Reflections on “Trail Life” by Ray Jardine

Any cursory research into lightweight backpacking will inevitably lead to the name, Ray Jardine.  In fact, disciples of Ray’s hiking philosophy refer to it as “The Ray Way.”  Ray and his wife Jenny have logged numerous long distance trail hikes amassing over 25,000 miles.  Along the way they have systematically tried hundreds of equipment options and combinations to cut the overall weight of their packs to crazy minimum levels.  In the end, they make most of their equipment for a number of reasons but mostly, because they cannot find optimal designs in commercially branded products.

TrailLifeThe book is a combination of equipment and gear reviews, how-to DYI directions, a pictorial journal of several of their long distance hikes, all woven into an overall philosophy of hiking.  The whole lightweight thing is simply an enabler to enhance the hiking experience, making it possible to hike further with less effort and less injury.  The appendix includes their equipment list.  Ray’s base pack weight comes in at 8.44 lbs.; a far cry from the 40 lb. packs in the 90’s.  In a twist of irony, the publishers of the book produced it in beautiful coated paper with color photographs throughout.  The overall weight of the book is a whopping 2 lbs., 4oz.; something that definitely wouldn’t make the cut in The Ray Way.  Nevertheless, the book belongs, not in your pack, but in your library.  Here is a summary of the more notable tenets of The Ray Way…

Long Distance Does Not Mean Faster

Throughout the book, Jardine points out that although he and Jenny are able to cover 30 plus miles a day, they rarely hike faster than a normal day hike pace of 3 miles per hour.  In fact they probably rest more often then most, taking breaks every hour.  The combination of proper hydration, nutrition and light weight packs keeps them from exhausting themselves, which in turn allows them to hike several hours per day and still get a good night’s sleep.

Agony of De Feet

Jardine makes the bold statement that all of us know deep inside; Your feet are going to get wet!  There, it’s out there.  There is no form of footwear that will protect your feet from moisture and unless you are in special deep snow conditions, there is no need whatsoever for heavy insulated stiff soled boots.  All the heavy designs that include micro-pore membranes just add weight and cost.  Stiff boot designs actually hurt your feet by not allowing them to move in the way they were designed.  The ultimate solution is running shoes.  They are light, reasonably robust and when they get wet, they dry quickly.  They don’t build up heat and friction that can cause blisters the same way boots can.  And they break-in quickly which is good because on a long hike, you will run through several pair.

The Case for Tarps

Jardine makes the claim that tarps are actually drier and therefore cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  The basis for the claim is that tarps allow air to circulate and remove moisture generated by our bodies when we sleep. We exhale up to two pounds of moisture when we sleep. Tents accumulate this moisture causing more perspiration during sleep and higher moisture content in your immediate environment.  This higher moisture content impedes the warming efficiency of sleeping bags.  Furthermore, wet clothing dries much better under a tarp than in a tent.  Jardine is adamant that successful camping with tarps relies on the choice of the campsite, which is a topic he devoted much time to under the theme, “stealth camping”.

A Rant on Brands

Jardine is fiercely anti-name brand.  In a well thought out argument, he points out that the brand name equipment providers are in business to make a profit and one of the variables in making a profit is to minimize costs.  This manifests in cheaper and less quality components in even the best brands of equipment.  Zippers, seams, glues, fabrics, coatings; all things that are weak points in equipment thats lasts and performs well.  If he uses a branded product at all, he will take the time to cut off the label or scratch off the decal.  Equipment designers will compensate cheaper with heavier or larger.  Tents have way more fabric than they really need to do their job.  Sleeping pads are usually cut too big.  Clothing rarely fits well as it is sized to the average, including shoes.

If You Don’t Like ‘Em, Make Your Own

The Jardines ended up making most of their equipment and they generously provided their designs and patterns in the book.  They make their tarps, sleeping quilts, packs, and most of their clothing.  What equipment they choose to buy, Ray will make substantial modifications to eliminate useless parts and unnecessary weight.  All adjustment straps are cut off.  Tongues are cut out of shoes.  Waist belts are eliminated because they are not necessary with a pack weighing less than 20 lbs.

Mary Poppins Would Be Proud

Perhaps the most notable pieces of equipment the Jardines carry are their umbrellas.  They provide protection from rain, shade from the sun and when held properly, a little wind protection.  When hiking in the rain, there is virtually no way one can keep dry by donning rain gear.  The Jardines attest that an umbrella will keep the upper body generally dry, which is the best solution they have discovered.  Desert hiking can be treacherous and once again, the umbrellas are better than hats and sunscreen, especially when you adapt a piece of mylar (Space Blanket for the brand conscious) to fit over the top of them.  The mylar substantially reflects the heat away from the body.  Ray makes rather extreme modifications to the umbrellas by cutting off handles, springs and tyne supports.


Ray Jardine’s equipment designs require some skill in their use and in some cases, a change in the typical methods.  Using tarps requires some skill in choosing a site and in the setup.  Using non-processed foods requires a lot of preparation ahead of time.  Making your own equipment takes time and effort.  In every case, Ray provides the rationale for his choices along with details about how he employs the specific piece of equipment.  There are even chapters devoted to finance, choosing partners, personal hygiene, high milage hiking and what they term, “trail shock,”  which is the combination of physical and mental stress one goes through when embarking on a long distance hike.

The Ray Way is more than just a long distance hiker’s folklore philosophy.  There is plenty of wisdom for day hikers and weekend backpackers.  There are enough adventures and life stories to keep it a fun and light read and the pictures are beautiful.  Just don’t take it with you to read on the trail.

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