When I picked up The 2 Oz. Backpacker by Robert S. Wood I assumed from the title that I’d find tips about how to streamline your gear and choose the latest and lightest modern equipment. Robert S. Wood surprised me by talking instead about backpacking as a sport, something I’ve grown to understand on my own. Backpacking isn’t survival training and many people who go backpacking would be totally helpless in the wilderness if they lost their gear. Backpacking is a sport during which you carry the essentials of life through remote country, hopefully without having much impact upon it. Unlike a survivalist, a backpacker doesn’t have to kill any plants or animals or rearrange part of the countryside to make camp. You’re a visitor, you travel through without creating damage.
In the early 70’s when I first took up backpacking I had an entirely different idea of what it was like to visit remote country. I’d grown up as a hunter and fisherman and spent time in the military. My packs were rucksacks built for carrying essentials rather than comforts and I was accustomed to making do with what I found instead of what I carried. In the Pacific Northwest that sort of behavior was frowned upon, because with a sizable percentage of Seattle’s population heading for the wilderness every weekend, that approach ruined the countryside pretty quickly. Low-impact travel was new to me and I thought at first that it was kind of soft and much like cheating. The gear interested me, though, and I adjusted quickly to hiking as a sport instead of a relic skill of frontier life.
Robert S. Wood talks about fundamentals of that sport that most people ignore, like the different aspects of walking styles. Indigenous people don’t take walking for granted, and neither do martial artists. Stances and stepping methods and which parts of your feet hit the ground first all do matter. Either you learn these things by observing people with experience, you figure them out yourself, or you walk through the countryside like none of it matters and you might as well be wearing horseshoes. Some hikers don’t care about such things. I’m always disappointed when I leave footprints and break twigs. Not that I don’t, and it usually doesn’t matter, but I aspire towards a lighter and more professional backwoods step, always. Wood discusses some of these things as though they do matter, and I appreciate that. Most people don’t care, I suppose, and especially city people who grew up on sidewalks and track fields don’t care. I usually let people like that stomp past me on their armored peg feet, and I’m relieved when they disappear out of earshot. I’m sure they’ll get there, too, but I don’t travel that way.
Gear still interests me, but I’m usually not impressed by new things, so it doesn’t bother me at all that Wood talks about techniques and materials that aren’t cutting edge. Most cutting edge toys of today won’t survive the test of time, but many of the tips Wood passes along already have. I even noticed an intriguing idea about vapor barrier clothing I haven’t ever tried, and I will certainly give it a good test this winter. The extreme gear we wore in the Army in Alaska used that concept — in the coldest weather we shifted to footgear that was waterproof inside as well as outside, with two layers of vapor barriers. The thought of wrapping your feet in saran wrap to keep them warm seems completely backwards to rational thought, but it might actually work and you can’t know unless you try. Doesn’t cost much to try. I doubt if there’s a market for the idea because it’s too cheap to be profitable, so it’s probably true. It seems outrageously wrong, but from direct observation I know that most things experts say about high tech clothing is wrong, just advertising meant to draw tech-savvy people into buying new gear every year. Of all the jackets I’ve tried over the years, the one that still works the best is the equivalent of the wool Army issue shirt I wore in Alaska. Any book that gives me some intriguing idea to try, instead of recommending some expensive but doubtful product designed to sell, seems worth the read.
If you read this book you may find it silly and want to argue many of the points Wood makes. But, you’ll remember much of what Wood says, and that will come in handy.