Wednesday, May 2, 2018


Backpacking gear technology has come a long way in a few short decades. I started my backpacking career with a canvas pup tent. Bought withH S&H Green Stamps, it must have weighed as much as everything I carry today. Yes, that makes me older than dirt. In dog years, let’s see, I would be………dead!
As ridiculous as a canvas pup tent sounds, those were exciting times. When I hike with young people I remind myself how I felt at their age. They have no idea about my perspective, but I have a clear insight into theirs. Just out of high school in 1968, I loaded my 1964 Suburban and headed West. I had a whole summer of backpacking ahead of me, untethered from any responsibility, and a smorgasbord of wilderness areas to pick and choose from. With little experience to draw from, everything was fresh and new and exciting. Did I make mistakes? Oh, yea. That’s how you start accumulating experience. Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. 
I have hanging in my garage a wooden handled ice axe. Where I get my backcountry permits in Glacier National Park the Backcountry Office has an identical one hanging on the wall. Like me, it’s an antique. I bought it in Estes Park, Colorado that summer of 68’, not because I knew how to use it, oh no, I bought it because it looked cool. I was the first person over Paint Brush Divide in the Tetons that summer. I know this because once I reached the flat boulder strewn top there sat a ranger on a rock eating lunch. He was shocked when I came up and over, excitedly saying, “We just did a rescue here, how did you get up this snowfield?” I naively said, “Oh, I have an ice axe.”
That summer was my first exposure to freeze dried food and down sleeping bags. There is a small stone cabin on Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. “In the old days,” (yes, I say that a lot now.) In the old days, before the permit system, you could camp at the pass. The cabin even had a small wood burner in it, although the closest wood was a few miles down to timberline. I camped there one night with a husband and wife who were both Harvard Professors. As I pulled out my canned soup, they pulled out freeze dried steak dinners. As I pulled out my sleeping bag, which was basically a glorified blanket, they pulled out their light-weight down bags. That was my first epiphany—I’m not living right.
When I run into young people with older heavier gear, I get it, I’ve been there. You carry what you can afford, and you carry what you understand. If backpacking is something they come to enjoy and embrace, it won’t be long until they have a better understanding of what they need and an incentive to invest more money into better, lighter gear. 
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I try to be open-minded when it comes to change. With backpacking there is a constant evolution to lighter gear and lighter hiking methodology.  I am slow to move in some of the directions this evolution takes. I hike enough that I see it in action and it is not always as advertised. Too light often means exposure to conditions you can’t control. I am glad to give up weight with tougher, lighter materials, but not by discarding or paring down gear that insures safety. An example would be a tarp vs. a tent. A good bomb shelter tent is questionable enough in a 60 m.p.h. wind above timberline, in a sleet storm. We could change the old British currency phrase to, “Ounce wise and pound foolish,” in this instance. A tarp is great until things get dicey. I prefer to pack as if I may have to deal with weather armageddon, because often I do. 
I’ve tried and tested all types of stoves. For years I used, and loved, my ZipZtove. It was a light, titanium wood burner with a tiny fan run by a AA battery. It was like a blacksmith’s forge. I could boil water in three or four minutes and never carry fuel. Severe fire seasons have put this type of stove out of favor with the Forest and Park Service. I built and tested several alcohol stoves. I find them much too slow and, in my opinion, not fuel efficient. At this point in time I am using a Jetboil gas stove which is fairly light and very efficient. Stoveless backpacking seems to be all the rage right now. Sorry, I just can’t live like that. They say you can drink cold coffee in the morning and still get your caffeine fix—-just shoot me!
I’m not trying to be a naysayer, but here is my experience with super ultralight backpackers. I used to joke that the way to tell a super ultralight backpacker is they are the ones always trying to borrow stuff from you on the trail, or they are the ones that TSA is doing a cavity search on, trying to find their gear. But seriously, they are the ones using the passing lane on long trails. There is no question they easily do more daily trail miles than hikers with heavier loads. But from what I have observed that doesn’t always translate to a faster finish. 
On the PCT I was carrying a base weight of 14 lbs. I was hiking with two young guys carrying a base weight of 7 lbs. How was I hiking with them? Well, they would catch up with me every couple days. Doesn’t make sense right? Let me explain how it works. 
My first question to them was, “Aren’t you miserable when the weather turns sour?” Answer: “YES.” They did a lot more miles per day than I did, but they also made more pit stops. They would be forced into towns for resupply and have a hard time leaving. It’s the old “turtle and hare” race. While they were in town drinking beer and sleeping in a warm bed, I was still out there pounding away on the trail. They would come back out and pass me, just to head back in for another pit stop. 
Strategy is not only light weight gear, it is what you are carrying other than base weight. I seldom carry less than a week’s worth of food. I never carry more than one small canister of gas (7 oz.). I can usually stretch both to ten days of hiking. It takes some time and testing to come up with calorie dense items that pack a punch and appeal to me. My grocery list is in constant flux. I have a varied enough food repertoire that I don’t get bored with my choices and decide not to eat them. Carrying food for days and never eating it is a common mistake.
This is not an article to sway new hikers one way or another on how to hike or what to carry. My point is experience in backpacking is an evolution. If you stick with it long enough you will go through the metamorphic stages that will eventually give you wings. Backpacking, like life itself is all about the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, it only takes a desire to get out on the trail and hike your own hike.
I met a guy on Isle Royale last fall who had spent several months backpacking all the great places in North America with his home-schooled kids. They were 5, 7, and 10. I never heard one of them say, “Are we there yet?” They could hike all day with their own packs and still have enough energy to run around in the evening looking for wildlife. This summer they are all on the AT. 
They may run into the guy I just read about who is 87 years old. He’s on the AT this year also. He’s done many long trails in the past, including the AT and he just wants to see if he can still do it. I hope that’s me some day. It gives me hope. I’m sure by the time I’m his age they will have developed ripstop nylon embedded with helium molecules that will lighten my steps, and you can bet I will be carrying it. 

—Keep Smilin’

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