Since I’ve reached Erwin, Tennessee I’ve seen more and more people Slackpacking. Slackpacking is hiking without a backpack, or with a day pack. It usually means you have to get to a hostel or outfitter, leave most of your gear there, take a shuttle up trail, and hike backwards to the outfitter carrying only what you need for the day. There are all sorts of variations on this, but it usually means paying for two shuttles. People usually do it because you can get more miles in without your backpack, but it can be very expensive.
I’m not sure how I feel about slackpacking yet. When I see my fellow thru-hikers blaze past me with their day packs it seems a little bit like they’re cheating. I also can’t help being insanely jealous.
On my first couple of days on the trail I was thinking of my backpack as a metaphor. It was all of the things that I carried around with me that weighed me down. Some of those things were necessary, some were not. The unnecessary things, once I identified what they were, could be sent home at the next town. The necessary things would stay with me and I would get used to their weight and learn how to bear it well. The longer I stay on the trail the more I learn about what is necessary and what isn’t. My problem with slackpacking is that it doesn’t fit the metaphor. The idea of laying down your burdens and just walking by yourself for a bit is a nice one, but the shuttles and the cost don’t fit.
I do like to keep an open mind though, so when my mom came to visit and I was given an opportunity to slackpack I felt it would be dumb to refuse. Mom was going to spend the night at the hostel while my hiking partner, Gumby, and I hiked on. She would meet us the next day at the road crossing. This meant that Gumby and I could leave all unnecessary gear with her and just carry one backpack up the mountain. We focused on cutting weight, and since it was a beautiful day we didn’t bring all of our insulation layers. As soon as we started up the Roan Mountain from the gap, the rain started dumping down. I had all of my rain gear, but Gumby only had his shorts and a raincoat. We got soaked, then we had to spend the night at Roan Mountain Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT. The rain pounded on the tin roof all night, until about 4am when it turned into snow. We never dried off and we had nothing to change into, so neither of us got any sleep. When the sun rose I just wanted to get hiking again. I went to cook a hot breakfast, and the one Esbit cube I had left had gotten wet and was refusing to light. The hike down was miserable. I practically ran down the mountain to get to my mom and my warm clothes. The whole way I cursed myself for deserting my backpack. Still, I wasn’t ready to fully give up on slackpacking, because I knew deep down that it was only my own poor planning that had caused the miserable night.
That evening my mom and I hiked to the Overmountain Shelter and we had the B&B pick us up from there. We slept in a warm bed that night and shuttled back into the shelter the next day so we could hike back to the B&B. Again, slackpacking came up, and again it felt dumb to not take advantage of the opportunity. This time I carried a backpack for both Mom and I. Wanting to be fully prepared this time, I carried every piece of clothing I had and all of my toiletries and extras. We ended up having a beautiful sunny hiking day over the balds, and my mom was very happy to be pack free. Even though this experience was much better, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. Maybe it was just the familiar weight of my pack on my shoulders.
After having two experiences with slackpacking, I have come to the same conclusion: I like my backpack, I like my stuff, I like having it all with me when I hike. Slackpacking is definitely easier, but it doesn’t feel right. I won’t say never again, but I will say I won’t be seeking out slackpacking opportunities in the future. I quite content with my heavy backpack and my metaphor.