Back to basics: Backpacking and Camping

After watching Game of Thrones for the first time yesterday (lots of first this weekend: first time backpacking and camping, first time watching Game of Thrones), the nagging question in my head was: do people in medieval times shower infrequently? We often watch films featuring ancient warriors, gladiators and villagers, men going out to war, killing and slaughtering in battlefields, all bloodied, dirty, grimy and scrubby people, and it occurred to me, people in those times go for long periods without showering. To shower frequently meant to do so once a month (and not daily as we do in modern times), a shocking truth I learnt from this article which explained why bathing was uncommon in medieval Europe.

Equipped with this knowledge, I’m now much more excited and anticipative about backpacking and camping in the open country, where I am truly getting back to the basics of humanity and reversion of civilization, where:

  • instead of living in houses or hotels, we scout for campgrounds and set up tents on flat terrain and by a water source, usually next to a stream, river or lake;
Setting up tent in the middle of the wilderness in Tahoe National Forest, by Rock Lake
Setting up tent in the middle of the wilderness in Tahoe National Forest, by Rock Lake
  • instead of having potable drinking water straight from the tap, we get our water from streams, rivers and lakes and self-filter it to drink and cook with;
  • instead of cooking on gas or electric stoves in our homes, we bring our own stove, fire starter and pots to cook with;
Photo credit: Gabriel Roberts, the organizer and master mind behind this backpacking trip to Grouse Ridge and Rock Lake in Tahoe National Forest. In the photo with me is Jessica who is no stranger to backpacking, having backpacked alone in South America for six months several years ago.
Photo credit: Gabriel Roberts, the organizer and master mind behind this backpacking trip to Grouse Ridge and Rock Lake in Tahoe National Forest. In the photo with me is Jessica who is no stranger to backpacking, having backpacked alone in South America for six months several years ago.
  • instead of having an endless supply of an assortment of food choices at our disposal easily purchased from the supermarket, grocery store or market, we have to be contented with and appreciate the scarcity of whatever food supply we bring in our backpacks; mostly freeze-dried and not-easily-perishable food items - in other words, no crispy thin-crust pizzas, steaming hot buns and grilled kabobs. I have to say though, the selection of gourmet freeze-dried food from Backpacker Pantry is pretty outstanding - there’s Pad Thai, Curry Beef Noodle, Chicken Risotto with Mushroom, Potato and Beef Stew - all freeze-dried, weighing less than a pound and ready to eat with added hot water let to cook in fifteen minutes. I learnt to be less concerned with the gastronomic art of food consumption and eating only as a functional necessity to fuel me for the activities of the day;
  • instead of having a permanent and weather-proof roof over your head, all you have is a tent with rain covers, driven to temporary permanence with stakes over the four corners of the tent to the ground, a mummy-like sleeping bag which you encase yourself in, a sleeping pad to toss and turn around relatively comfortably on and a small little pillow usually improvised from your bundle of clothes and jackets;
Both Jessica and Gabriel's backpacks weighed between 40-50 lbs each, and mine, admittedly, weighed only 27 lbs, because they both carried most of the gears we could share, including tents, stove, pots and water filter. I'll have to carry my weight next time.
Both Jessica and Gabriel's backpacks weighed between 40-50 lbs each, and mine, admittedly, weighed only 27 lbs, because they both carried most of the gears we could share, including tents, stove, pots and water filter. I'll have to carry my weight next time.
  • instead of having your food and daily essential items kept within easy reach at home, you now keep every food item and toiletries, essentially any item with scent on them, in a bear vault or canister, for the very purpose of keeping those hungry, curious large beasts away from our source of survival. And it’s not enough to just keep food and toiletries in a bear canister, you have to be strategic in planting the bear canister several hundred yards from your tent, because you wouldn’t want to attract bears to your tent while you were sleeping. Bears are active when human are sleeping - in the early hours of the dawn and the hours after dusk;
  • instead of having hot, running showers in the comfort of your home, we clean ourselves with wet wipes if the natural water source (i.e. streams, rivers or lakes) are too cold to swim in, otherwise, a skinny dipping session in the lake would make for a really nice and clean bath in nature;
  • instead of having a home in which we could deposit and store all our belongings, driving from our homes and offices and between places, carrying only items needed for a day; we carry every essential item we need to survive in the wilderness for extended number of days, all in a backpack which we carry on our shoulders, supported at the waist so our neck and shoulders don’t break from the weight. Very often, the backpacks weigh between 40-50 lbs, depending on the number of days you expect to be out in the wilderness. Food and water are the major contributors to the weight in the backpack. I weigh under 120 lbs, carrying that weight equates to carrying one third of my own weight. It is also common to hike between 10-15 miles everyday when you are out backpacking and camping in the open country, and to carry a third of your weight daily for 4-8 hours a day for several days is, to say the least, grueling. You feel for an oxen made to plough the field.
Photo credit: William Wilson. Equipment: GoPro Hero 3. Lugging our heavy packpacks and hiking several miles to our campground at Rock Lake in Tahoe National Forest.
Photo credit: William Wilson. Equipment: GoPro Hero 3. Lugging our heavy packpacks and hiking several miles to our campground at Rock Lake in Tahoe National Forest.

So you see, backpacking and camping are not easy, but I’ve long learnt this: growth comes through inconvenience, progress through hardships, and eventual ease through initial difficulties.

Would I rather a comfortable home with everything provided for and within easy reach, getting everywhere in an engine-powered vehicle or would I rather labor in order to live, working for every ounce of experience and encounter and making them sweeter with every drop of effort and perspiration?

I think the answer is obvious - I would the latter, any day.

Penner Lake in Tahoe National Forest, where I backpacked and camped at Rock Lake for the first time in my adult life
Penner Lake in Tahoe National Forest, where I backpacked and camped at Rock Lake for the first time in my adult life