When Bunting's hiking career kicked off on Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail in 2003, his packing list looked pretty standard: leather boots, plenty of extra clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a huge bag to stow it all away. He soon realized that this assemblage of "essentials" actually left him ill-suited to complete the 1,100-mile trek.
"As I trudged with that heavy burden, all I could think about was how painful it was to hike like this and what I could do to lighten my load," Bunting recalls. "I'd shoulder my huge pack with a heaving lurch and trudge down the trail with aching feet. I thought I needed all that extra junk to be comfortable, not realizing it was actually making me uncomfortable since I had to carry it all day!"
Once he decided it was time for a downsize, his extra clothes were the first to go. Then, Bunting swapped a heavy tent for a tarp, a bulky sleeping bag for a quilt, and clunky boots for trail-running sneakers. After years of trial-and-error hikes to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials, he's whittled his backpack down to 8 pounds—worlds away from the 30-or-so-pound packs more typical for long distances. Simplifying his gear has allowed him to cover more miles in less pain.
"I bring everything I need to stay warm, safe, and dry—but not much else," he says. "When I go to the woods, I'm there to walk and explore, not sit in camp, and I want to be comfortable while walking, not lounging around. Stripping my gear down to the bare essentials allows me to travel free and light through the mountains."