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Article: Most Significant Improvements To Backpacking In The Last Sixty Years

Patrick Smith

Most Significant Improvements To Backpacking In The Last Sixty Years

I looked at my Favorite Designs List, above, and had to admit that Lists are fun! So let's make some more!  In over sixty years of backcountry rambling I've used an ever-evolving array of equipment. The gear available in the 1950’s was primitive compared to what we wanderers can wield today. Here is a List of what I think are the MOST SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENTS TO BACKPACKING IN THE LAST SIXTY YEARS.  1) Man-Carried Wood Heated Shelters This breakthrough is so objectively significant to mountain or simply cold weather comfort and sustainability that it is at the top of my the risk of appearing boastful as the inventor. Shelter and warmth are right behind oxygen in survival importance Taking both in combination comfortably on one’s back is revolutionary. Need I say more? 2) Let There Be Light: In the beginning (sorry, couldn't resist that intro) of my personal adventuring in wild places there was simply firelight and/or a D-cell flashlight if one wanted to see much after dark. Flashlights of that era were heavy, unreliable and short-lived, battery-wise. Eventually I earned enough cash to purchase a Swedish candle lantern The light it produced was anemic and unless one used special stearic acid candles the whole apparatus seized up due to melting wax gumming up the works Sometime in the 70’s very small AAA powered handheld flashlights swept the market The name of these little lights escapes me as I write this but some of my readers will recall what a boon they were. Very soon aftermarket adaptors for wearing them as a headlight and/or hanging in a tent were available. Tent lighting took a leap forward with Coleman's fluorescent AA-powered light. The LED revolution changed everything The first LED headlamps, led by Black Diamond, were a giant leap. Tent lights not so much But the LED revolution continued apace, and as I write this headlamps and tent lights are so incredibly better than what I used as a youngster that I have to pinch myself to believe how fabulous the lighting options are nowadays. Lights are almost infinitely smaller, lighter, longer lived and brighter. They can even be recharged from the sun! We've never had it so good.  3) The GPS Phenomenon: Staying found and navigating from point a to point b depended on map and compass for centuries. The method works, if one is proficient in its intricacies. I've used map and compass to ski across Yellowstone Park and generally wander wherever I wished across vast swaths of wild country. When I earned my Professional Ski Instructors Of America Nordic Guide License I had to demonstrate competency with map and compass by completing a timed twenty mile Orienteering Course with twenty pound Guide pack, on skis. (Sven Wik, Master Nordic Examiner back then and a Nordic Skiing Legend was a stern Orienteering guru and taught we students thoroughly and well) Staying proficient with compass and map demands regular practice. The intricacies of the technique can be so fiendish that some people never reach real competency. Storm, darkness, featureless terrain or otherwise compromised field conditions can render map and compass inoperable Not so GPS. It is easier to master and use and is reliable in the conditions cited above. Unquestionably, the advent of GPS technology has improved navigation multifold compared to compass and map. I won't belabor the point. Even though I used the old method for decades and respect it mightily GPS has dramatically improved and simplified and speeded up my backcountry sojourning. I'm not alone in this assessment.  4) Better Backpacks: Bags slung over the shoulder, bags rigged with primitive “shoulder straps”, pack boards, rucksacks—in a kind of ascending order all these devices have served over millennia as techniques for transporting goods on one’s person from one place to another. All of them hung from the shoulders. A simple belt from the bottom of the load and encircling the waist began to appear fairly recently as a sort of “stabilizer” for the loads Even more recently, say in the last fifty years, designers began to recognize that placing weight on the shoulders was not nearly as efficient as placing it on the waist, where the big hip and leg muscles could deal with it. Pack “waist belts” began to be padded, inferring they could be tightened and accept a bit of the weight. They were painful nonetheless if one really weighted them. So attempts began to be made to make these new padded belts more anatomical, and therefore less painful at weight bearing. I bought one of the first Tioga packs from Dick Kelty. The padded belt was actually “sculpted” in such a manner as to ease the resulting pain from directing weight to the waist. With any significant weight it was still painful, and so the wearer needed to shift much of the weight to the shoulders after all. Other designs from Alpine Designs, Lowe Alpine Systems, Gregory and a host of others arrived on the scene with similar attempts at transferring weight, at least some of it, to the waist. (Backpacking was a flourishing new sport and attracted a large bevy of not only participants but also manufacturers to supply their gear.) In 1979 your humble correspondent entered the fray. My design goal was, and still is, to put more weight-—all of it if possible-—onto the hip girdle with the packs I designed. Lumbar Packs are an excellent example.  With varying levels of success at hip loading most modern backpacks are far more comfortable now than ever before. One can carry more weight further without suffering as we did in the bygone days. The backpack is absolutely fundamental to backpacking, hence my citing the improved versions here on this List. And I must say that I am exceedingly honored to have participated in advancing the art.  5) Better Boots: When I was stealthily hunting and camping in creek bottoms and scrub land as a kid my footwear was the ubiquitous high top “tennis shoes” of the era. If they got wet they just stayed wet, until I could dry them by the fire, or back at home. “Support” didn't exist. Bear in mind that in those days yours truly was barefoot many months of the year, in all weather and on mostly bare dirt. My feet and ankles and such were plenty accustomed to supporting themselves, thank you. Moving upscale as I aged and earned more money meant a step up to either “work boots” or “field boots”, which were actually pretty similar to each other. The tops were higher and they were real leather instead of the canvas and rubber of tennis shoes. Then I moved to Colorado and took up “real” backpacking in real mountains. Work/field boots still did a pretty good job but the rage was for European style “Waffle Stomper” mountaineering boots. Featuring a Norwegian Welt (wherein the soles were exteriorly stitched onto the lower boot with massively strong cord) the things typically had a non-flexible bottom for use on rugged scree fields and rocky work above timberline. They were the Must Have footwear of the Sixties and early Seventies in the backpacking world. They were heavy as boat anchors. And they took forever and a day to “break in”. Myriad recipes for the breaking in process circulated. The most usual method was to soak the boots and then “wear them dry”. The process was quite lengthy and usually painful-—Moleskin and other blister palliatives came of age during this era.  Suddenly, good old Vasque company introduced the legendary Sundowner boots. They were far lighter and far more comfortable than the typical Waffle Stompers...almost “out of the box” But they still had that “kletter” sole that meant business in the mountains. And they swept the backpacker world. They were entirely adequate for almost all mountain needs here in North America. Backpacking boots have continued to get better and better. Gore Tex liners came along, and my experience is they actually work in boots, a huge advancement in footwear right up there alongside more comfort and lighter weight. And we shouldn't ignore the benefit of almost certain “out of the box” comfort performance from today's footwear. What a convenience that is! In summary, we've never had it so good when it comes to what we have on our feet when we head for the hills.  6) Synthetic Clothing: My hide does not like wool At all. No way No how. Learning early that the adage “cotton kills” was quite accurate I suffered in wool whilst rambling the high country. Even when I discovered silk undergarments the wool still managed to get to me. Not as bad, but still too close for complete comfort. I think it was Patagonia who first introduced synthetic garb, though Lowe Alpine was in the game quickly. And your humble correspondent was all over that stuff like white on rice I've never looked back The merino wool phenomenon was tried and I still can't really tolerate it. I'm a synthetic fabric man, period And oh what a boon this advancement has been to men like me. To all of us really. Synthetic fabric is far tougher and dries far faster than anything else for example. It has earned its way onto this List for sure.  7) Synthetic Sleeping Bag Insulation: My first new fangled “sleeping bag” (transitioning from “bed roll” of simple blankets) was a Korean War bag insulated with duck down purchased from the Army Surplus emporium I used it pretty much till the wheels fell off. Then, Ta Da!, I fetched myself a super duper goose down filled bag from REI. Oh my, I was in high cotton. Until my ill-fated near death experience in Yellowstone the winter of around ‘73. The temps at night were forty below, and my damn Super Bag went flat on me! The down wetted out from condensation over several nights and that was the end of any hope of insulation from the bitter cold. I managed to stay alive by performing isometric exercises in the bag till I was warmed up then dozing till I woke up shivering, then exercised again. Etc. I survived, but was exhausted when the trip was finally over. I was wondering what my safer winter rambling options were when a little company called Snow Lion introduced bags insulated with a new, synthetic, insulation named Polarguard It was claimed to be warm, to maintain loft, even when wet! Like synthetic clothing I jumped on the synthetic sleeping bag train immediately And have never looked back. If reliability is important to you (as it so often is to me on my solo rambles) synthetic sleeping bags are the solution. They are better than ever, due to ever-improving insulation and advanced designs. My own company respects synthetics so much that our sleeping bags are exclusively synthetic. The technology is as reliable as a bed roll but far warmer and lighter. That's progress, 8) Synthetic Insulation in Clothing: We may as well acknowledge the benefit of synthetic insulation in garments too. As with sleeping bags, the stuff is more durable than down and warm even if wet. For sustained outings in the mountains this is of paramount importance.  9) Better Sleeping Pads: Well, this is a BIG ONE What resides between my tired carcass and the cold, hard ground whilst I yearn for sleep has been perhaps the longest and most circuitous saga of all in my pursuit of mountain wandering perfection. Especially as I've inevitably aged. As a tough thirteen year old I slept rolled in woolen blankets, nothing between me and the ground but blanket. I could later pile conifer boughs beneath me, after moving to Colorado, but that was not often an option in the mostly deciduous woodlands of my youth. If the ground was too wet I could pitch one of my shelter half ponchos as an eave and unfurl my bed roll atop the other half on the ground beneath the eave. If memory serves this state of affairs lasted quite a long time. I cannot recall where I acquired my first closed cell foam pad for sleeping-—whether I sourced the foam at the hardware store or whether it was a ready made product, such as the wonderful Blu Foam pad from REI. Along the way some clever outdoor outfit marketed a magnificent near-mattress of egg crate open cell foam encased in nylon The thing was hugely bulky, heavy and wonderful-—the best sleep yet Alas, with wear it had a tendency to for the open cell foam to get wet, turning the whole into a soggy mess.  Cascade Design’s Therma-Rest air pad hit the backpackers world like a tsunami This invention was revolutionary. Closed cell foam pads were available by then, but couldn't match the mighty Therma-Rest comfort. I pounced on one immediately Then a Shorty version And as I got older and older and my frame became crankier and crankier about pressure points keeping me awake I used the Shorty pad on top of a Regular. Eventually I was toting around three pads--two closed cell pads and a Therma-Rest to sleep reasonably well.  The Final Revolution came with what I call the Tubular air pads. Who knew that my pressure point aches at the hips would go away when nestled into those creases between the tubes. This new construction approach solved Everything I've owned several of them from various manufacturers And sleep now just as well as in my bed at home. Really Sleeping “out there” has never been as good. Again, this development is a genuine BIGGIE.  10) Bic Lighter: Our friends the French are justifiably, and reliably, famous for fine wines. And maybe nothing else....EXCEPT the incredibly reliable, world’s best Bic lighter. I read recently that the tolerances used in building these incredibly useful gizmos are rated in the microns. As a pipe smoker I've used every fancy lighter ever to come down the pike. Only the mighty American Zippo challenges it, but for lightweight everyday never fail reliability the cheap little Bic reigns supreme. A couple in your kit provides calm confidence you'll get a fire going no matter what. I'll get further to the point and state that a Bic and a brick of Trioxane are the quintessential fire making pair if no-nonsense speed and reliability are desired Yes, I've used every technique imaginable-—dryer lint/cotton balls with lighter fluid/Vaseline, very conceivable magic or super match...etc., etc., etc. Nothing surpasses a bit of Trioxane and a Bic for years-between-use reliability The pairing is perfection. 11) Cell/Smart/Satellite Phones: It's not heresy to use these tech wonders “out there”. Not when you've roamed the mountains so much they are literally your “other” home. Not when you've regularly “called in” design changes to assistants who will have the newer prototype ready next time you swing by town to fetch it...and head back out to test it. Not when the latest in communication tech admirably serves the business of serving the folks who roam, and love, the backcountry like you do. So there.  That's my rant about snobs who look down on anyone who takes these devices into the backcountry, supposedly sullying the wilderness experience with things too associated with civilization Fine for them, but I love the gadgets Not just for work (as per the design call-in example), but for a host of experience-enhancing reasons. Like listening to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto enhances a mountain sunset Or like enlisting the indomitable cadence of the Guess Who's American Woman to mentally assist in hauling out a hundred pounds of elk on your back Both these wonderful things coming from your amazing smart phone’s nearly endless features. Time was I carried two paperback books everywhere I roamed in the backcountry. I'm a serious reader; it's nearly impossible to sleep each night without my thirty minutes in a book The two book routine was meant to have a second book along when I finished the first one, as a back up. Nowadays my iPhone has a hundred books in its innards And I can read from my sleeping bag without a headlamp because the device’s screen is backlit! Further enriching the book subject, about half the books are audibles I can stroll all day while listening to Flynn or Clancy or Grisham I frequently listen to Great Courses.  Prior to cell phones my dear wife had no clue whether I was alive or dead out there. I have rambled solo most of my life I bought a cell phone very early on, a “brick” if anyone remembers the first handhelds. I could often climb a ridge or mountain top and phone home (or the office) My wife's issues with anxiety abated-—a fine thing Ever since her bout with kidney trouble I've added a satellite phone to my Possibles Pouch I can check on her now from anywhere-—even places so remote I can't get connectivity any other way. Oh, and let's not overlook the usefulness of text messages, which provide a written record, often more convenient than voice messages. In summary, these instruments have enriched our lives in the backcountry as well as in town, and deserve inclusion on this List.  Our List has eleven examples of advances in technology that, to me, matter greatly to our backcountry pursuits. Readers are welcome to comment on my examples, and add your own for group campfire discussion. The thing about my blog, versus my essay pages, is the two-way aspect.  I still plan to dissect my Possibles Pouch here on the blog. Perhaps next time.

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