Ahead, snaking north along the 2,650-mile PCT, he would climb mountains, ford rivers and push for weeks through wilderness from California to Washington state. Johnson, owner and founder of Midwest Mountaineering, an outdoors shop in Minneapolis, began his quest on the trail last April with nothing more than a vest crammed with gear.
His goal: to hike the PCT with the least amount of equipment humanly possible. "It would be an ultimate gear test," said Johnson, who turned 60 during his three-month trip.
Many backpackers carry at least 40 pounds of equipment, food and water for a multiday leg of the PCT. They wear big backpacks with tents and sleeping pads stuffed inside, their boots laced tight for the daily hike of 20 miles or more.
From the trail's start in the desert, Johnson trekked north alone in shorts and running shoes. His VestPack -- an eight-pocket shirt of his own invention -- stowed gear and food. He was a backpacker without a pack.
He wore a sun hat and clutched carbon-fiber hiking poles. His total extra weight from the start -- including food, stove, fuel, first aid, water, clothing, and gear -- was a meager 9 pounds.
"Every ounce or gram of extra weight was trimmed away," said Johnson, who switched out his sleeping pad for a sheet of bubble-wrap envelope padding.
Going as light as possible is nothing new in backpacking circles. But Johnson's unorthodox techniques cut every corner -- and then trim the edge back some more.
On a remote trail, an equipment error can lead to serious consequences. Johnson's journey -- a multimonth experiment based on his decades of wilderness exploration -- had successes as well as misfires. He ran out of water. He dodged poisonous snakes and hid from a bear. At the end of his trip, he hiked 15 miles off route to trade his bubble wrap for a sleeping pad as temps plunged near the Canadian border.
He did not complete the entire trail. But over three months, Johnson hiked more than 1,000 miles of the route, including a dozen sections he says are the trail's highlights.
Johnson and his wife, Sharon, who backpacked several sections with him, will talk about their PCT experiment at Midwest Mountaineering's Outdoor Adventure Expo on Nov. 21. Their presentation -- "12 World Class Hikes You Can Do on the PCT" -- will cover trail logistics and delve into Johnson's unconventional methods for lightening your load on a long wilderness trek.
By the end of the PCT, Johnson had switched his VestPack for a backpack. He'd worn through several pairs of lightweight shoes. For cooking, he'd upgraded to a heavier, hotter stove. "The ultralight stove couldn't cut it," he said.
Take or leave his unconventional advice, here are a few field-tested equipment suggestions and trail techniques that Johnson trusts to trade some comfort in camp for a lighter load while walking hours each day on the trail.
Food bag pillow. In bear country, many hikers secure a cache of food at night in a tree. Johnson trusted O.P. Sak Odor-Proof Barrier Bags, which are reusable Ziploc-type bags made by Watchful Eye Designs. They are marketed as odor-, humidity-, vapor- and leak-proof. Johnson's technique was to put his food in a bag, stash it in his backpack, and then use the lump as a pillow.
Bubble wrap sleeping pad. A thin sheet of plastic served as an ad hoc air mattress for months. It was warm enough for nights down to 50 degrees, Johnson said. But you must "contour" the ground each night by moving dirt and sticks to shape a sleeping spot. A new body-length sheet of wrap -- which weighed just 0.9 ounce -- was unrolled from a stash every few days as the bubbles deflated under his weight.
Camp stove switch. Abandoned after the first leg of his trek, Esbit's solid fuel chemical tablets, which are a compact alternative to common gas and cartridge-based stoves, weren't warm enough to heat Johnson's stew. He switched to a heavier, hotter JetBoil Personal Cooking System, which includes an integrated pot/eating vessel mounted atop a butane burner.
Trail shoes. Boots are out with ultralight backpackers. Instead, trail-running shoes such as the End Sumptown, Vasque Blurs and Lafuma Sky Race models have enough support for long-duration trips. Johnson tested five pairs during his 1,000-mile hike. Most weighed half of what a typical hiking boot does, making each step easier.
VestPack. Johnson's own invention distributes gear weight equally around your torso instead of on your back and shoulders. It has eight mesh pockets in front and a small sleeping bag compartment in the rear. But on the PCT, Johnson abandoned the vest after switching to a stove that did not fit in a pocket.
Custom pack. Commercial suppliers do not often deal in the periphery where ultra-light hikers such as Johnson exist. Key items on his equipment list, including his backpack, were custom creations. Minnesota-based Cooke Custom Sewing's Ultralight Pack is made with silicon-coated nylon. It weighs 7.6 ounces and can carry up to 20 pounds of gear.
Bivy bag. For almost 1,000 miles, Johnson avoided carrying a tent. Instead, he slept in the open, wrapped in a 6.5-ounce waterproof bivy bag. His bag, made by MontBell, worked with a 16-ounce sleeping bag from Western Mountaineering. The aforementioned bubble wrap insulated Johnson's core from cold earth underneath.
Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.