Albuquerque Airport. They flow down the escalator together, looking like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Jeff, 29, is neat, pressed, and looks the part of a hip young backpacker on his way to work at an outdoors shop. His carry-on is an expensive daypack, bulging with notebooks, reading material, snacks, and a water bottle. The rest of his gear is neatly organized inside a duffel bag the size of a black bear.
Mad Dog, 43, looks like the eccentric college professor that he is. A bit disheveled, he wears a fraying white dress shirt, brown tweed blazer, and part of his hiking outfit: rumpled gray wool dress pants and sneakers. His real name is Mark, but he prefers Mad Dog, a moniker he’s had printed on his credit cards and personal checks. The Dog carries his entire backpacking ensemble in two small knapsacks, one with a tattered $3 price tag still attached Minnie Pearl style.
“Want some help with that?” Mad Dog asks as Jeff drags his leaden bag to the rental car.
“Nope, all set,” says Jeff, heaving the duffel into the trunk with a groan.
This is the tale of two backpackers. Both love the outdoors with a passion. Both are fanatical, almost obsessive about their gear. Both live in the outdoorsy state of Maine. Both are also very set in their ways when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors. For instance, Mad Dog carries a bookbag full of second-hand clothing, a bivy sack, and lots of Carnation Instant Breakfast, his dietary mainstay on the trail. Travel Dog-style and you’ll cover lots of miles, pack in minutes, and be able to head out early to find silvery cobwebs strung across the morning trail. You won’t get blisters or sore shoulders, and you won’t waste time washing dishes or fiddling with a tent.
Jeff, on the other hand, hauls a 60-pound pack crammed with the best gear and gourmet food money can buy. Travel his way and you’ll be prepared for any weather, any injury, any fix-it need. You’ll eat first-class meals, and if you get stuck out there for a few extra days, no sweat. You’ve got plenty of stuff, so you’re covered.
The question is, who has more fun? Does gear, or the lack of it, make or break an adventure? More to the point, does it matter at all?
For most backpackers, equipment is a hot topic of debate. We speak proudly and passionately about our boots and packs as if they were offspring. We recount stormy nights when a tent kept us dry and safe, and offer up tales of how a prized Gore-Tex rainsuit withstood a downpour of biblical proportions.
But there are those curmudgeons among us who are irritated-insulted, actually-with how high-tech the backpacking experience has become. All the fancy gear, they contend, insulates and distracts you from the purity of nature. In a nutshell, they believe the gearheads are missing the point.