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June 1998

Modern Man Vs. Mad Dog

A techno-packer and a yard-sale minimalist go stride for stride to find out what kind of equipment is best for a good time. Or more importantly, does it really matter?

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.

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  1. jerkybill

    I’ve been a budget camper and hiker for years- most of my gear came from browsing flea markets and auctions for the right stuff- GPS units that are geocache and wherigo capable, packs both internal and external frame, canopies for camping with the family, stoves of assorted sizes, up to date maps and books detailing the layout of my destinations, and of course- Goodwill clothing from wool socks to sta-dri shirts. My youngest daughters’ first sleeping bag was a hand-me-down from a neighbor. Even my bikes were bought used-My trail bike for 20 bucks at a flea market and by road bike for 40 at auction.

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  2. andrew-o

    The first time I went camping (not even backpacking), I learned the invaluable lesson of simplifying. I packed big with enough gear to fill the back of a pickup and it took me a day and a half to get all setup in the pouring rain. My friends showed up with a couple of bags in the back of a VW and were setup and dry in minutes. I realized right then and there that the beauty of the outdoors is simplicity and balance! As my knowledge and obsession has increased, my load has gotten lighter. I’d have to say I’m somewhere between the two guys in this article. I like some comforts, comfortable bed (hammock in my case), warm meal at night, but I don’t spend major money to accomplish it. I’ve found good deals on used gear, bought lower tech gear at stores like Costco, and even made some of my own. I’m getting lighter and enjoying it more! Sure, attitude plays a big part, but a good attitude with minimal blisters, that’s a wonderful thing! – Andy Go Lightly

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