Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Caribbean Camouflage

Moose are totally color-blind.  Everything appears in shades of gray to them.  White-tailed deer see color in the blue spectrum, but cannot distinguish green, orange or red.    How different the forest must appear to these animals from what we observe in our woodland wanderings.

Coming from a family that enjoyed hunting, the fall brought a lot of opportunity to be in the woods.  Once while scouting potential deer locations, I was sitting on a log that fortunately was at the base of another tree and made for a wonderful seat to watch for the movement of wildlife.  I was wearing my favorite deep brown jacket at the time, but don’t recall what else I had on.  Anyway, a doe came down the ridge on my left and stood about 10 yards in front of me.  She was definitely aware that I was there and started snorting and stomping to get some sort of reaction from me, but I remained as still as I possibly could be. 

As she was trying to figure me out, I was trying to determine if it was her sense of sight or smell that was alerting her to my presence.  I was very amused by her bewilderment and imagined that she was thinking, “I know I smell something there and the shape of things doesn’t look right, but whatever it is, it’s not moving.”  It was almost like a game to see which one of us would flinch first.  She continued trying to get a rise out of me and I continued playing statute.  Finally, after several minutes of watching her antics and confusion, I decided to give us both a reprieve and lifted my hand just a small bit and she bolted off with her white flag of surrender flying behind her.   

I came away from that experience with a feeling of accomplishment.  I had used the things I had been taught about being still, being quiet and using color and camouflage to blend into the woods to successfully have a close encounter with a very alert and skittish wild animal.  To this day I don’t know how I actually appeared in the doe’s sight, but I speculate that she realized a difference in the arrangements of grays and blues that she was used to observing.  No matter what she actually saw, I was able to deceive her senses long enough to make a memory that would last a lifetime.  

Hikers are not like hunters though.  A hiker’s primary goal is not to conceal themselves from wildlife and they typically don’t worry about wearing any camouflaging patterns or colors as a result.  I would even venture to say that the average hiker doesn’t give a lot of consideration to the color of their gear as they are probably much more concerned about the function of the item than in making a fashion statement.  Color is probably the last item on their list when selecting a particular piece of gear.  Once they have decided on the item, then they may consider their color options, if any are available to them. On the other hand, I’m sure the marketing research people give great thought to color and this is why the majority of backpacks seem to be made with greens and blues accentuated with shades of gray.  These colors probably appeal most to individuals who love the green plant life, the blue of the sky, or the gray bark of trees.  This generally is true of the clothing that hikers wear as well.  The forest greens and deep blues are accompanied by a vast array of earthy tones; beiges, browns, grays and the ever present, black comprise the majority of clothing worn by hikers.  Is this to disguise the mud, dust and dirt acquired along the way?  Maybe so.

There are other colors represented in gear and clothing to be sure.  Red, orange and yellow make up the secondary set of colors most often seen on the back of a hiker.  If any thought at all is given during the selection process of gear and clothing, I would guess these colors are chosen most by those who are more safety conscious and are concerned about being easily spotted by rescue teams should some tragedy befall them. There’s nothing wrong with that idea.  And these colors can be just as easily considered as earthy colors of nature.  In spring, the blossoms of the flame azalea, columbine and jewel weed are fine examples of such color.  In fall, the blazing deciduous trees paint the mountain tops with the warm fire of these hues.

Oh, and let’s not forget white, our billowy-cloud-in-the-sky representative.  Although, I would suppose that white is a color worn more by day hikers than long distance trail hikers.  Any white article of clothing or gear will not remain white very long on the trails.  A long distance trail hiker’s life-style isn’t exactly the cleanliest of hobbies and the earth itself will soon draw any such article into its arms and change the item to a lovely brown by its embrace.

Now I am not a very fashion conscious individual at all.  I’m more of the give-me-a-pair-of-jeans-and-a-T-shirt kind of gal.  So when it comes to the gear that I have selected for my hike, I haven’t really thought a lot about the colors or ways that these colors may or may not go together—that is, until I chose my backpack this past weekend. 

I have decided on the ULA Catalyst backpack based on its size, weight and all the wonderful features that it offers.  The company normally offers this backpack in two color options, a forest green and black combination or a woodsy camouflage.  Since this is not a hunting trip, I immediately ruled out the camo option and on any other day, I probably would’ve placed my order for the green pack without a second thought.  But, I remembered that there were some comments on their website’s homepage about some other colors being offered for a limited time this fall.  The shade of green ULA uses is a favorite of mine, but I thought about the popularity of this backpack among hikers and how the possibility of a row of similar packs lined up outside of a shelter or resupply point could result in some temporary confusion of ownership.  Yes, it would be nice to own a pack that maybe had a more easily distinguished color amongst the piles of earth tones.  Wouldn’t a deep purple or maybe even a pink be nice?  So, I click over to the homepage to check out my options; red, navy blue, royal blue, khaki, black, yellow and olive drab.  No purple, no pink and even orange was missing from the usual palette of secondary colors.

Since I planned on emailing the company with a question concerning the shoulder straps and they welcome comments or suggestions, I decided to include a message stating that it might be nice to have purple or pink added to their special color options.  Their response was expeditious and a little surprising.  It turns out that they do offer purple, but were currently out of stock and wouldn’t be getting resupplied for 4-5 months.  (I’m leaving in a little over 5 months, so that’s too close for my comfort.)  They also offer a pink pack and if you order it, ULA donates 20% of the purchase price to breast cancer research.  There was a picture included in the email and it left no doubt in my mind that this pack will stand out in a crowd.  This is a deep, hot pink and black pack, not a subtle, soft cotton candy pink.  Still, how could I turn down an offer like that – a color that is outside the norm and a donation to a worthy cause – I was sold on the idea and placed my order.

Afterward, it occurs to me that maybe my initial assessment of the overwhelming amount of muted earth tones among hikers’ gear and apparel is wrong.  Or maybe it’s just me and my choices, but with my sea foam green shirt, beach beige pants, turquoise blue wind jacket, tangerine orange pack cover, sunshine yellow tent, bright blue sleeping bag and now, hot pink backpack on the way, my gear collection appears to resemble a Caribbean marketplace more than an Appalachian backwoods campsite. 

I could say that I’ve chosen these colors to emphasize the floral highlights of spring and thereby am concealing myself in the blooms of the season, but my suspicion is that my selections may be camouflaging the excitement of another upcoming trip that has nothing to do with hiking at all – a seven day eastern Caribbean cruise that my husband and I will be leaving for on Thursday in honor of our silver wedding anniversary.  Whatever the reasons for my color choices, I hope this gear will brighten up those gray, rainy days of spring in the Appalachians.  And maybe, just maybe, the bears, who see colors as well as any humans, will appreciate the added variety among the blossoms of spring.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Waiting & Weighing

Thirty years ago, on a humid Orlando, Florida morning, I was cinching up the opening to my Navy duffle bag after filling it with my new issue of uniform items.  This was the first time that I would be strapping a major amount of "stuff" to my back...stuff that amounted to my entire worldly possessions at the time, aside from a few clothes, a bicycle and a box or two of miscellaneous childhood memories in storage back home.  I do not know what the bag weighed, but my best guess would be at least 40-45 lbs.  I was young then...and proud to be where I was...serving my country and on my own...and I was going to "make it" no matter what. 

A smile sneaks across my face whenever I remember the cocky, or shall I say, extremely confident, young person I was at that time.  Have I really changed from those early years?  Yes, but something of that youngster remains alive inside.  Something, or someone inside, stills likes to say, "I'm going to make it, no matter what." 

So, here I am again, getting ready to strap onto my back what will amount to all my worldly possessions.  Ok, so in reality, it won't really be all I own, but it certainly will end up feeling that way at times, I'm sure.  The truth is, I will be carrying everything that I will need for survival on my back for 5-7 months.  The only changes in my possessions will be the resupplying of the consumable items; water, food, fuel; and probably some minor equipment or clothing exchanges along the way as conditions change.  This won't be just a short half mile march to the barracks to unload a duffel bag.  The weight of this "bag" matters much more.

If you spend a little time in the hiking forums, trail websites or any backpacking magazine, you quickly learn that pack weight is a very common discussion.  Minimizing the amount of load one carries without compromising safety or too much comfort is the ultimate goal of long distance hikers when it comes to backpack weight.  The belief being that the lighter the load, the more enjoyable the hike, but like most "comfort" and "necessities" issues, the opinions are as varied as the people giving them.  Of course, the basic necessities are agreed upon; food, clothing and shelter; but the amount, styles and weights of those items are what comes into play when dealing with the issue of pack weight. 

I'm not going to waste anyone's time by talking about all the little details and nuances or pros and cons of particular equipment.  If you're interested in those subjects, there are plenty of discussions in various forums and videos to view on the web at your leisure.  What I am going to say is that I have never spent so much time fussing over ounces as what I have with this endeavor.  Ask yourself, when is the last time you thought about how much your shoes or shirt weighed?  We might try on an article of clothing, especially something like a jacket or sweater, and say, "Oh, that's too heavy or bulky for my liking", but we don't ask the store clerk, "Excuse me, do you know how much this weighs?"  Nor do we take two different shirts that are fairly comparable and place them on a set of kitchen food scales to see which may be an ounce or two lighter than the other when we decide what we are going to wear.  This is not true of the long distance hiker. Every ounce matters, because all those little ounces end up being pounds off your pack weight. 

This obsession with the amount of weight being carried has produced a new brand of "nerd" called the "gram weenie."  Neither of these terms are intended to be derogatory to anyone.  It is a known fact, that nerds provide the world with tons of great inventions due to their intense focus on the "grams" of details in so many areas of life.  Without them, progress toward lighter and stronger materials would not be made.  Still, I wonder, does the average hiker need to obsess over every ounce or should that be reserved for those who intend to work on the development of the next great invention of lighter, stronger material or a better design of backpack, tent or shoe?

And there's also the question of what exactly is a "healthy" or safe back pack weight?  It is recommended that you not carry more than 20% of your body weight and of course, you must take into consideration your physical condition as well. The ladies I'm heading out with next spring aren't exactly in the group of twenty-somethings...no offense intended to my fellow hikers...but we're also not so far over the hill that we're driving scooters around the grocery store.  We have our share of aches and pains amongst us and hopefully, enough maturity to realize our limitations. 

One of those limitations seems to involve our "sleeping systems." This term is used to describe the type of items you use for sleeping, such as a hammock, or sleeping pad & bag.  It doesn't take a genius to realize that a good night's sleep is important for someone who will be spending 8-12 hours a day hiking up and down mountains.  And we certainly aren't children anymore who are capable of spending hours sleeping on the floor and then bounce off it like a super ball when they wake.  No, we're more like a piece of Play-doh that's been squished flat on the funny papers.  If we sleep on the floor, we have to be pealed off that surface to get up in the morning and often have impressions printed on our bodies from where we were laying.  But we certainly can't carry our Sealy or Tempurpedic mattress with us on this journey; they weigh too darn much and wouldn't fit in our backpacks anyway.

And what about the backpacks themselves?  It must be big enough to hold everything you are going to need, yet light enough to not increase your burden tremendously.  It absolutely must fit you properly.  I loved the conversation that took place a few days ago between a few of my fellow hikers.  They were discussing which backpack they each had chosen to use and why.  One gal remarked that her selection put most of the weight of the pack on her hip belt instead of on her shoulders.  Then she made a side remark that most women totally understand..."whoever thought they would want weight on their hips?"  Who indeed; we are definitely making decisions based on a different set of parameters now.

So, how does one achieve the comfort desired and still have the ability to haul the necessities on an aging frame?  You research.  You learn about new products and read reviews.  You make hard decisions between what you want and what you need.  You get creative and use one item for multiple uses.  For example, a salesman the other day relayed a story of backpackers that use a Frisbee for a dinner plate.  It's lightweight; wash it after dinner and you have your afternoon or evening recreation as well.  You count ounces and weigh everything twice, once in the balances between necessity and comfort; then again, between comfort and your ability to carry the load. 

Ultimately, every hiker must decide for themselves where the boundaries are going to be for weight, comfort and necessity.  Everyone hikes their own hike and what may be considered a "luxury" item or unnecessary by one hiker, may be considered a "must have" item by another.  Your mental health and enjoyment of this journey play as much a part in a successful completion as the most costly ultralight equipment, if not more so.  This trip may require every ounce of your strength, courage and determination at times, so why not allow yourself a little luxury and personal pleasure along the way?  I say, if you have the ability to carry an item and it's important to your enjoyment of this trip, then by all means, pack it.  You can always change your mind and send it home if you find it's too much for you or your opinion of the "necessity" changes. 

While waiting for spring, I'll be weighing everything "necessary" for my pack.  And if I make the wrong decisions, I may end up losing more than body weight on the way north.