In mid-November, I took my family to Shenandoah National Park, one of our favorite areas for hiking, leaf-peeping and general camping debauchery. My two sons are 4 and 6 years old. They view this time as a highlight of their lives. In as much as they enjoy marshmallow responsibilities over a crackling fire, I suspect they enjoy having mom and dad vulnerable to a confined tent where they are free to practice their latest wrestling moves. While I also cherish these moments, I quietly wait for my sons to get old enough to shoulder their own pack so we can head off the beaten path into the wilds.
After a fun weekend, we headed for home. As we drove through the fall scenery unique to Skyline Drive, we passed several groups of Boy Scouts and other backpackers in various states of shouldering their packs. The absurdity of some of the loads I witnessed would have easily shaken my spirits as a child and probably even more as a 38-year old man since I know better. I desperately wanted to stop each group and ask them about the length of their expedition. I’ve used this not-so-subtle spirited hint in the past as a means of starting a conversation ultimately with the goal of encouraging load-totting backpackers towards the direction of lightweight backpacking. Each time we paused next to one of these groups, I felt a bit of a kinship with those who looked the most distraught and overburdened. I imagined what they were thinking about their crushing pack loads and surmised that their time in the wilds was shortly going to become a “forced march” never to be repeated.
Each time I see a youngster being exposed to backpacking in this manner, I find myself not terribly surprised that so many of our youth prefer a couch and a game console instead of time outside. It reminds me of three brothers who grew up with me in the same northern Virginia neighborhood. The brothers were being groomed by their overbearing parents to become Olympic swimmers and it was truly a rare occasion that they were allowed to play with the rest of the neighborhood kids as swimming practice otherwise occupied every moment outside of school.
Over a period of roughly 15 years, I watched two of them miss the Olympic cutoffs by 1/100th of a second every 4 years. Each time they were devastated, yet their parents continued the regime of getting them up early for swim practice, practicing every night, every weekend and every holiday. As classmates and holding a loose friendship with each, I felt inclined to ask them one day over school lunch if they liked swimming. Their response really shouldn’t startle anyone. They said they enjoyed swimming at one time, but it had become routine, a hardship and was now a burden. To them, it was a forced march. By the time each boy had graduated high school, none had made the Olympics. As adults, they’ve given up swimming entirely, struggle with interpersonal relationships and have been challenged to hold conventional jobs. I find myself wondering how deeply their forced march changed their attitudes and direction in life.
Backpacking has a place in my life probably fairly similar to others. It is an escape from urban sprawl and time with family and friends, but more, it is a spiritual and religious experience even for those who are neither. There is something about the smells carried in the air and the buffet of natural observations which seems to refuel my weary self. I can think of few activities similar to backpacking where time spent in conditions which may include cold, rain and a degree of exhaustion sounds as charming as a Norman Rockwell painting.
While I’m all for the hike-your-own-hike (HYOH) philosophy and have been known to cringe when conversations are entirely dominated by gear-talk, I think it is critical for those who have seen the light to serve as stewards to this generation of youthful backpackers, and more broadly, anyone shouldering a conventional pack. Sharing the benefits of lightening up is worth the effort
To some, the question asked is “why?” Why care about the experience of others? After all, the more “others” on the trail, the less solitude and peace for the rest of us which are traits I’m guessing all backpackers seek to a certain degree. While I sympathize, my view is that by evangelizing the light, the end result is more than merely good karma.
First, I can think of a countless number of friends and family disenfranchised from backpacking because of the belief that it is a chore – nothing but a burdensome, sweaty, load-lugging, leaf-butt-wiping, bugs-feasting-on-my-face, and sleeping-in-a-soggy-cold-tent activity where hygiene is reminiscent of one of those penny’s permanently adhered to the floor by filth in a Golden Coral bathroom and the likelihood of getting lost and becoming the basement cohabitant of some banjo-pickin’-seven toed- hillbilly from a family tree with few branches who has a single crooked and coal-like upper front tooth is merely a matter of time. And let’s not forget about the animals, which will no doubt attack, probably when asleep, and who have a daily propensity to eat the head of at least one unsuspecting sleeping backpacker in a single bite. In fact, if a backpacker doesn’t get eaten the second their foot hits the asphalt on the trailhead parking lot by, say an 11’ grizzly bear with claws the size of grilling tongs and a mouth like an alligator, then it’s only because the animals are conspiring to find a way to humiliate their backpacking friend by such an unfavorable death calamity probably involves the marriage between two unfriendly themes such as “colon” and “tree stump rotisserie”.
But alas, I think it is the job of seasoned lightweight backpackers to put these rumors to bed. After all, I’ve never been on any trip which wouldn’t have been exceedingly improved by the kinship and good-humor that only comes with a shared experience. As a married man, I can also attest that there is something helpful to the marriage-dynamic when my wife and I are in the woods. Similarly, I’m certain my kids are smarter and will be better off in life with a little more dirt-time in their blood. Quite honestly, I’m also fairly certain that if more people spent time on the trail and around a campfire together, the world would be witness to an entirely different way of communicating and respecting one another, and more importantly, finding common ground to solve problems. I’m not merely talking about taking friends and family to the trail, but doing so by helping them make good gear choices to enhance their experience and make it less like a forced march.
Second, lightweight hiking is about safety. As someone with a wealth of health conditions and knees about as spry and ridged as one of those really fat wiener dogs with legs entirely inadequate to reach the ground, I can confess to the fact that my initial motivation to “go light” was for health comfort. Less pack weight results in fewer injuries – period. My couch and I would be far greater friends if this were not true.
Third, lightweight hiking is about going further and faster – if desired – in greater comfort. Most of us likely find that life has a way of intervening a little too often and acts as kryptonite to our trail-time opportunities. As such, time on the trail is valuable and should be well spent.
So my unsolicited advice is to evangelize the light when the opportunity presents itself. But how?
For me, I’ve had luck starting the conversation by tying my shoes. You see, if I need to tie my shoes, that means I need to hand my Gossamer Gear Lighttrek 4 poles to someone for safe keeping. The response of feeling their airy weight is little different than the animated expression and attentiveness gained when in an elevator with someone in gastrointestinal distress. There is a certain degree of sudden focus which can be achieved when thumped in the forehead with the metaphorical sledgehammer.
At work, I’ve found the water-cooler to be a uniquely welcoming place to mention the words “cuben”, “dyneema” , “titanium” and “cottage” usually just before a holiday break where someone is confessing loudly to their coffee-sipping group that they are getting dragged along on a backpacking trip with a friend during their time off. Oddly enough, using a hole punch on an empty cat food can in the lunchroom is an equally quick way to start a conversation about lightweight alcohol stoves. It is also a quick way to start a conversation about cats. It is my personal belief that most conversations about cats should be avoided. Be warned.
As the father of one Cub Scout and a 4-year old who religiously wears a t-shirt to each Scout meeting which reads, “My brother is a Cub Scout”, I haven’t found a single person disinterested in learning about how to lighten their backpack. Fathers of Scouts who put down their work, internet and TV love-affair long enough to hit the trailhead with their son quickly appreciate the opportunity to not appear as if they were suffering from a massive coronary 200 yards up the trail. They also want their children to be safe and not be discouraged from a new and unfamiliar activity unappreciated because of a burdensome pack load.
Of course, there is no better way to start the conversation than by being on the trail. It has been my experience that often others start the conversation for me with – “did you make that?” Usually my response is “no” and then I find myself knee-deep in explaining the definition of a high-performance non-woven fabric commonly used on applications such as yacht sails or the finer points and flexibility of a lightweight titanium cone around my cookpot.
Bottom line, if you want an exceedingly full happy or karma-meter, and you like to see your friends and family happy and safe…
Evangelize the light – start the conversation.
This post was written by former Trail Ambassador James Kester, aka The Jolly Green Giant.