Quit being comfortable

It has been noteworthy, and not just I think because I’ve been paying attention, how often comfort has been mentioned recently as a selling point for “ultralight” backpacking. For example, from the recent revival of Sierra Designs as a (hopefully) relevant brand; “…the Flashlight is the ultimate backpacking tent for those who believe that comfort and lightweight should not be mutually exclusive.”

I would like to offer my official condemnation of this trend.


I do so for two reasons.

First, as I mentioned last year, backpacking should not be a mere variation on Disneyland.  It’s been over 15 years since the nihilism of fun for fun’s sake was definitively explained to us, so cut it out.

Second, and a sub-point of this idea, which those hostile to the broadness of the original might yet find palatable, is that backpacking ought to be about adapting ourselves to the land, rather than spending money on ways to at once avoid technique and keep ones pack light.  Do not try to mimic the home environment in the woods.  Try to expand your definition of comfort to something far beyond that fuzzy place where you can sleep with your feet out of the blankets.  You can get away with just enough sleeping bag.  You can use a tarp in a snowstorm, or during bug season.  You can sleep, well, in the wilderness without a book, ipod, earplugs, whisky, or lunesta.  You can go a bit hungry with no mental or physical ill effects.  Unless you are foolish, there is a massive gap between what most of us think as dangerously cold, and what actually is.  That 1:100,000″ map will do just fine.  Comfort in the backcountry is a self-overcoming, and thus never finished.

One does not need to swallow that elephant whole.  Trying to avoid all the miserable experiments the above particulars entail would be short circuiting that thing called learning, and is thus spiritually ill advised.  But so to is floating along in a blissful cocoon where leaks, dirt, and unexpected spikes in temperature are viewed as aberrations.


15 responses to “Quit being comfortable”

  1. Isn’t a huge part of “ultralight” backpacking the comfort of not hauling around 50+ pounds of stuff? And aren’t people that haul all the stuff into the backcountry just the opposite by foregoing comfort on the trail to have it in camp?

    1. There is no question the hauling a heavy pack is not especially comfortable. Three of the last four weekends I’ve hauled the heaviest packs I’ve carried in years on hunting trips, and my comfort level went down. I like a light pack because I like hiking, and with less stuff I can hike more in a given day.

      The other objection to most (not all, see Jaako below) huge packs is that they bespeak a not especially critical take on backcountry equipment and the way it shapes experience. This has always been almost as compelling as #1 for me.

  2. Spot on. Everyone should hike their own hike, but that being said, I agree with you.

  3. I agree mostly with what you say. Or maybe totally. But there comes this problem with personal and subjective experiences.

    How much “misery” should be or needs to be included? If you stay on the comfort zone all the time and always, something is likely (or definitely) missed, but how far out of the comfort zone one should reach to really adapt? One case of this could be for example my friend’s 48-hour trip where he basically didn’t use any gear at all: http://korpijaakko.com/2013/08/26/trip-summary-beyond-backpacking/ Is that something we should strive for? To be able to do our weekend trips without any kit? Or adapt on a logn term and learn to make our own tools and shelter as we go?

    I don’t know. I like to think I need my stove-heated double-walled expedition tent on a glacier after fucked up day with 20+ m/s winds and half-an-inch of freezing rain on my kit. But of course one doesn’t need camp shoes in summer! At least not in my opinion. ;)

  4. To each his own, but I hear you. I always chuckle when someone is willing to wipe their butt with a rock but insists they just have to have a wide extra long inflatable sleeping pad or a $100 pillow “system”.

  5. I did a thru-hike a few years ago and I brought a rectangular piece of Tyvek about 2′ wide by 1′ long and I used it as a “bedside table” to put my headlamp, watch, camera, journal et al onto next to my head at night thereby keeping it off the sometimes wet ground. This little comfort was enough to keep me going for 61 days straight with my 12 lb. base pack that was relatively devoid of comforts.

    The Sierra Design tent mentioned was an early acquisition on my part as I began the foray into UL backpacking but I quickly re-sold it favoring instead the raw feeling of single piece of 8×10′ nylon over my head and light quilt and bivy ’round my person. Barely looked back since.

    1. I got a sleeve Flashlight for Christmas when I was 6 or 7. Spent enough nights in it (many in the backyard) that within 12 years the floor delaminated. Fond memories.

  6. My early years of backpacking (as a teen) were defined by being miserable. In hindsight I think I was lucky, as I have never had the expectation that backpacking should be particularly comfortable. Every time I am comfortable I am pleasantly surprised. However, I definitely think I am getting softer with age:).
    Every time someone on BPL asks “will I be warm in this particular set up?” I always think, well that depends on how comfortable you want to be. Some people want to be just as comfortable as at home, some people are happy if they make it through the night alive:).

  7. yarrrgh! the icy flows rejuvenate and refresh while sucking the life…endure and thou art greater than ye were!

  8. “Do not try to mimic the home environment in the woods” -I really appreciate that you said this. The point is adventure and part of that juxtaposition of we think of as comfort.

  9. […] “lighten your pack without effecting comfort or safety!”  We’ve been over the comfort issue before, and I worry that thinking the contents of your pack should make the top five list of safety […]

  10. […] year later I discussed that too directly translating the expectations of civilization to the backcountry is a recipe for […]

  11. […] Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon.  As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame. […]

  12. […] extended periods is not about using knowledge and $$ to mimic the four walls of home.  It is about using technique and an open mind to discover new ways of being in the world.  I understand that companies can’t sell a new […]

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