It was always better back then; when the mountains were less crowded, sunsets were always golden, and the weather was always perfect. It’s human nature to cherish the olden days. But it’s nonsense. Sure, there were some nice things about life and camping back in the day, but mostly the good old days were really just the old days.
Here are a few things I don’t miss from the wilderness of my youth.
In the era before Gore-Tex, the rubber rain slicker or poncho was the norm. They were cheap, heavy, and if you tried to hike in one of them, you’d create your own steam room and be wetter inside your raingear than in the actual rain. When waterproof-breathable fabrics came around, that finally changed. I still occasionally use my rubber rain slicker—but only in cold rain when I know I’ll be standing still.
Fuel on My Fingers
It wasn’t until the mid to late 1980s that camp stoves were connected directly to fuel bottles, let alone isobutane canisters. Before that it was a very delicate operation to pour white gas from the bottle into the stove itself. This usually happened mid-meal, with cold fingers, and was impossible with gloves on. Inevitably, I’d spill fuel on my fingers, which would create an instant freeze as it evaporated. And if you got any on the stove itself, you had to wait for it to evaporate before you could start cooking again.
Today’s merino wool is a far cry from the wool of my early backcountry days: cheap from army surplus stores, heavy, itchy, and invariably green. Warm? Yes. Comfortable? Nope. The only other choice was down feathers, useless when wet and too warm for most activities. The transition to synthetic fleece changed that, but fleece packs a powerful stink after several days of camping and sweating. Thin, warm, non-itchy merino wool is the latest level of comfort.
Remember those external frame packs that shifted ominously on your back when you had to duck under a tree or wiggle around a boulder? They could carry a lot of weight—and they had to, given how much more gear weighed back then—but they shifted side to side like a drunk staggering out of a bar every time you did something more complicated than walk straight ahead.
Rollaway Tent Poles
I have many unpleasant memories of setting up a tent on rainy nights, setting up the poles, and then realizing that one of the poles had fallen apart and a section had rolled off somewhere in the dark. That was in the days before shock-corded tent poles.
Holding a Flashlight…and Changing Bulbs
Roughly in the same era as shock-corded tent poles, someone had the brilliant idea of taking a flashlight and strapping it to their head so they could use their hands. The headlamp was born and quickly became the standard for useful ways of lighting the night.Miners had been doing this for over a century. In the early years, batteries were big and chunky and any backcountry trip required lots of extras, and at least one extra bulb. In the era of long-lasting LEDs, headlamps are smaller, more powerful, and last longer.
The next time someone tries to tell you how good it was back in their day, remind them about hiking inside your own personal sauna, wearing itchy heavy wool, carrying a metal framed monstrosity while one of your hands held a light and the other groped in the dark for a missing piece of tent pole.