Watching the high school kids tottering up the hiking trail under ridiculous burdens I was reminded of the studies of GIs who jumped into the surf in the Normandy landings with 80-pound packs on their backs and promptly drowned. These days, the overloaded backpack is coming under scrutiny as kids totter home from school hefting 30-pound loads. I've become a devotee of the famous long-distance hiker Ray Jardine, whose philosophy of life and loads is set forth in his 1992 classic "Beyond Backpacking," which should be nestled next to the works of John Muir on your bookshelf.

            Jardine and his wife Jenny have hiked all the major trails, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian, and watched with horror as overloaded plodders lost any sense of pleasure and often quit the trail altogether. After thousands of miles and much experimentation, the couple ended up with a total packweight each, minus food and water, of around 8 pounds.

            I read the book in the spring and was convinced. Out went the heavy hiker boots, and in came modestly priced sneakers. (Jardine counsels you to tear out their tongues.) Out went the elaborate backpack with scores of irritating pockets and a metal frame. In came the simple Jardine-designed pack, weighing 14 ounces.

            Jardine is persuasive in his denunciations of tents and sleeping bags as weighty traps for moisture. His tarp tent and sleeping cover, plus pad, plus the tarp tent are under 4 pounds overall. In the end, I took to the trail along the Sinkyone Wilderness on a glorious weekend on California's North Coast without tent under a pack weighing 15 pounds, including food and white spirit stove and pan.

            What a difference! Each stop to drink water and enjoy the wonderful vistas of redwood stands, Douglas firs, and rock-girt seashore wasn't prelude to the grim business of once again hoisting a 40-pound load onto sore shoulders. Going up the up steep grades was a breeze. I gloried in nature's temple rather than feeling I was on the uphill slope to the morgue.

             I was hiking with Bruce Anderson, supreme commander of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, beacon of freedom in Mendocino County, and, in fact, America's greatest newspaper. As we clambered out of sea level inlets up the trail to the 1,400-foot contour level three, four, five, six times across an overall hiking time along 16 miles of about 11 hours (plus a night under the stars), Bruce groaned beneath his old-fashioned pack, thick sleeping sack and self-inflating mattress pad. Pad and bag were abandoned at dawn the second day, and his spirits improved markedly.

            Except for that party of high schoolers trekking up out of the Usal campground at the south end of the Sinkyone near the end of our hike, we saw no one. We had about 10 miles of the most beautiful trail on the Pacific Coast all to ourselves. A neighbor took his grandson on Memorial Day weekend to camp for a couple of days along a well-known trail some 20 miles north of Eureka. It runs along Redwood Creek and is far from punishing. They saw no one. Americans have given up hiking. They stay at home watching FOX or CNN and getting fat. Or punishing their bodies with Dr. Atkins' diet.

            I've plenty of agreeable memories from that outing in the Sinkyone Wilderness: A stately elk, as encumbered with his vast rack of antlers as so many hikers with their loads; the bare vestige of Wheeler, a little logging town burned down by Georgia Pacific for reasons of liability back in the 1950s, now surrounded by triumphant stands of redwood.

            But one image that will stay with me is of a young, plumpish fellow in that group heading north on the first steep climb up out of Usal. Already he was tired and lagging. His pack was large. It was easy to predict that after five or six miles he'd make a lifetime pledge to avoid all hiking trails. There should be a new standard: no backpack over 20 pounds, including food and water, and if possible, under 5 pounds. No American over . Well, you figure the appropriate weight to height standard. We make our stand against the food industry (America's biggest killer) and the recreation industry, which mostly takes the fun out of the great outdoors.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.