Does pack weight come from fear?

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The catchphrase “pack weight comes from fear” (Ultralight hiking in Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook, p.66) is gaining popularity in the backpacking world as a way to motivate people to “lighten up” and it is driving met nuts. If you had to choose between packing your pack fearfully or fearlessly, which would you choose? I cringe when I imagine novice backpackers hearing that “pack weight comes from fear” as they accept the unspoken challenge to “live their lives without fear” and dump out the contents of their packs before marching off into the wilderness.

In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” With those words, he established a new definition of fear in the American psyche. The connotation of fear suddenly became unbalanced and strongly skewed towards irrational fear. Assuming the popular definition of fear, my pack weight definitely does not come from fear, and I don’t want other people to assume that it does.

“If you fear being cold, you’ll carry more clothes,” the handbook continued. “If you fear being cold, you’ll stay home!” I grumbled. “If you want to be more comfortable, you’ll carry more clothes,” but it was more than just that. “If you don’t want to die from hypothermia, you’ll carry more clothes.”  Hypothermia is a big deal and under-preparing for the cold is a mistake that people on the trail die from each year.

“If you fear going hungry, you’ll carry extra food.” “No,” I grumped, “that’s not why you carry extra food! If you don’t want to run out of food and impose on other hikers, you’ll carry extra food.” I’d gotten tired of the infamous moochers on the trail that would consistently run out of food one or two days before town and look to the rest of us (with sorrowful eyes) to bail them out and share our meager supplies.

The handbook wasn’t done yet, “If you fear floaties in your water, you’ll carry a filter.” Are floaties something that people actually fear? No. “If you dislike being sick, you’ll carry a water filter or some other way to purify your water.” Water contaminated with bacteria or parasites (e.g. giardia and e. coli) can give you the runs, make you miserable, and force you off of the trail (the EPA has a nice report about giardia and drinking water here). My experience with giardia (acquired in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine) was absolutely no fun.

“If you fear bugs, you’ll sleep in a tent (p. 66),” the guidebook finished. “Hrmph,” I don’t carry a tent because I fear bugs. “If you want shelter from the rain, wind, and snow, you’ll sleep in a tent.” Even though I don’t fear bugs, I do fear some of the diseases they carry, “If you fear Lyme Disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, Malaria, and yellow fever, you’ll carry DEET, bug nets, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts, or maybe you’ll just stay home!” Lyme disease in particular affected at least five of my thru-hiking friends in 2013 and forced them to take time off from the trail. Lyme Disease was definitely something I feared, so I constantly checked myself for ticks and tried to keep myself, my pack, and my tent out of the tall grass (check out what the CDC has to say about Lyme disease here).

At the end of the paragraph I grumpily put the book down and tried to figure out why the idea that “Pack weight comes from fear” had touched such a nerve. It implied that the reason my pack was heavy was because I was irrationally afraid of cold, hunger, floaties, bugs etc. Was that the reason that my pack was heavy?

No, it wasn’t and it wasn’t ok for people to assume that it was. My pack weight came from a combination of the things I needed for survival, the things I wanted for my comfort and enjoyment, and the experience to know the difference; experience that I had gained hiking and backpacking thousands of miles over more than 20 years in all kinds of conditions, all over the world. Have I perfected my pack yet? No, but that’s because I’m still learning (and always will be) and improving on things, not because I am afraid.

Have I gotten really tired of people giving me unsolicited advice about my backpack as they point out their smaller, lighter, and clearly (to them) superior packs? Yes. Will this be even more irritating if people assume that my pack weight comes from fear? Yes! If people start assuming that my “pack weight comes from fear” then they are likely to dismiss my rational/experience-based assessments of risk and gear without bothering to have a real conversation with me about it first. Even though I really enjoy geeking out about my gear (and gear weight), I would like it if the conversation at least started by assuming that everyone involved was equally experienced or otherwise on equal footing. Having yet another hurdle to jump before people are willing to take me seriously and converse with me, instead of just lecturing or mansplaining things to me was not something I looked forward to. The emotional milieu of fear, judgment, dismissal, and disrespect surrounding issues of size and weight suddenly felt awfully familiar.

It felt like bullying. It felt like weight shaming. “Pack weight comes from fear,” was forcing people to justify every pound and every ounce of their pack weight so that they wouldn’t be judged as inferior, weak, or afraid just because they had a heavy pack. The metaphor between pack weight and our societies pathological obsession with body weight leapt out of the page and lunged at me. I tried to reign in my thoughts and save that rant for another post.

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I took a deep breath and tried to refocus, it wasn’t just the metaphor and issues of weight shaming that bothered me, the whole idea that pack weight comes from fear reeked of privilege. As I thought about backpacks and privilege Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” immediately came to mind. She referred to privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Speaking of white privilege, did you know that 97% of AT thru-hikers are white? (See the National Park Service Use and Users Of the Appalachian Trail guide for 2000.)

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How much privilege (white privilege, middle class privilege, male privilege, thin privilege, first world privilege) is embedded in backpacking and in a comment like, “Pack weight comes from fear?” A lot. If you have a lot of money do you have access to lighter, less bulky equipment? Yes. Perhaps then we should say “pack weight comes from money.” Is the threshold temperature at which men and women become cold different? Yes (See the EN ratings for sleeping bags and compare Tlim(men) and Tcomf(women)). Does this mean women have to carry more gear (which weighs more) than their male counterparts? Yes. So, perhaps we should say “pack weight comes from gender.” Argh! I was getting even grumpier as I thought about backpacking and privilege. There are ways that being on the trail changes our relationship with privilege, but there are definitely ways that it does not. I’d stumbled onto yet another topic that I had lots of things to say about (fodder for yet another post).

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I had to stay focused though, I wasn’t quite done with talking about “pack weight comes from fear,” and how dangerous that concept could be for inexperienced or novice backpackers. Without experience how do you know which things you need to ensure your safety, which things you carry because they make you comfortable, and which things you carry because of irrational fears? The short answer is that you don’t. Most novice backpackers carry a lot of things that they don’t need and end up like Bill Bryson in “Into the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” with huge overstuffed ‘monster’ backpacks. Providing novice (and experienced) backpackers with advice about how to eliminate unnecessary weight from their packs is a noble goal, but we shouldn’t be trying to motivate people by making them feel ashamed about their packs or their weight. How do you figure out what the healthy range of pack weights is if you don’t have any backpacking experience yet? The engineer and physiologist in me suddenly had a new mission; to compile the research about physiological and mechanical boundaries for pack weight (both high and low) instead of relying on ranges based on hearsay and fear mongering (the idea for yet another set of posts was born)!

If pack weight doesn’t come from fear, what does it come from? It comes from the things we’ve learned from: society, privilege, exposure to other hikers/backpackers, experiences with the wilderness, and experiences with our bodies/health. Though it’s an ongoing process, with enough experience, backpackers learn the difference between what they need to survive, what they want for their comfort and entertainment, and how to make compromises between the two to lighten their loads.

By the time my rant about “pack weight comes from fear,” started to wind down it was way past my bedtime and I was exhausted. Quietly, a quote from the movie Donnie Darko came to mind, “As you can see, the Life Line is divided into two polar extremes. Fear and love. Fear is in the negative energy spectrum. And love is in the positive energy spectrum,” and I laughed to myself. Making the assertion that “pack weight comes from love,” sounded just as ridiculous to me as “pack weight comes from fear.” Sure, it eliminated much of the negative spin, but it still didn’t encourage a rational discussion about how we pack and unpack our packs.

Thru-Hike Camera Review

The camera that I primarily used on my 2013 AT thru-hike was the:

  • Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm/ f3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Separate Flash
  • Weight: 1lb 2 oz
  • Charger: 3 oz
  • MSRP: $699.99
Sunset in the White Mountains caputured with my Sony Nex5N

Sunset in the White Mountains (Sony Nex5N)

Overall thru-hike review: 9/10. It was a bit heavy by thru-hiking standards (weight: 7/10), but seemed to be the perfect compromise between the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive DSLRs and the smaller (but poorer photo-quality) standard point-and-shoots. I was a little concerned about how it well it would do when faced with the brutal treatment and conditions I knew I was bound to subject it to on the trail, but it held up impressively well (ruggedness: 10/10). I carried that camera from Georgia to Maine and used it every day! The battery life was also really good. If I used it exclusively for pictures it easily lasted me 5-7 days between recharges, using it for video sucked up much more battery, but was not the way that I usually used the camera (battery life: 9/10). I had only two complaints about it on the trail, 1) I didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heavy rains that I experienced fairly often (waterproofness: 6/10) and 2) the 18-55 lens didn’t give me enough zoom to take good, high quality photos of the wildlife that I encountered along the trail (zoom: 7/10). Overall I loved the Sony Nex, it was easy to use, relatively convenient, and allowed me to take the kinds of photos that I wanted to document my trip with (Check out the series of photobooks, Parts 1-5: Walk it Off that I made after returning from the trail, they pair the photos I took with the Sony Nex-5N with the blog posts that I made for the same days).

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In addition to the Sony Nex-5N, I also used my cell phone as a camera:

  • iPhone 4S
  • Weight: 6.4 oz
  • MSRP: $450

Overall thru-hike review as a camera: 6/10. The iPhone was convenient for taking pictures and sharing them on my blog and on facebook whenever I got to town (10/10). The size of the phone and the fact that I used it for multiple purposes also made it incredibly convenient (10/10). Some of the downsides to using my cell phone as my camera were that the photo-quality wasn’t nearly as good as the Sony Nex (5/10), and it took a long time to boot up if I had it powered down (5/10). Leaving my cell phone in airplane mode allowed for better response time, but drained my cell phone battery more quickly (6/10). If it was raining and I wanted to take a picture, I used my cell phone camera. The only technical problem that I had with the iPhone was early in the trip (my first week in Georgia) when I discovered that it didn’t power down correctly, which drained the cell phone battery really quickly. After contacting Verizon, they sent a replacement phone to my next maildrop. The replacement phone lasted me for the rest of the trip to Maine. Overall thru-hike review of the iPhone 4S as a phone: 10/10. Though my iPhone didn’t get great reception everywhere on the AT, it had good coverage for most of the tip (typically much better coverage than other providers). Keeping the phone in airplane mode, I was able to use it as a quick and easy camera without draining the battery too much. I also used it to send and receive text messages and to write my blog posts from town. I even used it as an mp3 player occasionally when my radio died. Overall it stood up to the wear and tear of the trail and functioned admirably.

Which Camera should I use for the PCT?

Cedar Waxwing (Canon Powershot)

Cedar Waxwing taken with the Canon Powershot

When I returned from the AT, I wished my camera had been better at taking wildlife pictures so I experimented with a camera with more zoom. Over the winter I tested out the:

  • Canon Powershot SX50 HS
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Built in lenses and flash
  • Weight: 1lb 6.4 oz
  • Charger: 2.8 oz
  • MSRP: $429.99

Overall thru-hike review: 6/10. What I found was that the Canon Powershot was really good at taking pictures of birds, and was, in many ways, superior to SONY Nex 5N for this purpose. The image quality wasn’t as good as what I’d grown used to with the Sony Nex, but the zoom and image stabilization for the Powershot were definitely impressive. If I wanted to take pictures of anything other than birds (people inside with low light, or landscapes), my SONY NEX 5N was better, hands down. A downside that I anticipate with the Powershot as a camera for thru-hiking is the number of moving parts and fancy electronics involved with all autofocus the camera. Knowing me the camera would get damp and covered in dirt and grit like the Sony Nex did, and I’m not sure that it could withstand the kinds of abuse that I put my cameras through on backpacking treks). The battery life for the Powershot also didn’t seem to be as good as it was for the Sony Nex 5N. Overall backyard birding review: 10/10. Even though I wasn’t convinced that this was the camera to take on the trail with me, it is definitely an awesome little camera and does an amazing job when it comes to taking pictures of stationary birds in good light, even when they are far away! Check out the book that I made with all the fun bird pictures I took over the winter:

WinterWildlife

Final decision for PCT:

Ultimately I have decided to go with the Sony Nex 5N for my upcoming PCT thru-hike. Since my biggest complaint about it was the lack of zoom, someone helped me fix that glitch by giving me a new lens:

  • Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto lens
  • Weight: 12.8 oz
  • MSRP: $349.99

This new lens gives me the added zoom that I’m looking for, so hopefully I’ll gett even better wildlife pictures on the PCT than I did on the AT. I found that trying to exclusively use the telephoto lens was annoying for pictures of scenery and people so I splurged on a small wide angle lens for the camera as well:

  • Sony 16mm f/2.8
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • MSRP: $249.99

Between these two lenses I hope that the Sony NEX 5N will meet all of my needs as I hike the PCT. A definite downside is that my camera gear has gotten heavier between my AT hike and my PCT hike. The total weight of all of my camera gear (including chargers, lenses, and camera body) is now:

  • 1 lb, 12.8 oz

Making my camera gear a rival for the heaviest thing in my pack!