Rick Dreher is interviewed by Bruno the Dalmatian.
B. So, now that I’ve had my kibble (AGAIN with the kibble!) we can get down to business. Why backpacking?
R. At this point I’ve been doing it long enough that I can’t say, it’s simply something I like doing.
B. Lame answer.
R. I know.
B. How did you get started, and how did you finally learn to enjoy the outdoors as opposed to tolerating it?
R. Boy Scouts was where I learned camping, although we mostly day-hiked as a part of monthly camping trips. We’d go for long trail walks when we weren’t conquering the woods with out various shelter-fashioning and earthmoving projects. Then there was the annual summer big hike in the Olympics, with the canvas backpacks and pup tents, the kapok sleeping bags and the axes. We survived, but I can’t say the walk itself was all that fun. But in junior high I started going on overnight backpacks with friends, and that group lasted through high school and our summer breaks from college. The trips were fun and truly adventures for young pups away from home for the first time in our lives.
I think, though, that the biggest breakthrough for me was taking a class called alpine travel through the U. of Washington while I was in high school. It was taught by the remarkable Ome Daiber, a noted Pacific Northwest climber (e.g., first ascent of Mt. Rainier’s Liberty Ridge), a mountain search-and-rescue founder and an arctic surveyor. Ome shared his considerable knowledge and more importantly, his infectious zeal for the mountains. I’ll bet the rent money that there are several thousand folks out there who can say the same thing about Ome’s positive influence. (He also invented the Penguin sleeping bag and Sno-Seal–his name probably still graces every can and tube of the stuff sold.) Anyway, from him I most importantly gained confidence that allowed me to relax and really take in my surroundings; In western Washington state that meant the beautiful Cascade and Olympic ranges.
B. Hey, you’ve never taken me to either of those places!
R. I know, we’ve lived in California your whole life. That’s why you’ve only been to the Sierra Nevada and the coastal mountains.
B. You just backpack in California now?
R. Pretty much. I try to get into the Sierra as often as I can, which isn’t often enough now that I think about it.
B. Where do you go?
R. Primarily the Tahoe Sierra, between Highways 20 and 88, but when I can carve out the time I like going farther south into places like the John Muir Wilderness.
B. What’s special about the southern Sierra?
R. The scale of the place–it’s shocking, awe-inspiring. There’s something special about those big, big peaks and the high, lake-strewn hanging valleys that makes the northern part of the range seem almost dainty by comparison.
B. Why the fuss over lightweight backpacking?
R. I never shied away from lugging lots of gear and food on my trips, and couldn’t help but notice that on day hikes I could cover nearly twice the ground as on my overnights, so I began eyeballing my gear and supplies to see where I could shed some pounds. I began doing this during the lightweight boomlet of the early ‘80s. My problem was a lot of my gains were offset by my growing camera kit—I’d replace two lost sleeping bag pounds with another lens. A more important influence on losing pack weight was having both my ankles surgically repaired due to repeated sprains. The underpinnings simply don’t allow me to carry the weight I once could, even if I wanted to (which I don’t).
B. Let me get this right, you have crappy ankles and you like to backpack? Helloooo!
R. I know, dee-you-em-bee. But with a lighter pack, trekking poles and, ironically, trail shoes I seem to be mostly getting away with it.
R. I still have bad-ankle days, but that’s why they invented drugs.
B. Just say no!
R. NSAIDs–you know the drill, what with your twice-a-day Rimadyl.
B. Oh, yeah. So what makes you think you can be the lighting and navigation systems editor, Einstein?
R. It’s all about the gear, fuzzbutt! I approach any new item as a gearhead who wants to decide whether or not it’s worthy of a place in my backpack (a most holy place) then I dig further, into the technology and performance.
R. As a veteran consumer and longtime backpacker, I can quickly size up a piece of gear as to whether or not it’s even worth considering. I can be a stickler on this point because with my overstuffed gear vault, I don’t actually need anything. Any new item must also kick aside an existing piece of gear to make it into my pack, so it has to be superior in some way—performance, user interface, weight, hopefully all three. But, like every other consumer, I really can’t know after just a few minutes whether it works well over the long haul or, for that matter, whether it’s really the solid performer I believe it to be. Demo’ing a headlamp in a well-lighted store tells me bupkis. As a tester guy, I get to take the needed time to poke, probe and dismantle the item, then test it in controlled conditions using instrumentation. Oftentimes I can also compare test data against those for similar items. I can share the findings with our readers, doing my little part in spreading some needed knowledge.
B. You must be exciting company at dinner.
R. I’m absolutely riveting.
B. Speaking of the gear vault, doesn’t having all this extra camping stuff around the house get you into, well, trouble?
R. Not if I get home first after a box arrives.
B. And you are qualified to do this, how?
R. Primarily by being a gearhead. That, and working with a head-spinning array of topics and scientific disciplines as a technical editor and writer at an engineering firm. Keeps the brain somewhat elastic, plus I’m fairly accomplished at asking uncomfortable questions.
B. So you’re not some science degree guy?
R. Nope, I began college as a bio major but strayed into communications and business during my second year. I blame it on rock and roll and the pursuit of coeds. In any case, I did stay awake in the science classes I took. I’ve also been a working and amateur photographer, which means I know a lot about light and lighting, knowledge that lends itself handily to evaluating flashlights.
B. And GPSs?
R. My expertise there is strictly from having used and researched them for several years now, as well as mapping software. And GPS technology blends rather well with wrist-top computers, which will be another area of focus for BPL.
B. Hey, I just realized you haven’t taken me hiking in years!
R. Well bud, you’re fifteen. Remember the Rimadyl?
B. Oh, yeah, but you’re no spring lamb yourself.
R. No, and thanks for reminding me, I’m quite forgetful these days.
B. Don’t mention it.
Bruno the dog lives in Sacramento with Lighting and Navigation System Section Editor Rick Dreher, toddler Molly and the very tolerant Valerie (Rick’s wife). He does other stuff, including bicycling, when he’s not testing flashlights or at the office.