There’s been a big debate over on Andy Howell’s blog recently in relation to a comment made in the Challenge Final Report about the sort of kit that was required to cope with the conditions on the Chally this year.
The comment was:
“This was not a Challenge for the ultra-lightweight brigade; May in Scotland is now very unpredictable and you do need really good gear to help you through as well as a strong mental attitude.”
The implication is that ultra-lightweight gear isn’t ‘really good gear’, and quite a lot of people wondered what had provoked the comment, and reacted quite defensively to what they took to be a bit of an unfair pop at lightweight backpacking kit.
One of the things that I’ve found particularly interesting about the way the discussion evolved is that many of the responses didn’t draw a distinction between lightweight and ultra-lightweight camping kit. The comment in the Final Report didn’t refer to ‘lightweight’ kit, though: it referred to ‘ultra-lightweight’ kit. And difficult as it may be to know where to draw a line between the two categories, it’s clear that at some point a distinction does exist.
I’m sure the debate must have spawned many email discussions between people interested in the subject. What more interesting subject is there, after all, than how one puts together one’s backpacking kit? *g* I know I had quite a lively email exchange on the subject with a pal last week, and the thoughts I’m expressing here are a reflection of some of those that I expressed in the course of that discussion.
In the context of a debate about safety, it seems to me that it’s really clothing and warmth/shelter that we’re talking about. Obviously it’s possible to reduce weight by simply leaving behind things that aren’t actually necessary for a safe camp, but which add to the comfort and, for some of us, enjoyment of the experience. I’m thinking of stuff like books, dedicated pillows, camp shoes, evening clothes, MP3 players, the heavier/bulkier sorts of camping mattress, cameras, a wee dram, stuffed toys (!) and things of that nature. In order to be safe, though, as opposed to merely comfortable, we do need to equip ourselves with the means of remaining adequately warm and dry, and it seems to me that the comment in the Final Report must have been directed towards the kit choices that people make in order to fulfill that requirement.
Before going on I should say that I don’t know what provoked the comment in the report. It may be that one or more ultra-lightweight campers had a bad experience. Certainly the ultra-lightweight camper I walked with (Colin Ibbotson) had no problems of any sort (well, apart from his quite disgusting choice of food, that is *g*), but there were more than 350 people on the Challenge, and I only saw a small number of them, whereas the people at Challenge Control were in touch with all of them, more-or-less daily. I mention the comment, and the debate on Andy’s blog, simply because they seem to me to provide an interesting jumping off point for a discussion about how our choice of shelter impacts upon our safety.
So! Setting clothing on one side (for another day, perhaps), and simply focussing on shelter, in my mind one of the fundamental distinctions between the lightweight backpacker and the ultra-lightweight backpacker is that the UL backpacker will probably be carrying a tarp, rather than a tent.
What’s the difference between a tarp and a tent? Well I’ve long regarded Chris Townsend as the ultimate guru in relation to all things backpacking, and I hope he won’t mind if I set out the distinction as he describes it in his brilliant Backpacker’s Handbook: Third Edition, page 184.
“A tarp is a sheet of fabric that can be suspended from poles or trees to make a shelter. Once you add doors it becomes a tent, or at least a fly sheet.”
It seems to me that the relative safety of shelters lies along a spectrum, and that the sort of shelter which is permanently open at one end is always going to be more vulnerable to the elements than one that is enclosed. The reason for this is that wind can more easily get under an open structure and carry it away than it can with a shelter that is enclosed. We’ve seen hurricanes blowing houses down in other parts of the world, and so clearly it’s never possible to eliminate the risk, but the margin for error seems to me to be greater, the sturdier the shelter that we take with us.
The reason I refer to ‘margin for error’ is that the most important element in the equation appears to me to be the level of experience of the person using the kit. In warm, dry and windless conditions it’s not difficult for a novice to get through a night out in the hills. In foul conditions, though, it seems to me that an experienced UL camper is always going to be safer with his or her tarp than an inexperienced person using a tent.
Being and remaining safe isn’t simply about knowing how to put the shelter up, of course. In order to stay safe in bad conditions, it’s also necessary to know how best to move the shelter during the night if a change in wind direction renders that necessary, or (heaven forbid) re-erect it if it blows down. Most importantly of all, IMO, it’s necessary to know when it isn’t safe to go out with the available kit, or, if already out, when to go home.
Part of the way in which we develop the experience necessary to help us through difficult conditions is in meeting such conditions unexpectedly, and surviving them. If we’re honest, I suspect that quite a number of us secretly enjoy the frisson of nervous excitement that comes with exposing ourselves to the worst that nature can throw at us, and living to tell the story over a pint or around a camping stove another day. I know it’s part of why I started camping solo with a tent. There’s no doubt that I, for one, am much less likely to worry these days if a storm blows up during the night than I would have been when I first started going out. Panicked people are more likely than calm people to make bad decisions, and a novice is more likely than an experienced person to panic, since he or she doesn’t have a bank of earlier experiences to help him or her assess the level of risk created by the conditions, and decide how best to deal with it. We all know that a bad decision made in potentially life-threatening conditions can have tragic consequences, and it’s easier to make a bad decision when we’re unfamiliar with the kit we’re using.
Ultimately, though, it seems to me that there’s no getting away from the fact that some forms of shelter are inherently safer than others. If an experienced camper is backpacking in Scotland when a foul blizzard blows up and hangs around for 36 hours, with nil visibility, wind speeds of 70 mph and gusts of up to 90 mph, then I reckon that he/she is likely to be safer trying to see it out in a decent bothy than in a tent. If there isn’t a bothy available then a well made semi-geodesic tent would probably be the next safest thing. If there isn’t such a tent then something like an Akto (or a Laser Competition! *g*) would probably be the best choice. If there isn’t a tent then a tarp would certainly provide some shelter from the storm, but by virtue of its design it’s the least secure of the shelters listed above. Nobody could be absolutely sure of emerging unscathed from the experience, but the person who has access to the strongest shelter is least at risk.
Looking at it all in the round, then, what do my views on this subject amount to? It seems to me that they add up to the following.
1. Is there a point at which our choice of kit can render us unsafe in the given conditions? In my opinion, the answer is definitely “Yes!” As appears from what I’ve written above, though, I feel that the specific items of kit involved paint only part of the picture. Our degree of experience with that kit paints the rest of it.
2. Secondly, is there a necessary distinction to be drawn, when considering the relative safety of kit, between lightweight and ultra-lightweight? When we’re talking about shelters then my answer would certainly be “Yes!” Once again, though, I consider the most important factor to be the extent to which the user is experienced in the use of the kit that he or she decides to carry.
3. Finally, is it legitimate for those charged with the responsibility for monitoring our progress in potentially dangerous conditions to be aware of those distinctions, and even to experience some anxiety lest our choices lead us into danger? My feeling is “Of course!” In fact, I’d say it was inevitable. I’d hope, though, that a knowledge of the degree of experience the particular user has with the kit involved would inform the level of concern experienced by those who have to watch anxiously from a distance.