Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Classic Backpacking: Concept and Theory

For several years now I have been writing and trying to practice a concept that I have been referring to as The Modern Woodsman. At its base is the assertion that woodsmanship did not end or peak at some point in the distant past, but that it has continued to evolve and develop over the years and into the present day, resulting in better equipment and more skills. To that end, I’m sure many readers have noticed my preference for modern gear and theory.

As a result, many readers of this blog don’t associate my writings with more traditional forms of backpacking or camping. I do however, and always have had a significant interest in historical trekking and traditional skills, in particular the late 19th and early 20th century; the time of Nessmuk and Kephart, Nansen and Mallory. I have done a fair amount of backpacking with more traditional gear, as well as research on the topic. My reluctance to write on the subject in anything other than a historical sense, has been due to the fact that I haven’t been able to find a good context for it.

My main interest is in the time period between the end of the American Civil War, 1865, and before the wide scale introduction of petroleum based products such as plastics and nylon, about the 1940s. In my opinion this is the birthplace of what will eventually, at a later time, come to be called backpacking. It is a time when traditional skills, which were primarily utilized in commercial ventures like trapping, prospecting, logging, etc, which utilized pack trains and canoes to achieve their goals, were combined with emerging technological products of the Industrial Revolution and were transformed into a set of skill and gear that would allow an individual to travel through the wilderness under his own power, carrying his own gear, and do it all for no reason other than recreation. In that respect, much of what we read by people like Nessmuk, Kephart, Kreps, Holding, Miller, etc, is not the culmination of wilderness knowledge, but rather the beginning of a whole new frontier in wilderness exploration. Their struggles to come up with new skills and create new gear is a reflection of that new beginning.

After spending a few years wondering about how to best approach the subject without getting tangled up if the utter nonsense that permeates the internet regarding traditional gear and skills, I decided to try doing it from the context of historical trekking; an attempt at experimental archeology, which I’ve decided to call Classic Backpacking as an homage to Steve Watts and Dave Wescott’s concept of Classic Camping. Unlike Classic Camping, which focuses on, well, camping, I want to focus on the man-portable approach to the wilderness in that time period, which I am calling Classic Backpacking. While writers like Kephart wrote at length about large tents, packing horses, canoes, setting up permanent camps, camp kitchens, etc, they also wrote a significant amount on traveling through the woods with minimal gear, carried in a backpack. It’s true, that wasn’t the common experience of a person venturing into the wilderness at the time, but for me, it is those parts of the writings that show the boundaries of what was possible, and what woodsmanship of the time could truly provide.

Classic Backpacking is a practical study of the origins of wilderness backpacking- between the years 1880 and 1930; reconstructing the experience of a wilderness pack-hauling traveler of the period, through time spent in the wilderness using period correct equipment and skills.

My goal here with the concept of Classic Backpacking is to do a bit of experimental archaeology, and try to do backpacking in the style used by people in the period roughly between 1880 and 1930, utilizing the equipment and skills that existed at the time. I want to experience what those early woodsrunners experienced and how the limitations of their gear related to the skills they developed and the way they related to nature. 

Since I want to experience and better understand those struggles, when doing Classic Backpacking trips I want to strive to keep the gear and skills as authentic as possible. Of course, I will have to make compromises for different reasons, not the least of which is money, but I want to keep the experience as authentic as possible without being hyper precise. By that I mean, I don’t want to use any gear that is designed to look “old-timey” while using modern designs: no canvas backpacks with hip-belts; no canvas tarps made waterproof and flame resistant with the use of modern chemicals; no ferro rods, no cooking pots with nesting stoves, etc. I also want to make every effort to avoid using modern skills and knowledge and applying them to the past. For example, I can certainly take the materials available in the late 19th century, and construct a pretty decent equivalent of a modern sleeping bag. That however, wouldn’t give me an authentic experience. I want to do it in the “traditional” way. I want to do it with the skills an equipment actually in use during that time.

In doing this, I am relying on several sources for my information on how things were done during that period. Here is the list of publications that I have read so far and on which I am basing my opinions:

  • Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, 1872
  • How to Camp Out by John M. Gould, 1877
  • Travels in Alaska by John Muir, 1879
  • The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof Nansen, 1890
  • Woodcraft, George Washington Sears, 1892
  • Farthest North Vol I and Vol II by Fridtjof Nansen, 1897
  • Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog, 1907
  • The Camper’s Handbook by Thomas Hiram Holding, 1908
  • Camp and Trail Methods by Elmer Harry Kreps, 1910
  • Camp and Trail by Stewart Edward White, 1911
  • Camp Craft by Warren Hastings Miller, 1915
  • Touring Afoot by Claude P. Fordyce, 1916
  • Camping and Woodcraft Vol I and Vol II by Horace Kephart, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920)
  • Woodcraft by Elmer Harry Kreps, 1919
  • The Book of Camp-Lore and Woodcraft by Dan Beard, 1920
  • On Your Own in the Wilderness by Col Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier, 1958
  • Blizzard by Jasper Rees, 2006 (1911/1912 Amundsen/Scott Expedition)
  • Mallory Myths and Mysteries: The Mallory Clothing Replica Project by Mike Parsons and Mary Rose, 2009 (1924 Malory/Ervine Expedition)
  • Benchmarking Functionality of Historical Cold Weather Clothing: Robert F. Scott, Roald Amundsen, George Mallory by George Havenith 2010 (1911/1912 Amundsen/Scott Expedition and 1924 Malory/Ervine Expedition)
Not all of the books are as valuable with respect to Classic Backpacking, but they have all given me a glimpse into the techniques and technology available at the time. You will notice that not all of the books fit within that time period. Some of the later books are studies of the period in question, while others like the work of Col Townsend Whelen are used to put things in the wider context of backpacking. I’ve also decided to expand the usual selection of source materials to include a number of European explorers, who I think have much to contribute to the subject.

And a few more words on gear to clarify the above points: Ideally, when I am doing Classic Backpacking, I would like to exactly duplicate the experience of someone traveling on foot between 1880 and 1930. To that end, it ideally I would be using either vintage gear from the period, or exact replicas. Of course, I am not going to do that, nor do I expect that anyone else would. To obtain such precise gear would not only be extremely time consuming, but would also be very expensive. We would also face the problem of deciding exactly which period correct gear to use. Do we use gear available to the average woodsman of the time, or do we use cutting edge gear like that used on expeditions for national pride like those of Amundsen and Mallory. Certainly the technology used by Mallory was not in any way available to the average trapper of the time.

So, all that being said, my goal is to stick to gear that is functionally equivalent to what was being used at the time. I want to use materials that would approximate the performance, weight, and size of the gear that was available at the time. Sometimes that can be done exactly, sometimes, not. My focus is not to look the part and play dress-up, but rather to do what those people used to do.

As I have mentioned above, I want to at all costs avoid gear that has been made to look like period correct gear, but offers modern performance. For example, I can take a thin cotton tarp, put a silicone treatment on it, and I will have a close equivalent of a plastic tarp that looks like a canvas tarp. That is not what I want. Or, I can buy a canvas tarp with a Sunforger treatment which will make it waterproof without adding any weight to the tarp, but that wouldn’t match the reality of waterproofing a tarp in the late 19th century, where more than likely the waterproofing process nearly doubled the weight of your tarp. Similarly, I can buy a Duluth pack that is made of canvas and leather, but is in other respects more similar to a modern pack, complete with a hip-belt. It looks the part, but in terms of functionality, is far removed from the time period in question.

I would much rather use gear that uses materials that are not exactly period correct, but offers the same performance available at the time, than to use gear that looks period correct, but offers modern performance. 

Lastly, please keep in mind that when I write about any of this, it is not meant to be taken as definitive in any way. I am not a historian. What I write is based only on my personal research into the subject, which I do as a hobby. Also considering that for me this is a hobby within a hobby, I want to do the best I can with very limited funds. I imagine other people interested in the subject have similar financial constraints, so I’ll try to use affordable and easily obtainable gear, which unfortunately will contain some less than accurate features. Certainly one could spend thousands of dollars and recreate every piece of gear down to the last stitch and button, but I doubt many of us could do that. So, please keep in mind that I base all of this on the research I have been able to do in my limited free time, and with a very small budget. 

I hope you guys enjoy reading about my journey, and feel free to use the concept if it appeals to you. The more of us there are doing the same thing out there, the more actual information we can gather.   

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