The Joys of a Full Backpack
True Story by Derek Zurfluh
I was about 19 or so and in college. I was taking a trip for credit in an Outdoor Skills class. I don't do dehydrated food. For lunch, some PB&Js and oranges. For dinner, I had a steak, plus some green beans. The steak was kept cool rolled up in a baggy and stuffed in a pair of oversized wool sock along with a frozen water bottle. I had eggs, potatoes, onion, bacon, and butter along for cooking up breakfast. Some more PB&Js and bananas for lunch. I also carried copious quantities of gorp. Though this food was heavy, the most egregious items I carried were real coffee and a percolator. A friend of mine who was an experienced back-country long-distance backpacker was asking about my food choice. I told him for two days and one night, I could put up with anything. Anything, that is, but freeze-dried lasagna. He understood.
As we were packing, he saw my hat. A disheveled trucker style hat with a Confederate Air Force patch sewn on the front. It was worn, sweat-stained, and downright nasty looking. My friend forbad me from wearing that hat. "Look", he said, "You can carry as much food as you want, but I can't let you go out there without some kind of style." I went and bought a bright green flat-top wide brimmed wool crusher with a purple hatband. I still have that hat. It figures prominently into another story.
In test packs, I couldn't fit everything I wanted to carry. Something had to go. Well, I figured, I've got polypro underwear, a closed cell ground pad, and an artificial fiber sleeping bag. All of this stuff is designed to keep me warm if I get wet. I decided to forego a tent. I had to. If I had taken my tent, I wouldn't have been able to fit my fresh ground coffee and percolator. Backpacking has a way of clarifying priorities. Enough coffee, and I wouldn't need to sleep, so no need for a tent. Made perfect sense to me.
My pack was the heaviest of the trip heading out. No surprise there. Most of the folks along shook their heads ruefully, but playfully. They figured on the first rule of backpacking, "If you can carry it, you can take it." Two girls, who were outdoor education majors by the way, made fun of me. When a heavy mist moved in that evening and moistened everything before dinner, they really made fun of me. "Hey! I bet you wish you had that tent now, don't you?" I took a thin plastic painter's drop cloth out of my pack's front pocket and wrapped it around my sleeping bag - being careful to keep it away from the face opening. Good enough. They continued to make fun of me. Until the smell of my steak with sautéed onions and mushrooms made it over to them. Then they thought they were my best friends. No chance. I was hungry after carrying that heavy pack.
That night, as we were setting up, they had comments about my bright purple sleeping bag. "Haven't you heard of low impact camping? See our tent. It's green. You're not supposed to be able to be seen from the trail."
"Yeah. Well I figured to use my sleeping bag at night. It's usually pretty dark then." That was when they discovered that in the jockeying around to figure out who had to carry the poles for the tent, that none of them did. As they crawled into their pole-less tent, and I into my sleeping bag I couldn't resist commenting on how the mist had cleared out and weren't the stars beautiful.
Next morning they complained about a cat that kept coming around and pestering them. It must have been their nice natural-looking green tent. The cat left me alone. I figure it didn't like my purple sleeping bag.
When I pulled out the percolator - "Hey! Don't you know how to make camp coffee? You just put the grounds in the water and filter through some cheesecloth." "Uh-huh. Yeah. I've heard of that trick." Their cheesecloth was mildewed. Badly. Too badly to use. As I sat, sipping a freshly brewed cup of coffee, I smiled to the sound of "Pfft. Thppt. Thppt. Fffthah." as the girls tried to get the grounds off their tongues.
Next, I started cutting up potatoes and onions for breakfast. They had granola bars. They had their breakfast done and were packed up before my breakfast was ready. Then they started making fun of me for taking so long. They asked the trip leader why we weren't moving out yet. He said, "D's got some good smelling grub going there. I'm waiting to see if he'll share a little."
"Sure, Jerry. If you take the walk up to the spring, I'll make you up some fresh coffee too."
The girls ask, "Well how about us?"
Jerry answered for me. "I wouldn't if I was him. You've done nothing but ride him like he's got a saddle and he hasn't asked a thing from you. He came prepared to camp the way he wanted, and after eating well a couple days I'm betting he's got the most energy and the lightest pack going home. If I was him, I'd just let you carry those heavy packs full of nothing useful and think about being a bit kinder next time you put on some boots." That's exactly what I did, too.
I did buy them a couple brews on the trip home, though. I'm not completely mean. I guess that just aged me a bit, buying brews at 19.
I never did camp with those girls again, but I did go with Jerry on a couple more trips. I guess he liked my cooking 'cause next time he offered to carry the tent if I made the coffee and breakfast.
Read More Tall Tales
Camping at Ricketts Glen, PA
Camping at Blackwater Falls, WV
That First Unforgettable Backpacking Trip
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