Equipment

(This column appeared in the April 28, 1997 Buffalo News.)

All it takes to turn me into a ten year old again is a visit to a camping equipment store. I race around the aisles saying, "I want that and that and, WOW, look at that and...." My wife has had enough experience with me in this mode that she generally steers me clear of such stores.

No wonder I feel that way. On my first overnight canoe and backpacking trips over fifty years ago we carried enormous loads in uncomfortable packs. Our bedding was made up with those heavy red Hudson's Bay blankets, folded over and clipped around the edges with blanket pins. We lined canned goods across one end, rolled up the blankets, stuffed everything into a duffel bag and bound it near each end with a tump line. A tump line is an eight foot leather band with a broad area in the middle. We carried our duffel and usually that of one or two others on our shoulders with the tump straps across our foreheads for support and balance.

We toted the remainder of our food and cookware in crates or in boxes called wanigans, their sharp corners only slightly blunted by tents wrapped around them. They too were carried with tump lines. Often weighing fifty to eighty pounds, they were what we competed to carry to show off our prowess. (Today I would avoid them like the plague.)

As if that wasn't bad enough, we carried hundred pound canvas canoes as well as axes and trenching shovels.

Were those really the good times? Indeed they were but I would not wish to outfit that way today.

I kept thinking of those days as Bob Simon, manager of the Niagara Falls Boulevard Eastern Mountain Sports store, showed me the 1997 camping gear. What a difference. Almost everything has been improved.

Today lightweight is the operative word. Kevlar canoes weigh half those we used to portage. Gone too is heavy canvas for tents and packs; light but stronger synthetics displace those old pounds with new ounces. Dehydrated foods replace the canned vegetables and meats and bags of potatoes and flour we carried. Down and polyester filled sleeping bags with accompanying air mattresses -- items we would have sneered at but secretly desired -- not only reduce weight but also conserve pack space.

On the other hand, some weight has been added. Today we carry tent poles and stakes instead of cutting branches at each campsite for this purpose. We also carry camp stoves instead of beating the bushes for firewood. But the additions, even with fuel canisters, are miniscule compared to the other subtractions.

And some modern equipment has circled back to what it was in earlier days. Solid leather uppers for hiking boots are back, replacing the webbing materials that let in little air and much moisture.

Comfort is lightness' partner. Use of tump straps is a rarity today, even on canoers' Duluth bags. Shoulder straps have multiple adjustments to channel the weight you carry close to and down your spine. And your hips share your shoulders' burden.

Today we carry canoes with shoulder yokes. I used to carry most of the weight on my head with extra clothing doubled over several times to give some padding. Thank goodness I no longer finish a day of portaging with my skull corrugated from the canoe's ribbing.

When we finished our tour of EMS, Bob reminded me, "Equipment doesn't stand alone. Backpackers and canoers, especially beginners, improve their chances of having a good trip tremendously by talking with experienced campers beforehand." I couldn't agree more.

Summer will be with us before we know it, so make plans now for challenging but enjoyable and safe outings.