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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?

Which brings us back to our high-end/low-end boys, Jeff and Mad Dog. I invited them on a 4-day trip into New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness because of their extreme backpacking beliefs. In a sense, they were trying to convert the other (and me) to their side of the philosophical fence. It must be pointed out that they were far from cutthroat toward one another. “Modern Man” Jeff sympathized over Mad Dog’s stoveless lunch of cold, gray turkey tetrazzini. And Mad Dog felt bad about Jeff’s load-induced blisters. But mostly they taunted and teased and took notes about the other’s trials and tribulations. Somewhere along the way, we all learned a little something.

In a meadow at the trailhead Mad Dog is reclining in the midday sun, humming to himself. He has consolidated his two packs into one, which sits beside him ready to go. Every now and then he glances at Jeff with an expression that’s two parts amusement, one part curiosity. Jeff hovers around his huge pile of gear, methodically sorting it into stuff sacks, zippered pouches, pockets, and zipper-lock bags. Every item has its place. He stands up, rain pants in one hand, rain jacket in the other. He looks at the sky with a quizzical expression. It’s painfully blue. “You never know,” he shrugs, then stuffs the raingear in his pack.

About half an hour and 60 pounds later, Jeff is ready. We roust Mad Dog from his nap.

The two shoulder packs and pose for a trailhead photo. Little guy with big pack. Big guy with little pack. Both smile.

Jeff comes out of the blocks fast. With long strides and hiking poles flailing, he motors up the trail. Mad Dog saunters along at a good comfortable pace, his bookbag thumping softly against his back with each step. He unbuttons his red plaid shirt as he walks, exposing his soft, white belly. The Dog isn’t shy but he pretends to be. “I’m not in shape like you guys,” he claims. “Even if for some bizarre reason I wanted to carry a big pack, I couldn’t. I’d crumble.”

When it comes to gear, Mad Dog is obsessed with numbers. For instance, in the pounds-and-ounces category, “Everything’s gotta be light. I hike to feel my body move, to feel the Earth and forest surge through legs, belly, chest, brain. To feel all this, I have to be comfortable on the trail, and this means going light.”

Price is almost as critical. “Why spend 150 bucks on a fancy synthetic fleece jacket, when you can get a thick, tough, pre-owned wool sweater for $3?” As a matter of principle, the Dog buys his gear at a local Goodwill store. The store’s proximity to L.L. Bean headquarters means he scores some pretty decent stuff.

After 4 miles, we arrive at Mimbres Lake, a small, stagnant, murky pool that gets smaller each day under the summer sun. Since water is scarce up on the arid spine of the Black Range where we’re headed, we stop-much to Mad Dog’s surprise-and settle in for the night. The Dog sets up fast: picks a spot, unrolls his pad and bag, props his satchel against a tree, brews a Carnation Instant Breakfast, then looks around for something to do. All in 5 minutes flat.

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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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