Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Wilderness of Weirdos

Now that I've got a very vague itinerary and a reservation to hang it on, my next big planning phase is to gear up. This is fraught with a truly stupid amount of anxiety. Backpacker magazine seems like the best all-around source of gear ratings. But just test this for me: imagine you know only what you've read about this trip, which is basically all I know (fall-winter-spring; western US; solo traveler). Click the link, find the gear guide, click on "sleeping bags," check off a few parameters, and search.

Thousands. An impossible variety. So many variables that it wouldn't help me even to list them here (downsynthetictemperaturemummyrectanglehoodliningweightbulkprice!?!?!?). Looking through the gear guide is like stepping into a maze; I started for a few moments, and then realized that unless I wanted to devote the rest of my week, and possibly a hunk of my sanity, to reading reviews and considering variables, I was never going to get through it all. I need help narrowing this stuff down beyond just "Umm… I'm a girl?"

So I went to the library again. The library is an equally dangerous place. Not only do I risk hernia every time I check out, but any time I go more than a few decimal places in the dewey system, I uncover yet another sprawl of information that often seems to raise more questions than it answers.

This time, I wisely did a lot of my weeding at the library, rather than check out everything with the keyword "backpack." I tossed anything that was too old, noting that the library's selection as a whole was outdated (and sometimes forgetting that I am old, and that the 90s are no longer recent). I eliminated anything with the word "family."  But I still came home with a basket full of books. These backpacking and camping guides, like the national park guides, are stirring up a bunch of philosophical conundrums.

There are two basic types of backpacking guides. The first is the General kind. It's guidebook-y and well organized. It's aimed at an audience somewhere between "beginner" and "getting comfortable." (Luckily, it seems that "backpacking," unlike "camping," has but one definition, and that definition involves trekking and sweat.) It's often written by a team and published under a famous name (National Geographic, Sierra Club, etc.). The second kind, and the kind that I (possibly unfortunately) happened to crack first once I got home, is the Idiosyncratic kind. It is by one author. It usually takes the form of long prose rather than bullet points and chunks of texts. It is almost always accompanied by charmingly outdated pencil illustrations. In fact, the one I'm reading first I brought home solely for its charmingly outdated pencil illustrations. That, and the back-cover blurb advertising "good, no-jive information," as I am, rather emphatically, no jive turkey, sir.

Read that title. Now imagine the Google Image Search horror I went through to find this.
I think the Idiosyncratic books tend to be written by the same kind of person. It's a man, probably in his 40s, definitely with a beard, curmudgeonly, anti-establishment, possessing decades of experience, and totally whacked. One guide, which I read extensively but elected to leave at the library, was by a man who insisted on traveling so ultra-light that he made his own gear, as in stitched his own tent and built his own backpack that weighs mere ounces. The guide I'm reading now (pictured above) is obsessed with something called a Vapor Barrier, which, apologies to Dave Barry but I am totally not making this up, consists of a dry-cleaner's bag worn underneath your clothing. Barring that, he heartily endorses another somewhat whacked outfitter who sells a shirt version of the Vapor Barrier. Here it is:
I believe it's spelled "sexxxxxxxxxxxxxxy."

It's the opinion of both Idiosyncratic authors that only pussies get giardia, and that water filtration systems are just placebos. Sugar is poison. Underwear is for squares.

As is obvious from the sepia- and hemp-tinted tone of these books, they're products of the 70s. That was when backpacking really took off, but was still sort of a niche thing. Most of the people doing it were hippies. And the ones who were dedicated enough to write guidebooks were true freaks. Backpacking now is much broader. Not that it doesn't have a clique: outfitters brand themselves with either a macho XTREME!! feel or a lady-macho vibe that reminds me of my Cambridge yoga studio. But either way, modern backpacking is thoroughly commercialized. It doesn't assume that you go camping because you hate The Man and are offended that He'd try to sell you this crazy "shirt" bullshit when all you really need is a dry cleaner bag and some scissors.

This leaves me somewhat torn, because I consider myself anti-commercialism. I don't like paying for stuff I don't need, especially if I'm paying mostly for the image of toughness rather than true utility. I happily snob it over people who gear themselves all out with expensive specialty clothing and equipment when a similarly designed everyday alternative is much cheaper--and probably already in their closet. But when I'm looking for gear that's going to keep me alive for six months, I find myself uncharacteristically comforted by a big chain store with R&D and famous brands and salespeople and everything. I'm not wearing no damn plastic bag.

I think the secret to the whole thing is this: When you're backpacking, you're basically a snail. That's your whole house you're carrying. Most people have a pretty set way of running their house, a way that just "feels" right, and no two people will do it the same. Taking someone else's advice on how to gear up for a camping trip is like taking someone else's advice on how to organize your kitchen. Sure, there are some general principles that will be useful for everyone. But your final decision will be based entirely on the way you prefer to do things. Do the glasses go near the sink, or above the plates? Knives near the counter, or the stove? Milk in the door of the fridge... who does that? The Idiosyncratic guides don't seem to leave much room for anyone else's personal preferences besides their authors', and moreover, they have the attitude that others' preferences, and the products that cater to them, are foolish and wrong. The gear guides and catalogs and web sites offer nothing but choices, with no clue as to what might be useful. Though I've only skimmed them so far, I hope the General guidebooks will give me some basic principles, and then let me figure out for myself what I want.

On a more practical note: the sun is behind clouds, and there's a chill in the air that is unmistakably autumnal. I want to have my gear well ahead of time, because I want to take it test-camping this winter. I'm terrified of discovering problems with expensive items while I'm already in the wilderness. I think testing will also help me get a sense of how I'll operate, what quirky homemade tricks will work for me. The best test of your kitchen set-up is to cook a few meals. Look at that metaphor go!

No comments:

Post a Comment