Influential Gear?

I received a recent email inquiry from a well-known outdoor magazine that asked if I had thoughts on influential gear over the recent-ish decades. Equipment that revolutionized backpacking

Now, the cynic in me assumes, nay, knows, that the whole point of this article is to generate potential ad revenue for something wallowing in the virtual La Brea Tar Pits of publications.

But the inquiry did get me thinking. What gear did revolutionize the past time of backpacking?

The specific ideas they wanted me to discuss seemed intriguing. See the need for advert dollars again.

A specific name-brand collapsible hiking pole? A Bavarian alpinist would see it as an alpenstock, and the many “hiking sticks” at popular trailheads seem similar.

On the AT back in 1998.

Another specific multitool? See also the Swiss Army Knife.

Add a P51 or P38 can opener for more versatility.

Power Bars (furthering a trend for advert dollars, specifically mentioned)? Pemican, tortillas, cheese, hardtack, and oatcakes come to mind.

And “energy bars” specifically? The Hershey “D Bar’ landed on the beaches of Normandy with the GIs. And I remember ” granola bars” getting marketed contemporarily to Power Bars.

Also with carbs, fats, and protein while being shelf-stable.

Finally, and I assume seriously, they pitched the idea of Crocs. While you could make a case of brand awareness and marketing influencing purchasing habits for the above items, I think it’s safe to say ugly, bulky, and non-practical plastic shoes (for hiking; line cooks and medical professionals rightfully have a different opinion) had a marginal impact on the backpacking world beyond a niche of online backpackers going thru-hiking twenty years ago. Yes, people routinely schlep camp shoes. But not necessarily Crocs.

From Buzz Feed

So what’s an influential item in backpacking?

I think such an item changes backpackers’ habits, techniques, or styles. In my opinion, none of the proferred items above accomplished these objectives.

Degree not kind, in my opinion. These items may become popular in general use, but not necessarily for backpacking.

Now, some items certainly changed the habits, techniques, and styles of backpacking.

Among them?

  • The Coleman white gas stove aka “The Pocket Stove.” As with many outdoor items in the twentieth century, this item came out of World War II. After World War II, Coleman marketed the stove to the growing middle class with disposable income who wanted to camp. Easier to use than a campfire, and most backpackers soon started cooking over a stove vs. the fire. And by the 1970s, with a rather large boom, camp stoves become mandatory for cooking in many wilderness areas.

Vintage Coleman ad

A16 Dome Tent

Or to take some historical examples, the Ford Model T made the auto affordable, ubiquitous, and part of the American culture. Not so much the Ford Focus.

And though the Tesla autos don’t have the same widespread purchase, these cars put electric cars in the cultural zeitgeist more so than other electric cars.

From Reddit

And though Blackberry paved the way for smartphone use, I don’t think many people would argue the importance of the iPhone in its relation to the overall smart device culture vs. Blackberry’s mainly corporate or government use.

Sorry keyboard aficionados. From Uttblogs.

Which makes a great segue to what I think is the most influential backpacking item of the past decade – the Smart Device.

Why the smart device?

A mobile device is the most significant change in how I backpack now vs. when I started in 1996.
Not so much for communication but sheer utility. Map and compass use will remain a bedrock skill. But a modern mobile device with the appropriate app makes my map reading that much more effective. It complements my traditional tools well.

Joan with print maps and her iPhone in Big Bend NP.

I often take a print overview map for the area, but the GPS app (Gaia, CalTopo, or Avenza) will let me load up many different and detailed layers. I no longer need to carry separate USGS, USFS, or commercial maps such as NatGeo; I can select the appropriate layer that may have more details vs. another map layer. And I can make waypoints easier for future use (campsite, archaeological sites, etc.) and sometimes, yes, make navigation more efficient. All for a few hundred dollars or even less. A similar, if limited, device in 1989 costs about $23,000 or almost 55k in 2022 dollars!

PCO Joan

And it’s not older technology vs. newer technology; they often complement each other. On a late spring bushwhack in north-facing, tree-covered slopes full of snow in the nearby La Sal Mountains, the GPS app zeroed in on my location. But easier to take out a compass and follow a bearing to get to the pass rather than constantly using a GPS app. The tools worked together to help me achieve my goal. And sometimes, I just want the larger view of a print map that a 5″ phone screen won’t give me.
Other uses? Carry books, load up guides, make notes, take photos or short videos, a nighttime star chart, a Peak Finder, find the sunset or sunrise times, elevation, find the sun position for sunrise or sunset times (Sun Position app), and more.
All for a few ounces. Pretty amazing!
And the phone ends up as the primary device with a two-way satellite communicator paired as the communications accessory to the phone itself. A person can (relatively speaking) affordably use satellite communication in real-time anywhere in the backcountry.

From 4X4 Australia


from YouTube

Arguably smart devices, and the expectation of their functionality everywhere, changes the infrastructure of our wilderness lands and even the definition of wilderness itself.

Written in 1997. Still appropriate today. To paraphrase a linked book, sometimes the tools themselves become the experience rather than the tools enhancing the experience.

The impact of mobile devices goes far beyond any widget, clothing, or ugly plastic shoes. It made a cultural change at large and certainly with backpacking.
Within a decade, if not less, the typical backpacking demographic with disposable income will find NOT getting connected as reckless as some people view hiking without a map or navigational skills.
I’d be surprised if the outdoor magazine in question publishes these or similar thoughts. It does not sell widgets, after all.
Do not be in a hurry to spend money on new inventions. Every year there is put upon the market some patent knapsack, folding stove, cooking-utensil, or camp trunk and cot combined; and there are always for sale patent knives, forks, and spoons all in one, drinking-cups, folding portfolios, and marvels of tools. Let them all alone”
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1 year ago

“Within a decade, if not less, the typical backpacking demographic with disposable income will find NOT getting connected as reckless as some people view hiking without a map or navigational skills.” Based on my experience I’d say this statement is a few years late. 🙂 On my last long backpacking trip (part of the CT and CDT) I was really surprised to find that most people’s major concern was where they could find a cell signal, followed closely by how they were going to charge their gadgets. Earlier this year, while shopping at REI, a young salesman told me that… Read more »

1 year ago

Spot on, Paul. If it weren’t gear specific, I’d lean more toward social media. It seems like we’ll likely see more cell phone towers popping up in wilderness areas. Tastefully disguised of course.