By Amien Essif
There is an ethical dilemma stuffed in with every backpacker’s provisions, a fact I discovered on a particular excursion in the Smoky Mountains. During an overnight hike in the spring, my friend and I shared a shelter with a trio of thirtysomethings who were apparently hiking the Appalachian Trail, and as I ate my ramen noodles and my friend collected firewood, these three guys talked about their gear. I don’t mean their bait and tackle, as you might expect. I mean their JetBoil propane stove, their internal frame packs, their water filtration systems, the loft and fill of their sleeping bags, the weight in centigrams of their sleeping pads, the pros and cons of their Goretex.
The funniest thing to me was that my buddy—always ambivalent to the art of being prepared—had shown up to my house that morning with his idea of overnight gear: a pillow case containing a sleeping bag, a book, an empty Gatorade bottle, a loose twenty dollar bill, and a clean shirt.
Under the shelter at Spence Field, my friend’s hobo bindle slouched next to the same bunk as the three miracle vessels of consumer technology, and they were all there for the same purpose: so that we could spend a night without a house. To do this, most people want to bring a few things with them, and only a few, because no backpacker ever aimed to stuff a pack to the size of a love seat. Lighter is always the goal. But as I witnessed on Spence Field, there are two opposite approaches to this: packing less and packing light.
The first approach—packing less—is to think of backpacking as an escape from the cycle of consumption and production which regulates city life with its constant exchange of miseries and luxuries. To throw a few things into a pillow case and walk up a wooded mountain in a pair of tennis shoes is the biggest middle finger you could possible flip at modern life. This was the dream of Jack Kerouac’s dharma bums: to cobble together “a regular kitchen and bedroom right on my back and go off somewhere and find perfect solitude and look into the perfect emptiness of my mind.” In a phrase, less is more.
The second approach—packing light—might seem to follow the same less-is-more precept, but it is actually the opposite. The point of ultra-light backpacking, which has taken hold in the backpacking world, is to treat the wilderness like an arena for your affluence. As an excuse for conspicuous consumption, it’s right up there with sailing. The gear becomes the activity. Once the Visa is charged and the bag is packed with all its titanium and Quallofil and weighed in, the game is over. Hiking the trail is just a victory lap where you get to appreciate how light and waterproof your stuff is, and how it doesn’t lose that suburban smell, even after days of use.
Even for those on a budget, the consumerist maxim of more-is-less can be persuasive. Like the coupon industry that wants you to think you have to spend money to save it, too many newbie trekkers think that packing a 10 ounce camping chair will somehow shave off weight. Go to any outdoor store and you’ll see how this translates into a $120 billion dollar industry. Think you need a solar-heated shower pouch that weighs only 24 ounces empty? Maybe you should buy it now and decide later.
This summer, in preperation for a trip, I’ve found myself in the position of arbitrating between these two camps. In early August I’m heading out on the longest excursion I’ve tried so far. Small change for the big gamers, but I’ve got fourteen days to get from Denver to Portland via Yellowstone National Park without a car and with about $100, and right now I’m still in Chicago staring into an empty backpack and trying to fill it with foresight. I want to pack less rather than light, obviously, but now that I’m actually packing, the line between the two seems a little less bold. I have to decide what level of deprivation will be good for me versus what level might put my life at risk, or even just impede my daily freedom of movement.
For me, the most obvious reason to avoid the trap of ultra-light consumption is because I invariably get nauseated by the dissipation of desire that occurs after I buy something new and realize my life hasn’t changed. There are a few things that don’t lose any value between anticipation and ownership—a guitar, a good bike, or most basic kitchen supplies come to mind. Most camping supplies, on the other hand, with their “micro,” “light,” and “tec” affixes and their barrage of DuPont chemical trademarks, are nasty little Trojan horses that leech discontent once they’re in your pack. Why did I buy this SealLine Dry Bag for $18.99, you’ll ask yourself, when it is essentially just a ziplock bag? This kind of epiphany is the hallmark of the post-outfitters letdown.
Yet even after this consumption hangover passes, the very purpose of a trek is at stake. Admittedly, escaping the capitalist slog for a week or two isn’t a revolutionary gesture, but it can be radical as a personal experience. Ten days to reasses the fundamentals of life is vital to any development of a person’s political perspective. Those dudes we met in the Smokies—the Triplets of North Face—may never have achieved any distance from society. In fact, they seemed to be on a quest to reaffirm their role as consumers.
As I look into the perfect emptiness of my backpack, I try to channel John Muir, the father of packing less and writing about it. This is the ragged saint of a man who walked from Indiana to the Florida Keys in 1867 with nothing but a simple book bag. What was in it? Bread, tea, a notebook, and his flower collection. When he slept, he usually just buttoned up his shirt, piled leaves against a tree, and swatted mosquitoes off his face all night.
So I guess the answer to how an anti-consumerist packs for an adventure is that he doesn’t. He just finishes his coffee, turns the radio off, and locks the door behind him. Necessity will hand him little things here and there along his travels, but common sense is a stronger guarantee against injury than a Kelty sleeping bag.
The dilemma wouldn’t be a dilemma if the answer were always so obvious. Muir may not have fretted over what to bring, and I imagine that most migrant workers have had a similar certainty about what to throw into a knapsack, established by years of routine transience. But Kerouac and the Beats broke the same sweat as I: How do you pack when you can pack anything? What do you need when there’s no necessity? Muir’s wanderings as well as Woodie Guthrie’s and those of other rough-travelin’ idols, were very different from mine. That’s where the problem arises. My trip is a consumer trip, like most trips taken by middle class Americans like myself. Muir devoted his life to roaming and rough sleeping and developed skills that make GoreTex jackets seem like Snuggies. I, on the other hand, somehow expect to just drop my city habits and walk into Yellowstone with a green streak a mile long, hoping I won’t freeze to death (average August lows dip into the 40s)—which I probably would. I’m a spoiled consumer who thinks that anything is possible if the price is right. So in order to outfit myself for my consumer excursion into the sexy backcountry, I’ve got to get some sexy gear to stay comfortable and suave.
That’s the pessimistic take, that I’m just a light-packer on a tight budget. The optimistic one is that material conditions will eventually get the better of me. Every time I pack, I pack less. I learn what I can do without. I get more and more friendly toward mosquitoes. My firemaking becomes more dependable. I learn how to find clean water. I learn how to keep warm with what I already own.
And you know what? I bet experience usually draws the ultra-light fanatics over to the minimalist tendency. The more comfortable you become with the natural world, the fewer luxuries you depend on. The fewer luxuries, the less you pack. The less you pack, the less you think about packing. The excitement of the preparation wears off and the reality of sleeping outside and alone rekindles itself. Finally, when all you’ve got is a blanket and a bottle of water, the word “camping” loses its meaning. And whatever it loses, the mountain gains. The holler of loons on a Wisconsin lake. The glow of tea at sunrise.