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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?

It’s our last night out and Jeff, once again, is performing his predinner ritual on the stove. He’s decided to improve the contraption by bending a piece of scavenged fencing wire into a burner-like spiral. Mad Dog chews a twig, watching.

Jeff puts down his tools and makes what most would consider a tempting offer. “Gorp?” Dog shakes his head. “Hot chocolate?” Another shake. “Herbal tea?”

“No thanks.” Hell-bent on self-denial, Mad instead mixes an envelope of Instant Breakfast, always vanilla, always cold. Like Jeff with his stove, Mad Dog is precise and systematic in his Instant Breakfast preparation. He sets his tin cup and spoon down, then shakes the packet of powder. He carefully rips it open, pours the contents into his cup, then adds 1/3 of an envelope of dried milk. He fills the cup with water from his canteen and slowly stirs for a few minutes, watching the particles dissolve. “I like to let some of it stay in clumps. It’s like sustenance,” he explains as the spoon steadily chinks against the cup. “In winter, when I need the extra fuel, I add peanuts. Mmmmmmm.” He leans back and slowly spoons each mouthful of the white stuff into his mouth as if it were a thick, hearty stew.

Backat the car, the prospect of beers and burgers has Jeff almost giddy as he removes his stiff, sweaty boots. We gather round to examine his heels-the worst blisters any of us have ever seen, craters the size of quarters, each the color of molten lava.

Slipping into his sandals, Jeff says, “Well, Dog, your feet may have fared better, but we lucked out with perfect weather. What would have happened if it’d snowed? Or if it rained four days straight? Or if you snapped your ankle and got stuck out there?”

“I would’ve been screwed,” laughs the Dog. “On my first 20 trips or so I practically carried a gear superstore with me. But I never touched half the things in my pack, so I started paring down with each trip. Sure, someday I’ll have to turn back because I don’t have an Ace bandage or a shoe repair kit. But it’s been 40 lean, mean trips so far without any real problems.”

Like most extremists, Mad Dog and Jeff are stubborn in their beliefs. All things considered, neither would trade places with the other. But since our trip, Mad Dog says he’s been checking regularly at Goodwill for a pair of lightweight hiking boots. “I worry about twisting an ankle and getting marooned somewhere, and boots seem like the weakest link in my system. I don’t want a heavy pair like Jeff’s, just something with a little more support.

“I’ve also started carrying iodine tablets for my water because I came down with a case of giardiasis.”

Jeff is hard-pressed to think of something specific that he’d leave behind, but he told me he admires Mad Dog’s ability to rough it. “I like my fancy dinners and clean T-shirts. And I need to know that I can handle any situation that comes up. But I do realize I need to be more militant about each item that goes into my pack.”

And so the debate rolls on. But one thing did become crystal clear during our little New Mexico experiment: Gear does not make or break a trip. Attitude does. Whether you’re the laid back Oscar Madison-type, or tidy and punctilious like Felix Unger, you venture into the wilds because you love being out there. The gear is nothing more than a means to the end.

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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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