For the past two weeks I’ve been hitting local bookstores to promote my just-released “Backpacking North Carolina” (UNC Press). I talk for a few minutes about the book, show a slide show if I can figure out the projector, and, in a new twist added last night at Quail Ridge Books & Music, cooked dinner. The highlight is when I pipe down and the audience starts talking.
Take last night. A gentleman shared that his hobby was “stalking wildlife.” Oh. That’s … interesting. He then said he would pay for a list of everything I own. That’s, uh, … security? Security!?
Neither comment, it turned out, was scary as it seemed. By “stalking” wildlife he meant “observing” wildlife, albeit at scary-close range. (“Twice, I’ve gotten close enough to touch bears.”) And his list request wasn’t a voyeuristic thing. His point was this: You get out a lot. You experiment with a lot of gear. I’d be willing to pay to know what works for you.
What spurred his comment was my rave/demonstration of one of my favorite camp tools: My JetBoil stove. (Note: I’m not being paid to say this, though if JetBoil wants to send some accessories my way, what the hey.) I showed how quickly and effortlessly (on my behalf) the stove could boil water. I then used the boiling water to make boil-in-a-bag pasta primavera (which was quite well received). As we talked, the wildlife stalker entered the word “JetBoil” into his smartphone.
I am not a gear geek. I’m pretty cheap, and if I find something that works reasonably well, I stick with it. The stove was an exception, based on the promise that it could deliver camp coffee within five minutes of my waking. But the wildlife stalker’s question got me to thinking of the gear I am passionate about, the gear that truly does make a difference. Three items came to mind:
Technical socks. When I first heard the phrase “technical socks” back in the early ‘90s, I had to scratch my head. Aren’t socks, socks? They might have been when I was a kid and white cotton tube socks ruled, but today hiking socks alone come in a variety of dominations (REI’s web site offers 49 hiking/backpacking sock options). My suggestion isn’t so much about socks, it’s about sock liners. Sock liners — a thin sock that goes between your boot and hiking sock — greatly diminish the excessive rubbing that can result in excruciating blisters. They’re essential for hiking in hot weather and for long treks. And spend a little extra for merino wool liners: they aren’t stink-proof, but they are stink-resistant, an especially valued trait on backpack trips.
Hiking poles. Every time I’ve mentioned my love of hiking poles over the past two weeks I’ve been greeted by knowing nods from a good segment of the audience. And yes, it’s been the segment in my ballpark agewise (I’m 54). When I started reporting “Backpacking North Carolina” I was sans poles. I would return from scouting trips and have trouble walking for two or three days. My knees throbbed, my muscles ached. At my wife’s … urging, I got poles. My load-bearing ground speed picked up from just under 2 miles per hour to 3+ and I was no longer sidelined upon my return. True, I was greeted more frequently as “Sir” on the trail, but it was a small price.
Bladder hydration system. I’ve long been stingy with water on the trail. In part that stems from an athletic upbringing in the 1970s when drinking during a workout was considered taboo. To a larger extent, though, it comes from being unable to easily fetch my water bottles on the trail. I have an older backpack (remember my “if-it-works-reasonably-well” philosophy from earlier?) and the water bottle holsters are more on the rear of the pack. Someone suggested I take a hydration bladder and stick it under the hood of my pack, then run the drinking tube down my shoulder strap. I now drink like Foster Brooks and as a result, I’m not as quickly fatigued, nor as grumpy come late-afternoon.
So, my wildlife stalker friend: sock liners, hiking poles and a hydration bladder, that’s a start from my list. And keep your wallet in your pocket — there’s no charge for the advice.