Like most Americans, I live my life inside of boxes. I sleep and eat in a box called a house. I drive a box called a car to work and work in a box called a classroom. All these boxes are designed to meet the demands of human skin. This is a very good thing, if you want to live comfortably.
Backpacking means deliberately walking away from all that, after hoisting as much of it as you can on your back.
A backpack is a large sack made to hold what you will need for, at the very least, two days and one night. It needs to hold enough food and water. Water is heavy. A sleeping bag is a necessity. An inflatable mattress is a convenience. A gas stove, fuel and pots, flashlights and extra clothing need to be stuffed in.
Though it is possible to do without, I always bring a portable box called a tent. To carry that load at a minimum of pain, the pack has an internal frame atop a firm belt. Most of the weight rides on your hips, with the rest distributed on your back and shoulders. It's not half bad. Trust me.
Modern technology has done wonders with this stuff. The lightest sleeping bags contain down insulation, but until recently, down had an Achilles heel: If it got wet, it was worse than useless. My new sleeping bag is filled with water-resistant down. My stove is small enough that I can conceal it in my palm. It screws onto the top of a gas canister. I have a new two-person tent that weighs in at 2 pounds, 10 ounces. That is half the weight of the one I used for years.
Tent design confronts a difficult problem. You want to keep wind and rain from getting in while letting perspiration out. This is managed by making the tent skin mostly of porous mesh while providing a second waterproof skin called a fly to be draped over the poles.
Relying on such devices, I have walked high into the Bighorn Mountains and the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Their awesome rock walls rising above you and cupping the red light of sunset will not leave you wondering why we have always looked upward when we try to see the Lord. More often, I have walked in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills. If less majestic, these small enclaves of wilderness afford a more immediate taste of what life on earth is like for most creatures and most human beings who have ever lived on it.
When I pull my tent out of my pack, my companions and I take sole ownership of that spot. The trees and wind belong to us, for a bit. That is genuine wealth. It is worth the weight and the walk to acquire it.
Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at Northern State University. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views presented are his and do not represent Northern State University.