Less Gear = More Stoke?

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There was way too much cotton in the photo. Cotton t-shirts, cotton pants, cotton bandanas, even a cotton puffy vest. And the external-frame pack on my back was straight out of 1977. We stood smiling in bulky college sweatshirts for a pre-backpacking-trip snapshot next to the Greyrock trailhead sign. You might think it’s a photo of the biggest noobs—backpacking in jeans?! But I know it’s a photo of the most stoked backpackers on the planet.

Is there an inverse relationship between the amount of fancy gear we own and how excited we are to get into the outdoors and truly experience it?

Sure, some of us grew up in outdoorsy families, and have known from a young age the benefits of a state-of-the-art tent and that “cotton kills.” But many of us stumbled into the outdoors later in life, our excitement tumbling ahead of our knowledge of gear and the finer arts of living outside.

Inevitably, as we mature and begin to amass gear, we get more choosy about what we wear and what we use. Our first two-person backpacking tent that we cherished so specially when we first bought it begins to feel like an anvil compared to the ones at REI. And the old synthetic sleeping bag in the closet seems pretty hefty and worn out compared to our friends’ new DriDown bags. But are we still just as excited about the pure experience of getting into the outdoors as we were before we realized how bulky our sweatshirts were? Or how heavy our gear was?

The more time we spend outside, the less willing we are to put up with discomfort that could be mitigated by better gear. We begin to notice how clammy that cotton sweatshirt feels. We realize the exhaustion and backache that comes from humping a super-heavy, ill-fitting pack. When we were first starting out, didn’t we see those discomforts as part of the thrill of getting out? Cold? Wet? Tired? It was part of the fun, right?

I found myself laughing a few weeks ago, alone in my tent at Camp 4 in Yosemite, at the seemingly super loud squawks my expensive sleeping pad made every time I rolled over. Sore and surely somewhat dehydrated, my hips felt crampy. But in the close quarters of Camp 4, it felt like every time I moved throughout the night, the pad made so much noise that I surely must have been disturbing my neighbors. I remembered one of my first backpacking trips in college, when I had rolled out my sleeping bag under the stars—no sleeping pad, no tent—and had the time of my life. And now there I was, in a fancy tent, fancy sleeping bag and super fancy sleeping pad, and not having a particularly better night’s sleep.

They say the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul. I’m still pretty big fan of sleeping pads, down jackets and lightweight camp stoves. But even if we’re decked out with an entirely state-of-the-art backcountry kit, it seems to be the moments of discomfort—or maybe just the moments where less stands between us and nature—that burn more deeply into our memories. The moments when there’s no tent between us in the stars. No technical clothing between us and the icy waters of an alpine plunge.

Are we more still more excited about laying out under the stars than under the excessively weatherproof fly of our tent? Are we still more thrilled by how the icy blast from up the canyon makes us feel alive—or how well our new hard shell deflects it?

7 Responses to Less Gear = More Stoke?

  1. Michelle says:

    Ah Hil-

    I too remember that freezing cold night under the stars! That really is up there in the top 5 camping memories of all time.

    This is a great post and I totally agree with you. I often see people speeding around all decked out in their spandex for a cruise around the neighborhood. I guess if having specialized gear makes them more confident about getting out there, then good for them. But I surely hope that it’s not holding anyone back from enjoying the outdoors. It’s just another way of “keeping up with the Jones”.

  2. Beautiful! You captured the essence of what it’s all about. Brought back some great memories… and inspires some future ones!

  3. Teresa says:

    On my first backpacking trip, I took cans of beans for making burritos. Cans. In the plural sense – and maybe even a few glass jars too. It was the most satisfying, and exciting, dinner ever beneath a big sky of stars and under the watchful gaze of a Cascade’s peak. Don’t know that a fancy schmancy dehydrated dinner would’ve been as good, even if it hadn’t been as much of a burden to carry.

    Totally agree – good gear is nice. But just getting out there is the really good part, gear or no gear.

  4. John Frey says:

    Wait, I can’t wear jeans when I hike?

  5. Jane Elizabeth says:

    It’s okay, John Frey. For those of us in our age bracket, jeans will be the hiking gear of choice. I can do without those humongous, clunky backpacks though. It’s amazing what a thin inflatable mattress does for our old backs, too. Hilary has shown me numerous improvements in camping paraphernalia since you and I took our first backpacking trip. Maybe we should try it again. Whaddaya say?

  6. Jay Long says:

    Great insight with this piece. “Skinny-dipping” can encapsulate this concept. Stripping down to your bares and jumping in a lake–or any other body of water–can bring one up-close and personal with Mother Earth in a unique way. “The lust for comfort” quote is a keeper. How many wide-screen-flat-panels coupled with a cozy, over-stuffed couch have destroyed week-end get-a-ways? Great stuff.

  7. Frank Solten says:

    Great topic. Back in the seventies when l started backpacking we cerried canned stuffed cabbagies in can, four ponds each, bottles of red wines, big loafs of breads and pack was about 90 pounds carried it up to our base camp in the Tatra mountains. But we had so much fun.

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