Clever, but not yet smart

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.

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15 thoughts on “Clever, but not yet smart

  1. Dave the assumptions here come from what could be seen as a ultra view of UL backpacking. Primus after all make wind screens for upright canister stoves and seem to no see that as an issue. My memory is a tad hazy, but what did Roger over at BPL conclude on windscreens for upright canister stoves? Or does he use one?

    Anyway to the main point in discussion here. Clever Hiker raised no more in funding than Hendrik Morkel did to make the A-Z UL videos. Unlike Hendrik who is what? 18 months behind and 15/16 episodes to go Collins has produced high quality visual product which trumps anything the A-Z has so far shared.

    Points on his rucksack back length seems valid in the first instance, but Dave is a PCT thru-hiker and maybe he like Skurka, who has wrote (endorsed) buying a size down knowing he leans out on the trail and needs a size down to fit his lean frame 1200 miles up the trail. It might be why?, or he might be wrong?. But its not in its self a failing of the videos.

    This is a basic introduction video series and not aimed at the UL proficient person, nor does it seek to create deep reflection, nor debate on UL. I suggest those seeking a depth of debate on UL seek out Morkel and challenge his ideas like using a map and compass is UL and debate his videos which seem all about gear, gear and more gear – plus lack the editing and finish Collins videos have. There is a debate and as for the delivered on time Clever Hiker Season one lets judge it as a basic introduction with a broad overview which is all it is. Nothing deep, nothing complex and yes Dave you make some good points here, some that give me much to consider and reflect on, but in terms of UL videos Clever Hiker Season 1 is a lot better than anything I have seen yet.

  2. I also just saw the series and was asked for feedback by email, which I gave. I found the author of the series to be open to comments. Your review made me smile, and I agree with a lot of what you say…. just maybe not the way you say it. Battling the End Days of Rome is a tall order for a kickstarter backpacking video, and this is a series for beginners. Anyway, apparently there is a skills/technique focused series on the way, which will contain some info on leave no trace. I would welcome that. It doesn’t exactly resolve the schism you are talking about, but it might go some way to redress the balance.

    1. I realize my praise was only a short paragraph, and want to highlight that I agree; they are excellent videos, and all evidence points towards Collins et al running a very tight ship. I genuinely look forward to the next season, and if they presented a promising prospectus would even consider giving them some funding.

  3. I have yet to be convinced of the usefulness of the video format for direct instruction, save for very limited application to tutorials.

  4. Good and very fair review Dave thanks! I would encourage you to pick up any recent copy of the magazine that calls themselves “Backpacker” and give it a shake. …Too easy?

    1. I read Backpacker once or twice a year, and occasionally they have good articles. Steve Howe had a good one two years ago about a trip in the Bob; I just wish they had given him another 2000 words.

  5. It is refreshing to see that you know everything and that your view, by default, must then be conventional wisdom. No one else must be able to learn from these fake campers and frauds touting gear options and techniques that since you know about, so must everyone else. If you could only help the rest of the world to catch up to your smugness and ego, we’d all be so much better off. Cheers to narcissism and for criticisms of hard work and valiant effort from those unable to lift a finger on their own.

    1. Truth,

      Fact = No one brings along the same sunglasses they wore to last weekends rave on a backpacking trip to Zion. Once I saw 2 cute, slender looking females doing just that, the videos lost all credibility for me.

    2. When is Clelland! going to start a Kickstarter campaign for an instructional video series? I’d pay for his proven knowledge and educational technique any day.

  6. Wow wow wow. Did you every think for a moment that this is an instructional video for novices and those who aren’t seasoned Trail Ambassadors – you know, noobies trying to learn. Take a look in the mirror friend – you are a certifiable p-nus.

  7. You live in a very small world if what bothered you were what they were wearing and where they shot scenes. The series is instructional, not a documentary. Seriously, your criticisms are beyond shallow.

    1. Dear Rich and Tina :

      I believe what bothered D was the fact that, in this video, clearly intended for novices and noobs, they did not start by saying “Lightweight is a philosophy and here is how you can go lightweight with what you have right now, by learning new skills and thinking critically about your approach” instead they said “Go to a store and buy this kind of stuff and then maybe think about it later”.

      Which, especially for novices and noobies, it would have been nice to start them thinking before buying.

      Also – in an instructional video, it seems a bad idea to instruct people on how to camp 2 miles from a trailhead in an area where camping is not allowed. There is an aspiration aspect to any video intended for beginners, and if a beginner was inspired by the video, went out and bought the recommended items, and went to Zion to do what they did, they would be sorely disappointed, because you are not allowed to do some of the things they staged their shots to imply they did. Is it not better to instruct and inspire the noobies toward something achievable???

      Also – Tina, your shallow comment amuses me, because D was trying to say that looking at Lightweight from a consumer standpoint is only part of the picture, and the series could have gone deeper into the thoughts and techniques behind the gear. Encouraging beginners to think about their actions is shallow indeed.

      -M

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