In some ways, modern camping isn’t too much less technologically mediated than noncamping.
By “camping,” I don’t even mean RV-ing, or state-park drive-up, double-burner-propane-stove-style camping. Even the backcountry variety, as relatively stripped-down as it is, depends on stuff that didn’t even exist a few decades ago: most significantly, the synthetics in one’s clothing, tent and other gear, plus freeze-dried food. (I think the latter was still relatively new when I was a Cub Scout, in the 1970s.)
Still, the experience of taking a six-hour hike through roadless, disorientingly beautiful terrain with everything on your back is a good excuse to reassess the idea of human needs. What camping tells us is that our default lifestyle of large, utility-packed house plus automobile is a function of desire rather than need.
What you have while camping is limited by what you can carry. And that breaks down to having enough food and water and a way to keep warm and dry. Add situational awareness — some rope for the bear bag – and you’ve largely covered the bases.
In Yellowstone, our two backcountry camps were pretty remote. One was on Heart Lake. The nearly nine-mile hike took us to a spot on the lovely lake, in the shadow of 10,300-foot Mount Sheridan. The other was on Shoshone Lake, on the 7.5-mile first leg of the DeLacy Trail; again, right on the shore, this time with a steep wooded slope to our backs.
Yeah, I know, it’s all with an asterisk: This trip brought to you by industrial civilization. We got to Yellowstone mostly by plane, and the rest by car; most of our gear was spun out of some kind of chemical or other in China; we cooked over propane (single-burner); and we couldn’t safely drink the water without filtering it.
But backpacking does make you aware: of how much food you need, how much water you to pump through that filter. Where to stake out your 8-foot-by-8-foot envelope of Chinese nylon so you don’t wake up in a puddle — or not wake up because you’ve been squashed by a falling tree.
It makes you aware that you can shelter effectively in something as insubstantial as that tent. And that it is possible to survive without running water, or electricity (even if you cheat with some AAs.)
Yellowstone, more than many places, is threatened by climate change. Its high-altitude ecosystems depend on things staying on the chilly side of temperate year-round. As temperatures rise, beetles that feast on white-bark pine, for instance, are breeding faster, jeopardizing that tree species. As snow-pack shrinks, so do water supplies. And park publications say that much of Yellowstone’s alpine terrain might be doomed.
And so a paradox. A trip with a rather expansive carbon footprint (because of the airplanes) leads you to ponder what humanity, to save its home from humanity itself, could forgo, if we had to.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would we be willing to surrender air travel, if that were required to do the trick? It would make it harder for most of us to visit places like Yellowstone, for instance. But it might also mean places like Yellowstone, as we know it, would still be there to visit.
Photo by Renee Rosensteel.