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Wednesday
Jun112014

The Second Law of Adventure

The second law of adventure is:  the right kit can help create an adventure.

There is an early Simpsons episode where Bart, banned from seeing the new Itchy and Scratchy movie, tries to use his imagination instead. He imagines the characters alright but they stand there dumbly in a thought bubble with a questioning look on their faces. I sometimes think that is what it is like when you ‘ban’ yourself from using equipment in an attempt to get back to basics; sometimes you so starve your imagination nothing happens.

When I was a student I was interested in film making but did nothing about it. I could have borrowed a camera anytime but I never did. Then I used my grant to buy a Super 8 camera and started making films. Once I owned that camera I was ready to go. It taught me a simple lesson- kit can get you in the right zone. Naturally this is exploited by every manufacturer out there. The cumulative effect of all their advertising can be to paralyse you or to pervert every adventure into a shopping trip.

Kit can provide a uniform. If it is a uniform that gets you moving and doing things, then all well and good. But if it is a uniform you cannot afford, so you end up doing nothing then that is not so good.

The right piece of kit can open a window into a different world. A climbing rope. Crampons. A canoe. A tent. But then you can always use a tarp instead of a tent, or make a shelter of leaves instead of using a tarp. The urge to use less kit seems to promise even more adventure…

 

What about no kit at all?

There is something intoxicating about someone facing the wilderness with no kit at all. I have written about Bedouin who believe that the more tools a man carries the weaker he is- a real expert can make do with very little in the harsh environment of the desert. Survival experts test themselves by carrying a knife and a cooking pot and that’s it (sometimes, a la Rambo, it’s just a knife- and without the cute little button compass at the end…)

So the fantasy of no-kit is strong. And for a day hike it’s a good idea, if you are able or allowed to start a fire en route. An adventure without a fire or a brew is just not really quite as good in my view.

But try a multi-day hike without kit, as I did once, and be prepared to suffer. It was many years ago when I attempted to walk the benign Ridgeway of southern England armed with just a box of matches, a mess tin, a cycling poncho, food, and a lightweight sleeping bag. From the first hour it started raining. The cycling poncho worked well until the wind got up and blew rain underneath it. In retrospect I would tie a belt around the outside but then my brain was already a little sodden. By nightfall I had found a damp wood. Much creative foraging revealed some tinder trapped in still dry tree trunks. More fossicking and a lot of palaver with building a wooden rain cover, followed by splitting to get at dry wood and some carving and I had a little fire of curled fire sticks going. The mess tin bubbled with a welcome cup of tea- it had taken about an hour to prepare it. As all survival types know- it’s not the skills that count, it’s the time it takes to make those skills count that counts; and I had taken an awful long time. I then had to make some kind of shelter for the night, which was already upon me. The rain thrummed down as I artfully arranged the poncho- which would keep the water off my head and upper body but not my feet. Hmm, talk about optimism but I had simply not believed it would rain for so long. In the morning my feet were drenched and cold. I knew this because I had only slept about ten minutes all night (or so it seemed).

I skipped breakfast, drank a cup of cold water and headed off. The following night was a little dryer, but then the downpour began at 5am. Rain before 7, fine before 11 or so the adage goes. Not always…

And so I gave up. Left the ridgeway. Bought a meal in a pub and phoned my Dad to pick me up…

Too little kit can stymie a good adventure. So knowing this we often go to the other extreme…

 

The delusion of getting all the kit first

I see them on the internet, cramming the threads and forums with their endless chat about the kit they have and the kit they want. Do they ever use it? Or are they, like the Cairo bikers and off-roaders I used to know, keener on just gathering in the wilderness for a few hours to simply…examine each others kit?

If only I could have X then I would do Y is a simple equation for doing nothing, a persuasive opiate, a nice opportunity to peruse Amazon looking for bargains and upgrades. In fact, why buy now when the new upgrade will be out in a couple of months? I’ve gone years not getting a decent camera because the next upgrade promises to be so much better…

In the end you have to take the first step. You have to go out the front door and have your adventure. Almost any kit will do as long as you can keep warm and dry and can eat and drink. I speak as someone who has just spent two hours looking for the perfect drysuit for sea kayaking…when I know almost any suit will do. Which leads us to…

 

Get the BEST kit

I once read a book on backpacking by an author who claimed to hate all camping until they discovered modern backpacking gear. He revelled in super-lightweight tents, hi-capacity rucksacks, thermarest, jet-boil stove and toasty warm RAB quantum down bag. Not to mention the LED headlight, the Parimo jacket and trousers, the pump filter and all the other gadgets he loved. One may scoff- but it got him outside and doing things.

In an earlier post I wrote about how mountain bikes injected some much needed pizzazz into cycling. Now ultra lightweight gear makes backpacking fun again. You will have to pay for the privilege unless you become adept at making things.

 

Make kit or make do.

Pack rafts are nifty very durable very light blow up rafts. They are also very expensive. I’ve made a much cheaper alternative by removing the outer ring on a cheap sevylor seahawk and using a tarp or bivvy bag to protect the more fragile pvc outer. This cost about one twentieth the price of the Alpacka pack raft. For my purposes it’s just as good.

Instead of a sil-nylon tarp I’ve used an old army one. Instead of top end down bags I’ve used a silk liner inside an artificial down bag in temperatures well below zero. Making do isn’t so hard, especially when you have steeled yourself for a few days away whatever happens.

 

How to use kit to create an adventure

Kit can suggest an adventure. I wanted to travel in a birchbark canoe. I started reading about them. I found that the longest birchbark canoe journey in history had been the first crossing of Canada by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793. No one had replicated his exact journey so I decided to do it. I would never have even thought of this adventure without first getting interested in birchbark canoes. Plastic boats may suggest different possibilities. Sometimes a new development- like the ultra-portable pack raft- suggests a whole slew of new adventures.

 

The things you carry

Kit I always carry: my leatherman classic- the well named supertool version with saw. Despite breaking the lock on one side this tool has been used to fix cars, saw off moose antlers, extricate someone from a locked Macdonalds’ loo, file down nail heads into fish hooks and countless other tasks. Though I like a Victorinox hunter penknife for lightweight camping you can’t beat the supertool for sheer toughness and utility. No other leatherman or gerber comes close.

But does it inspire me to have the idea for a new adventure? Maybe not. For that I think you need a piece of transport related kit. After building the desert trolley all sorts of desert expeditions suggested themselves. Having an inflatable kayak meant solo sea canoeing was less risky than solo sea kayaking in a regular kayak. A mountain bike with a sideways extendable handlebar (making it easier to push without getting hit by the peddles) allows for the transport of loads more gear, suggesting longer trips, again in the desert. This idea was suggested to me by a picture of the Vietcong using extended handlebar bikes to carry loads of gear through the jungle. See my blog article on bikewalking.

I think kit is one of those things you probably want to have experienced before you give it up. You need to have used a tent, maybe, before you try a bivvy bag or sleep out under the stars. Kit is the way we transport ourselves psychologically out of our comfort zone. Think of those people who travel everywhere in a mobile home, taking their comfort zone with them like a tortoise or hermit crab. Gradually you get used to less. For years I only liked new kit. Now I always go to ebay first. There is nothing like getting a hardly used piece of kit for almost no money because of a wrong listing or because the owner didn’t know what they were selling. Some people go the other way, demanding more comfort, which is a little different from demanding more of a comfort zone. As Baden Powell was fond of remarking, ‘any fool can rough it’.

 

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