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.

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