Recently I’ve been talking with people who think that my packload of 45 pounds (on average) is excessive and unprofessional. Hey!, I remember when that was considered light! I do admit I could get by with less, but part of why I go to the woods is to have fun. I take a few toys with me. They don’t weigh much, but altogether they probably add fifteen pounds to my kit. With that in mind, I challenge all ultra-lite backpacking enthusiasts out there to GET OFF MY CASE! If all I wanted to do was to get from point A to point B in record time, I’d be doing what you do. I hope you all stay on the Appalachian Trail.
Now, for the people out there who actually enjoy being out in the wildlands, I will suggest something that doesn’t weigh too much, is very practical, and will keep wilderness mentalities entertained around the campfire for hours. It’s a Book of Knots and a 50 foot length of nylon rope.
I’ve sailed and I’ve hiked for decades, literally, and knotcraft is still one of the most useful skills I’ve learned. I probably know no more than a dozen knots, a half dozen splices and weaves, and about the equivalent in hitches. Mountaineers and clipper ship sailors probably know more, but I am at least literate in the subject. This is a skill that makes sense and can serve you as well as a survival knife in specific critical situations. There are times when a rope will do what a knife cannot, but only if you know the essentials.
I have a couple of books I always take with me on hikes. One is Moby Dick by Herman Mellville, because I like the story and I enjoy reading it aloud even if no one’s around to listen. The other is my tiny book, the Book of Knots. In about fifty pages it covers enough material to keep me entertained for several weeks, and I’m seldom out in the wilderness that long. Some of the knots, like the bowline and the clove hitch, are old friends and I use them regularly. Others I remember because they’re special and occasionally very useful — the figure eight and the packer’s knot are typical of those. Some I use so seldom that I actually need to consult the book before I begin — that would be the sheepshank, ultimately important when you’re building a poncho shelter from scratch or trying to substitute for a broken tent stay. You can build something half-assed or you can do it right, and if you choose to do it right then you must know the sheepshank.
But, there are so many other bizarre and specialized yet beautiful knots that learning these things is like preserving the best of an aboriginal tradition. It may not be that important today, when patented fittings and gimmicks rule the gear, but tomorrow when we’ve lost that, we’ll need these old things again. We’ll weave our ropes from cedar bark or grass, and we’ll need our knots to make them work.