Here's innovation... I have been operating out of my tent trailer for the past couple weeks at Lake Mead. Just got back from a week of hiking and am sending this from a laptop, connected to a personal hotspot on my iPhone, and both are powered by the solar system on the trailer. That is innovation.
The timeliness of the article is uncanny. 2012 will be my 47th consecutive year of backpacking, and I have been contemplating writing a personal backpacking history for my kids, so they will have something to remember me by. So I have been somewhat contemplating some of what has transpired in this thread. Backpacking is backpacking. No big deal. Just go out and do it, and have fun. Quit over-thinking it.
My personal backpacking history started in 1965, when I went on my first backpack at the tender age of 15. The 1960's (my teens) I consider baby steps, as I began to learn of wild places.
The 1970's (my 20's) were epic hikes and skill building, which was supplemented by the best survival training in the world, courtesy of the US Government and included trips to many exotic places that most people would never want to visit. I did two 6 month backpacking trips when I was in my early 20’s.
The 1980’s (my 30’s) was the technology decade. A lot of products brought to market using new materials adapted to outdoor activities.
The 1990’s (my 40’s) were ho hum. I just hiked and enjoyed it.
The 2000’s (my 50’s) were a paradigm shift, as I experimented with so-called UL equipment to maintain my current level of travel and fun, trying to overcome (mostly successful) the aging process. I have bought much of the top rated cottage industry gear and used all of it extensively.
The 2010 (my 60’s) is a circling back of sorts. Dispensing of fragile SUL equipment and dialing in on what works best and lasts. It is still a work in progress. Much comes from the cottage industry, other from the big guys. But on most trips I am moving back towards the 10 lb base weight. Hey, I miss my drinking cup and my binoculars!! Not necessary items, but the make each trip a little more enjoyable.
So you think this generation of backpackers/gear builders is leading edge? Oh my! Cutting map margins, sawing off tooth brush handles, and removing labels! My, my. Well Colin Fletcher beat you to it in 1958, and documented it in his book, The Thousand Mile Summer. He also popularized tarps instead of tents and invented "Colin's" kilt.
Poncho Tarps? Standard deal for ground troops in Vietnam.
Alcohol, wood, esbit stoves? Developed in WWII. 1 qt Canteen fits into a 12 oz canteen cup which fits into a canteen cup stove. The original "cone." Standard fuel was Trioxane, which burns hotter than hexamine (Esbit), can use military issued sterno or even wood. Hexamine has been in use since the 30's, although I never tried it until a couple years ago. The military preferred Triozane because its blue flame was more difficult to see than the yellow hexamine, however it is toxic when used in enclosed areas. In Nam the sterno cans were difficult to come by because soldiers tried to drink it, as with alcohol fuel too. But denatured alcohol could be found. Favorite alcohol container for burning was a Succrets box. I will try and dig up my old set-up when I get home. Seems the Military was a few decades ahead of today's innovators.
For the most part, innovation has been adaptation of new fabrics and metals by gear makers. Ever notice how all the UL tents and packs look similar?
So the past few years, I have purchased and used a LOT of this "new" gear. Why? Reading a gear review after an initial test and actually getting it to work and last is the big challenge. And now at 61 I can still do the same hikes I did as a youngster and enjoy it.
So what have been the truly innovative trends? I think the biggest has been "boutique backpacking." I indulge in it, and try to avoid it. What is "boutique backpacking?" It is hiking with 3 day re-supplies, walking well marked trails, reliance on electronics and not skill to make it back alive. Heck, you don’t need much in the way of gear when you are boutique backpacking. But in 3 seasons I can and have done many XUL’s for up to a week, but only as a method to test out stuff for when I go on my non-boutique hikes. The stuff is not all that comfortable if you carry 7 days of food plus some water. When I started backpacking, we often hiked for up to 14 days between supplies. We could not afford USGS Topo maps, and the only electronic thing we might carry was a flashlight. You cannot do this with any kind of comfort, using all SUL gear. But we traveled in areas with few or no people and were completely self-reliant. That has changed for the most part.
So what works? Some sort of tarp to keep you dry. Bugs? I have been in the worst places on earth and the best insect protection provided by Uncle Sam was a headnet. You don't need a tent, unless you are doing serious snow travel. On my list of truly innovative is a zPacks Hexamid with poncho/groundsheet. No net. 8 ounces for shelter and rain gear. I have used mine a lot over the past few months, with stellar results. Neither is new per se, but Joe has integrated them well.
Stove? Bend the dove-tail of your Caldera Cone and it can become useless in the back country, as will a crushed beer can or alky stove. Just for the record, I usually use a CC with Esbit. Canisters can leak and the stove pintel can break off. Both have happened to me. Pressurized WG stoves/pumps can and do malfunction. The most reliable stove I have used (and I have have used about everything except the Borde Bomb), is a Svea 123. But a stove isn't necessary for survival in most instances, winter snow conditions excepted. Take your pick and if it fails, know how to adapt. Stoves don’t excite me.
Sleeping System? Down bags have been around for a long time. They have gotten lighter. Quilts save weight. However you cannot lighten down other than getting a higher quality. My Tim Marshall Epiphany cuben down quilt is my go-to quilt. I also use a Nunatak quilt and a WM Ultralight bag. All great gear, no great or earth shattering innovations... But quality products. Innovation in this area will need to come from a chemist, not a gear maker. NeoAir – in my older age is a winner. Just starting using one part of the time since last year. But air mattresses have been around for decades. Slow evolution over the years. Nothing of excitement here either. Take your pick, lots of good quality companies out there.
Pack? This is the Holy Grail. A pack that can carry everything you need, keep you centered and balanced, and never, ever cause the slightest discomfort in your shoulders or hips. We spend most of our backpacking time with a pack on our back. IMO, this is the most important piece of gear, and should be picked carefully. Form should follow function, NOT weight. I was somewhat chastised last year for getting a “heavy” back to replace my SUL packs. I have lots of experienced with packs. Several Kelty’s which are still in the garage (D4, B4, and a couple Seracs), Mountain Smith, Gregory, etc. The D4 was used almost exclusively for 20 years and still is used occasionally today. The quality external frame packs last forever. As do some of the expedition internal frames. I have owned several UL packs. They rip at the seams in short time, they are subject to tears from rocks and branches. They don’t carry loads well. I did find the Holy Grail however. A Dyneema or Spectra McHale pack is on my innovation list, it does everything well… and Dan has been making them for a long time. The innovation includes custom fitting and education.
So here is my innovation list of gear that will not fail and keep you alive in any kind of conditions:
1. Dyneema or Spectra McHale Pack
2. Military issue lensatic compass
Everything else is nice to have, because you can find something comparable. Let’s face it; we talk gear because it is integral to what we do. But it is not the end goal. Great hikes are the end. Whatever gets you there safely and comfortably is what matters.
Past innovations include Kelty packs from the 50’s & 60’s and Svea stoves. Other than that, you select your gear carefully, par down what you do not need and get out and hike. BTW, most people have two days off per week, 2 weeks of vacation, and 6 holidays. That means most people potentially have 124 hiking days per year. Use them wisely. They are your inventory. Unlike a store, if you do not use any inventory, it is gone forever.