Don’t hike your own hike

(a moral framework for lightweight backpacking and outdoor recreation)

If you have been around hiking circles long enough, you know of the phrase “Hike Your Own Hike”.  The idea that as long as your hike does not effect other people, it’s all kosher.

-Paul Magnanti

…I’m fine with your HYOH just don’t destroy my HYOH please.

-from the BPL forums

 

The phrase hike your own hike has become a reflexive catchphrase with a variety of meanings in the context of lightweight backpacking.  Virtually all of these meanings are bad, or at the very least troubling, as most of them center around a refusal to engage in a debate over the purpose and minutia of lightweight backpacking (and outdoor recreation generally), and by proxy a refusal to acknowledge that the details of how one pursues lightweight backpacking matter.  I will hike my own hike, you will hike your own hike, and irrespective of the differences the two approaches may have, we will agree to ignore all consequence and conflict.

The implicit assumption here is that lightweight backpacking has no particular value, worth or importance, except perhaps as entertainment for the hiker in question.  This is not merely false, it is a pernicious lie with grave social consequences.  The enduring popularity of multiday outdoor recreation, for the last century and in the western world, is one piece of evidence.  The profligatory nature of internet forums dedicated to said recreation is another, as is the vociferation with which the aforementioned minute details are discussed.  The tendency of pseudonymous humans to become immoderate in their discourse should never be underestimated, but all the same I do not think that obsessive gram-counting is only a symptom of 21st century human maillaise.  There is something about lightweight backpacking which speaks with particular directness to significant aspects of the human condition.

To be clear: that your pack is a particular weight in and of itself means nothing.  For all its cultural cachet, backpacking (irrespective of base weight) is particularly prone to ressentiment (1), that self-loathing which comes from failing to definitively succeed or fail at an aspiration.  Lots of people love the idea of backpacking.  Many struggle to actually practice it, finding excuses to cut trips short or cancel them altogether, or worst of all hardly ever plan to make it out the door.  Your backpacking is of worth insofar as it challenges you, enlightens you, and makes you a better person.  If you are not in your backpacking pursuing this self-overcoming, than the contents of your pack and gear closet are merely variations on a theme of materialism as self-deception.  The people in your life and the world in which you live deserve more.

Lightweight backpacking is of special value because wilderness travel distills the challenge and character building which are largely constituent of personal development into a uniquely succinct package.  You, the tool-building ape, plan an outing.  You use judgment and experience (in short: character) to quantify the hazards, and then select your tools accordingly.  The artifice of a lightweight pack forces a more honest consideration of these hazards, which should bring about a more developed understanding of which hazards exist primarily on the ground, and which dwell primarily in the mind.  As the stakes are raised, either with more ambitious trips or heightened artificial constraints (e.g. a SUL base weight), the challenges and benefits become greater.

Naturally, the self-confidence and self-knowledge which grows out of a bold backcountry plan successfully implemented will translate into other realms.  You’ll become a more effective spouse, friend and colleague.  And that is where the true worth of lightweight backpacking lies; it may be one of the more effective catalysts of personal development available today.  Personal development invariably determines and redetermines our relationships with others, which is to say, our identity itself.  We can become more worthy people and create a better planet for everyone else at exactly the same time.

In a world of overconsumption and social injustice, backpacking is luxury and privilege.  Don’t squander this important opportunity by pretending that the way you engage in it is trivial enough to not be worthy of comment.  Don’t be facile enough to pretend that your actions will not inevitably and always affect others.  When you hike your hike, you are always already hiking the hike of someone else.

1: Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined it in Present Age as “…the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing.”

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35 thoughts on “Don’t hike your own hike

  1. Lot’s of interesting points here, Dave. You write “For all its cultural cachet, backpacking (irrespective of base weight) is particularly prone to ressentiment (1), that self-loathing which comes from failing to definitively succeed or fail at an aspiration.” I think it is important to recognise that sometimes (or should I say more or less always?), a hike is just a hike, with no vain attempt to accomplish anything else but the experience in itself.

    Maybe I’m just getting it wrong 😉

    1. Yes, but that “experience in itself” always means more. Even if there is no more extensive intent, and even if the broader consequences are not contemplated or realized by the person/people in question.

      1. I might be getting it all wrong, maybe due to language issues or due to a clash between Scandinavian and North American hiking culture. Still, if I am reading you correctly, I have to disagree: “If you are not in your backpacking pursuing this self-overcoming, then the contents of your pack and gear closet are merely variations on a theme of materialism as self-deception. The people in your life and the world in which you live deserve more.” Is that really so? Yes, a hike can be a mental and physical challenge, but looking around me here in Scandinavia, I have a hard time finding many people who go outdoors merely as an act of self-overcoming. Most people are in it for the scenery, the fresh air, the fishing, the photography, the hunting or the share fun of skiing down a mountain, NOT necessarily for the athletic or mental challenge itself. Of course there is a sense of accomplishment when you manage to cope with the outdoors for extended periods or travel long distances, but it is not the main focus. I hate to see hiking reduced to some sort of trivial sadomasochistic act of performance in the outdoors (even though that can be fun). No offence, Dave, but it does sound to me that if people are not hiking your hike, then it is of no worth.

        1. Hello Dave,

          although pretty new to your blog, I’d like to agree with Mikkel: You seem to be unaware of a diffrent approach to nature; one that wants nothing more than nature itself. Many people simply go out because of the experience itself, and not because they are “more effective” afterwards, what you assert to be “where the true worth of lightweight backpacking lies”.
          I agree, that “If you are not in your backpacking pursuing this self-overcoming, then the contents of your pack and gear closet are merely variations on a theme of materialism as self-deception”. But what you seem to mean with “selft-overcoming” here is what Mikkel named a “trivial sadomachistic act of performance”, a competitive element of self-perfection; but maybe this way of interpretation only arrises because of your technocratic vocabulary (“effective catalysts of personal development”). I would agree to the quoted passage, if “self-overcoming” meant in the first place opening one’s eyes for the Other, for an experience of the primary dimension of nature, that takes place quietly.
          Then again, there, and only in the hike itself the “true worth” is to be found. All “personal development” and change of our world is mere consequence and only approved because measured with the “worth” we find in our experience in nature.
          If not, and the true worth really were to be found within growing efficiency, it would be just the senseless worth of self-perfecting capitalism, you criticise as “a world of overconsumption and social injustice”.
          What do you think?

          All the best,
          Franz

          1. Franz, I appreciate your thoughts, and the time you took to write them. I intended this essay to be one way of talking about one theme in what this blog is all about. Self-overcoming is a major part of that, and is necessarily different for every individual. Your take on it, about encountering the Other quietly in nature, is something I seek as well, and fits into my take on my ideas here. I emphasized another aspect of it for mainly rhetorical purposes.

  2. The phrase ‘hike your own hike” reminds me of a caricature of libertarians – that we are all isolationists, with no inclination to help, or work with others. Indeed, the opposite is true. We are energetically engaged in cooperative (and mutually beneficial) pursuits. There is no other kind of pursuit, really. We all need each other.

    Your final point, that “you are already hiking the hike of someone else” is sharp. For example, when I skin up a well known line in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I’m often following an existing skintrack. And if not, then the route I choose to place my own track in, has been well worn over the years. I (and my party) have an obligation to put in a safe, efficient track for others to follow. It is interesting that winter after winter, skintracks appear in the same places. The best routes are well known, and tracks that deviate from those lines, are often discarded. The point: Safe BC skiing in the Wasatch is a collective effort. We rely on the avy reports, observations, and experiences of others. The same is true for any outdoor recreation. The web only makes that knowledge-sharing easier.

    So, yes, hike or own hike. But do so with the knowledge that your actions are not isolated, nor is your experience or route (especially in 2012) original.

  3. Do these people who simply talk about backpacking gear but never backpack really exist? You follow the BPL (and possibly other) forums far more carefully than I do, Dave and although I hear people poke fun at people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk but I have trouble believing they could actually possibly exist!

    1. I don’t think there are any who simply never go, but there are a whole lot who (in my problematically removed opinion) do not go as often as they could. A disease supported by the internet, methinks.

      That being said, the point I would hope to emphasize more is that many folks, and I was one for many years, are for a variety of reason loath to engage in all the often scary aspects of backcountry travel which make it as important as it is. The positive side of hike your own hike have been emphasized enough. It is past time to poke the world a little bit in this regard.

  4. I always took the phrase to have a far simpler meaning. I was out on a section of the AT with a few friends, and I was the slower of the bunch. I wasn’t going to let the fact that I couldn’t keep their pace, and frankly didn’t want to, affect my trip or theirs. I’d go at my own pace, enjoy the scenery around me, and catch up with them at the next shelter. I was hiking my own hike.

  5. DaveC curious to use the Internet as a forum to blame the Internet for the malaise…are u suggesting folks get their trail-fix virtually by reading sites like this?

  6. I’m not trying to be harsh, but this post could be a lot better than it is, writing-wise. You did ask for unvarnished criticism not too long ago, so I’m hoping you’ll see this the same way, and not as some sort of callout or attack. I agree with your points in part, but I shouldn’t have needed to read the piece six times to pick out them out. There are a number of problems that make it both confusing and hard to read. I originally intended to write a response post, but was unable to determine so much of your meaning that I found I had few direct points to address. I don’t want to be rude, so I won’t post more unless you want it.

  7. “Your backpacking is of worth insofar as it challenges you, enlightens you, and makes you a better person. If you are not in your backpacking pursuing this self-overcoming, than the contents of your pack and gear closet are merely variations on a theme of materialism as self-deception.”

    That sounds pretty judgmental to me. One could say exactly the same thing about any aspect of your life. I.e. if your approach to food consumption doesn’t challenge you, enlighten you, and make you a better person and the world a better place… An ethical vegan could consider your nourishment practices materialistic and self-deceptive.

    I think what is important here is that we need to challenge ourselves and make ourselves better people. The route or activity that gets us there won’t be the same for everyone. While it is a worthy goal to make every aspect of our lives a character building exercise, the truth of the matter is that we have limited bandwidth. So while ultralight backpacking might be the path to enlightenment for you right now, you may be letting the character building potential of other things in your life slide. And that is OK. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them.

    Our goal as ultralight backpackers (or humans in general) should be to live a life that uses our passions to be inspiring to others. If we are all living our lives trying to be better people, living an inspired and inspiring life, and being short to judge each other, I think we will get better mileage.

    1. ditto Damien…! “being short to judge each other, I think we will get better mileage.” Lots of room out there for lots of views, hike your own hike…

    2. The at least slightly hyperbolic judgmental tone was intentional.

      But you get at the ethical nut of the issue, which is that in a world which recognizes traditional moral systems as being built upon colonialism, racism, sexism and other deeply problematic systems of discrimination, how do we at once build new modes of living without giving in to relativistic nihilism?

      1. Dave,

        Our moral systems were and are not based on colonialism, racism, sexism, etc, but on most religious teachings of acceptance, whether it be Jesus or Bhuda or someone else. Those conditions exist because of human’s collective subconscious ‘agreement’ to ignore said codes of moral conduct. Colonialism, racism, sexism, etc. are the results of placing more importance on the self than those that surround us. Boil it down to prehistoric nature vs. nurture. Nature has hardwired us to survive by looking out exclusively for the self. Philosophers and religious teachers realized that man can individually survive this way but not in growing groups ie. any form of civilization. Therefore, we have been ‘nurtured’ by religion to recognize the fact that it is advantageous for individuals in a group setting to look out for each other in the long run. Let’s face it, if all men followed their natural instincts and bedded every woman they found attractive society might be a bit off kilter for the worse.

        Now to your point and its relationship to backpacking. I believe you are a drowning man grasping at straws. Backpacking is at its fundamental best, man’s suppressed natural inclination to inhabit wild places. Man was meant to live in nature and not in the concrete cess-pools of society. Man at his very core yearns to be self-reliant. A human living in a city is about as self-reliant as a wolverine in a zoo. I grew up living on a farm where we raised cows, chickens and sometimes pigs. We heated our house with wood we cut and split and had a garden over an acre in size. We would lose electricity for a week at a time and it never affected us too much.

        We backpack to return to what humans view as the ideal condition. Man in the wild. The UL is just another little group of people whose ego has tricked them into believing they are somehow better or that their experience is more valid. Man likes to challenge himself, no doubt. Mileage is a way of quantifying/qualifying said challenge and in turn feeding the ego. A subset of man has arbitrarily decided to count and cut grams off his gear as part of the challenge. But really the difference between the backpacking crowd and the UL crowd is equivalent of a man in a Toyota Yaris on the freeway sneering at a guy in the Chrysler 300.

        Hike your own hike implies that all packers are not equal in experience, fitness or desire. I honestly find the saying annoying, because it implies that when I head out into the wilderness I am somehow affecting someone else or their philosophies have bearing on my experience. I can hike 30+ miles a day and would rather camp in the winter than the summer. Am I better for this? Is my experience more valid if I hike the entire Pictured Rocks trail in a day than someone who takes five days to do it? Not at all. Nor is the fact that I wore a one pound pack and my friend used a 3+ lb pack.

        When you think about it, our challenges in the wilderness, if we don’t get injured or killed are still petty experiences when we have a warm house and a fridge full of beer and food to return to. If you really want to challenge yourself, live closer to the wilderness for extended periods of time without a guaranteed income. Until then our ‘wilderness experiences’ are inconsequential diversions that boost our mood and ego a bit.

        If you really wanted to be a better person by your own defined terms, read ‘The Last American Man’ about Eustace Conway by Elizabeth Gilbert. A total badass in every outdoor way. Another book, in a similar vain is Harry Franck’s ‘A Vagabond Journey Around the World’. The guy traveled the world for a year and half with only a change of clothes and a Kodak. Or read up on what potential British SAS have to go through in order to just be accepted into the program. Leave the Gore-Tex, Cuben and Titanium behind. Cover a shitload of wilderness/trailess miles daily and rely on equipment from a hundred years ago and then you’ll have something to write about. Until then your thesis on said topic sounds like Alex Honnold or Tommy Caldwell telling Warren Harding or Yvon Chouinard that their experiences on El Cap weren’t valid or somehow lacked the potential ‘full human experience’ as defined by their abilities or what toys they took with them.

        Great topic but I’ve often found philosophy to be the equivalent of verbal masterbation. A lot of ‘lacademians’ would rather talk about what life means rather than get out and live it. As much as we as humans would like to view ourselves as complex beings, we’re really not. We all want to survive this big bad world and enjoy the ride, while at the same time believing we are somehow better than our neighbor.

        Take it easy,

        rOg

        1. What if women ran around bedding every man they found attractive!!! “Man in the wild” – talk about sexism…

          anyway. I’m pretty sure what D meant by all this (though I’ll agree with several that this is not his most precisely coherent post yet), is that when most people say “hike your own hike” they’re not doing it to empower newbies to just go for it, and they’re not reassuring those old die-hards that nobodies going to judge them for using the same 5 pound pack for the past 40 years (all of which would be good uses of the sentiment) – they say it as a way of dismissing any sort of comparison between themselves and those who have hiked before them, after them, with them… they’re divorcing their hike from any larger question about their role, or the role of hiking, in society. They’re saying – I don’t want to think about my pursuit, I just want to do it. Which steals from them a chance to look deeper into their behavior, not just the doing of it, but how they do it, why they do it, and do it that way, what it means to them, and how that meaning might differ from others’ meanings, etc.

          Every single person who’s responded to this post has fulfilled, at least in part, that evaluative opportunity. And I think if you read his post closely, you won’t find him telling you what your answers should be, just that there is something precious and important in the asking of the questions, and it’d be unfortunate if anyone allowed an oft repeated slogan to, in any way, limit how deeply they analyze their experiences.

          But that’s just me, and this wouldn’t be the first time I stunningly misinterpreted what he meant… (we’ll debate whether nature or nurture leads to the perpetual misunderstandings between men and women 🙂

          1. M,

            Sorry my example came across sexist, Definitely should have expanded by saying that men, with regard to women, over the millenia have obviously been possessive, jealous and violent when it comes to the physiological reproductive imperative. Not much better than animals. You are absolutely correct with ‘what if women…’ Again, due to the vast history of man’s possessive and often violent nature the outcome would be the same.

            As far as men and women being on the same page, where’s the fun in that?!?!

            rOg

        2. My interpretation of the systemic influence of organized religion is substantially less generous than yours. And from what I recall of Gilbert’s book, both Conway Jr and Sr would have had an axis II diagnosis had they been further down the socioeconomic chain.

  8. Frankly, Dave, I think this is one of your better more coherent posts—paired with “A 21st Century Park Service” they represent a profound week of writing. Yes, you get bogged down in the third paragraph (in syntax but not in theory), but I’m going to disagree with most here in the comments, and just say kudos. Seriously, well done.

    As to HYOH, I would challenge any Westerner who goes outside just to enjoy the scenery, etc. to move beyond the self-centered frame of reference (i.e., “I just want to enjoy it, so let me hike my own hike”) to recognize the far-reaching implications of self-gratification. Perhaps John Muir said it best: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

    Our hiking is more than just participating in the history of human travel in a particular region, but it shapes and changes that region as well. Minimally, this means maintaining the existence of a trail simply by walking it. But more broadly—and more fundamentally—it also means participation in the modern post-industrial machine (in other words, corporate colonialism) that pollutes the environment, exploits others, leads to international tensions due to trade disparities and disagreements. Here in Montana, in Glacier National Park, the collective effects of nearly two centuries of industrial revolution are quickly reforming the landscape. Our glaciers won’t be here in 15-20 years, our lakes will lose their glacial flour and brilliant colors, and alpine habitat is decreasing. When I buy a backpack or a tent that is made in China with little to no regulatory control over its emissions or working conditions, I am hitching myself into the destructive forces that connect my hike with everyone else’s. Even if I buy from a US made cottage shop, they are still sourcing their fabrics from overseas, hitching into that same system.

    What I appreciate about lightweight backpacking—and Dave’s thoughts—is an examination of the ethical implications of backcountry travel. The emphasis on skill (not necessarily self-reliance as in the American mythology, but simply the capability to handle a variety of conditions) is not just a way to get your base weight lower, but it is a forestructure with which to engage wilderness. All actions are ethical, and this initial starting point is about the best I know to begin both understanding the non-human world and to interact with it meaningfully. Anyone can carry 40+ pounds, enough to create a tolerable island of human civilization (i.e., materialistic self-deception) in the wilderness. I know because I’ve done it. But what I am learning to do through lightweight packing is to travel within the rhythms of the land with a few select tools that allow me to thrive. It’s no guarantee of success or growth, but it pushes me more forcefully in that direction.

    We may not see it, but in a globalized world (and even before—global trade, or as near to that as we can accomplish, is embedded deep within human historical patterns), our way of life affects others, often deeply. If that isn’t the grounds for ethical evaluation, then I don’t know what is.

    1. The disagreement was centred around the motivation for hiking, not the potential impact our actions have on the environment – there is no question that anything we do influence our surroundings in one way or another. Still, some lightweight backpackers have a tendency to glorify their actions and putting themselves on a pedestal because of their way of hiking. In Norway, there is to my knowledge not the same tendency to judge people by the weight of their backpacks (and hence, in some peoples view, approach to hiking). For a lot of people, a heavy backpack is often a question of economy, since lightweight gear often costs a premium. In addition, the lightest option is not necessarily the most optimal for many people when factors such as functionality, durability and environmental footprint is taken into account.

      Yes, skill is important, and I myself often enjoy to go as light as possible, but skill doesn’t really have to have anything do with our base weight. I have a hard time acknowledging the idea that a lightweight backpacker and his approach to hiking is more environmentally friendly than one with a heavy backpack – the gear change rate of some of these lightweight backpackers seems much higher than that of an “ordinary backpacker” (even though some try to sell of old gear). And then the self-justification sets in: That if I walk lighter, further, higher or wilder than my fellow backpackers, I’m an ethically better person, because I am actually using my gear more than other hikers. I call that self-deception.

      A heavy backpack is not necessarily the product of gear mania, but could simply be the result of the materials used. On the contrary, I would claim that gear obsessed lightweight hikers have a higher carbon imprint on the planet than an ordinary hiker because of the rapid gear turnover. Studies in Norway have revealed that leisure time transport constitutes a major part of the total transport carbon dioxide emissions. If you have to travel to get to your hiking destination, more hiking isn’t going to reduce the carbon imprint, regardless of how high thoughts one may have about ones approach to hiking.

      Am I an ethically better person when I jump into my ICF carbon racing kayak with minimal gear compared to a guy in a polyethylene seakayak wearing a dry suit in a marathon race?

      Am I an ethically better person when I go winter hiking with just a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad compared to a hiker that chooses to bring a tent?

      We should use our energy to encourage people to get out and enjoy the wilds, regardless of their backpacks or approach to hiking, and thereby spurring their interest in protecting the environment 24-7, where it really counts, rather than putting ourselves up on a pedestal.

  9. This is one of the better things I’ve read in a long ass time. It has given new meaning to an already meaningful hike I’m about to take in a couple weeks.

    Thank you.

  10. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?

    I mean, what you say is important and all. However imagine if you added some great pictures or videos to
    give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is
    excellent but with images and videos, this
    site could undeniably be one of the best in its field. Superb blog!

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