Technology Versus Skill

When I used to teach backpacking and wilderness survival for a college I found I had to “”put on a different hat” to teach the very different philosophies of these two outdoor activities.  Backpacking emphasizes the use of lightweight, technologically advanced equipment.  It involves learning and adopting a philosophy and set of low-impact camping skills to reduce the physical and visual impact of camping in pristine places.  It places great importance on being able to live and travel outdoors while leaving no physical mark on the environment.  It owes its popularity largely to modern synthetic materials, derived from fossil fuels, that make the equipment to actually enjoy backpacking possible.  Interestingly, modern low impact backpacking methods and technologies encourage people to camp and travel in wilderness without having to interact with the environment at all…but at the cost of great technological dependence.   This disconnect with nature has changed most outdoor enthusiasts from the classic vision of woodsmen into outdoor athletes, a description that they like to apply to themselves. 

Wilderness survival is nearly the antipode to backpacking.  It’s an activity predicated on significant interaction with the environment.  It often involves the gathering and modification of natural resources to make shelters or build fires and creates significant environmental impact.  The necessary chores required of survival involve hard work and can quickly cause wear to lightweight equipment.  Survival tasks are much easier done with sturdy fixed-blade knives, or hatchets and axes and rigid framed saws – items that are usually considered too heavy and cumbersome for carrying and unecessary when practicing low-impact behaviors.  My survival experience also tells me that the most successful survivors are those knowledgable of woodlore and the craft of the traditional Woodsman

My experience in teaching outdoor classes and working in outdoor specialty retail is that a great many people are interested in learning activites like backpacking, paddling, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing etc, but consider survival training as a chore or entirely unecessary.  Most users and manufacturers today have overwhelmingly adopted the backpacking model.  Hunters, fishermen, day hikers and campground campers are outfitted with, if not actual technical gear and apparel, at least technical looking gear and apparel.   Campgrounds spout large tents using flexible poles and the look of overgrown backpacking models.  And even Walmart sells clothing that looks the part.  Modern outdoor philosophy has changed from admiring and emulating the woodsman to emulating the adventure racer.  The downside to all of this however, is that the vast majority of today’s outdoor enthusiasts are no longer versed in woods skills and go afield with few of the tools, equipment or apparel most valuable if they were to get into trouble.


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