The moonless night breathed with thousands of chirpings and flowed with the bitter cold mountain stream whispering through camp. The day's sweat crackled faintly on my forehead as I shifted my neck into a better sleeping position on my lumpy pillow. Still-liquid sweat clung to the fabric of my mummy bag, making my legs feel hot... surrounded by clinging, wet, heat. I sighed and unzipped the lower portion of the bag and settled back in anticipation of the cool reprieve.
A small scuffling near the upper right corner of my thin tent riveted my attention immediately. All background sounds faded into a great white noise. The minute sound of a dry leaf tumbling in the slight breeze made it to my hypersensitive ears. There... I heard it again... a small snuffling and scratching noise near the foot of my tent. I slowed my breathing down to a cadence in time with the thousands of crickets insulating the night... hoping not to reveal myself to the interloper.
Slowly, the crackling and snuffling melded towards... into the sounds of the stream. I breathed out a steady flow of stale air. My muscles loosened and a gaseous emission that had been corralled by fear whooshed out. The rotting stench poked my brain with reality. In the distance I heard louder scrapings and tearing sounds accompanied by a few, short snorts. I sighed, unwilling to venture out of the tent, and willed my mind to relax and sleep crept up, diminishing and mixing the event into dreamland.
Cold morning air and the pasty glue of sleep greeted my face before I completely pulled my refreshed mind from the night. I slipped my body from the sleeping bag and stretched and gathered my warm crumpled clothes from the bottom of the bag. After pulling my dirty pants and shirt on and pulling a blue fleece from my makeshift pillow, I took a swig of chilly water, unzipped the tent door and greeted the sun with a belch and a tinny fart. I looked down to grab my worn boots and a curious outline made me stare. The ragged pattern jarred my mind back to the previous night.
A black bear had been outside my tent! I've heard stories about bears sniffing out a Starburst wrapper hidden in the bottom of some hapless camper's jeans and ripping the tent wall to shreds in order to get at the sweet candy. Knowing this and knowing that the Great Smoky Mountains are notorious for black bears and also heeding the few bear warning signs scattered about, I had hung all my food in a bear bag in between two trees before I bedded down for the night and slung my pack underneath a wooden footbridge with some other hiker's gear. I thought I was safe
Tenatively moseying on down to the creek I noticed that under the bridge my gray pack was not in the position that I had left it in. Remembering the tearing noises from the night, I hurried onto the bridge and pulled up my pack. Unfortunately, my pack had been on the outer pile of packs and the bear had no choice but to rip up my pack. The frame was bent at a 45 degree angle, a pin that holds fabric to the frame was popped off and the Cordura fabric was ripped down one side. The expander bar, a non-essential item, was twisted into a pretzeled figure-eight. Luckily, I am an Eagle Scout and my Scoutmaster prepared me for such disasters. I took some safety pins out of my repair kit and fixed the rips. I had an extra pin to fasten the pack back together and with a few well-placed kicks and twists the pack was good enough to finish the last two days of my backpacking trip.
To venture out in the great forests and plains of America for an extensive backpacking trip you do not need to be an Eagle Scout. All you need is to be prepared. Bringing along a few well thought out items and leaving the stuff you really don't need can mean the difference between a trip from hell and a genuine communion with nature. I will give some pointers on what you need and what you don't need while in the great outdoors in the next few issues.
First, you need to determine what kind of communing you are going to do. For backpacking and/or hiking the trip length and terrain dictate what kind of pack you will need. Let's look at a long backpacking trip with moderate to difficult terrain. An external frame pack will probably be you're best bet if you don't plan on any scrambling or traveling over extreme terrain. The external puts the weight of your gear into a higher position and nestles it directly over your hips, allowing for a lessened center of gravity but a better comfort level for long, steady trips. Externals are also good for carrying bulky, oversized gear.
An internal frame pack will be a good choice if extreme terrain is encountered. The internal pulls the gear close to your back and makes it a part of your body. This style is generally not good for a long steady hike because of poor ventilation at the small of the back. If you plan on scrambling on primitive trails and/or extreme vertical terrain the internal will serve you well.
An interesting development in the world of packs has come about with the advent of hybrid packs. These packs combine the advantages of the internal, mainly the low center of gravity, with the advantages of the external, the load bearing attributes and better ventilation of the back. For someone who is not sure of the terrain and duration of their trips, a hybrid can satisfy most of your needs.