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Roughing it: How technology has changed our outdoor experience

When I started camping and hiking, I largely wore blue jeans.  A backpack with a waist strap became a revelation, moreso a backpack with a lightweight internal frame.  I remember carrying a large dark green backpack framed in with aluminum tubing; an old fashioned external frame pack on my first backpacking trip.  My parents bought me a canteen from a military surplus canteen for my first ten mile hike.

Things have changed.  I now own an internal frame backpack, a camelback, several Nalgene water bottles and a backpacking tent from REI.  The modern outdoor equipment made available via space age technology makes my life much easier.

Things have been changing for a long time, too.  What most people today would consider ‘roughing it’ may have been relatively cushy compared with the extremes our ancestors endured with much less and much inferior equipment.  The tents used on the first successful climb of Mount Everest in 1953 were heavy cotton canvas things, a world apart from the synthetic skinned, carbon-fiber boned tents of today’s mountaineers.  In the same vein the ropes used on that first Everest summit expedition were hemp tied directly around the body as opposed to the stronger, flexible nylon ropes used with harnesses today.

I read Ernest Shackleton’s classic account of a failed Antarctic expedition during my first trip to Alaska.  The stark realities of Shackleton’s daily life on expedition show how easy many of us have it. You don’t have to sleep in a frozen reindeer skin sleeping bag in a boat sprayed with Antarctic water to know the benefits of a modern nylon down (or synthetic) bag.  The difference between a skin or wool sleeping bag is stark when compared to the modern standard in cold weather. When I was on expedition to climb Mt. Denali each of us had not only a modern sleeping bag but two sleeping pads for insulation from the snow: a solid foam pad and an inflatable one.  It takes a leap to imagine the hardship endured by expeditions to the world’s frozen regions during the golden age of exploration.

It’s not only the equipment that makes the lives of modern outdoor and adventure enthusiasts easier.  Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and looking down, you can feel the miles between you and the Colorado River.  If you decide to walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, as I have twice before, you are in for a grueling hike. In 1540, the first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon were Spanish soldiers under the command of García López de Cárdenas.  For three days the men tried to reach the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, first on horseback and then on foot without success. Today an abundance of trails to reach the bottom of the canyon makes hiking the Grand Canyon not much more than an aerobic challenge or even a scenic mule ride.  

Likewise when Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell lead a three month long expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, little was known about what might be encountered.  Using heavy wooden boats nothing like modern inflatable rafts, ten months supply of food, cabin building supplies and ammunition were taken down river. If the expedition had encountered a waterfall in the canyon where no portage was available, disaster would have followed.  Indeed near the end of the Grand Canyon section of the expedition, men left the river, fearing the final rapids to hike out of the canyon; those men were never again seen. When people load themselves in an inflatable rubber raft and merrily head down the Grand Canyon, they’re caching in not only on the technology beneath them but the valuable and costly information from previous explorers.  

Clothes are huge when venturing into demanding outdoor environments, as the saying goes, cotton kills.  It wasn’t until 1936 that Eddie Bauer developed the modern down coat and mass produced it.  It wasn’t until 1937 that modern rubber Vibram soles were invented to replace old fashioned soles with nails used for traction.  When it comes to marine adventure, the neoprene wetsuit wasn’t invented until 1952.

Outdoor equipment has radically changed from humanity’s early beginnings when everything someone wore or used could be considered outdoor equipment.  The more divorced we have become from a life in a natural, slightly altered environment, the more equipment we’ve invented for excursions into an increasingly foreign ‘wild’.  

Some equipment makes sense.  Other equipment starts to obscure the environment itself, to put a barrier of artifice between outdoors person and outdoors.  To a certain degree, even clothes puts a barrier between you and the environment around you. Some people rock climb barefoot to feel the rocks better than those using climbing shoes.  I’ve also heard of people hiking in thin soled moccasins to feel and grip the trail better. I haven’t heard of people ice climbing without gloves or coats to better feel their frozen medium.  There will always be something of a perception barrier between humans and their surroundings, it’s just a matter of realizing the self as a part of the surroundings.

What does it matter whether venturing into the outdoors is easier than it once was?  Part of why it’s important is because we lose touch with and take for granted the technologies that surround us entirely.

Recently I was camping at a not too remote forest campground in the mountains of Hidalgo, Mexico.  On a whim I decided to try something I’ve theoretically known how to do for a while: start a bow drill fire.  The first day I used my pocket knife to bore a hole into a split piece of wood that I bought as part of a bundle of firewood from the Mexican park service.  I carved a small divot into a stick I found lying on the ground, this was a handle. I found a medium-sized stick for a spindle and using the slick, synthetic twine from the firewood bundle tied to a curved stick, I created a bow.  

The first evening I tried unsuccessfully to start a fire, the twine used to tie the firewood up slipped easily over the spindle.  I concluded that the twine I was using was too slick. The next day I used parachute cord I had in the van to use for whatever. With the parachute cord wrapped five or six times around the spindle, it spun well mostly, and I was able to create smoke and blacken the wood I was using.  Still a long way from creating a fire I could warm myself with or use to cook a meal, I stopped. We spent the next hour or so in the tent as it rained. I plan on experimenting more with bow drill fire making, despite hours of trying, I learned a lot about technique and little details I didn’t know from theory at all.  I remind myself though, even when making my bow drill, I used a stainless steel pocket knife mass produced in a factory and synthetic parachute cord available in any Wal-Mart and it’s still a painfully laborious way to start a fire. It’s easy to forget how much a simple match does. Modern matches weren’t invented until 1910 when Diamond Match Company patented the non-poisonous match.  The vast majority of human history was a history without the simple tool of the match.

Fire is obviously a source of heat.  Many of us still use wood burning fireplaces on occasion or have sat in front of a fireplace on a cold night.  Many readers may even have an experience like one I’ve had, standing beside a camp fire as steam billows from wet clothes drying slowly from a day in the snow.  Modern gas stoves still cook food with fire. I’ve even cooked for months directly over a campfire, setting pots and pans on rocks at a field biology camp in West Africa.  One traditional source of fire is largely lost to us. It’s hard to imagine a nighttime world lit only by torch, candle or oil lamp. Even the Coleman lanterns used in camping are far brighter than the more traditional fire our ancestors used.  

I love caving.  It’s an outdoor sport I’ve spent days happily pursuing.  A cave is a landscape most alien and at the same time alluring in it’s approximation of human structure.  I purchased a supposedly high quality headlamp a few years and have had to return it repeatedly due to malfunction.  The company I bought it from has dutifully stood behind their product and quickly, professionally replaced the headlamp each time.  I tire of returning my broken lamp though and now I’m searching for a new one. Hours of reading professional and customer reviews on different headlamp models has left me numb.  I begin to wonder if I’ve lost touch with something. Am I replacing some of the experience itself with a product? I recognize that modern headlamps have allowed us to do more than ever before.  Caves like Carlsbad Caverns or Jewel Cave would never be explored without something like the modern headlamp. Hardwired electric lamps even penetrate the most trod areas of these caves for tourists to see with ease.  Ghosts of mystery, fear and awe are excised with the flick of a switch. Perhaps we explore deeper into longer caves in an ever more desperate search for those things forever just outside the beam of our headlamps.

Jewel Cave was first found by prospectors in 1900, a full ten years before the invention of the modern match.  As late as 1959 less than two miles of cave passage had been discovered in Jewel Cave, a cave system now with more than 192 miles of mapped passages.  Imagine that less than two miles of passages was enough for the cave to be declared a National Monument. It makes one wonder what people sensed if subconsciously in those empty labyrinthine passages snaking away from them into dark.  Wind Cave, another massive maze of limestone passages that could possibly be connected to Jewel Cave, is not far.

Wind Cave was known to the Lakota and other Native American tribes, when Jewel apparently was not.  Wind Cave figures into Lakota mythology, a hole in the ground that blows air, a place where the Lakota emerged from the underworld.  You can find Native American prayer flags decorating the area around the natural entrance no one uses today. Dynamite has blasted a larger more accessible entrance that tourists now access through a series of airtight doors and an elevator.  What did the Native Americans first peering into the mysterious dark see within the cave? It seems they saw something of themselves and yet, it appears they didn’t traditionally venture into Wind Cave. Other caves in Arizona I’ve helped explore have scant archaeological evidence; a basket, human remains that suggest only hints of people’s early perceptions of the caves.  There are examples in Europe of caves with massive, intricate murals painted 17,000 years ago by torch light, a flickering dimness in which imagination took form.

Darkness is a part of our environment like rain, snow, heat and cold.  If we shut off any of these from ourselves we start to distance our bodies from the rest of the world.  Taking time to live simply or roughly can reconnect us. To a degree living our lives in disconnect makes the connection we do have more important, more raw.  As Edward Abbey wrote,

“High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks – chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring”

If we are to truly experience this benefit of our increasingly technological society, we must approach the world mindfully.  We must see the darkness as darkness. We can thoughtfully take the harder path and learn to enjoy the struggle, the mystery, the pain that precedes transcendent joy.

Roughing it is all about entering into an unfamiliar environment.  It is implied that we are taking barriers down between us and something hard outside us.  Using certain technologies (ultra-light tents, matches, camp stoves, etc.) lessens the blow of coming into contact with the hard realities of the natural environment.  It’s interesting than to note a certain paradox, those with less of these technologies didn’t have any concept of wilderness, the environment being merely where one lives.  

Luther Standing Bear said, “Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people.”

It seems that if you have a relationship with the land, the type that needs few technological intermediaries there is no real roughing it at all.        

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer                           

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