Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Neglect of Backpacking

Over the past decade backpacking has become a bit of a derogatory term in the world of wilderness skills and adventure. You routinely hear statements about how backpackers just pass through nature while more “enlightened” woodsmen who practice survival skills, bushcraft, or whatever happens to be fashionable at the time have the true wilderness knowledge and skills.

On paper such statements may even seem reasonable. After all, backpacking is the act of going into the woods and spending one or more nights there while carrying all of your gear on your back, at least for some distance in order to reach your camp. Seems kind of basic, right? Bushcraft, survival, etc focus heavily of skills, understanding of nature, and so forth. One can certainly make the argument that these other approaches offer superior understanding of nature and an ability to spend time in the wilderness.


I’ve noticed however that the practical reality in the past decade has been very different. While people have been focusing more and more on survival, bushcraft, etc, backpacking has been relegated to the sidelines and is often ignored. The result has been that while people have been accumulating theoretical knowledge on different exotic wilderness subject, more and more of them have failed to learn the basics required for actually spending time in the woods. Consequently, we’ve ended up with large numbers of people who fancy themselves knowledgeable and have a good assortment of individual skills, but who are incapable of comfortably spending a night in the woods; something that your average backpacker of a decade ago (without any fancy labels) could do without hesitation.

The most recent example of this that comes to mind is survival shows like “Alone”, where you have people who fancy themselves skilled in the ways of the wilderness, who have popular YouTube channels, followers, etc, who when presented with a basic camping scenario (fully equipped with tarps, sleeping bags, pots, cutting tools, clothing, food rations, etc) struggle to spend a handful of days in the woods, and tap out over issue that would be mundane to any average backpacker.  

I fear that by gravitating to more appealing and fashionable subjects, we are gradually forgetting the basics. We are forgetting how to backpack. I remember a time when any backpacker had no issue spending multiple days and nights in the woods. It was fun, it was easy, it didn’t require any fancy skills, and no one gave it a second thought. These days I am seeing more and more people who can demonstrate amazing skills in their back yard, but seem to think of spending a night in the woods as an extreme adventure sport.

In our attempt to gain more skills and deeper understanding of nature, we have forgotten to maintain the basics, and I believe that in many respects we have lost more than we have gained. At the very least, we are in danger of losing it. Backpacking as a skill is in danger. Many chapters of organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club are losing members, while survival and bushcraft schools are popping up like mushrooms, and survival shows rule basic cable. That wouldn’t be an issue if those new schools and organizations along with the TV shows thought the basics of backpacking, but unfortunately those skills are often seen as inferior or unnecessary and are not thought at all.

So, we end up with people who have been thought how to start a fire with steel wool, how to make a friction fire, how to build a shelter from an emergency blanket, and how to identify wild plants, but have no idea how to travel through the woods, set up a tent, fold up a sleeping pad, plan food rations for the trip, or filter water. When those people eventually do undertake an overnight trip, they end up with a head full of exotic knowledge, and a 80L backpack full of “bushcraft” and “survival” gear that the knowledge was supposed to eliminate to begin with. The reason of course is that those people never learned how to live in and move through the woods just with basic gear, the foundation of backpacking. 

In my opinion, what is happening is the equivalent of a whole bunch of people studying about how to be race car drivers without ever learning how to drive a car. As I watch backpacking get relegated to a secondary importance, and the basics are forgotten, more and more people are spending their time learning theory on more exotic subjects like survival and bashcraft.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that those subjects are very important and can greatly expand ones knowledge of the wilderness, but we should be careful not to study those subjects at the expense of the basics. We should be careful to not preside over the death of backpacking while sitting around the barbeque and learning “more advanced” skills. Those “advanced skills” become nothing more than the punch line to a joke without a firm grasp of the fundamentals…the thing we call backpacking.

Yes, it shows a lot more skill, and is a lot more challenging to go out for a five day trip with just a knife in your pocket and the knowledge in your head than it does to do it with a regular assortment of backpacking gear. However, not going on that five day trip at all, does not show more skill, regardless of the amount of theoretical knowledge one possesses. 

My advise, for what it’s worth, for anyone interested in the wilderness is to start by backpacking. Join an organization like the AMC. Learn how to select basic backpacking gear, how to use it properly and efficiently, and spend actual time in the woods. You will find that soon a weekend trip or even a week long trip will become a streamlined process that can be accomplished in comfort and without much effort. When you find yourself in that position, then start expanding your skills into more specific subjects like bushcraft or survival skills, or backcountry fishing and hunting, etc. Don’t skip or ignore the fundamentals. Don’t forget about backpacking. It’s not the fashionable thing; it’s not the cool thing; but it will give you the greatest return when it comes to your ability to spend time in the wilderness.

And of course, this is not true across the board. There are areas where backpacking is going strong, but unfortunately it’s not the case everywhere, especially in buschraft and survival communities.

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