Backpacking

I used to love backpacking. No, that’s not right, I still love backpacking, it’s just that I haven’t done it in awhile. Not only did I love backpacking, but in many ways it can be seen as my life parable.

A good friend of mine is parable driven, using the words of our Savior to open up new thoughts about God. We share that perspective.

As a parable we can break backpacking down to some basic components. 1) there is a destination. 2) there is a need to go there as a self-contained entity. 3) time is an important consideration.

Backpacking takes planning. One of the first books that I read about backpacking was “The Complete Walker” by Colin Fletcher. This was a marvelous book by an English author that should still be read today. Colin broke the subject down in a slightly different way. He said the first concern was the “foundation” of successful backpacking, and that was the shoe. One cannot expect to travel hundreds of miles over different terrain without considering the types of shoes on your feet..

I took his advice seriously because I had spent two years hitchhiking the Western states in beat-up sandals. I may have gotten excessive when I purchased three pairs of expensive but ugly Pivetta Eigers. I was struck by the authors insistence of only having holes for the laces. Many of the hiking boots sported the metal clips that used a speed lacing technique. Colin said, “when you are fifty miles from the closest civilization, holes in your boots do not break.”

Back to backpacking as a parable.

1). There is a destination. If you plan to disappear into the wilderness the first obligation is to tell people where you plan to go. The reason is obviously based upon the possibility of accidents. Posting a hiking plan is a smart move, in some cases a necessary action. The forest rangers need to know where, when, and how long people are wandering in the mountains.

More importantly, backpacking without a destination doesn’t exist. You will arrive someplace after miles of hiking, if you don’t… then it is because you never left. There is a common phrase, “If you have no destination, then any path will lead you there!” This is a well-meaning phrase, but not accurate. If you have no destination, you are not traveling. Better to say, “If you don’t know where you are going, then any path will get you there.” This is an important difference.

Choosing a destination is often based upon the expectation of seeing or experiencing something specific when you arrive. It can often be a set trail for (XX) amount of days which may give dozens of difference experiences.

2 The choice in travel is to attempt self-sufficiency. This is not perfectly planned, there all always extenuating circumstances. Basically, this is not a day-hike where snacks are at the next store, and a place to sleep is prepared by using a plastic card to rent a motel room. You carry all the snacks you plan to eat, you carry your shelter and sleeping gear, and you carry all the water and food that you might consume.

One of the more interesting decisions is exactly how much food and water can you carry? Obviously you would eventually need to be resupplied. Unless there is a local grocery store in the mountains, you are restricted by how much food you have, the possibility of hunting and gathering is based upon skill and locale. A few wild mushrooms and herbs are a great find. And fresh stream bred fish can make a great breakfast. While I carry some line and hooks, I have used them three times in my 12,000 hours of backpacking.

Studies have shown the people may live as long as forty days without food, so long as there is still water. This could lead the backpacker to shift the balance by carrying more water. As important as water is, the general plan is to make use of local water sources. With proper filtration, even the muddy ditch can provide all the water needed for several meals, so I never carried much more than a quart. Of course all that changed when hiking terrain that was low on water.

Water was mostly foraged from running streams encountered while hiking. This is not true for the solid food of the meal. Aside from the rare fish, all food is carried in. In order to carry more, with increased nutritional value, some foods can be “freeze dried”, reducing the weight. Some companies have spent millions in order to have tasty, light weight prepared meals for hikers. I have made use of all of them, including raw brown rice and oatmeal. A tasty meal at ten thousand feet is a treat.

After boots, food/water there is a concern for shelter. A good, warm sleeping bag is the difference between joy and misery. I have spent much time and research in this area, and I have designed and sewn at least four artic-level sleeping bags. The most used project that I’ve ever created.

Several pounds of supplies fill out the remaining self-sufficiency needs. Maps, compass, first aid, optics, cords, safety rope, belt knife, etc are just some of the extras needed.

The lie, of course, is that I was now self-sufficient. What is true is that I might be able to delay my need to go shopping for a few days.

What strikes me now is, what made me gravitate to this activity? It’s possible it was extending into my adult-life the wonderful experiences of camping with my parents.

Perhaps it meshed with my ability to be alone with some satisfaction. Certainly I felt tested by the challenge of preparation. Maybe, I was also attracted to the visual delights of the wilderness.

Another truth is that many aphorisms created by hiking became important in a lifetime of choices.

“If you don’t have a plan for your life, someone else will step in to give you one, and you will be walking a path different from your own.”

“Spend a certain amount of time turning around on the trail and looking back. You may need to know what it looks like in order to get home.”

“Conserve your fuel until you need it. Drink your water often. Better to carry water on the inside, than in your pack.”

“Do not become ‘trail hypnotized’, look up and around, not only for enjoyment, but also to see where you are.”

“Make adjustment to the trail you are walking. Errors and poor choices can occur, correcting them early saves time and energy.”

“Walk lightly, don’t leave your garbage behind.”

I have made a quick estimate of my time commitment to backpacking. I have over 500 days and 12,000 hours clocked so far. I am ready for more.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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