Sunday, July 27, 2014

The future of backpacking

When I finished my Calendar Triple Crown back in October of 2001, there was a fair amount of media interest. So much, in fact, that I was quite surprised by all the fuss. I was flattered by most of it, but like any celebrity I was subject to some criticism as well. One negative editorial was titled "A Long Walk Spoiled." I honestly don't remember who wrote it, or where it was published, but the point was that I walk too fast. My answer then as now is that my big hike was enjoyable BECAUSE of the pace, not is spite of it.

I bring this up because it's related to a larger issue that comes up regularly. What is the proper use of wilderness and what is the future of backpacking? While some people lament that backpacking is a dying sport that young people don't enjoy, others complain that special places are getting overused. How can these both be true?

Backpacking and the use of wilderness is changing.

Backpacking used to be a solitary endeavor where a strong individual went camping in the wilderness. It had much in common with a still earlier generation who conquered the wilderness in order to eke out a living. The value of wilderness to the solitary backpacker varies, but was often to reconnect with that earlier way of life, or experience a part of the natural world that was vanishing. Whatever the exact purpose, a backpacker typically carried a lot of gear and made a relatively large impact. For example, it was common for a backpacker to carry an ax and cut boughs to make a bed to sleep on.

The wilderness use we see today is much more diverse. Each person has less impact, as those who once carried an ax to "tame" the wilderness now carry a bear canister to protect it. But trails get used by runners and bicyclists as well as backpackers. People carry phones, GPS devices and cameras.

Do the new uses erode the experience of the more traditional user? The man who wrote the article about my hiking style evidently thought so. He claimed to be concerned with my enjoyment, but just because he doesn't like fastpacking doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. I believe his real point was that my speed upsets HIS peace and quiet.

If my very presence upsets his solitude, my goal-oriented trail use probably upsets his peace of mind. I try to remember that every time I pass someone on a trail When I come up behind a slower hiker, I alert them verbally of my presence before my footsteps startle them into thinking I might be a bear. If they want to talk, I slow down for a bit; if not, I move on with as little disturbance as possible. If a cyclist comes up behind me and shows similar respect, I won't lecture them about the rules. What's the point? Do you really think they don't know bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas? Of course they do!

Mutual respect is good in all wilderness encounters. Technology use offends some people, so take care when you break out your cell phone or GPS. Camp in a secluded spot, particularly if you have a large colorful tent. Limit your use of fire; downed wood is more beautiful than a blackened fire ring. Carefully bury human waste and pack out the paper. The days when we could all cut boughs for a bed are long gone.

Another reason to get along with others in the wilderness is for access. A good trail isn't cheap. We need all the trail supporters we can find or there won't be enough money spent on trails. You may want to exclude others from your private paradise, but how would you feel if your paradise was closed because of budget cuts or the trail you love was choked with brush? All trail users should be on the same side.

So what about younger people? How is their use of wilderness changing? Do they care about it at all? In my experience, yes, they DO care. Sure they have less time and more options than older folks. It's hard to backpack when you're working two jobs and don't get paid vacation. Rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and trail running compete with backpacking. The obesity epidemic reduces the number of people who can do any of these outdoor activities. And some people can't stand not to be electronically connected at all times.

So is backpacking dead? Hardly! It's just evolving. Rock climbers are venturing out deeper into the wilderness every year in search of new routes. Ever more remote rivers can be run with a pack-raft. And trail running is just a natural extension of the new fast-and-light backpacking techniques.

What about communication technology? The day has already arrived that a backpacker can be connected to the internet anywhere in the world. A selfie taken in Antarctica can be posted world-wide in minutes. This technology is actually increasing the exposure of wilderness and making it more popular, not less. The problem is that the most-beautiful and most-visited places are getting most of the exposure, so the most-loved places are getting mobbed like celebrities and loved to death.

So backpacking is alive and well, especially in our National Parks. Hopefully technology will help popularize some of the lesser known places so that they can thrive on the attention and take some of the load off places like Half-Dome and Mt. Whitney.


Zachi Baharav said...

Thanks Brian. 'And the times, they are changing...'. Great post.

I would also mention the point of 'entitlement', and by that i mean to say that people feel they are entitled to be able to get everywhere.
Taking things into the extreme, 'why should it be so hard going up half-dome?'. i won't be surprised if we'll see in the future a ('nicely hidden, nature friendly') escalator up to halfdome, to enable people who can't hike that well...
But there are many steps before that. All these parking lots everywhere, roads, 'high sierra camps', cement trucks going into Yosemite, etc.
ok, maybe idea for a future blog.

Trace said...

Here here! Well said!