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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 whistle” would be better anyway, since along with alerting rescuers it also “makes pretty tunes at sunset”). A favorite passage of mine wended its way through Fletcher’s hat styles (“an ensnugging skullcap of Moonlite pile that resembles a detail from a Bruegel the Elder painting”; a hat with a solar cell powering a small electric fan) only to declare that the “coolest hat I’ve ever worn” was in fact a life vest with a wet bathing suit stuffed into its hollow center that he devised after losing his cap on a Colorado river trip.1

Read indulgently, however, the way that gardeners patiently read catalogs full of seeds fit for climates six states south, The Complete Walker slowly yields a kind of gospel for the outdoorsperson of the twenty-first century. And it is in most respects a wise and gentle gospel.

On the one hand, it calls for taking advantage of many of the latest technological developments. Consider, for example, staying dry and warm. This is harder than it sounds, since the obvious answer (covering your body with warm and impenetrable clothes) only works if you plan on sitting still. If you exert yourself even a little (say, by walking down a trail carrying a pack), your down coat and your plastic shell will soon have you absolutely soaked—from the inside. Somehow you have to manage to keep rain off your back while simultaneously venting sweat from the same back, a trick that was almost impossible when Colin Fletcher wrote the first edition of The Complete Walker back in 1968. In the mid-1970s, however, an engineer developed a microporous membrane for grafting arteries. Gore-Tex proved instead to be a revolution for backpackers, because when spun into a fabric it has 9 billion pores per square inch, each of them “20,000 times smaller than a drop of water…but 700 times larger than a molecule of water vapor.”

Theoretically, nothing gets in, and everything gets out—though what works in a factory rain-test doesn’t work quite as well once the coat is dirty or if the seams aren’t sealed, or any of a dozen other contingencies. But the Gore engineers worked diligently over the decades, and their product got better and better—and then, just in time for this edition, their patent expired, resulting in the usual generics and knockoffs (though so far not in great price reductions, which is a shame since a good Gore-Tex jacket can run more than $400). One result of this revolution is that the second edition of The Complete Hiker was nearly four hundred pages shorter than this model.

But another result is, undeniably, a higher standard of comfort (and safety, since the synthetics leave you much less vulnerable to hypothermia, a sudden cooling of body temperature below 96 degrees). The standard hiking outfit now includes some kind of petroleum-based underwear, which draws sweat away from your body. For warmth you cover it with synthetic fleece, lighter and faster-drying than the traditional wool, and on top of that you can wear a water-and-windproof Gore-Tex shell. Of course there are a thousand variations (underwear with wind protection, fleece with rain protection, etc.), and so in some ways the most useful pages of the many that Fletcher and Rawlins devote to clothing come in a little essay called “The Wardrobe in Action,” which is devoted to how to wear your clothes. They describe how to unzip and vent while climbing hills, how to keep your fleece at the top of the pack so you can slip it on whenever you stop for a rest, how to keep from getting chilled when you stop to set up camp. The line between snugly warm and miserably cold is fairly thin, and the advice in this book, even more than the gear, will keep you on the right side of it for days at a time, even as the temperature dips and soars, even as the clouds dump and disappear.

Then there is the question of how much gear to take with you. There are gadgets for every possible need—Fletcher and Rawlins describe possibilities ranging from fly whisks to portable shower baths and strobe flashers to foldable fishing rods. And of course you’ll be more comfortable by day if you have several changes of clothes, and by night if you carry the bulkiest sleeping bag. On the other hand, you’ll be staggering under the weight of a pack so heavy that the pain will drive every other thought from your head for as long as you’re hiking.2 Still, unless you’re one of the emerging breed of ultra-light fast-hikers who sacrifice everything for low weight, don’t leave every luxury at home. (I remember hiking around the Wonderland Trail, an eight-day circumnavigation of Washington’s Mt. Rainier, when by day four all my companions were asking if they could sit in my comfortable chair constructed from my sleeping pad and several ounces of strapping. Other hikers become similarly attached to a tiny espresso maker or a clever little foldable pillow.)

Instead, there are a dozen ways to compromise. One is to look for the lightest-possible version of every item—and indeed, every single piece of gear cited in this book has been faithfully weighed (the “Sawyer Tick Plier… with scooplike jaws that slip between the skin and the tick,” 1.5 oz). Unfortunately, the lightest version of an item is usually constructed from some exotic metal (titanium, carbon-fiber) used mostly by the Air Force and costing too much, which introduces yet another set of compromises. Alternately, you can adapt your existing gear to make it lighter (Fletcher was well known, in the earlier editions of this book, for recommending that backpackers drill a series of holes in their toothbrush handles, thus saving a gram or two—but a gram or two that would have to be lifted thousands of times an hour as the hiker plodded along).

Mostly, though, compromise involves deciding what is most important to you—a decision that is somewhat uncommon for well-to-do Americans steeped in the understanding that they can have everything (and if it takes up too much room, well, they can rent a storage locker). You may want to take a book to read in your tent, but it may have the same weight and take up the same space as a camera—so can you take both? Probably, especially if you’re willing to wear the same underwear for a week, and eat freeze-dried food (which can be made to taste something like food if you bother to pack an old film canister full of cumin to sprinkle on it). And so on, through a series of decisions that simulate in self-indulgent ways the daily decisions of most people on the planet.

The biggest compromise is making yourself so laden and comfortable and safe and swaddled that you no longer feel exposed to the natural world—which is the only real reason to go hiking in the first place. And it is here that Fletcher and Rawlins are at their best. For both of them love the world outside even more than the interior of the sporting goods store. Fletcher, a Welshman, has impressive experience in the British colonies (he “surveyed and built a road over virgin mountain in southern Rhodesia,” etc.), and upon arriving in this country he embarked on a series of strenuous treks, most notably a hike through the Grand Canyon recounted in The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968). Since he is now “pushing 80,” he asked Rawlins to help with this edition, and Rawlins brought with him not only a talent for clear prose but also many years of work as a forest ranger, firefighter, and wilderness hydrologist. Like most serious backpackers they have evolved a haphazard but remarkably consistent ethic that enables them to discuss, and largely dismiss, such newfangled gear as global positioning system (GPS) units and cell phones, however “helpful” they might be. To quote Rawlins,

We hope that as we walk our chosen place will act on us in turn—a light wind at dawn, the scent of pine pitch, the roar of the creek.

When you’re data-fying—checking a set of coordinates, a bearing, an altitude, a temperature, a barometric pressure—in physical point of fact you’re hunched over staring at digits on a tiny screen.

If you step off the trail to unfold your pocket computer and uplink through your cell phone to check your e-mail for a message from your broker, your heart is a thousand miles away.

And the wilderness can have no part in you.

From my own experience, Fletcher is also right when he says early in the book that it takes about three days of solo walking to leave civilization behind—to reach the point where your brain runs out of the junk food diet of opinions and fantasies and news flashes that normally fill our days and begins to go quiet enough to really register the world around. The feeling when that happens is lovely—you begin to fit into that world in a different way. (Oddly enough, animals seem to notice this in you, and become less skittish, or perhaps this is just my imagination.) You simply find that walking, and the regular and routine chores of daily life (making camp, cooking dinner, washing pots, cleaning clothes, keeping warm and dry), become sufficient. Days are full, sleep comes easy.

If the price for getting more of us out into the woods for that experience is a few hundred dollars worth of Gore-Tex and goose down, then it’s money well spent. This book is a handbook to help launch the quest for primary experience in a virtual age, when none of it comes naturally, but when it’s needed perhaps more than ever.

In his 1956 novel The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke describes a time many eons into the future when all but a few humans live in a domed, mostly virtual world. But one man, Alvin, makes it outside the dome, where he goes on an expedition with a newfound friend. Their packs have “gravity-polarizing containers” to neutralize their weight, and instead of campfire they have a little orb that gives off light and heat—but still the walking is for real. Up a mountainside they plod, “steadily onwards,” till at the top they “collapse in contented exhaustion” by a mighty waterfall, and with a view that stretched in every direction. “It was very peaceful, and Alvin felt utterly content.” No one is utterly content, but the chances of coming close will be improved by The Complete Walker.

  1. 1

    Oddly enough, I actually found myself noting omissions as I read. Is it possible they have somehow neglected the small straw filter that I carry on every trip, letting me suck straight from the stream without fear of disease? (Or is it possible that—shudder—they omitted it because it doesn’t really work?) And any list of best bird guides that doesn’t include the recent best-selling Sibley Guide to Birds is incomplete.

  2. 2

    A situation described for the ages by Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods (Broadway Books, 1998), his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail while discarding excess gear.

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