For decades, leaders and participants in Colgate University’s Outdoor Education (OE) program have struggled under heavy packs. Fifty student leaders, under the guidance of three full-time staff members, brave the New England weather to lead backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, caving, winter camping, skiing, snowshoeing, fly fishing, indoor and outdoor rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking, backcountry cooking, and even stand up paddle boarding classes twice every semester. Although the vast majority of our trips are to the Adirondack Mountains, we also frequent the Smoky Mountains, Red Rocks, the Boundary Waters, the Everglades, and Newfoundland.
It was not until 2010, however, that the lightweight revolution made its first appearance at Colgate. Under the guidance of Director Abby Rowe, former Assistant Director Michael Savage, and Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Evan Chartier, Colgate’s OE program has built up a hugely successful institutional lightweight program.
Lightweight backpacking has become a staple feature of Colgate’s Outdoor Education Program. Since 2010 we have offered five week-long lightweight backpacking pre-orientation trips for incoming first year students, half a dozen lightweight seminars to teach OE staff lightweight basics, stove making seminars, “Lighten Up!” screenings, weekend PE classes, and three week long Spring Break trips to the Smoky Mountains.
We are constantly tweaking our gear tool box and recently acquired Gossamer Gear’s ultralight Polycryo Tarps, as well as new Golite rain jackets and quilts, Kahtoola microspikes, and a wide variety of tarps. The average pack weight for a week-long OE backpacking trip is around 40 pounds; the lightweight trips, however, regularly weigh in between 22 and 25 pounds.
Establishing an institutional lightweight program has not been easy, and we have run into our share of struggles, compromises, and mistakes along the way. A recent lightweight trip quickly became a survival seminar when one of the participants forgot her quilt at home, and only realized her mistake as we set up camp the first night (do not worry, we were prepared!).
We consistently debate the benefits and liabilities of footwear styles, massive first aid kits, and bug netting. As an institutional program, we have to balance our own desires to go lighter with the experience levels of our students, many of whom have never been on a hike or slept outside before we drag them into the woods. While we provide the equipment for every participant to carry a base weight of 10 to 12 pounds, some individuals insist on bringing their favorite pair of crocs, DSLR camera, or other luxury item; we do not put up too much of a fight, because at the end of the day, they need to hike their own hike (and carry their own pack!).
Most of Colgate’s OE leaders have no experience with lightweight backpacking before enrolling in the program. Every year we receive around 50 applications for 12 to 14 “trainee” spots. These trainees spend an entire academic year learning how to ski, rock climb, mountain bike, kayak, canoe, backpack, and much more- and then they develop their teaching skills to pass on their passion for the backcountry to the wider Colgate community. All of our leaders are Wilderness First Responder certified, and most decide to specialize in a number of technical skills.
Our lightweight programs have now spanned four trainee class years and we are constantly looking for ways to expand. Last year OE received a $10,000 grant from Polartec, and we have explored using this money for lightweight backpacking possibilities as far away as Utah and Israel’s National Trail. Whatever path our lightweight program takes over the next few years, it is sure to be quite the journey.