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?