The Hiker’s Gospel

Though we like to tell ourselves that we live in complicated times, our daily lives are in fact simpler than humans have ever known. Want warmth? Turn up the thermostat. Want to stay dry? Between the automatic door opener on your garage and the indoor parking spot by the office, you’re unlikely to get damp more than twice a year, and when you do you can toss your shirt in the dryer.

For us to experience anything like the life that most human beings have known for most of human history requires making a certain amount of effort, mental as well as physical—and that effort is the actual subject of The Complete Walker. Walking itself, of course, is the simplest activity on earth, and indeed the authors waste very few of their 845 pages with instructions for putting one foot in front of the other. But since we’ve lost the knack of our ancestors for staying warm and dry, and probably the stoicism with which they accepted cold and wet, it turns out to be entirely possible to fill a book as long as this one with extremely useful descriptions of gear and techniques for wandering around in the wild world.

Or half as long, anyway. Some of The Complete Walker, truth be told, borders on the insane. A short discourse on the thirty-two variations of Vibram soles for hiking boots (#1450, the Clusaz, a “highly technical self-cleaning style”) leads into a seventy-page essay on hiking boots, complete with comparisons of various eyelet shapes (a particularly fine pair of bushwhacking boots comes with “flat Ds from toe to instep, then a locking D-ring set in a nylon base, then a loop of flat webbing at the ankle (where hooks tend to catch), topped by two open hooks”) and an arcane discussion of various sock fibers (including new “Teflon yarn”).

After all this, one of the two authors reveals that he usually hikes in special sandals anyway; the only drawback is that it “gives me thick callus around my heels, which can crack and hurt like mad.” Unlike one of his buddies, who “squeezes Superglue into these cracks and pinches them shut,” Rawlins instead “recently figured out that a power sander works like magic” for reducing calluses. However, he cautions against using disc or belt sanders, recommending instead a model with a “flat, rubber-padded, vibrating placket.”

And then there’s the advice on co-ordinating air drops of food (with only four pages of mirror-signaling tips, a model of restraint), and the descriptions of testing various water bottles (“after that I climbed a tree and pitched the bottle down onto the sidewalk a few times”), and the comparisons of various signal-whistles (while those with plastic or metal balls rattling around inside are fine, “avoid those with cork balls” because they lose effectiveness if they become soaked while crossing a stream—and anyway, there’s a whole new generation of whistles without any balls in them at all, and perhaps a “flageolet or penny- or tin…

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