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Lighten Up A new age of backpacking sees lighter loads, longer hikes and happy campers.

Backpacking has come a long way. Gone are the 40- and 60-pound loads that weighed hikers down -- limiting not only their mobility but the ability to have fun. Today's packers sleep in hammocks, prepare meals on Pepsi-can stoves and spend more time where it counts -- on the trails.

"I was taking a heavy sleeping bag, multiple changes of clothes. I was trying to carry all the water I was going to drink," recalled backpacker Nick Brown of Eastern Mountain Sports. "It's so much easier on my body to go lightweight, and it's a lot more fun -- even down to the shoes you're wearing. The clothes I do take, I use them for more than one function."

Light Backpacking limits the weight of backpacks to under 20 pounds. Ultralight Backpacking, on the other hand, keeps the weight down to 15 pounds and less. It's all made possible by miracle fabrics (stronger, lighter, water repellent), hiker ingenuity (with help from the global Web) and a spirit of cooperation among outdoorsmen.

"One of the neat things about this type of sport is that when people come up with a new idea, they're happy to let everyone know," said Jerald Sultz of the Adirondack Mountain Club. "And then somebody will embellish it, and before you know it, they have perfected it in a matter of weeks."

>What's Cooking

Just about anything tastes good when you're out on the trail, but try Pad Thai under the stars and you may never go back to PB&J. It all boils down to simplicity, and the incredible lightness of dehydrated meals.

"Backpackers Pantry," a Colorado-based company that markets dehydrated gourmet meals, features selections for the discriminating backpacker. Starting with Louisiana Red Beans and Rice for $3.95 and ranging to Pesto Salmon Pasta at $12.90, these meals can be prepared in minutes, thanks to the Pepsi-can stove and its offspring, the cat-food-can cooker.

"I like the gear that's been reduced to its essence," said backpacker Sultz. "One of my favorite stoves is made from a 3-oz. cat-food can (minus the label and plus some holes). There are no moving parts. It doesn't break. It runs on denatured alcohol and also doubles as your pot stand. It doesn't get any simpler than that."

Not to be forgotten, the Pepsi-can stove -- two Pepsi cans cut and put together with an internal wall -- takes 20 minutes to make with scissors and thumbtack.

At age 48, Sultz remembers hikes with a 40-pound canvas pack that likely carried a heavy pot and pan. Add leather straps, minimal padding -- not to mention a canoe that weighed in at 82 pounds soaking wet, and backpacking could become back-breaking. But at age 13, Sultz became hooked.

"I still found it fascinating and enjoyable, and as the years progressed I found simple ways to shed weight and make the experience more fun. A lot of the gear is not terribly expensive, but it may be hard to find out about it," said Sultz, a cosmetic surgeon. "The lighter the gear gets, the lighter it can get. If you don't have to carry 30 pounds of gear, you can have a lightweight pack, and if you don't need heavy hiking boots, you can wear trail-runner shoes.

"Here is a sport you can do without a lot of expense and it's not as unpleasant as it sounds," Sultz added. "You can eat well. You don't have to sleep on the ground. You don't have to be uncomfortable. You don't have to be cold and you are not a beast of burden."

>Sleep Tight

Some hikers really know how to swing -- in a hammock, that is. Instead of looking for a flat, dry spot to pitch a tent, hammock sleepers hunt for trees, at least four inches in diameter.

The concept is hardly new. During World War II, jungle hammocks enabled troops to sleep off the ground, avoiding dampness and insects. The same goes today for light backpackers.

Brown, of EMS, traded a fleece and a pair of pants for his handmade nylon hammock that weighs four pounds and includes mosquito netting and a rain fly, too.

Sultz, meanwhile, bought a Hennessy Hammock for $175. Within minutes, he can set it up. What's more, he'll never fall out because of its no-tip design. He adds a $4 foam pad (closed-cell, so it doesn't absorb water) and a small pillow (a luxury when camping).

"I climb in through a Velcro slit in the bottom," said Sultz. "It's not a banana. It's shaped asymmetrically so when I hang it, there's always a part that's flat."

If a hammock that weighs just over two pounds can trim the weight of a pack, so too will the Bivy Sack. The minimalist choice for shelter, a Bivy packs down to about half the size of a one-liter water bottle and eliminates the need for a tent -- but not a sleeping bag.

Debbie Symoniak, 48, of Snyder, started backpacking as a child, and now that her children are grown, she hikes with them. Symoniak and daughter Mia, 19, are planning a four-day backpacking trip.

"I got lucky and had a grandfather who was into camping in Canada," Symoniak explained. "Now I try to lighten my load as much as I can, so I can move quickly and have much more freedom of movement. My backpack weighs five pounds, so I've already used up one-quarter of the weight.

"There are lots of ways to trim," Symoniak noted. "Instead of taking a couple changes of clothes, take a pair of convertible pants. Some of the guys go so far as to trim the end off a toothbrush."

>Water Works

Water is a major concern of backpackers, whether falling from the sky, gathering on the ground, helping cook your meal or making its way down your throat.

"People must decide how paranoid they are about water treatment," said Sultz, the cosmetic surgeon. "Some people will simply use a chemical treatment ($12 to $14) and the water will be safe to drink in 15 minutes."

The difference between a water purifier and water filter? A purifier treats the water by chemical means. Filters treat water by mechanical means. Having a water filter and taking a small amount of water definitely lightens the load, but the key to light backpacking is multifunction equipment.

Consider these tips from local packers:

*Take a rain jacket of siliconized nylon that can double for backpack cover.

*Zip-off (or convertible) pants for men can serve triple duty as shorts, bathing suit and pants.

*Small umbrella that can be used for sun or rain.

*Adventure Medical Kits -- Ultralight series carries all the essentials including sterile dressings, athletic tape, adhesive bandages, antiseptic towelettes, antihistamine and painkillers (www.fuelforadven ture.com).

*Finally, consider buying a postage scale and weigh each item you may pack. This helps determine what stays in and what is left out -- ounce by ounce.

"We come from varied backgrounds -- factory worker, nuclear physicist, attorney," said Sultz. "Everybody has a different reason for doing this. For some it's recreation, for some it's mental relaxation. Some want to reconnect with nature."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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