Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


September 30th, 2015



I remember as a child marveling at a Boy Scout mess kit. Inside a green canvas cover embossed with the Scout emblem was a shiny aluminum flying saucer. Loosening wingnut at the end of two extended metal tabs let me rotate a metal strap away and lift off the top half disk which magically became a deep plate or a shallow bowl. Inside was a pot with a lid, and inside that a pale green plastic cup marked with measuring gradations. The bottom disk, with the strap rotated and re-secured became a frying pan. Add a fire and you had a complete kitchen.

Such designs are ingenious in their compactness, but also carry with them a process that is an inventory. The act of assembling the mess kit also assures all parts are there. Long-distance hikers tend not to carry such kits today. They may be a compact way to store all the parts, but those parts weigh a fair amount and most are unnecessary. For cooking, I only carry a Jetboil which is an isobutane burner attached to the bottom of a half-liter titanium pot/cup (It too ingeniously fits together– burner/fuel inside the pot/cup for transport), a titanium spork, and a very small pocket knife. But all of my gear combined fits together in a way similar to the mess kit. The act of packing is in itself taking inventory.

Many long-distance hikers become equipment obsessed, something I, almost of necessity, share. The lighter, more compact the backpack, the more distance you can cover in more comfort (comfort is not the right word, less pain). A quick inventory: I’m hiking the Te Araroa with a 27 liter cuben-fiber Zpack backpack (1 lb). I have a Nemo 30 degree down sleeping bag (1 lb), and a Zpack cuben-fiber one person tent (1 lb). My gear is distributed in 10 dry and/or compression bags. Two exterior dry bags extend my pack volume and carry stove and a Nalgene bottle on one side, and heavy weather gear (rain pants, coat, etc.) on the other. A 20 liter dry sack contains my sleeping bag, clothes bag, a small toiletries bag, and a small equipment bag. A Sea to Summit micro backpack doubles as a food bag (and the bag to carry to the grocery store for re-supply). Those all go inside the main bag along with a 2 liter camelback water supply. My tent is in a stuff sack in the outside mesh compartment. And my attic (or as some people call it, the brain) is a small Zpack bag carrying wallet, passport, iPad and charger. It clicks off the pack easily and can then be carried to the store, cafe, pub. Other items outside the pack include a thermarest foam sleeping pad, rain cover, teva light-weight sandals, and a pair of Leki carbon fiber trekking poles. Total base weight– about 18 lbs.

I know, boring list, but just like the mess kit, all of those components fit together in a specific configuration. Every piece of equipment is important–even crucial– to success, comfort, and perhaps survival. Keeping track of it is paramount, and requires a degree of care that borders on obsession. That’s where assembly inventory come in. All the equipment fits in bags which fit into other bags, counting and being counted as the process unfolds. There is a temporal dimension to this spatial organization as things are packed and unpacked daily in particular sequences, and are often redistributed in another careful/ obsessive fashion. My tent, which is a single layer tarp held up by my trekking poles has a tub base suspended by mosquito netting. Apart from the gale on the Ninety Mile Beach dune, it has functioned incredibly well, snug and dry in the pouring rain. The tub is large enough for me, my sleeping pad and bag, and, distributed about the edges, all those small bags described above, each in a particular place so I can find them in the dark and so they can be re-packed in the morning. In some ways it is like being on a boat or a tiny house. There is nothing you don’t need, and there has to be a place for everything you have. It is a precision that enforces austerity and fosters care.

Nutrition also falls into the category of precision and care, but not because of preparation. Of course one can exercise both care and precision in camp cooking. Remembering to bring Tabasco, buying sundried tomatoes, or finding mushrooms can make a bland dry meal delicious, but the real issue with food is consuming calories. Backpacking 25-35 kilometers daily generally burns more calories than most people can easily eat in a day. Eating on the trail is much less about taste and culinary fulfillment than it is about pure consumption. Food must be lightweight yet packed with nutrition, and eaten carefully across the day.

There is a moment in Earl Shaffer’s book North with Spring where he complains about fading energy and expresses concern that he will not be able to continue his quest to be the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. He is a good distance into his hike, I’m guessing around one month, and he finds himself eating the equivalent of two suppers one night. He then realizes he simply was not eating enough. A probable explanation for this event is fat. Obviously it varies among people, but most long-distance backpackers lose most of their body fat about a month into the trip. Hikers note weight loss, but the accompanying energy loss can go unnoticed for a while. They are usually tired and just assume they’ve put in a big day. But careful attention can signal that shift which means you really don’t have reserve calories to call on at the end of the day unless you have eaten them that day. My Earl Shaffer moment came on September 27th mid-afternoon up on a muddy ridge. Just did not understand why I had run out of gas.

The equipmentality of hiking is a form of inventory, but in parallel, there is body inventory, those moments in the day when you check physical components. For me, those times are most vital just before sleep and on awakening. I lie there wiggling toes and fingers, rotating feet and hands, flexing all muscles, seeking out pain, anticipating trouble or discomfort. What is interesting is that such care translates into everyday gestures. It becomes hard to disentangle the pain inventory of your feet from the care you take with each step. Ideally each neither produces nor inflicts pain. Careful walking brings with it the desire to lessen all impact, producing gestures that do not disrupt micro-environments. Constant inventory attunes hikers to how everything fits together–that Boy Scout mess kit, marvelous and precise.


T. Hugh Crawford