacophony of the roaring wind.  

Dad and Daughter at Vernal Falls, Yosemite, CA

Lunch at the falls

Car camping in NC

Patapsco hike

Fast forward two decades and here we have the whole family taking a short backpack trip up in PA on the A.T. and a nearby trail for a nice overnight.  The hike went well after one of my unplanned tangents and we had a pleasant night in an established campsite, making s'mores around the fire.  A year or so later, Shauni, Alex and I did a 20 mile section south of Harpers Ferry.  The second day gave Shauni a crop of painful blisters, but she soldiered on the final day.  Moving slow, but moving forward nonetheless.  We completed our goal as we had planned.

Hiking in PA

Hiking in VA


So, I was happy to learn that she wanted an outdoor wedding and the venue she chose was very nice.  A Nature Center in Owings Mills.  The small rise above a large meadow was the perfect backdrop after a short walk down a path.  The reception would be back near the Nature Center in a large tent, with walls and a couple of heaters.

It was Friday, the day before the wedding and time for the rehearsal.  A line of storms rolled through the area as a cold front arrived.  The cleansing rain that pattered on the windshield as we drove North had stopped when we all came together to go over the ceremony with the wedding planner and the freshness you could see and feel was marvelous.  

After a very nice dinner at a nearby Green Turtle, we all headed to our resting places for the night.  Shauni to the hotel, Alex back their new home so he wouldn't see his bride until the appointed time and us back to our home where the dogs waited for us.

Maisie, their pup, doesn't like when we leave her.  She finds things to destroy that she knows are dear to us.  She wouldn't disappoint that night and the next, but my grand doggy can do no wrong.  She is quickly forgiven her tantrums as we love her to death. 

After Rehearsal Dinner

After the Wedding
The wedding day arrived with a chill temperature and blustery winds.  As I got ready to leave home, I went out on the deck to a beautiful blue sky with puffy white clouds that were quickly moving across the sky in the strong breeze.  The wind would dry up the field, but also chill the guests and wedding party, but we were prepared and ready to carry on.

I threw my base layer merino wool long sleeve shirt on under my suit, just in case and was pretty comfortable the whole night.  

We all arrived at our appointed places at the correct times.  I hung out with the men for a while.  Watching the nervousness on my soon to be son-in-law as we waited for 5 o'clock to arrive.  I was called into the room where my daughter was waiting to see her fully dressed in the most amazing gown and was stuck by her beauty.  It was hard to believe someone so beautiful came from me.  

Men prepare

John Family
The guests arrived; the time arrived; we all came together for a wonderful ceremony.
Most of us forgot about the cold and wind.  There was a super blast of wind right at the beginning of the ceremony that filled the air with leaves.  It was amazing and everyone commented on it later.  We came to believe that it was Shauni's grand mothers checking in and giving their blessing.

MeMom Esther

Grammy Clare
The ceremony was short and sweet (although a couple of the bridesmaids were shivering a little) and we all headed up to the Nature Center for some cocktails and h'orderves.  We then moved to the tent for introductions, dinner and dancing.  The wind tried to get under the walls and one of the heaters wasn't working and needed some maintenance before they could get it going, but everything was still perfect. 

Bride, Groom and his Men

Brave Bridemaids
After dinner and the obligitory first dances, the dance floor filled with revelers and didn't clear out until the music stopped at 11:00 pm.  Everyone had a great time.  So many people came up to me saying this was the best wedding and all the credit goes to Shauni and Alex who did almost all the work themselves.  

From making her and her bridesmaid's bouquets from the pages of Harry Potter books, to hand made wooden place cards, to every centerpiece of pine cones, acorns and slabs of wood picked up by all of us in the woods of MD and PA.  Everything came together to make a most memorable event.

Handmade Place Cards

Center piece and favor of S'more ingredients

Handmade bouquet
I had a great time being the Father of the Bride.  I cried a lot, but anyone who knows me, knows I'm a "sensitive" guy.  Every time I looked at my baby, I saw that two year old I'm carrying and singing with.  I saw the wonderful woman she has become and I thank the gods that her and Alex found each other and will have a perfect and happy life together.

Proud Father of the Bride
Here is the text of the toast I proposed at the reception:
I'm pretty sure that every father of a daughter has worried that his baby won't find the right man to be her partner in life. 
When I first met Alex, I had a strong feeling that this might be the man.  As I saw their love for each other grow over the years, I became sure of it. 
I could see that both of them had found someone to keep watch over and keep safe. 
So, as they say in the services and on the job, you have the watch.  I stand relieved. 
To Alex and Shauni, may your watch be long and sweet.  

So, here's to Alex and Shauni.  May their love last forever.  May they continue to enjoy the outdoors and nature's beautiful bounty.  And, may they find the time to complete the bucket list item I assigned them to hike 500 miles together.  

I love you baby.  Congratulations!

Mr and Mrs John

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

LD-05: Gear

There is one thing (besides food) that hikers love to talk about and that is gear.  Just about every time you sit a few hikers down, the topic of gear will come up.  Gear is a highly subjective topic.  There are so many choices out there, that it is impossible to list THE right gear for each hiker.  It will be different for each person who throws on a pack and hits the trail.  
Letting go of perfection
What is perfection?  One person's yum, can be another's Yuck.  There is no such thing as perfection.  You will never have the perfect kit.  It needs to be continually tweaked as circumstances change.  Thinking that you can put everything together in a perfect union is not possible.  So let it go.  Be happy with what you have, until you can find something else.  Make it work for you.
Joe's rules of gear
I've gotten into the habit of asking/thinking "how much does it weigh?" to everything that is put in front of me.  It doesn't matter what it is.  Could be a shirt, a piece of pie, or an actual piece of gear.  My mind asks "how heavy is it?"  I have become conditioned.

So, my first rule for every piece of gear is: How much does it weigh?  Do I have something else that does the same thing, but is lighter?  Can I find something that weighs less and can I afford it?  Keeping your pack weight as low as possible is the key to a comfortable hike.

My second rule would be: Does the piece of gear have multiple uses?  For instance, a trekking pole can be used as a tent pole in some instances.  My carabiners have many uses, all dealing with hanging stuff.  A bandanna can be so many things, I won't bother listing them.  My puffy jacket is also my pillow.  Having something that has several uses, lets you carry less things.  Less things = less weight.  

My third rule would be: Do I really need to take this on the hike?  If you aren't going to use something for several days or at all (excluding emergency gear), then you probably don't need to bring it.  Ask this question for every piece of gear you want to pack.  If you won't use it, don't bring it and you have just saved a good deal of weight.

My last rule would be: Comfort in camp, usually means less comfort in transit.  If you bring that nice comfy camp chair, you will have to carry it all day long as you go up and down the mountains.  If you want to be super comfortable in camp, you will have to carry the gear that makes that possible.  Finding a happy medium while obeying the other three rules is where you find the best comfort level, both on the trail and in camp.  You have to decide what that level is.
What's in my pack?
I'm constantly changing what is in my pack.  When I look back at my first times going out for long distances, I see that my Kit looked nothing like it does today.  I am constantly trying new things, listening to what other hikers are doing and, if it seems smart, I try it out.  Some things work well, others I find aren't quite right for me, but might be for someone else.

I have been keeping track of my gear on one of the websites you can find out there, where you can list everything you plan to carry and its weight.  This lets you see very clearly where you need to make your adjustments.  My list is constantly changing.  What is in my pack today, might not be what is in it tomorrow.  

I plan on making many changes as we start our hike.  I'm pretty sure what I start out with will look a lot different with what I end with.

Here is my current pack list.  It will always be a work in progress.  I still have quite a few things on my wish list.  Each of these are ways to make my pack lighter, while still doing what I want them to do.  Unfortunately, the main things I need to change right now are not very cheap, so my wallet will be the final deciding factor on how low I can get my pack weight.  

Right now, my base weight of 26lbs (base weight: gear minus food and water) is way more than I want it to be, but I'm hoping to get it closer to 20 before we go.  That 26lbs includes cold weather gear that we will be starting out with, but hope to send home after we get past the Roan Highlands.  Our summer weights should be much closer to the magical 20lbs or lower I'm shooting for.  I will never be ultra lightweight, but I'm still hoping to at least get my total pack weight into the lightweight category (below 25lbs total pack weight).
You don't need everything all the time
Spending several months out on the trail, you will experience a change in the seasons.  Spring arrives up in the mountains and soon Summer is in full force.  You may have started out with a 20 degree sleeping bag that is now a little too heavy and hot.  

When you have gear that you are pretty sure you won't need for a while, just send it home.  Hopefully you have someone who will take the items and put them aside until you need them again.  They later send you those items that you need again.

It is typical to need certain things at the beginning and end of a Nobo hike, while you need different things in the middle that can be changed out as you move along.

Knowing when to swap out is key.  Some say send you winter stuff home after the Roan Highlands and get it back before New Hampshire.  That is a general rule.  You will have to figure what works for you and like everything else in the hiking world, be flexible.
Start with the Big 4
Usually you can make great weight savings when you analyze these four main systems.  Lighter usually means more expensive, but if you can work at reducing your weight in these four areas, you will be well on your way to a lighter pack.  

Some people's Big 4 (or 3) are different from mine, but here are mine.

Pack, Shelter, Sleeping system (bag and pad) and Cooking System.  

Some say to buy your pack last after you have gathered your gear together to see how heavy and bulky it is.  Getting a too big of pack can lead to you trying to fill it all.  A little bit of common sense and will power won't make this an issue though.

They make really light packs now days, but being light and simple, they may lack support.  Don't buy an ultra-light pack and expect to still fill it with 30 to 40 pounds of gear.  You won't be a happy hiker.  Find a pack that fits you well, holds your gear and feels comfortable when you have been walking with it on for several hours.  I use a 65 liter pack that is a little heavy at just under 4 lbs.  I have removed the brain (saving 6 oz) and cut out an inside divider that I don't use (another 1 oz) and am happy with how it works. It is also very comfortable.  

Next comes your shelter.  Hammock, tent, tarp or nothing (not recommended).  If you are hiking with a partner and have a tent, you can split up the components and each carry a portion of the weight.  We use hammocks and they work for us.  

As usual, the lightest tents aren't cheap.  Hammock systems can still weigh close to what a tent does, so just see what works for you and go with it.  We like not sleeping on the hard ground.  We just have to mitigate the cooling effect that sleeping on air causes.

Sleeping systems are important.  If you aren't comfortable overnight, you will probably have a bad day.  You need something that will keep you warm enough for the conditions without weighing a lot.  Down is a popular choice.  It is light and not bulky, but you have to be careful to not get it wet or it will lose its insulating properties.  Synthetic bags will still insulate when damp, but can be more bulky and heavy.  Quilts are a popular alternative that can save some weight.

Sleeping pads come in many different types.  Closed cell (light, but not real soft), inflatable (also light, but you need to blow them up and they can spring a leak), self-inflating (can be a little more bulky).  You need to pick something that works with your system and protects you from the cold and hard ground.  

We are moving towards an underquilt for our hammocks (a must with a hammock).  These keep you warm from below and don't compress from your weight.  Our problem will be that we might also need to carry a pad too for those times we choose (or have to) sleep in a shelter.  Those wooden boards are hard.

The last of my Big Four is a cook system.  We have opted to go with one Pocket Rocket, that we will share.  Each of us will carry a canister of fuel and we each have a small solo cook kit that consists of a small pot (.6L), lid, gripper, cozy, lighter and a plastic cup.  We keep it simple by usually only heating water in the pot (easy cleanup).  There are many different types of stoves, using different types of fuel.  Each has pros and cons.  

Another popular option is a home made alcohol stove.  The stove is so light that carrying the fuel is easy to justify.  The stoves are also very easy to make from household items, like a empty can of cat food.  They do burn cooler, so it takes a little longer to get the water boiling and can be fussy in cold weather.

Some people opt to go stoveless, thus saving all the weight of burner and fuel at the very least.  They only carry food that doesn't need heating or cooking.  

So, the bottom line is, take a close look at each of these Big Four systems and ask yourself if you can go lighter in any way.  Sometimes it is a simple thing like changing out your pot or saving enough funds to buy that nice 20 degree quilt you have been hoping for.  
Other key decisions
Following the same guidelines, you can now look at each and every piece of gear and ask you self at least two simple questions.  Do I really need it? And, can I do it with something lighter?  If you are using one of the nice websites (like LighterPack) that lets you list all of your gear and its weight, you can analyze everything you have with the utmost scrutiny.

Even after you have set your kit and are ready to go, you are still not done.  Packs and their contents should be continuously tweaked even as you get well into your hike.  If you had settled on taking an item, but haven't used it in two weeks (and it isn't emergency gear), then maybe you don't need it.  Bounce it forward or send it home. 

Your "emergency" gear can change too.  You will rarely need a full first aid kit.  Keeping it simple is best.  A few bandaids, duct tape, some blister care items (especially at the beginning of the hike) antibacterial ointment, NSAIDS (Motrin aka Vitamin I).  That's about it.  
Fancy isn't always better. But sometimes it is.
There is a reason you need to pay good money for good things.  It seems that the lighter something is, the more it cost in this world of backpacking.  If you can afford it, you should try to get it.  Your back will thank you even if your wallet doesn't.  

Something that is considered "Fancy" has usually gone through extensive design and testing.  Most times, it is field tested and approved.  

With that said, you can still use "budget" items, that you have found work for you well enough.  I will always have the $20 Outdoor Products trekking poles that have never failed me so far.  I wear them out and get new ones.  I even left a pair at a Hostel after a hike and didn't think twice about getting them back.  I just headed to the nearest Walmart and got a new pair.  
Do your research
I never stop looking for gear.  I am always trying to find something lighter or better made.  I check out the reviews to see how real people like the item.  How well it works for them.  The Internet is a wonderful place where you can find anything you are looking for.  Usually you can do some real good comparison shopping without ever leaving your computer chair.

The big outfitters also have some good sales from time to time.  Called garage sales or other catchy names, the sell stuff that was either returned, but still in good shape, or were used as displays or something like that.  Ebay is also a great place to find cheap, but good gear.  

The world of gear is at your fingertips.  Google is your guide.
The world of Gear is a wonderful place.  Without gear, you couldn't hike.  At least, not very far.  You will be carrying Everything you need to live on your back.  You owe it to yourself to try to get good gear that is light, useful and durable.  You can never have enough gear, but only take the gear you need when you venture out into the woods.

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