As I prepared for my thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, I knew that success or failure was largely based on my ability to mentally overcome adversity and discomfort. I also knew that much of my discomfort would be due to my physical shape. On past, much shorter backpacking trips, I had carried many surplus items with me to help increase my comfort level, but that led to a backpack weighing over 40 pounds, which was far from comfortable and, more importantly, unwieldy. I needed to make some changes – not just in my pack but also in my mindset.

“Ounces Lead to Pounds” is a phrase backpackers use to drive home the point that those items you take “just because they only weigh a few ounces” add up. If you take too many “luxury” items, eventually you have a 40-pound backpack. Carrying a 40-lb pack 10 miles is difficult, let alone 500 miles. I set about critically analyzing every item I planned on carrying. Did I really NEED it, or did I just WANT it? 

At first, it was difficult to discern my needs from my wants. I really needed an extra change of clothes and deodorant, right? I needed three meals a day, right? I really needed a book to read, right? When I first started the process, the pile of “needs” was much taller than my “wants,” but when I realized that I had eliminated virtually no ounces from my 40-lb pack, I had to re-evaluate. It was difficult, but I got my pack below 25 pounds, fully loaded with food and water. To do this, I had to ditch my extra clothes, food and water, and personal hygiene items like deodorant. (Don’t judge! Did I really need deodorant when I was going to be by myself deep in the wilderness most of the time?). By getting rid of some ounces, I was ultimately able to rid my pack of a lot of pounds. That saved my back, shoulders, and knees but also allowed me to come to a valuable realization.

Some hikers carried less than I did, others more.
Ultralight tents are so thin as to be transparent – my tent weight is less than two pounds, shaving close to three pounds off my old pack weight.

After only a few days on the trail, I realized how little I needed to not only survive but to happily survive. Here I was with a 3’ x 7’ tent, a sleeping bag, the clothes on my back, and fourteen ounces of food per day. Yet, it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. By this, I am not just talking about the hike itself but the process of consciously minimizing my “needs.” I learned living simply is not only fun but healthy. My tent was my oasis every night. It didn’t have internet or a television, but it kept me dry and out of the elements. I found it cozy, not confining. Having only the clothes on my back, with no extras, made me extra careful about how I treated them. It also made me very grateful for the washing machine when I found one in town! The entire experience made me realize that what we “need” to survive comfortably is very little.

Mentally, the most difficult ounces for me to drop were in my food bag. I realized early in the planning process that food and water would be two of the heaviest items in my pack. I did a lot of pre-planning identifying water sources along the route and was able to minimize my water carries most of the time. I had a few tight stretches, but nothing dangerous. As a food addict who struggles with weight issues, my food bag was a huge challenge. I knew I could do with less, but I had to make sure I had enough calories to carry me through very long and strenuous days. I knew I wasn’t going to starve to death if I ran out of food, even for a couple days, but I also knew I needed energy daily. Through careful planning of my calories and mentally wrapping my head around the realization that it was okay to be uncomfortably hungry for short periods, I was able to get my food bag down to 14 ounces per day – about 2000 calories (this did include one dehydrated meal that I added eight ounces of water to). This may seem like too little food for one walking 20+ miles per day, and I did lose some weight, but I was never starving or even uncomfortably hungry. I did have cheeseburger and fajita cravings (and even salad!), but I wasn’t lacking for food/energy. At home, I have the habit of grazing and binge eating when I get bored or stressed. On the trail, I knew I only had so much food that had to last me all day, so I spaced it out and ate at specific times throughout the day (just like I should be doing all the time!). Many I met on the trail were obsessed with food – talking about it all the time. I did not experience this personally, but I also “practiced” before the hike. I worked to cut back on the food I consumed during the day, closely monitoring my hunger and avoiding the urge to eat when I wasn’t really hungry. This practice paid off on the trail as I was prepared for what I was getting into, and it ultimately saved me a couple of pounds on my back. The process of carefully planning my daily food/energy intake, then seeing that it worked, might have been the most important lesson I took from the trail – ounces really do lead to pounds. If I carefully watch the ounces I put into my body, the pounds stay off, and vice versa. Maintaining this mindset in the real world is a difficult and constant challenge for me. I still find myself mindlessly grazing and making some poor food decisions, but not as many. I am more mindful of the result of too many ounces and usually can quickly re-center myself.

During long, dry stretches, “trail angels” often left water and food caches for hikers.

Three months after completing the trail, I am evaluating the other “ounces” in my life that are leading to “pounds” of stress. Using the same strategies I used to lighten the load in my backpack, I’m looking at ways to live more simply. I am a “work in progress,” but I am seeing some incremental improvement. Like our body weight, as we add “ounces” to our lives, one day, we realize that our “packs” are too heavy. We’ve taken on more than we can bear. Think about the financial ounces we carry that lead to pounds to endure. The payments for the nice car seem manageable until we get the boat. Once we get the boat, we are tied a little bit more to the job we may not like so that we can make the payments. Think about the times you or someone you know moved into a new home. Invariably, when packing, they make this statement, “I can’t believe how much stuff we have!” Garage sales then follow. This is a great reminder of all that we have that we don’t need – and never did need.

Think about the “ounces” we add to our personal time packs when we take on too much. Demands from family, friends, and our jobs can overwhelm us. We need to take stock of our time and look at simplifying our lives in this manner as well. This does not mean we give up all of one thing to focus our time in one place. For example, volunteering in the community does not have to take a back seat to time with your children. There is a healthy mix that must be obtained. It’s not only good for you, but also for your children who will one day grow up emulating you.

In my position at MAOPS, I often see physicians who “have it all” but are burned out, unhappy, and frustrated. Usually, the frustration is due to their jobs – employers who put the bottom line ahead of the patient and/or expect them to practice medicine in ways they never intended. But because of the financial need to maintain the comfort standards they now enjoy, many physicians feel trapped – unable to leave. It’s not that they are financially troubled but that they are financially tied to a specific job. Changing jobs might lead to the uncomfortable prospect of living less comfortably than they and their families have grown accustomed. Often, newly practicing physicians immediately treat themselves to new cars, new homes, and vacations that they have been unable to take during years of training. Eventually, they find themselves used to a lifestyle they love but unhappy with the job they feel they can’t leave without jeopardizing how they have become used to living. I encourage physicians, especially students and residents, to live as simply as possible and put off major purchases until your careers are more stable and you have paid off medical school debt. Those purchases that initially seemed like ounces will seem like pounds as they add up (with interest) over the years. I’m still paying for some of those poor decisions from 30 years ago!

While I am certainly not the best example for simplifying one’s life or making sound financial decisions (just ask my wife!), my experiences on the trail reminded me that I certainly can make do with less and be happy. I’m a work in progress, but I’m trying to simplify things a bit – and I’m enjoying it. My closet is a bit more barren, my garage a bit emptier, and I’m more inclined to say “no” to invitations and not feel guilty.

Start small. Pick one “cairn” you want to work towards in simplifying your life. Make it hard, but dedicate yourself to simplifying that one aspect of your life. It will “suck” if it’s meaningful enough and cause you some discomfort, but as you embrace that discomfort and feel the relief from carrying those extra ounces, you will feel a sense of proud accomplishment. Once you have mastered this one thing, add another “cairn” and tackle it the same way. As the ounces you shed turn into pounds lost, you will realize that not only can you be comfortable with a lighter pack, but you also prefer it.