CleverHiker.com wants to make the best backpacking tutorial videos, so you can, as narrator Dave Collins says at the end of each episode; “Hike light, hike smart, have fun.”
Earlier this year they raised a pile of money, and last month the first season went live. They were kind enough to provide free downloads to the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors, which is how I came to be writing about their work.
The CH videos are slick. Production values are high across the board, the structure of each episode is tight, and the visuals are both illustrative and evocative. Filming appears to have taken place in Zion, as well as alpine and coastal PacNW terrain. Seeking out such variety is laudable. Beginners, clearly the target audience, will learn a lot from the 10 bite-sized (5-6 minute) episodes. I can’t think of another comparably expedient place to consume said information.
I also have quite a few problems with the first season, some minor, some systemic.
Virtually all of the Zion footage is posed down on the Angels Landing trail, the horse loop by the Sentinel, and the bottom of Orderville. It’s an understandable choice given the desire to get good footie without lugging gear too far, but when you pretend to camp 2 miles from the trailhead in an area where such is emphatically not allowed I’m going to knock you a full letter grade out of hand.
The content in the first season relies almost entirely on regurgitating conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Collins et al not infrequently repeat ideas which are factually inaccurate (e.g. that loft directly correlates with warmth in sleeping bag insulation, that synthetic insulation stays warm when damp by not loosing loft, that thicker sleeping pads are warmer). Less frequently they implicitly endorse ideas which are plain dangerous (e.g. using a windscreen with an upright canister stove). Overall there is a general lack of examination and engagement with the concepts introduced. A variety of contemporary ultralight backpacks are shown and discussed, but almost all the screen time is given over to discussion of volume and features, rather than frame and harness systems and fit. This last point is especially salient: many of the folks who try and dislike frameless packs do so because they get a pack which is too small, and indeed around 50% of the packs shown on people throughout the video series have torso lengths several inches short of ideal. Given the lack of instruction to the contrary, or indeed any discussion of pack fit whatsoever, CH are endorsing bad habits.
All of this is mere nit-picking, or indeed deck chairs on the Titanic. The larger problem is encapsulated well about halfway through the first video above, when Collins segues directly and without hesitation from stating that their focus will be ultralight backpacking, to talking about gear. This is a thoroughly conventional and understandable way to think about backpacking with a lighter pack; buy lighter stuff, learn to use it, and you’ll be good to go. I’d guess this is how most folks go about it, and while perhaps not outright wrong, there are compelling reasons to encourage other ways, especially in beginners.
One reason is financial. Frameless packs and alcohol stove are indeed cheaper than a Dragonfly and Terraplane, but a Western Mountaineering bag and HMG Echo II are several times more expensive than a Blue Kazoo and Clip Flashlight. I’ll do everyone a favor by withholding comments about the Neoair. Point being, to claim that ultralight gear is cheaper than traditional gear while endorsing upgraditis as the best way to lighten your pack is disingenuous. Ultralight is cheaper insofar as it endorses technique over the brute force of the wallet, and this idea simply does not exist in the CH universe.
Another reason reason CH’s approach comes up short is that it promotes a shallow engagement with the subject and a superficial understanding of learning and safety. As Collins says in the episode on first aid and essentials: “The problem is, all those extras add up to a lot of weight, which can make you less comfortable.” This statement is as accurate as it is irrelevant and undiscerning. People buy pre-packaged first aid bundles and haul multitools and redundant repair kits because it makes them mentally comfortable. At the same time they’re provided with a sense of security and relieved of the burden which cultivating and maintaining knowledge constantly demands. It’s easier for REI to sell 80 dollars kits off the shelf than 600 dollar WFR courses. By tacitly going along with this, CH is supporting a false model of safety and endorsing the quintessentially modern fallacy that democracy means being able to buy your way to comfort, knowledge, and dare I say, happiness.
Collins et al are currently soliciting ideas for their second season, and therefore my challenge to them is this: remake your first season from a different angle. Emphasize technique and critical thinking. Create a countervailing yet complementary narrative which emphasizes the points from the introductory episodes in different ways. Discuss how minimalism is about attentiveness and adaptation to the landscape, while backpacking has all too often been about clobbering nature with a pack full of hypothetical. You can do this, because you can go light with the stuff which is in the closet right now. Democracy of initiative, rather than democracy of and by wealth. There is no perfect style other than the style which gets you on the trail this weekend, and here is how to do that. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because if you get wet, cold and hungry it’s very unlikely you’ll die and very likely that you’ll learn something important, both about your gear and about yourself. Comfort in the backcountry should not be about recreating the experience of sitting on a couch in a climate controlled room. It should be about comfort in the abilities and understanding, both of yourself and world immediately around you, built over days and weeks and months of practice.
There are, in summary, two ways to look at ultralight backpacking. One way is based explicitly on acquisitionalism and is implicitly tied to a way of being-in-the-world which love of wild places should lead us to view with unease. CH, in their first season, followed this line directly. Another way is based on technique, contemplation, and critical evaluation of equipment in context. At its best it promotes an understanding of fun which goes beyond 5 second neurocortical reward cycles. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but CleverHiker isn’t there, yet.