When John Burroughs first started backpacking in the early 1960s, to say that his equipment was "rudimentary" would have been kind. Burroughs, the founder of Cascade Designs, used a pack frame that was known as a "Trapper Nelson." It really wasn't much more than a wooden frame his father had made onto which you could lash your gear.
"It was just this square thing with a piece of canvas stretched across it. So the thing rode on canvas and two sticks down the two sides with I-bolts in them," Burroughs told me recently. "You could hook various bags and tie things on it. ... My wife and I did a trip around Mount Adams on a nine-day backpacking trip back then. This thing was all loaded down with stuff. It was pretty funny how clunky this looked."
Fortunately, these days there's no need for "clunky" to be part of your backpacking nomenclature. While Burroughs' early backpacking trips included an Army surplus sleeping bag and meals built largely around beans, today's gear offers not only feather-light alternatives to his hard goods, but also mouth-watering meals.
Take sleeping bags. Back in the 1970s, warmth was a heavy priority. Sierra Designs' old Cirrus sleeping bag added almost 3 pounds to a pack. Now the company's Wicked Fast 30-degree, 800-fill men's down bag weighs a scant 1 pound, 2 ounces. And the women's 15-degree, 800-fill Spark bag is just 2 pounds.
Today's stoves not only are lightweight, but they're tiny. I recall using a Svea 123R, and a buddy carted around (and still does today) an Optimus 8R. Those stoves, when you added in the requisite fuel bottles, added at least 2 pounds to your pack. Today's MSR Pocket Rocket, though, is a feathery 3 ounces, and a canister with 8 ounces of fuel weighs just 15 ounces.
Cook kits also have been streamlined and lightened over the years. Titanium makes MSR's Titan Mini cook set one of the industry's lightest, at just 9.6 ounces for two pots and a lid that doubles as a plate. Best of all, the Pocket Rocket's fuel canister nests inside the cook kit.
Backpacks also have gotten ridiculously (or perhaps mercifully) light. A mid-70s external frame pack easily could weigh 7 pounds. Today's Mountainsmith Spectre model will hold a week of gear and weighs but 4 pounds, 10 ounces empty.
Tents also have lightened up. Mountain Hardware's Waypoint 2 is 3 pounds, 2 ounces, poles included, while the Seedhouse 2 SL from Big Agnes weighs just one more ounce and comes with a vestibule to shield your pack from the elements.
Sleeping pads? Therm-A-Rest's Prolite 3 is a mere 20 ounces. Water filters? Go with MSR's MIOX Purifier, a system that generates oxidants to cleanse your water of just about everything, including bacteria and viruses, weighs 3.5 ounces and is small enough to carry in a pocket.
So where does all this bring you? Choose the lightest items from above and your must-have gear weighs in at less than 10 pounds. Be prudent in selecting foods and lightweight clothing, and there's no reason for you to hoist more than 20 or 25 pounds on your back.
Don't be afraid to shop around, either. The items I mentioned are from an entire genre of light- and ultra-lightweight gear that exists these days. And with baby boomers approaching their retirement years, that type of gear is just the thing they need to take the strain off the knees and backs to they can still enjoy the backcountry.