(Walking) can in the end become an addiction, and that it is then as deadly in its fashion as heroin or television or the stock exchange. But even in this final stage it remains a delectable madness, very good for sanity, and I recommend it with passion. –Colin Fletcher, THE COMPLETE WALKER
In 2015, “how-to” books are almost becoming passe’ .
In the past, If I wanted to know how to replace the fog light on my vehicle or replace a cabin filter, I’d get a Chilton’s repair manual at the bookstore (not online), find the appropriate page, grab a socket set, curse a little bit and get it done.
Now? I go to Google, search for the appropriate online article or even YouTube video, grab a socket set, curse a little and get it done.
Even Chilton has made the online format readily available.
Not that you can’t buy the auto repair books, but seems online resources are more efficient for disseminating information in many ways.
It is the same with outdoor books now.
If someone wants a gear review, a how-to article or comparisons between one type of gear versus another, a person looks online. The source could be an online magazine, an article or even some specialized forum, but more often than not, the information is sought via a Google search. And the information is regularly updated.
A web page is brought up, you read the information, and the answer is (sometimes) found.
There is still a niche for outdoor books. From well-known outdoor people, there is a built-in audience to purchase the person’s advice. And, of course, there are perennial favorites that are thought of as excellent reference works that sell well year after year. Sometimes it is just more convenient to pick up a book and have all the pertinent information in one book (or, more telling, an e-book) rather than spend a lot of time hunting down things via search engines.
These books, while generally well written, often reflect the times we live in: To the point, no time for rumination, a goal-oriented checklist, how to get from A to B the most efficiently.
Mind you; this is not a criticism — just an observation. There seems to be a divide between the practical and the philosophical in the outdoors. Contemplating the WHY? of the outdoors is a separate endeavor from the HOW AND WHAT? of the outdoors. And the more philosophical aspects of the outdoors is overshadowed by the “HOW AND WHAT?” even among people and groups who may have much collective experience in the outdoors.
And, of course, “how-to” books (including electronic format) themselves are declining in sales due, in part, to the previously mentioned online resources.
But it was not always this way. We live in an era where information is instantaneous, easily accessible and cheap to obtain.
For the average person, however, that is only a phenomenon of roughly the past 15 years.
Before this time, a person went to the bookstore or library and procured a book for any advice and “how to” knowledge about the outdoors.
And the most popular book about backpacking from this time? The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. Colin Fletcher wrote four editions in 1968, 1974, 1984 and 2002. The fourth edition was written with a collaborator.
Colin Fletcher is an author I have long enjoyed. A writing style that shows an evident love for the outdoors with dry wit, a rhapsodical writing style and leavened with practical thoughts and advice.
But, up until recently, I have not read any of the seminal The Complete Walker books.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading this book on and off. In particular the third edition…the last one written by Colin Fletcher himself.
How does a thirty-year-old book stack up in this day of cuben fiber shelters, trail runners, and home-made alcohol stoves? When information can easily be found on the Internet versus looking at a table contents to find something?
Let me explain.
The most noticeable difference is the size of the book. Nearly 700 pages of fairly small type. There is a LOT of information in the book. I suspect a book of this size, for this type of subject matter, would not be written today.
But how pertinent is the information in the book?
Obviously, some (most!) of the specific gear discussion does not apply to the year 2015. Fleece (pile) was starting to replace a wool sweater in 1984. And white gas stoves were still de rigeur.
But, after reading the book, I find the basics of backpacking have, no surprise, not changed much in thirty years: How to pack efficiently. What are the appropriate layers to wear? How to keep an efficient pace? Luxury items that can make the trip pleasant vs. adding too much weight. And so on.
I’ve said it before, the equipment may change, but the basics of the outdoors really do not. How to stay warm, dry, cover ground efficiently when moving and fueled while on a backcountry excursion will be the basics for any outdoor person as long as people take to the mountains, woods, and canyons.
But more than the basics, the book has a sense of sheer wonder and a bit of romanticism found for the outdoors that seems to be missing..not just from books, but also from our current electronic media.
Many books and electronic media tend to be, again, written more to be efficient and almost an engineering manual in design…or at the other extreme: to be uber-personal (e.g., Wild or similar books) and talk about the small universe of one.
Fletcher’s books? Even his memoirs observe and instruct while showing a passion for the outdoors itself.
And the advice and writing Fletcher gives beyond the gear in The Complete Walker series is as pertinent now as when it was written over thirty years ago.
Consider this nugget: “Even in these mercifully emancipated decades, many people still seem quite seriously alarmed at the prospect of sleeping away from officially consecrated campsites, with no more equipment than they can carry on their backs. When pressed, they babble about snakes or bears or even, by God, bandits. But the real barrier, I’m sure, is the unknown”
If I was to pick up the Complete Walker in 2045, I suspect the above sentence would still be true. (Assuming there is any wildness left..sigh)
Read The Complete Walker not for what tent to take or even why to take the tent. But instead for the WHY? of the outdoors itself.
The words still resonate thirty years later.
I’ll admit it was hard going through some of the “nuts and bolts” portions of the book. Partially because the information is outdated in many parts and, frankly, because I am pretty dialed-in at this point in my outdoor “career” and don’t necessarily need to glean anything from it.
But for the reader who delves into the book and is a little patient, there is much to read, reflect upon and learn about. At least it was this way with me.
I put The Complete Walker in the same category as another book I’ve been meaning to read on-and-off for years now: Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart.
Books to read as to understand the history of a passion I love…but also for the appropriate advice that will never be outdated. And, for me, to enjoy the book for the writing style, sense of wonder and points to ponder about the WHY? of the outdoors.
“But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Ensure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.”
True words in 1984. True today.
This book (actually Walker I) got me out there and backpacking.
I had better admit right away that walking can in the end become an addiction and that it is then as deadly in its fashion as heroin or television or the stock exchange. But even in this final stage remains a quite delectable madness, very good for the sanity, and I recommend it with passion.”
What a great beginning for a book!
Good post. I have all 4 editions in my library, bought them when they came out, except Walker I, which I bought in 1971. When III came out, like you, I really didn’t need most of the “how to” information. I bought it beacause Fletcher was a wonderful writer. I my opinion, he was and still is the best “outdoor” writer. Every couple of years I re-read III, not to learn anything (but I usually do), but to enjoy a great writer. We truly learn by doing, not reading. Fletcher eloquently covers the “why.” If you haven’t read his other… Read more »
Thanks for the kind words. River is a book I re-read every few years. Seems to address a different phase of my life every time I read it: From my passionate 20s, to becoming experienced in my 30s and now at early middle age when I am perhaps a bit more content with my life but balancing a need to live passionately with “adult” responsibilities. If Fletcher had “just” written a book about a river journey from A to B, I doubt the book would resonate year after year with me. Funny you mention Laura Waterman, a friend of mine… Read more »
This was the book I read for info when I first got into backpacking back in 1990…….. It helped tremendously in head knowledge til I gained more practical knowledge to go along with it. I read his other works of his adventures too. He truly wandered ( and paddled) the American West.
Yesterday I completed a month as a ridgerunner on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia where the circus truly came to town. It was the norm for clueless hikers to show up with packs weighing 50+ pounds, full of irrelevant gear still in the original boxes! Many pitched their tents for the very first time after they were on the trail. Few seemed to have contemplated either the how or the why. If only they would read Colin Fletcher.
Thanks for another great post. I’m going to cite it and cross post it on my blog and on Facebook.
The AT, in early spring, must be ah, interesting! 🙂
Walking through Time. First outdoor book I ever read back when I knew nothing about everything and versa visa . Loved it then especially the concept of caching. Who knew?
There are many strong suggestions (above) that Colin Fletcher’s works are going to be relevant for years to come. Not for gear reviews, but for Fletcher’s over riding philosophy.
This is why I have written Fletcher’s biography. Walking Man – The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher tells the story of this man who brought so many to an awareness of the importance of wilderness.
For information on the book go here: . Be sure to watch the video.
Looking forward to the book!