The outdoors, mental health and the framing of pay-to-play.

I’ll be honest: a desire to read several of Dave C‘s articles and the two recent ones (not by Dave) on depression have me again considering joining BPL. I probably will not for some time yet, if at all. The current lack of transparency about where the site is headed feels to me like being asked to buy passage on a ship when the captain won’t say where it is going. I still maintain that it’s a weird business model. People are generally willing to donate to support something they enjoy. Every other hobby site (and for the vast majority of BPL participants, it *is* a hobby) I’ve joined has functioned on this model, and I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head where I’ve chipped in with amounts ranging from a dollar or two whenever I could up to $20 or so annually. When you turn it into a strictly business transaction, however, those same people are going to be a lot more critical of your product both before and after they pay. But I wasn’t around when the site was more than just forums and articles. Maybe at that time the subscription model made more sense.

The above was a bit tangential to the reason I started this post: I was thinking it’d be nice to read those depression articles, because I’m actually headed out to camp tonight for what are definitely mental health reasons. (The peak of the Leonid meteor shower will hopefully be a nice bonus.) Unlike some of the more advanced trips and technical articles, this is a topic to which I can contribute knowledgeably. Current forum threads aside, I think that the cognitive and emotional facets of outdoors experiences are pathetically underrepresented in the current body of work. There are a number of reasons for this, some structural, but I believe a major contributor to the silence is that people who struggle with mental illness are less likely to make it out their door in the first place. Knowing it’ll do you good is often not reason enough. Sometimes that fact can even be an active deterrent: the brain is especially cruel when it’s telling you you don’t deserve even the simple good feelings getting out of doors can bring.

But enough. The car is packed and I am merely wasting time.

I am not an ultralighter.

I don’t think I ever really was, to be honest. I don’t really follow the “rules”, such as they are, nor have I ever felt the sense of community or shared identity that so many seem to have. I have a lot of reasons why I hike, and a lot of goals for my outdoor experiences, but I can honestly say breaking the 10 pound barrier has never been one of them. When I decided to move from dayhiking into backpacking, “ultralight” was the best algorithm I found for making sensible choices about what to take into the woods. It doesn’t mean any more to me than that, and while I’ve attempted to join the conversation, to be blunt, the emphases of the discussion are things I don’t really care about. I think the topic needs to move a different direction.

I think, if the tangle that is ultralight is to be engaged, that Dave Chenault has the right idea and it ought to be on a meta level. Arguing whether a goal weight is helpful, or useless, or a qualification of anything more than a person’s ability to use a scale will be (is) a neverending loop of he-said-she-said. If you’ve been following this discussion at all, you know exactly the arguments I’m talking about. They’re ably summarized elsewhere, so I’ll spare you the aggravation of reading about them again.

It’s not about defining the word more precisely or accurately, nor about deciding whether to use it at all. It is (or should be) about defining the person, a task which is ultimately an individual responsibility. I would argue that defining yourself or your hiking acumen wholly or primarily by your pack weight is valid–shallow, but valid. “Ultralighter” is an identity for some. But I think the concept of “the ultralighter” many are arguing about is a caricature and a distraction from examining the context in which we hike.

The picture is far bigger than the small corner of the net where geeks gather to discuss gear, and I’m not talking about all the “traditional” backpackers that outnumber “ultralighters.” I’m talking about things like working to conserve what wilderness remains while acknowledging human needs and figuring out ways to meet those needs that require a minimum of ecological impact. I’m talking about hiking as a conduit for articulating personal meanings, caring for ourselves physically and emotionally, and giving the next generation the opportunity to do the same.

I see these themes raised from time to time, but by and large the “ultralight community” values gear. Most of the better-known blogs are heavy on gear posts. The gear and swap forums at BPL are far and away the largest sections, dwarfing the handful of philosophical threads linked above. I would ask why such a high value is placed on gear by so many. “Lighter is better” is not an acceptable answer. It catapults the discussion right back into those tired themes I am trying to avoid. Upon (perhaps reluctant) self-examination, individual and cultural values come to light. I suggest it is these that are at the heart of the current ultralight identity crisis.

What do you value? What does backpacking actually mean to you? Are the values reflected in your practice of ultralight ones you are proud of? There are no wrong answers here, only layers of meaning. How deep we delve, and what narrative we write with what we find is entirely individual. Yes, when it comes down to it, it is just walking, but we all do it for different reasons. Examining those in a critical light will, I think, take the conversation beyond the tedious cycle in which it’s currently mired. Perhaps what emerges will still be called ultralight. Perhaps not. But until that time, trying to discern if ultralight is alive, dead, or undead will be a futile endeavor.

Edit: I’ve checked the HTML and I have no idea why the last paragraph is showing up in the wrong color.

Gear, gear, and more gear


Image via sectionhiker.com

Dave C. has a post up about gear mania, and it and the comments it’s spawned are worth reading. I’ve been accumulating gear at a frightening rate recently. Too cold for a canister stove? Need something else. Yaktrax not robust enough for off-sidewalk use? Microspikes. Wet feet now a freezing hazard? Goretex socks. Can’t get away with longjohns and shorts? Waterproof pants. This is all fine in isolation; a winter trek requires gear appropriate for winter. However, the mix of excitement and tedium that is checking historical weather data, reading reviews, and balancing features, weight, and cost obscures the rampant absurdity that is a hallmark of the outdoor gear industry. I could explain that claim, but I think it’s better illustrated by the day and a half I spent trying to learn enough marketing-speak to navigate the outerwear section of my local outdoors store.

The funny thing is that I decided to use the coat I already own, despite it weighing a whopping pound and a half. Wait, what? After all that effort, you want to buy something! You want to have something in hand to show how much you know now about softshells and hardshells and rainshells and seashells. If not then what was all the effort for? Yes, I really, really wanted to buy something, just so the time spent didn’t feel like a waste. There had to be something better than the leadweight dinosaur I already owned. But I sat and wrote out the pros and cons, and there was not. For a moment I felt despondent; there was no way I could justify a purchase except via pure avarice, which not only felt distasteful but is also way beyond my budget. Then I felt irritation at an industry and a culture that had forced me to wade through so much gobbledegook to find an answer to such a simple question: is there a jacket that will keep me dry and warm that weighs less than my current jacket, and that I can afford?

I’m not the most experienced outdoorsperson around, but I’ve been around the block a few times. I can make fires in the rain, fix just about anything with safety pins and tape, pick a sheltered campsite, and make educated guesses on the weather. There’s lots I don’t know about backpacking yet, but I’m not the person who’ll be calling crying for a helicopter pickup b/c I made a poor but not life-threatening decision. And yet, the learning curve to get into backpacking has been surprisingly steep.

I’ve found to my frustration and frequent chagrin that the process of becoming a backpacker is less about the finer points of extended woods-walking and more about navigating the sea of products that claim to let me do so comfortably, safely, and simply. Despite the claims, however much we’d like to believe UL is synomynous with simple, when we are honest with ourselves it’s usually not. The gear might be simple in design and function, but the process by which we acquire, use, and discard it is usually the opposite.

I don’t want to come off like a Luddite. I have an engineering background and tech fascinates me. Good design that incorporates good tech is immensely appealing on lots of levels. But should I need a whole new vocabulary to talk about the stuff I wear? Isn’t this supposed to be about the stuff I do? I feel skills-smart and gear-stupid. You would think the former would be the more important, but it’s the latter that clearly holds cachet in ultra-light culture, no matter what ultra-light philosophy might say.

When I got over my disappointment and frustration with the outcome of The Great Jacket Search of ’11, I was surprised by the sense of satisfaction that stole over me. Yes, there’s tech, and there’s design, and there’s marketing, and some patience and digging is needed to find the stuff that works best for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of acquisition (packages in the mailbox can make Christmas out of any day of the year), but if you’re willing to take a hard look at your choices before you open your wallet, sometimes you have what you need already.