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Adventures: > A Brief History of Carrying Stuff

by David Rothermich

   When human progenitors developed the capacity for bipedal locomotion, they at once became endowed with the ability to carry gear. There is a not-yet-popular theory that man’s brain developed as a result of this gear-carrying capacity; that his brain grew in response to the demand for decision-making required in selecting gear. Gear-selection theory has not yet attracted the attention it deserves from philosophers, anthropologists, geneticists, or mathematicians. But then, I only came up with the theory last week.

   A new era of human development was reached when man realized he need not transport gear with his hands if he could manufacture a device enabling him to schlep gear around on his body. The first gear-carrying device was probably some type of quiver, which supplied the hunter with ammunition, yet left his hands free to carry and operate a weapon. The introductory date of a device we would recognize today as a backpack is unknown. However, amidst a retreating glacier in the Tyrolean Alps, archaeologists recently exhumed the frozen corpse of a man who perished there about 5,000 years ago. His gear included a quiver and what is believed to be a primitive wood-frame backpack.

   Once the idea of carrying things on one’s back gained acceptance, the dilemma of gear selection reached a new plateau, a plateau modern man still occupies. Early American pioneers apparently paid little attention to the finer points of gear selection. They evidently thought nothing of lugging cast-iron skillets and heavy slabs of raw bacon everywhere they trod. There were exceptions. John Muir reportedly went on multiple-day hikes with little more than a bag of breadcrumbs. This beckons one to ask if he was truly inspired by the splendor of nature or if he was simply responding to starvation-induced hallucinations. The likes of John Wayne and other heroes of the silver screen would have us believe that real men of old lit out across vast deserts carrying nothing but a saddle over their shoulder and a pistol on their hip. When they arrived at their destination, nearly dead from dehydration, they stuck their head in a horse trough to freshen up and guzzled whiskey to quench their thirst.

   More definitive history tells us that gear transport was studied and refined during the Civil War, when men by the thousands were forced to march from one battlefield to the next, carrying on their person all the accoutrements of living and killing. Early in the war, fresh recruits did not initially realize the discomfort of bearing heavy loads over great distances and consequently carried everything their army gave them. Private John Worsham of the 21st Virginia Infantry recalled: "When F Company left Richmond for Fredericksburg, each man carried as equipment a gun, knapsack, canteen, tin cup, and haversack. Most of them wore linen gaiters and haverlocks, the latter being a head covering for protection from the sun. Many wore around their waists, next to the skin, a flannel belt or worsted string to prevent bowel complaint. In our knapsacks we carried a fatigue jacket, several pairs of white gloves, several pairs of drawers, several white shirts, undershirts, linen collars, neckties, white vest, socks, etc.—filling our knapsack to overflowing. Strapped on the outside were one or two blankets, an oilcloth, and extra shoes. Most of the knapsacks weighed between thirty and forty pounds, but some were so full that they weighed fifty pounds!"

   How white gloves and neckties contribute to the purpose of killing the enemy, I don’t know. Many a burdened soldier eventually wrestled with this very question, and some would come to a conclusion in mid-march, jettisoning superfluous army issue while traveling in ranks. The true veteran pared himself down to one change of clothes, which were often rolled up in a blanket covered with oilcloth, cinched off at the ends by a rope, and slung across one shoulder, while a haversack hung on the other. The haversack was a canvas bag with a flap that buttoned on the front and usually contained personal effects like smoking tobacco and a pipe, a piece of soap, perhaps some hardtack, and temporary additions of apples, persimmons, cracked corn, and such other commodities found by chance. Of course, a soldier also carried his musket, percussion-cap box, cartridge box, and bayonet. But some even threw away their bayonet. General Richard Ewell put it this way: “The road to glory can not be followed with much baggage.”

   The next step in self-propelled gear transport was in 1952, when Dick Kelty made the first contoured tubular-aluminum external-framed backpack with nylon pack bags and a hip belt. He sold 29 in the first year of production. Today, we sometimes forget the tremendous strides that have been made in gear selection and manufacture during our lifetime. As a boy, I always thought that the proper way to transport one’s worldly possessions was to pack them into a small pouch, tie the pouch to the end of a stick, and then walk along with the stick resting over a shoulder. My first lessons in backpacking came from Colin Fletcher, author of The Man Who Walked Through Time. He smartly advised hikers to minimize weight at every opportunity, no matter how miniscule, even to the extent of trimming the borders off of maps. Ironically, though, he carried an old-fashioned typewriter on his journeys, which must have added 25 lbs to his load.

   I still consider myself a disciple of Colin Fletcher. Ironically, though, I increasingly find artifacts of the new economy encroaching on my attempts to escape the technological world. Within the last year, I have trespassed in the wilderness with such items as a mobile phone, a cassette tape player, a digital camera, and a Dictaphone. How do I rationalize this transgression of nature’s purity? Primarily by congratulating myself for not bringing any other e-camping essentials such as a Palm Pilot, a GPS, a Gameboy, a portable expresso maker, or anything offered in a Sharper Image catalogue.

   Some fancy gadgets have a welcome place in gear selection. For example, during the last climbing season on Mt. Shasta, there were at least two instances where distressed climbers were able to use their mobile phone to call rangers directly for assistance. However, cell networks are absent in most wilderness areas Moreover, a hazard of high technology in the wilderness is that techno-nerds with no wilderness skills might be lured into situations beyond their unsupported capacity. One should also bear in mind that to some extent, technology and wilderness are antithetical. Max Frisch probably had it right, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it.”

   As marvelous and sophisticated as our new high-tech toys may seem, they do not rank with the great innovations of the post-modern outdoor world. Reinhold Messner did not summit all the world’s 8,000-meter peaks because he has some space-age widget. Besides his natural gifts, what set him apart from his predecessors was, alas, his approach to gear selection. Messner employed what is probably the most significant innovation in outdoor travel of our generation. And, ironically, he only did what Civil War veterans figured out over a century ago: minimize gear. Messner abandoned the conventional wisdom that mountains must be climbed with a full entourage of support crew and equipment. Instead, he traveled “alpine-style”, where each climber is self-supported with only the most essential gear, and climbing parties are small and quick. Until that time, most major climbs, particularly Himalayan expeditions, were assaulted with huge caravans supported by dozens, if not hundreds, of sherpas. Gear selection was a no brainer—just bring everything. Messner wasn’t the first person to employ alpine-style, and expedition-style climbing certainly hasn’t been abandoned. But Messner’s exploits highlighted the potential of alpine technique and ushered it into common practice.

   Expedition-style and alpine-style should not be understood as dichotomous. They are two opposite extremes on a continuum. Most journeys into the wild borrow something from each style. Prior to a recent cross-country ski expedition in the Sierra Nevada, I set out to observe my own gear selection behavior. Armed with a postage scale from my office, I set about the tedious task of weighing all my gear. As it turned out, I brought along about 59 pounds of gear, including the clothes on my back. When fully dressed, I was lugging a little more than 70% (42 lbs) of the total weight on my back (which I refer to as “carry-weight”). On pleasant days, I would stow my jacket and other warm clothing, and occasionally I had to carry my skis over bare terrain, all of which would increase carry weight to over 50 pounds. So weight distribution would vary at times and the pack would get a little heavier or lighter.

   In general, clothing (wore and stored) represented most of my total gear weight—about 15 pounds. But about 40% (6.4 lbs) of this amount was my boots. Clothing represented only about 12% of my carry-weight. Ski equipment was the next heaviest category, which includes skis, poles, skins, shovel, goggles, and avalanche transceiver. About a third of the ski equipment weight stayed on my back, representing about 10% of my carry-weight. When wearing socks, boots, and skis (with skins on), I had about 6.2 pounds strapped to each foot.

   The third heaviest category was food. It was 18% of the total weight, but 26% of the carry-weight—fully twice as much as any of the other carry-weight categories. My appetite was increased by the knowledge that the more I ate, the lighter my pack. Because this was a seven-day trip, my party set up a food cache at about the halfway point, which included extra fuel and some other goodies. This saved us immeasurable pain. Had I started with my share of the cached goods, my carry weight might have exceeded 55 pounds.

   When you’re schlepping something on the order of 40% of your body weight on your back, not only is it a vertebra-crushing load, but it plays havoc with your balance. And balance is not an insignificant variable when you’re skiing. Imagine gliding down a steep slope at a brisk pace and crossing an unanticipated irregularity in the snow that throws off your balance. Because you’re going downhill at speed, you don’t just drop vertically. Rather, you become a projectile. As you careen through the air, kinetic energy is release and your thrust is compounded by the weight behind you. The only thing that will interrupt your flight is the snow below you, and, in many instances, it’s your upper body that first greets the frozen surface. The pack then serves to pile-drive your face into the icy substrate. On more than one occasion, I have had the misfortune of being flung through the atmosphere in this manner and undergone the potentially disfiguring face-plant. It ain’t a pretty sight, and, afterward, neither was I.

   With regards to e-camping gear, I haven’t bothered to find out what a Gameboy weighs, but my mobile phone weighs only five and a half ounces, should I choose to take it. My 20-year-old SLR camera added 25 ounces; most new digital cameras are considerably lighter. A portable tape player weights about 12 ounces and tapes weigh only an ounce each. My avalanche transceiver tips the scales at 11 ounces.

   I split a two-man tent with my partner; one man carried the poles, while the other carried the cloth. I carried the 57-ounce cloth portion. Had we left the tent at home and used bivy sacks instead, I would have shaved off 26 ounces (my bivy sack weights 31 oz). For winter camping, though, the extra pound and a half are well worth it.

   The layman might think that during the last day or two of an extended trip, the earlier consumption of food and fuel would reduce carry-weight to something quite comfortable. While this is true in theory, it doesn’t seem to work out that way in practice. Invariably, for every ten pounds of food and fuel lost, you typically gain five pounds of stink. I informally tested this hypothesis by weighing some of my gear after I had returned. The results were interesting, if not somewhat disgusting.

   The weight of my clothing increased by 21%. It was my fleece top that took on the most poundage, increasing by a full 33%. My sleeping bag was 6% heavier than when I started the trip. And the tent cloth took on 32% more heft. Obviously, most e-gear is metal or plastic and would not change in weight. A Gameboy would undoubtedly register the same worthless tonnage at the end of an excursion as it did in the beginning. I also weighed myself about a week after the event and found that I was seven pounds lighter that my pre-trip weigh-in.

   So what is the next step in man’s gear-carrying evolution? Is there another step, or have we hit the gear wall? Are we destined to forever wallow in gear-selection hell? I think not. Or at least I hope not. I have one idea that could potentially revolutionize backcountry travel. Here it is: equip every backpack with a helium bladder holding concentrations of the lighter-than-air gas that will add buoyancy to a loaded backpack. A bladder with a 15-lb buoyancy rating would make a 40-pound pack feel a mere 25 pounds. Perhaps some day it will be a common sight to walk into a mountain campsite and, among the tents and other equipment, see empty backpacks levitating at the end of a rope, like balloons at a carnival. Or perhaps I’m just light-headed.

   But until that day when human wizardry, prosthetic devices, artificial enhancements, and stem cell research propel us into the stratosphere of self-contained/full-assisted outdoor travel, thereby rendering gear selection a historic artifact of an ancient twentieth-century culture, we must persevere.

Ed. note:   David Rothermich is an avid outdoorsman, once climbing the infamous Snow Creek route up Mt. San Jacinto in winter via an illegal access point and getting the air let out of his vehicle tires by district rangers as punishment. He has also skied cross country from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley, summitted Mexico's Pico de Orizaba (18409') and survived numerous harrowing expeditions. He looks forward longingly to an early retirement so he can fulfill his lifelong dream of summitting Mt. Everest and otherwise doing something "epic".