Saturday, May 9, 2009

Light Pack Syndrome

We would’ve been safer had we invited a suicide bomber to go backpacking with us. A light breeze drifted down through the branches of oak and hickory that were just budding new leaves. The day had been cloudy and cool allowing for perfect hiking weather.

Our company of ten bullet-proof teenagers had just stopped to rest and to let the old guys catch up again on the side of a steep, forested hill that the trail was climbing. The pace we had set was somewhere well below sprinting and well above a relaxing stroll. However this hippie’s holiday pace was still too fast for some of our more burdened crew. So we had a group of faster hikers, striking out in front, and slower hikers, plodding along behind. Eventually the slower hikers emerged from a copse of foliage and joined the rest of us as they had done several times throughout the day.

We all sat calmly for a moment catching our breath. A quiet tension slowly became apparent between the two groups of hikers. Then, as if a member of the Al-Qaida itself had walked into our midst to buy some coffee, it exploded. Like a storm that had been brewing all day just over the mountain, it rushed down upon us in one fell swoop. Our trek had suddenly become victimized and corrupted by the pestilence known as Light Pack Syndrome.

When pursuing such a gritty endeavor as backpacking there are many physical ailments and illnesses that a hiker is exposed to. Blisters, cramps, and loss of time are the most prominent of ailments. Snake bites, giardia, hypothermia, and an unhealthy longing for fast food are among the less probable but still common place dangers. And any Appalachian Trail veteran could not forget the endless array of thru-hiker STD’s. But none are as potent and unheard of than Light Pack Syndrome (LPS).

This age old epidemic has long affected hikers, backpackers, climbers, and adventurers of all pursuits and styles. However due to its focus upon the pack and what is carried, backpacking is where the most severe cases of LPS detonate themselves, reducing the “Merry Travels Café” to a pile of debris. But we are in luck! With the proper knowledge, training, and policies, LPS can be avoided, just like global warming and AIDS! Now if only the fast food craving was as easily stayed.

In order to prevent this disease we must first come to a full understanding of how it works. Much like global warming, LPS affects an entire group of people rather than a select few, and everyone contributes to it, whether scientist can prove it or not.

It begins in the early packing stages of the hike. One may choose a smaller pack thinking it lighter and limiting items to only the essentials. And so begins his quest to have a pack just heavy enough not to blow away in the wind. Dreams of five-mile-an-hour paces dance through his head, as he absentmindedly removes obsolete things such as sleeping pad, toilet paper, extra clothes and food from his pack. Upon meeting the rest of the group our hiker is unbearably chipper about his light pack. However when the dishing out of food, tents, stoves, and collapsible recliners begins, he is somewhat dismayed. But thanks to his smaller pack, though stuffed to the brim, he can still easily heft it over his head with one arm. Once again he dreams of a speed that will land the group in camp by mid-day and leave the afternoon for leisure. It’s not that he took any less of the group gear than anyone else did but that he set the group up for uneven speeds and abilities. He has fallen into the new age of backpacking style which dictates that you cover as much ground as possible carrying only what will keep you alive. This is why LPS is more common among the younger generations of hikers who are beside themselves with eagerness to push the dimensions of speed and distance.

This alone is enough to breed a stout case of LPS but there is also another disorder that can greatly contribute to LPS to turn your trek into the mother of all A-bombs. This is known as PMS. Mind you, I am not referring to the little feminine demon that makes some relationships a living hell (though this too can escalate the intensity of LPS). What I am speaking of is Pack Mule Syndrome. This is very much the opposite of Light Pack Syndrome. While LPS is usually found in the younger generation of hikers, PMS shows up most often in older men seeking to demonstrate their bull like toughness and will of stone. These are the dirty work-oholics that are always willing to break themselves to meet the needs of others. A hiker developing PMS always has an extra of everything. Little Timmy seems to have forgotten his sleeping bag. Never fear. Mr. PMS comes to the rescue producing an extra -20o goose down sleeping bag weighing in at around four and a half pounds! Not to mention the portable bomb shelter, packed just incase those Russians get restless. Madness! But ultimately they (the PMS’ers and the Russians) mean well and are the ones who think of the group first, which is a good thing.

Now the way that these disorders act upon the morale of the group is where the iron vice takes hold. There were about four of us that had unknowingly developed a severe case of LPS. We valiantly led the group and often looked back to find the other few trudging ten to fifteen minutes behind us. All day long we charged ahead, propelled by our knowledge that we had packed smarter and lighter than any of the others. Deep down we knew that we should slow the pace, but holding back unburdened, healthy legs on an open trial is like trying to keep a three-year-old from the candy aisle. It just doesn’t happen. It did not matter to us that we had left out all of the cautionary items such as the patented and portable bomb shelter. We knew that if disaster struck, we would just have to endure anything from a cold springtime storm to an atomic bomb. Come what may. Meanwhile, the slower and more cautious hikers in our company were forced to witness their inferiority mile after mile.

Now, at a time like this, a hiker might say to himself that backpacking is a relaxing recreation that is everything but competition. It is enough to take one’s time and become one in the natural beauty of what surrounds us. Backpacking is something we do to leave the world behind for a while and find out who we are right? While this is all well and good, for most of us this is a load of idealistic bull. No matter how detached a person thinks they are there is still that little glimmer of jealousy, that tiny thought in the back of the mind that says, “I can do that. He just has a lighter pack.”

This, my friends, is what sets the torch to the hay we have been piling up. Constantly trying to match the LPS pace slowly wears on the moral of the PMS’ers. He now feels an irksome rush, as if he were “behind schedule.” Of anything, this is not what backpacking is about. Before long the PMS’er is making excuses for why he or she is moving so slow. Whether it be, “I have a full time desk job and don’t have time to stay in the shape that Nazi LPS’er is in.” Or always, “I am carrying no of the food, a whole tent, an extra stove, and the cast iron skillet that they simply had to have.”

So there we sat, all chipper and rested from fifteen minutes of waiting for the others to catch up. As Mr. PMS breathlessly approached, he did not stop and take a seat with the rest of us. Rather, he stormed up the trail to where Keith sat and jerked the ear buds of an MP3 player out of his head. The man then proceeded to deliver the metaphorical equivalent of an un-gloved slap in the face through a raving lecture on the principal of team work and the dangers of I-pods. He had had enough of being the slow one. Not that he was designated the “slow one” or that we were griping about his pace, but it is a feeling in the back of the mind that just blooms in situations like this. As he yelled on, we all felt like five-year-old children who had just gotten caught in the act of making little Timmy eat worms. A portable bomb shelter was looking pretty good right then.

All of this, however, can easily be prevented. First of all, it is necessary to get to know who you hike with. Know their preferences, fitness level, and willingness to suffer the absence of things such as sufficient food or toilet paper. But most important of all is the higher nobler skill of balanced packing. If you have an older less capable fellow or younger inexperienced member in your company you should take more of the weight. If done correctly, LPS will not be able to take hold and the entire group can enjoy an even pace that puts no one to shame and leaves no hike in flames. Of course this is sometimes made difficult by the, “I can carry just as much as anyone else,” sentiment, but it is the mark of a true outdoorsman to set that pride aside. LPS is a lot like hard drugs. You only need to be reduced to the level of a five-year-old once to realize that is was a bad call.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. I had know idea you were such an excellent writer! Also, I totally know what you are getting at, and it is nice to hear someone as outdoorsy and fit as you put all the cards out on the table. Thanks for the honesty and wisdom :)