Most hikers can drop 10 pounds in a day. Just not where you think.
About a mile into my hike with Michael Martin and Jennifer Adach, leaders of the D.C. Ultralight Backpacking group, we stop to compare our loads. We’re standing in a clearing on the Gap Creek Trail on Massanutten Mountain. The path so far has been gentle, steadily uphill, not difficult. But it’s a warm, humid Virginia day, and sweat drips off my nose.
Michael and Jen are indulging me. Normally, they would keep walking, probably for hours, but they stop to show me some of their gearandex plain how it fits into their ultralight, long-distance hiking philosophy.
Michael and I shrug off our packs, and I lift one in each hand. I’m not surprised that Michael’s pack weighs a little bit less than mine. But I’mimpressed, becauseMichael can travel for days with what he’s brought along on our day hike. He’s got an entire cooking system in there, a tarp, a sleeping bag, maps, a first aid kit. My pack, stuffed with water, snacks and an extra pair of socks, wouldn’t seemepast sunset.
Ultralight backpackers such asMichael and Jen have made an art form of cutting the weight of their gear to 10 pounds or less, not counting food and water. With the D.C. Ultralight group (known as D.C. ULers), Michael and Jen have traveled hundreds of miles on trips across Sweden, Italy and Iceland.
In their new book, the couple hope to intro---
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duce people to the outdoor opportunities in our region.
“AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley,” published by the Appalachian Mountain Club last month, describes 50 of Jen and Michael’s favorite trails, all close enough to the District to drive and hike in a day. The longest is the strenuous 13.2-mile Three Ridges trail, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The shortest is the 1.2-mile Blackrock Trail, in Shenandoah National Park.
There’s something for everyone, says Jen — particularly new hikers or people who recently moved to the Washington area.
The couple spent about a year researching the book, heading out nearly every weekend, rain and shine. “It was nice to have this reminder of how accessible it all is,” says Jen. “We’ve rediscovered a lot of great hikes.”
“Best Day Hikes” could be considered a prequel to Michael’s 2014 book, also published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. “AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic” features 30 multiday hikes as far north as New York and as far south as Virginia. “I do believe that the lighter your load, the happier you’re going to be on the trail,” Michael writes.
“It’s not about leaving stuff at home,” says Jen, 38, who grew up on Long Island and works for the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit organization in the District. “You look at where you’re going and look at the things you need. You really get dialed into your gear and how to use it.”
The goal, Michael and Jensay, is to carry everything that’s needed for comfort and safety — and not one fraction of an ounce more. Some D.C. ULers snap the handles off their toothbrushes. Others dehydrate toothpaste.
Michael and Jen typically cover 20miles perday. “It’s all a question of gear and willpower,” says Michael, 43, a Texas native employed by the Department of Agriculture. They start hours before the sun rises and stop late in the day, leaving just enough time to eat, set up their tarp, and collapse into deep sleep before starting again the next day.
Those early-morning hours are the magical ones, they say, when the air is cool and wildlife abundant.
Nobody likes schlepping around more stuff than they need, but ultralight hiking as a concept is fairly new, dating to the 1990s. Michael believes the D.C. Ultralight group is the largest such organization in the country. Formed in 2009, it has about 700 members and perhaps 150 active ones, he says.
D.C. ULers can debate at length the relative benefits of tents ver- sus tarps, or how many pairs of socks to take. But, Michael notes, many hikers can trim 10p ounds or more simply by swapping out three things — old, heavy packs; sleeping bags; and tents — for new, lighter models.
The group organizes 75 hiking expeditions a month, plus educational seminars and gear showcases. “For our group, the philosophy is really to grow and nurture new backpackers,” Jen says. “We start with low-mileage trips, and we have a system where people advance as they gain newskills in the outdoors.”
On a recent Sunday, Michael and Jen took me on one of their favorite hikes. Massanutten Mountain is as close as many Shenandoah trails (about two hours from the Vienna park-andride), but far less crowded. We saw only one other hiker, with her dog, even though it was a sunny, latespring Sunday.
This four-mile hike on the Gap Creek Trail was beautiful. And grueling. The final ascent was a jumble of rocks that Michael and Jen seemed to float over, while I had to usemy arms to hoist myself up, one careful step at a time. My pack suddenly seemed unbearably heavy.
The first payoff was a warm, flat rock at the highest point, with a fabulous view over the valley. Payoff No. 2 was still a few hours away: an inexpensive and yummy meal at the Mexican restaurant Jalisco in Front Royal.
Michael and Jen spend a lot of time on trails all over the world, but they say they never get tired of the riches so close to home. “In the D.C. area, it’s pretty amazing that we have all these great hiking opportunities, and they’re so close,” Jen says.
On the trail of the popular Old Rag, in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. For views just as beautiful, without ever-present crowds, tryMassanutten Mountain.