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Was Backpacking Better in the “Good Old Days”? Let’s Debate.

Backpacking’s changed a lot over the years. Is its heyday behind us, or is it yet to come?

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Back(pack) in the Day

By Peter Moore

I remember a backpacking trip with my father in the late ’70s. Wait, where were we again? Let me pull out my dad’s 1972 edition of the A.M.C. White Mountain Guide, and for the thousandth time, unfold the torn, skin-soft Carter Mahoosuc map. Ah, there it is: We were camping along the Wild River Trail, in the shadow of Carter Dome. After our feast of Kraft Mac & Cheese one night, we strolled among the fragrant evergreens near our campsite. Twenty five yards down the darkening trail, we came eye to eye with a northern saw-whet owl, perched on a dead branch just above our heads. We stared at the bird, and it stared at us. It was a moment of interspecies communion, and it went on for what seemed an eternity.

But here’s what didn’t happen: We didn’t look the bird up on the Merlin app, because what’s an app? We didn’t snap a Instagram-worthy photo, because Instagram’s inventors hadn’t yet been born. Instead we were present and at peace: With each other, with the owl, with Kraft Mac & Cheese prepared on a roaring Svea stove. We earned this moment wearing throwback boots with ragg-wool socks, carrying gear my dad had used during World War II, navigating by compass and the Carter Mahoosuc map. The experience was so much more than mere Facebook fodder: It’s a memory, hardwired into my backpacker’s soul. It was so simple. So profound. And Mark Zuckerberg can’t take that away from me. 

Miles Ahead 

By Adam Roy

Nostalgia is a powerful drug: It makes your lean years seem romantic, your exes seem nicer, and your crappy old backpacking gear work better in your daydreams than it ever did in real life. But if you want to understand just how good backpackers have it now, you don’t need to quit your job or move back in with your college sweetheart: You just need to take a trip to the closet. The first backpack I ever used was my parents’ old canvas external frame, and it weighed empty what my pack today weighs full. I’ve slept in enough heavy quilted bags and hiked in enough full-leather boots that flayed my heels raw to say it with my chest: The good old days were terrible. 

Yes, there are tradeoffs: As gear has gotten better and Instagram has scattered pictures of gorgeous wilderness across the ether like a digital Johnny Appleseed, the trails have gotten more crowded. But can you really begrudge newbies that same love of the outdoors that led you to this magazine? With fossil fuel profiteers pounding at the gates of America’s national parks and the world slowly warming (a product of those “good old days” when leaded gasoline was king and a Clean Air Act was when you convinced your spouse to stop smoking in the living room), we’ll need all the allies we can get. Besides, I don’t really mind the mountaintop sunrises I see on social media: FOMO is just your brain’s way of telling you to get out more.

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