Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Backpacks and Fanny Packs: The Rise of Backcountry Tourism

Cirque of the TowersThere seems to be a certain consternation these days in the hiking community. It's a fear that our favorite trails are being overcrowded.

And it's completely true. The Pacific Crest Trail kick-off event now runs two sessions to accomodate more hikers. Baxter State Park is considering implementing a quota system for thru-hikers aiming to climb Katahdin. Even the Hayduke Trail will probably see several dozen hikers this year, more than at any time in the past.

But backpacking is not increasing in popularity. The long trails are increasing in popularity, but backpacking as a whole is not. So what gives? I think it's fair to say that backpacking usage is being increasingly concentrated along a few key corridors. The Wonderland Trail. The JMT. The Triple Crown. Meanwhile, other areas of the backcountry are more deserted than ever. Many national parks actually issue fewer backcountry permits, for example, than they did several decades ago. 

These days, there's abundant information available for a litany of named routes and trails. It wasn't always like this. Before the internet, there was very little information available about many deep, remote wilderness areas. Aspiring adventurers had no choice but to take a small leap of faith when setting off on a trip. If they had topo maps, they certainly couldn't look up each pass on the internet to see whether or not it was doable.

It's not surprising that usage is becoming more concentrated on nationally-renown routes. People are fundamentally lazy, and planning a trip is a lot of work. So when someone creates a canned trip guide (print map, bake for ten minutes) and posts it on the internet, it's probably going to be popular. And for good reason - many of us have limited time, and a having a one-stop-shop allows us to spend time in the outdoors, without having to do months of detailed planning. A canned trip will hit the highlights - be it Cirque of the Towers, the Tower of London, Paintbrush Divide, The Louvre, Eagle Rock, or the Statue of Liberty. The highlights are cool, but they're only surface-level. Truly getting to know an area requires a greater investment of time and research. 

Most of us don't have time to spare. Most of us engage in backcountry tourism, racing from highlight to highlight to see as much as we can in our precious vacation time. Most of us use canned trip guides - somebody else has done the work, collected the information, drawn the maps, and assessed the water sources. Most of us end up as camera-toting tourists at the Taj Mahal.

I freely admit that I engage in backcountry tourism. Most of the hikes I do are on established routes. At the minimum, I know somebody's done a successful trip in the area before. Oftentimes there are maps available. I can find water information without too much trouble. If not for all this information, I would only have time to prepare for a handful of trips per year. I love my canned trips.

But at least once this year, I'm planning a trip off the beaten path. I'm working on putting together my own route. I'm mapping a course that I'm sure isn't easy, and might not even be passable. I won't know how stable that glacial moraine is. I won't know whether the next section is a grassy field or a boulder field. And the only way to find out is to keep hiking. But at the end of the trip, I will know the mountain range quite well. After pouring over maps for months, studying the climate and geology, and, most importantly navigating my way through the range, I will have a deep understanding of the range - far deeper than if I had just downloaded somebody else's map pack and followed their journey.

Hiking someone else's hike is fine. Visiting the Great Wall of China is fine. But many of us look for something more adventurous than the well-trod paths that other people have taken. Many of us look for more than a journey or a vacation - we look for adventure. Perhaps it's the American ethos of the mountain man. Perhaps it's the thinly-disguised hipster in all of us. Perhaps our modern lives have grown too soft and easy.

But no matter why we thirst for adventure, we find it not in replicating what someone else's journey, but in crafting our own. And as we explore the frontiers of wilderness, we simultaneously explore the frontiers of our own experience. It's a old way of doing things. It's a new way of doing things. And it's a more intense, rewarding way of doing things. 

I'm setting out on an adventure. Won't you do the same?