Saturday, July 5, 2014

On the Demise of the Sport of Backpacking.



I've read enough trail journals. I've seen enough. The new Ultra Light backpacking hysteria has destroyed what was once a good and noble endeavor. Ultra Light backpacking has changed backpacking into an adrenaline based sport that shamefully belongs on the X Games. The emphasis has become on carrying too little and racing through too many miles. It has become an obsession that is ruining the sport.

The Appalachian Trail Society doesn't pay attention to time records for hiking the AT. They say it is not in the best interests of the trail. The Pacific Crest Trail should follow the AT's lead.

Enough is enough. Yes, I marveled at "Anish's" unsupported distance hike last summer. Doing the entire 2,650 miles of the PCT in 59 days, averaging 42 miles a day, surely is a feat worthy of admiration. To her detractors who say how can anyone "see" anything when they are speed hiking, Anish said she saw six mountain lions en route. On her previous, more traditional PCT Thru Hike in 2007, she saw no mountain lions.

But tell me, how much did she see when she was hiking at night, trying to smash the record? Hiking so fast that you surprise a mountain lion, one of the more elusive creatures on the planet, does not seem like an argument for "seeing" things. It sounds more like bellicose, belligerent hiking to me. Sort of like a jet fighter strafing a quaint village.

Thru Hiking has become nothing more than an ultra-marathon where you streak through some of the most awesome scenery in America in 25 to 35 mile stints, all to reach the next trail town where you drink beer, crash in a motel with seven other Thru Hikers and charge your cell phone.

Nobody wants to carry food, or a sleeping bag or a tent. Cowboy camping has become the Thru Hiker norm; sleeping bags have become quilts and tarps have replaced tents. It is all designed for speed.

And the shoes? No longer do we have the support of mid-ankle boots that work so very well carrying a heavy load over rock. Now the shoes look like running shoes. By looking at the footwear, a person would think that the revelers in Thru Hiking were lining up to run the Boston Marathon and not Thru Hiking through countless wilderness areas and national parks.

Meals are no longer cooked: trail bars and candy bars and chips are the norm. You eat when you get to town. Food is only carried for four days max. Read this typical entry from a Thru Hiker journal I read this morning:

"I get to the trailhead around 1 and wait for a bit, organizing my stuff. My pack is way too heavy. 4 liters of liquids. 6 days of food, which really is more like 8 with how much I eat. It’s heavy! But I want to make it all of the way to Seiad Valley without stopping, some 156 miles down the trail. I’m hoping to do it in 5 days. Hoping."

What used to be common on the trail (carrying sufficient water and food for multiple days) is now something to complain about. This is the new norm. Thru Hiker's don't carry food anymore. They just head into town every three days.

So judgmental Allan. Don't you know that all these folks should Hike Their Own Hike (even if they hike their own hike all the same) and not pay the least bit of attention to your curmudgeonly critiques. Judge not lest you be judged. That's such crap. This is just a way to stifle feedback and opinions. Of course we should judge! That's why we have frontal lobes.

On my last backpacking trip, I was carrying around 45 pounds. Enough water to be safe in some dry conditions and enough food (and a tent) to actually enjoy the art of camping. A couple young bucks came along, carrying monstrously large packs. They were on their way for a couple hundred miles hike that would have them in the woods for a couple weeks. And they were carrying enough chow to last them. I stopped and chatted with these guys. "We don't go for this ultra-light business" one of the youngsters said, "we like feeling like we are actually camping".

And that's the point. Thru Hikers have lost that sense of solitude. Of being self-sufficient. The trail has become a race. An ultra sport. An adrenaline experience. You do it in "packs"---sometimes called a "herd". You travel in a pack. You start at the same time down in Campo, California. You hit the towns at the same time. You eat together in the towns. You share motel rooms together. And you run the race together on the trail. Gone is solitude. Gone is the art of zeroing on the trail. Gone is camping.

Its all high tech gear and titanium poles. Tents have become specially made tarps. Backpacks are space age rucksacks. John Denver wouldn't recognize today's trail shoe.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association encourages this type of recreation with their emphasis on "the Class of 2014" and in their magazine that gives way too much attention to Thru Hiking. They should de-emphasize this in order to promote solitude. Beauty. The Trail. Section hiking. Zeroing on the trail.

I've read some 25 trail journals this year of Thru Hikers. I haven't seen one Zero (a day not spent hiking) that was spent on the trail, camping at a thrilling location. Isn't that why we hike? To get someplace with our own two feet that others rarely go? No zeroes on the trail. Lots of beer in the towns though. Alas, that's what long distance backpacking has become: a race from one beer joint to the next.



28 comments:

  1. I'm in total agreement. But then again, so much of today's activities are balls-to-the-wall, frenetic, hyperkinetic, hypercompetitive, video game headbanging, that I suspect our civilization (on its last legs) is undergoing the mythical pre-death spasm of energy.
    But I personally favor lightweight packing, and haven't worn hiking boots for 50 years. But 5-10 miles a day is my limit; too many flowers to smell and birds to watch.

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    1. I still wear hiking boots. Keens. They are durable and are keep your feet from being bruised as I tend to hike where there's lots of rock. Love the comment; just wished I knew who you are.

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  2. Great post! I bucking the trend this year and finding all kinds of ways to slow down my backpacking trips, including setting a few SKT (slowest known time) records. But you are correct is asserting that people are rushing through their hikes (long and short ones) turning them into some kind of competitive race. Don't worry about them. They'll all turn into old farts like you and me sooner or later and slow down.

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    1. Ah, but the shift is bigger, in my view. It is the logical conclusion of a culture that grew up with the X Games and Tough Mudder. Conquest and adrenaline are the cultural norms; gone is conservation and solitude. Its about what was sold to this generation. We were sold solitude and John Denver. They were sold You Tube videos of scary bike races in the desert. Therein lies the difference---and it isn't just a curmudgeonly nostalgia: it is a valid cultural critique, in my view.

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  3. i like this article allan. instant gratification is what the youth of today feed on. the tally mark of: hiked that one. with the fleeting moments and places on these amazing trails visiting their short term memory, sadly, they'll have more memories and selfies of them at the bar.... they wont even notice how wonderfully unique nature is. they've got their eyes on the prize: pints at the pub, and a snuggle in the hostel. why dont they see that the dirt and air and flowers and TREES! (gotta love trees! they are so old and wise!) and tiny critters and more elusive big critters, and the quiet sounds of night, the sparkle of the multitude of stars so far away, the sounds of birds surprised by your presence.... those are the prize. you can get beer anywhere....

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  4. I am so with you Allan. When we finally do get around to hiking the JMT I see it as a 25 - 30 day hike, not one done in 15-17 days. I want to absorb the mornings and evenings. I want to catch some fish. I want to contemplate. I want to take my time and live in the moment. Can't live in the moment if we only concerned with how far we get today.

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  5. Nice that you try and dictate what should be the correct and proper way to do something instead of letting obviously experienced try alternative methods.

    So if you're "off the grid and green" as you say, how and why would you be on and using a computer? That like "organic GMO food".

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  6. No Wilderness. I merely point out that backpacking has evolved into an adrenaline sport. An "X" factor game. An episode of Survivor (that you quote on what I assume is, your site). Your very own site reflects that drift.

    As for the second paragraph, you manage to pull off a non sequitur and an ad hominem argument in two sentences and twenty five words. Good job!

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  7. I don't have a problem with people going for a FKT, but personally I think the "winner" is the one who captures the SKT (Slowest Known Time).

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  8. Interesting post Allan. Have to be honest, I do both. I hike and camp for the pleasure, mindfulness and regeneration being out in nature brings me. And I take on walking challenges through the same nature for fitness, the sense of achievement and purpose and sheer fun they can also bring. To be fair as I live in the UK, I don't have quite the same Thru-Hiking challenges that you have in the US.

    I think there's room for both types of people as long as everyone contributes in some way to care and consideration for the nature we are so lucky to share.

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  9. I agree as well. I cannot afford, nor will I spend the money on ultra-light, high tech crap. I get some things, but no way am I sawing off my tooth brush.

    I carry about 35 pounds in the winter and a little less in the summer. I am comfy, clean, well fed and no where near a town. :)

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  10. Agreed, but there's a tipping point. I make sure that all the gear I carry is as light and efficient as possible and try not to take things I don't really need - call it lightweight vs. ultralight. I'm also not out to cover miles. I pick a destination - one far enough in to provide solitude and that's where I set up. My goal is to see, hear, smell, touch and taste an area well enough to actually BE in nature.

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  11. everyone who is young and full of adrenalin, will get old and slow down.

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  12. I'm never good with words so I can only offer this post from my late-friend and inspiration.

    http://zoomloco.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/joshua-tree-traverse/

    “Could be that you’re right,” I said. “But if I was blind, I’d still be out here all the same. I don’t go into a temple for the gold-plated ornaments.”

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  13. You are sounding like the antithesis of the ultralights... It is not an either-or proposition. If you want to categorize me, I am a section hiker, doing 12-16 miles/day and like to carry 4 days of food. My total weight (fully loaded) is around 24 pounds. So, pigeon hole me where you like. But I don't like the sound of 42 mi./day with only trail bars; and I certainly don't like the sound of 45 pounds or 2 weeks of food.

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  14. Some of us "youngers" enjoy the slower pace. I don't call it an adrenaline activity, it's more an endorphin activity that comes from the load, the beauty, and the solitude. I wear mid-hikers, carry poles, and while not getting out enough this year, I really would like to zero in the Glastonbury (VT) wilderness. A favourite place. But then, I'm not 20 anymore. But even when I was 20 -- slower hiking, gentle yoga. I don't understand the rushing around.

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  15. Allan, I mostly agree, but your message has now lost its savor for my fear of being persecuted due to spelling or grammatical errors. Possibly you could spend less time with books and tree's and enjoy others, even in their imperfect state.

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    1. I'm not quite certain what your point is?

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  16. Thanks for all your comments and for reading this thing. With 600 visits to this post in just a few hours, I'm wondering where the heck this thing was posted that it generated that much traffic? Anybody care to let me know?

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    1. Philip Werner posted a link on the FB page for his excellent Section Hiker Blog
      https://www.facebook.com/SectionHikerBlog

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    3. Thanks for pointing that out to me Carol. Looks like this post struck a nerve. I wrote the post after reading about 25 Thru Hiker journals and this thing is mostly a reaction to the attitudes I found in those journals. I think there is a generational split between seeing the wilderness as an X Factor, Tough Mudder place to be conquered rather than a place for regeneration and solitude---and a place to be saved, not conquered. I hope the post, at the very least, made people think a bit.

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  17. Why care about how many miles a day other people walk and what the weight of their pack is, and whether they wear boots or trail runners? I don't need walking speed limits signs and guidelines posted about how much pack weight is too little when I leave the world of rules and enter the wilderness. " The more you know the less you carry"- Mors Kochanski.

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  18. I had a friend recently finish the JMT in a week. He destroyed his body in the process of speeding through one of the most beautiful places on earth. That's dumb.

    However, while I agree that backpacking was never meant to be an action sport, I also think that your perspective, aside from making you sound like a salty old curmudgeon whining about the good ol' days, is far too polarizing. Primarily, I think that society's unfortunate pace (a death spiral - agreed:-) is forcing many people to do more with less time, whether they like it or not. Age and infirmary also force many to geek-out on ultralight, even for slower trips, just to be able to get out and not cause further injury, or at least lessen the pain of old joints. Personally, I've done three-day alpine climbs in the Cascades in-a-day that are actually far more enjoyable because of the agility and added energy a small pack affords, and I've taken six days worth of food into Evolution Basin just to hang out, fish and relax. Today, after years of back pain, my pack is full of ultralight, space-plastic wizardy because I need to carry a 60-lb., 65-liter pack just to get my kids past the trailhead and turned on to backpacking, in my own desperate attempt to counter-balance the next generation of citified video-junkies. And when I only have a weekend to escape and want to see a new corner of the mountains, I'll be damned if I'm going to stay home, in deference to some far-off time when I'll have two weeks to spend in the area.

    Ultimately, I see your point, but perhaps it's the delivery that turns me off. It leads me to believe that you're absolutely intolerant of anyone crossing some daily mileage threshold that you've arbitrarily deemed inappropriate. I also find significant mistrust in anyone disparaging the holy ritual of trail beers.

    There's plenty of bitterness and hate in the world already. Is it worth our time, energy or karma to hate people for enjoying wilderness differently than us?

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    1. I'm off on my first backpack in a long time in a few weeks. I'm looking at 8 - 10 miles a day at most. I plan on enjoying myself. I suppose that the folks trying to break speed records and such enjoy that too, and good for them. But it's not what I would call a good time. And I still wear boots too! Just got a new pair.

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    2. I like beer as much as anyone. Yes, this post does kind of get in your face a bit. It is meant to do that. I think we are missing out on what the trail is about. And I hope it got a few thousand people to reconsider this adrenaline speed hiking thing. However, my own spouse disagrees with me. She admonishes me by saying "At least they are outside, not inside typing on a computer like you are". She has a point.

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  19. I can see both sides and I enjoy both sides. Each way (slow or fast) is a unique experience unto itself. I find doing both gives me the perspective of both and a different way to enjoy the same pieces of trail. I love going for slow hikes and dream of doing long thru hikes of many trails. But the reality is, I only get so many vacation days I year and I am not in a position in life where many weeks on a trail is possible. So, if I can get in alot of miles in a week, I will. However, sometimes, I don't want to just "put in the miles" and enjoy the solitude and quiet. It seems so many things nowadays you have to stand on one side or the other. It's like this in fitness (crossfit vs. cardio), politics and many other subjects. There is room to enjoy both and instead of complaining about "the other side"...we should embrace that each is ok and be open minded enough to show others what we love about the trail and maybe open their minds and eyes to how we see it.

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