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Ch. 2: Common Sense in the Wilderness

There is more danger that a man take too much than too little into the wilderness. No matter how good his intentions may be, how conscientiously he may follow advice, or how carefully he may examine and re-examine his equipment, he will surely find that he is carrying a great many pounds more than his companions, the professionals at the business. At first this may affect him but little. He argues that he is constructed on a different pattern from these men, that his training and education are such as to have developed in him needs and habits such as they have never known. Preconceived notions, especially when one is fairly brought up in their influence, are most difficult to shake off. Since we have worn coats all our lives, we include a coat in our list of personal apparel just as unquestionably—even as unthinkingly—as we should include in our calculations air to breathe and water to drink. The coat is an institution so absolutely one of man's invariable garments that it never even occurs to him to examine into its use or uselessness. In like manner no city dweller brought up in proximity to laundries and on the firm belief that washing should be done all at once and at stated intervals can be convinced that he can keep clean and happy with but one shirt; or that more than one handkerchief is a superfluity.

Yet in time, if he is a woodsman, and really thinks about such affairs instead of taking them for granted, he will inevitably gravitate toward the correct view of these things. Some day he will wake up to the fact that he never wears a coat when working or traveling; that about camp his sweater is more comfortable; and that in sober fact he uses that rather bulky garment as little as any article in his outfit. So he leaves it home, and is by so much disencumbered. In a similar manner he will realize that with the aid of cold-water soap the shirt he wears may be washed in one half hour and dried in the next. Meanwhile he dons his sweater, A handkerchief is laundered complete in a quarter of an hour. Why carry extras, then, merely from a recollection of full bureau drawers?

In this matter it is exceedingly difficult to be honest with oneself. The best test is that of experience. What I have found to be of no use to me, may measure the difference between comfort and unhappiness to another man. Carry only essentials: but the definition of the word is not so easy. An essential is that which, by each man's individual experience, he has found he cannot do without.

How to determine that? I have elsewhere indicated a practical expedient, which will however, bear repetition here. When you have reached home after your trip, turn your duffle bag upside down on the floor. Separate the contents into three piles. Let pile No. 1 include those articles you have used every day—or nearly that often; let pile No. 2 comprise those you have used but once; and pile No. 3 those you have not used at all. Now, no matter how your heart may yearn over the Patent Dingbat in No. 3, shut your eyes and resolutely discard the two latter piles.

Naturally, if you are strong-minded, pile No. 1 will be a synonym for your equipment. As a matter of fact you will probably not be as strong-minded as that. You will argue to yourself somewhat in this fashion:

"Yes, that is all very well; but it was only a matter of sheer chance that the Patent Dingbat is not in pile No. 1. To be sure, I did not use it on this particular trip; but in other conditions I might need it every day."

So you take it, and keep on taking it, and once in a great while you use it. Then some day you wake up to two more bits of camp philosophy which you formulate to yourself about as follows: An article must pay in convenience or comfort for the trouble of its transportation; and Substitution, even imperfect, is better than the carrying of special conveniences. Then he hurls said Patent Dingbat into the nearest pool.

That hits directly at the weak point of the sporting catalogues. Every once in a while an enthusiast writes me of some new and handy kink he is ready to swear by. It is indeed handy; and if one could pluck it from the nearest bush when occasion for its use arose, it would be a joy and a delight. But carrying it four hundred miles to that occasion for its use is a very different matter. The sporting catalogues are full of very handy kinks. They are good to fool with and think about, and plan over in the off season; but when you pack your duffle bag you'd better put them on a shelf.

Occasionally, but mighty seldom, you will find that something you need very much has gone into pile No. 3. Make a note of it. But do not be too hasty to write it down as part of your permanent equipment.

The first summer I spent in the Sierras I discovered that small noon showers needed neither tent nor slicker. So next year I left them home, and was, off and on, plenty wet and cold. Immediately I jumped to the conclusion that I had made a mistake. It has not rained since. So I decided that sporadic heavy rains do not justify the transportation of two cumbersome articles. Now when it rains in daytime I don't mind getting a little wet—for it is soon over; and at night an adequate shelter can be built of the tarpaulin and a saddle blanket. In other words the waterproofs could not pay, in the course of say three-days' rain in a summer, for the trouble of their transportation during four months.

As I have said, the average man, with the best intentions, will not go too light, and so I have laid especial emphasis on the necessity of discarding the unessential. But there exists a smaller class who rush to the opposite extreme.

We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones—and does so at the edge of yellow pines with their long needles. He eats badly cooked food. He stands—or perhaps I should say poses—indifferent to a downpour when every one else has sought shelter. In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: "This is good enough for me!" with the unspoken conclusion, "if it isn't good enough for you fellows, you're pretty soft."

The queer part of it is he usually manages to bully sensible men into his point of view. They accept his bleak camps and voluntary hardships because they are ashamed to be less tough than he is. And in town they are abashed before him when with a superior, good-natured, and tolerant laugh he tells the company in glee of how you brought with you a little pillow-case to stuff with moss. "Bootleg is good enough for me!" he cries; and every one marvels at his woodsmanship.

As a plain matter of fact this man is the worse of two types of tenderfoot. The greenhorn does not know better; but this man should. He has mistaken utterly the problem of the wilderness. The wild life is not to test how much the human frame can endure—although that often enough happens—but to test how well the human wits, backed by an enduring body, can answer the question of comfort. Comfort means minimum equipment; comfort means bodily ease. The task is to balance, to reconcile these apparently opposing ideas.

A man is skillful at woodcraft just in proportion as he approaches this balance. Knowing the wilderness he can be comfortable when a less experienced man would endure hardships. Conversely, if a man endures hardships where a woodsman could be comfortable, it argues not his toughness, but his ignorance or foolishness, which is exactly the case with our blatant friend of the drawing-room reputation.

Probably no men endure more hardships than do those whose professions call them out of doors. But they are unavoidable hardships. The cowboy travels with a tin cup and a slicker; the cruiser with a twenty-pound pack; the prospector with a half blanket and a sack of pilot bread—when he has to. But on round-up, when the chuck wagon goes along, the cow-puncher has his "roll"; on drive with the wangan the cruiser sends his ample "turkey"; and the prospector with a burro train takes plenty to keep him comfortable. Surely even the Tough Youth could hardly accuse these men of being "soft."


The author doing a little washing on his own account.


You must in this matter consider what your means of transportation are to be. It would be as foolish to confine your outfit for pack horses to the equipment you would carry on your own back in the forests, as it would be to limit yourself to a pack horse outfit when traveling across country in a Pullman car. When you have horses it is good to carry a few—a very few—canned goods. The corners of the kyacks will accommodate them; and once in a blue moon a single item of luxury chirks you up wonderfully and gives you quite a new outlook on life. So you chuck them in, and are no more bothered by them until the psychological moment.

On a walking trip, however, the affair is different. You can take canned goods, if you want to. But their transportation would require another Indian; another Indian means more grub and more equipment; and so at the last you find yourself at the head of an unwieldy caravan. You find it much pleasanter to cut the canned goods, and to strike out with a single companion.

After all, it is an affair of common sense; but even common sense when confronted by a new problem, needs a certain directing. The province of these articles is to offer that direction; I do not claim that my way is the only way, nor am I rash enough to claim it is the best way. But it is my way, and if any one will follow it, he will be as comfortable and as well suited as I am, which is at least better than going it blind.

Stewart Edward White

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