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Light As Air

Backpacking's next extreme: no backpack

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Did you watch Cast Away and envy Tom Hanks' ability to make fire by rubbing two sticks together? Do you take notes while watching episodes of Survivor and Man vs. Wild? If so, you might be interested in the newest extreme in backcountry living: "beyond ultralight backpacking."

Beyond ultralight backpacking takes what would already be a sparse pack and makes it nonexistent. "You would be able to go out wearing what you're wearing right now and survive," said Ray Vizgirdas, 47, a naturalist and biologist who is an expert in this particular style of trekking. Vizgirdas has taught mountain ecology and survival classes at Boise State for 10 years, and instructs a host of more specific plant- and animal-related courses for academic institutions all over the state. His lecture, "Beyond Ultralight," happens Oct. 17 at the Boise State Student Recreation Center. A follow-up field day takes place the following Saturday and will incorporate a natural history walk and a skills demonstration.

The premise of being able to survive solely with what you're carrying on your person is not new. The Boy Scouts popularized traditional backpacking as more of a sport than a grueling activity for hunters and armed forces. But as any visit to an Army-Navy surplus store will show, backpacking materials used 60 years ago were extremely heavy. The pack frame and mess kits were often made of steel, the sack cloth was a weighty oiled canvas, and the preferred clothing was usually made of thick wool. The packs often weighed 60 to 80 pounds or more, depending on the season and the length of the trip.

Gradually, the advance of plastics and other synthetics spurred the evolution of more and more lightweight backpacking gear. Today, it's easy to find everything from headlamps to gaiters (clothing to protect a hiker's lower legs and ankles) transformed into being not only lightweight, but breathable, wicking, self-cleaning, flame-retardant, moisture-proof, all-in-one gizmos. At a recent backpacking lecture at REI, based on the show of hands, the average weight of packs is about 25 pounds. In the past few years, seeing just how ultralight you can go has become de rigueur for hiking enthusiasts. It's not uncommon to hear strangers at a trailhead competitively comparing their pack weights, down to the last ounce of freeze-dried beans.

That's all great, says Vizgirdas, but it's still just stuff. If you're planning on going beyond ultralight, you'd better step out of the store and into the world. For example, did you notice what the clouds are like today? What direction is the wind coming from? What about plants—do you ever stop to observe what is growing outside the front door? Modern backpacking, he says, places most of its reliance on what Vizgirdas calls the "kit:" the gear you carry with you; the wonder gizmos. 'Beyond ultralight' backpacking, however, places its greatest emphasis on having a positive mental attitude and a strong will to survive. Without that, said Vizgirdas, "you're just a walking calorie bag until you die."

Vizgirdas's class—indeed, his whole life philosophy—is built on an intimate knowledge of ecology, botany, and anthropology. He first began to focus on the idea of beyond ultralight after a trip to Australia, where he witnessed a celebration of a traditional rite of passage. Young men of 12 to 13 years old set off alone on a year-long "walkabout," a journey during which they have to rely on oral knowledge passed down from tribal elders in order to find water and food sources. As for gear, the young men take only a few belongings such as a spear, a throwing stick, a bowl and a digging stick. Vizgirdas realized these boys survived because they had superb knowledge of their local ecologies and plants, as well as being practiced at other skills like making fire, shelter and ropes. "I looked at them, and I thought, 'If they can do it, why not me? Why not others?'" he said.

After spending three years gathering information, practicing skills and taking test runs, a 20-year old Vizgirdas set off on his own walkabout. He was armed with a knife, a poncho, a change of clothing, a pair of long underwear and a blanket. These items, along with a tiny emergency kit of bandages, salt tablets and anti-diarrhea medicine, accompanied him on a six-month beyond ultralight hike from Jackson, Wyo., to Glacier National Park, Mont. Along the way, he made his own fire kits, snowshoes, cordage and shelters. The tool he used the most was his stockpile of knowledge.

With that journey, Vizgirdas discovered that not only is going beyond ultralight possible, for him, it is preferable to modern backpacking. In traditional backpacking, he said, "The purpose is to get there, not to be there." Beyond ultralight "adds something to your psyche." It involves having a complete knowledge of your surroundings, including which plants are edible and useful for toolmaking, how to make fire and how to rely on yourself. It is possible to get away from the computer and have a relationship with the ecosystem.

Vizgirdas maintains that anyone can learn to go beyond ultralight if they have patience to learn and practice the skills they need. Even knowing a few simple facts about common plants in the area can be extremely helpful. Pines, which grow abundantly here, have a plethora of uses. For example, the needle bunches can be woven together to make a basket. If you want to turn that basket into a water bottle, collect the pitch, melt it and spread it on the inside. When you get hungry, pea-related Trifolium, such as the commonly known bur clover, has all except two of the amino acids needed to form a complete protein. Combine it with another green like lamb's quarters, and you'll get those additional two acids. Cattail fluff is an almost explosive firestarter, and sagebrush has antimicrobial properties that makes it a good water purifier. And if all this information is giving you a headache right now, chew on some willow branches. They contain the pharmaceutical salacin, an ingredient found in aspirin.

Vizgirdas encourages anyone really interested in beyond ultralight to do a lot of studying first, as well as partnering with a more experienced mentor. This will help to avoid sampling poisonous plants and help provide much needed encouragement when it comes to practicing skills like fire-making, which tends to produce more frustration than flame at first. Ultimately, going beyond ultralight is about developing a connection to the natural world. "People who continue to be stuck in front of computers," he said, "are never going to appreciate what they're losing."

Vizgirdas' "Beyond Ultralight Backpacking," Oct. 17, 6-8 p.m. Boise State Student Rec Center, 1515 University Dr. The hands-on field day is Oct. 20. The cost for both is $25. Call to reserve a space. For more information and to RSVP for Saturday, call, 208-426-1131. Non Boise State students and faculty must register in person.