I was recently thinking about how backpacking has changed and improved since I crossed Rockbound Pass into Desolation Wilderness on my first pack trip in the late 1960s. Consider:
- Tube tents
provided shelter. Many people have never heard of these today – a tube tent is a tube of cheap plastic perhaps 10 feet long. You would run a line though the tube and between a couple of trees and then weight the corners to form a sort of funky A-frame shape, open at both ends. The tube tent had the advantages of light weight, simplicity, and cheap cost – and not much else. Condensation was terrible, especially if you blocked the ends in rain; and if you didn’t the storm would blow right in.
was the primary form of insulating clothing a few decades ago. I owned pairs of surplus army wool pants, wool long underwear, wool shirts, wool sweaters, wool gloves and mittens. In fairness, a lot of this equipment was beautiful stuff – I still cannot bring myself to part with a beautiful old Woolrich shirt that I used to carry, and Dachstein boiled-wool mittens are some of the best-designed and most-functional outdoor gear ever made. But the new stuff is better…
- Down jackets and vests
used to be the norm. In fact, they were something of a badge among outdoors-people and those who wanted to look like they were. A good hooded down jacket is still a great piece of equipment in really cold conditions – it is warm and much lighter and more compressible than pile or fleece alternatives. However, down clothing is fragile and needs to be babied and kept dry.
- Food has improved
but not just because backpacking food manufacturers do a better job. The real improvement is due to a trend in American eating habits that is unfortunate for general health, but advantageous for backpackers. There is so much interest in “instant meals” today on the part of people whose lives are too busy that every grocery store sells lots of stuff that makes decent backpacking food. You could do all of your backpacking food shopping at the right grocery store.
- Wilderness permits were not needed
– in fact, they didn’t exist. You got out of the car at the trailhead and started walking. I still have not come to terms with the idea that one should make advance reservations for backpacking. It seems completely counter to the spirit of the activity to have to plan a careful itinerary ahead of time and then get permission from the authorities. I remember when the transition to permits took place. At first permits were sort of “recommended.” Then they were sort of “required” – though there was no penalty for going without. Then I remember one trip where I was asked for a permit on the trail (I did not have one) and the polite ranger warned me that in the future not having one would cost me…
- We assumed that water was drinkable
– at least in most cases in the Sierra. We carried the ubiquitous Sierra Cup, either attached to our belts or looped through the cross-bars of our external-frame packs, and simply dipped water straight from the nearest running stream. I kept doing this for some time after others began to use filters but finally got a filter when I took my young kids backpacking. (To be honest, I would not hesitate to drink the water in some parts of the Sierra even today…)
- Plastic ponchos
served as rain gear. Hard to imagine this today, but we would carry large ponchos modified to fit over loaded external frame packs and try to convince ourselves that they protected us. In reality they sort of protected one from rain from about the thighs up, as long as you ignored the rotten hood, the wind and rain coming in the opening between the side snaps, and the tropical condensation anywhere the rain didn’t get in. Gore-Tex was a revolution! With a GT parka and pants one can actually operate efficiently in wind and rain.
- External-frame packs ruled
and were the only type that “real backpackers” used. My first was an alloy Camp Trails model with a bright orange sack. I later owned the classic Kelty Tioga pack – a giant pack that handled my giant two-week loads of 70lbs. or more. Yeah, I was younger then.
- Internal frame packs sucked
– though some of us tried to convince ourselves otherwise. My first internal frame pack was a Lowe Expedition. Although I told myself that this pack let me travel more efficiently in alpine terrain, in truth it carried like a 100-pound monkey on my back. (Note: Lowe currently makes great equipment including packs, one of which I own.) Current internal frame models have, fortunately, far surpassed these early attempts – and today most “real backpackers” (whatever that means…) have switched to internal frame models.
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