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Postcards from the Past.

Last year a cousin sent me a box of old photos and memorabilia. Among the treasures was a letter written in 1910 by my great-aunt, who with her family left Ohio for western Colorado. They settled a few miles south of what is now Colorado National Monument.

Aunt May wrote: "I sit on the back steps every day and look at the mountains. I never get tired looking--as they are different colors nearly every time I look.... If you would see the colors in a picture, you'd think they were too vivid to be natural."

At the time my ancestors headed west, only a few well-known "jewels" such as Yellowstone and Yosemite had been preserved as national parks. Acadia, the first eastern national park, was established as Lafayette National Park in 1919, the same year NPCA was founded. That year, thanks to the increasing availability of automobiles after the First World War, 750,000 hearty souls actually visited the national parks.

Faded photographs and dog-eared postcards hint of the adventures these nature-lovers encountered. One shows campers enjoying a brief respite inside their tent.

Another shows a group preparing a meal by the fire. No low-impact camping here. Lodgepole pines surround the group as they cook with heavy pots and pails, their coffee pot suspended over the fire by sticks in the ground.

Camping in Comfort

Let's fast-forward to that same Minnesota lakeshore, part of Voyageurs National Park, today. Canoeists still ply the water, now in nimble craft made from synthetic materials. Today's polyethelene canoe and kayak hulls are strong and hold their shape well, bouncing back from accidental encounters with submerged logs or rocks. Their foam cores provide excellent flotation and insulation. These state-of-the-art watercraft are light enough for comfortable portages, yet boast capacities 12 to 15 times their own weight.

That allows campers to bring along many comforts of home but still cast light impact on the land. A typical two-person tent these days packs up scarcely larger than a loaf of French bread and weighs about five pounds. Snap-together poles and pop-up design make these tents so self-supporting you can pick them up with one hand. With separate wind-and water-shedding rainflies and ventilation panels, these snug rain- and insect-proof refuges can also offer views rivaling a planetarium on starry nights. As the night turns chilly, you can snuggle into a traditional sleeping bag stuffed with down, the best insulator in dry conditions. In rain or snow, sleeping bags made from Thermolite[R] polyester insulate effectively even when wet. Thermolite, which is 60 percent pre-consumer waste, is quite durable and, like down, boasts a good warmth-to-weight ratio. This synthetic blend of microfibers compresses and lofts well. Choose a bag with overlapping baffle construction to avoid cold spots. A closed-cell foam sleeping pad provides a buffer against chilly ground and rocks and roots underneath.

The Coleman lantern was invented in 1914, providing a safer, brighter alternative to torches or kerosene lamps. Updated versions--both white gas and battery-powered--still light campsites, but choices have now expanded to include eco-friendly candle lanterns and brilliant palm-sized flashlights in water-resistant casings.

It's no longer necessary to scour the woods for kindling to cook dinner. Clever little backpacking stoves operate on butane/propane cartridges or attach to refillable fuel bottles. For family camping, choose a compact two-burner model complete with windscreen. Nesting sets of stainless steel, titanium, or aluminum cookware triple the versatility of the old cast iron skillet at a fraction of the weight. Pocket multi-tools, with multiple blades and other features, take care of any tasks or repairs.

In the old days campers and hikers filled their canteens at springs and streams. But these may harbor Giardia or other unpleasant bacteria and protozoa. Most packable water treatment systems can now cleanse a quart of water per minute, and filters are good for about 200 gallons of water before cleaning or replacement.

Gone are the days when it took a pack mule carrying pounds of potatoes, jerky, flour, and beans to sustain campers on a long trip. Individually packaged dehydrated entrees now include gourmet selections such as lasagna with meat sauce, pasta primavera, or wild rice and mushroom pilaf. For quick energy, try convenience foods including nutritious granola bars, performance gels, or "electrolite recovery" beverages.

To carry all this gear, modern packs --many of which feature rugged internal frames of aluminum or polyethelene --are light, weatherproof, and comfortable. When selecting a pack, look for support without sag. Choose sizes and compartments appropriate for your load. Will top-or side-loading partitions be most convenient? Are there compression straps to cinch the bag for smaller burdens? Some brands offer zip-off modular features or can convert into wheeled luggage at the airport. Insist on reinforced seams and heavy-duty bottom construction. Contoured shoulder straps and padded hip belts are also a must. Outside organizer pockets eliminate the need to take off your pack to reach for maps, snacks, and insect repellent.

Purchase of camping accessories no longer even requires leaving home. Suppliers including Campmor, REI, and L.L. Bean offer direct catalog sales and helpful Internet sites.

Outfitted for Style and Function

Outdoor attire has also enjoyed a quantum leap during the past hundred years. A key to dressing for outdoor comfort is understanding the laws of layering. For active sports such as backpacking, climbing, or skiing, clothing must "breathe." Undergarments made of silk, an excellent natural insulator, are soft, ultralight, and quick-drying. Synthetic polypropylene is highly breathable and wicks moisture away from the body. Several brands now offer antibacterial finishes to resist stains and odors.

The clustered fiber bundles of synthetic fleece trap warm air, making the material soft, durable, breathable, and warm even when wet. Manufacturers claim fleece absorbs no more than 1 percent of its weight when rain or snow falls on it. It dries with a quick shake. Fleece garments are available in several weights appropriate to outdoor activities, Ultra-light Polartec 100 is recommended for fast-paced pursuits like running, hiking, and mountain biking because it quickly wicks moisture away from the body. Polartec 200 is an economical midweight choice, offering the warmth of wool at half the weight. The thickest and warmest is Polartec 300 Sherpa[R] shearling.

Outermost clothing should be wind-resistant, waterproof but breathable, and sized to fit over vests or sweaters. Choices range from light nylon shells with wind-blocking abilities to hefty parkas with detachable hoods and zip-out liners. Desirable features include snug elastic cuffs, inner chin guards, and storm flaps to seal out the wind; deep cargo and interior mesh pockets; back and underarm vents; and zipper tabs large enough to grab with gloves. Jackets should be compressible for easy carrying once removed.

Read labels carefully to determine whether clothing is water-resistant or waterproof. For several decades, Gore-Tex[R] has been the leading breathable waterproof fabric on the market, although other manufacturers now offer similar products. Gore-Tex micro-pores are large enough to allow water vaporized by body heat to escape but too small for a raindrop to enter. Quality rain gear should also have taped seams and storm flaps that mimic rain gutters to whisk rain away.

Composite outer garments provide extra protection from the elements. BiPolar consists of outer fabric that resists wind and rain, coupled with textured interior fleece for warmth. Windbloc is a three-layered sandwich of fleece, hidden windproofing, and a mesh lining for breathability. Thermolite[R], Thermoloft[R], and Primaloft are other types of synthetic microfibers offering water-repellent insulation with down-like warmth.

Modern hiking shoes and boots should match the terrain where they will be used. For light loads on established trails, "hybrid" boots offer the look, lightness, and comfort of athletic shoes. Heavy loads and rough trails require leather or leather/fabric boots that protect ankles and cushion soles. Many brands have waterproofing tanned in or come with insulated, waterproof liners. Vasque boots feature a choice of footbed inserts that customize fit for wide or narrow feet. A new breed of amphibious shoes is designed for traction on beaches or in streams. These innovative sandals have rock-gripping rubber outsoles coupled with protective mesh uppers that drain and dry quickly.

All Aboard

On her journey west, my aunt May crossed Colorado by train five years before Rocky Mountain National Park was established. In those days, horse-drawn coaches and trains were the primary means of transportation to national parks. Amtrak continues this tradition on its Chicago-to-Portland Empire Builder, which stops daily at Glacier National Park in Montana. Other scenic rail destinations include Denali, served by the Alaska Railroad on its Seward-to-Fairbanks route, and the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Railway makes daily round trips from Williams, Arizona. Few maps and little written information existed for park visitors a century ago. These days anyone with Internet access can peruse Park Service web sites for trip planning information. Maps destined to be carried into the backcountry are now available in waterproof, tearproof versions. Detailed maps are available from organizations such as Trails Illustrated, a division of the National Geographic Society. For those who are more computer savvy, they can also be obtained on CD-ROM. For example, Maptech[R] National Park Digital Guides include topographic base maps plus notes on attractions, accommodations, trails, geology, and wildlife viewing in 54 national parks. Using Maptech's Terrain Navigator software, users can plot their course, measure distance and elevation, check for landmarks, and then print customized maps.

Within the past decade, a state-of-the-art navigation system known as GPS (global positioning system) has become a convenient way to determine three-dimensional locations anywhere on Earth. Using a hand-held receiver that communicates with various satellites, the system pinpoints location within 100 to 300 feet. Users can summon built-in maps or create their own. More advanced GPS units compute rate of travel and identify points along a route with latitude and longitude readings.

Saving the Memories

To capture pictures of national parks early in this century, photographers lugged bulky cameras, massive tripods, and explosive flash powder with them. The pocket-sized cameras of today come complete with automatic exposure control and built-in flashes. Some models are weatherproof. Others offer the option of creating digital images. Binoculars, too, have improved optics. Sizes are handy enough to tuck into nearly any pocket or pack, while rubber armor minimizes bumps and keeps out moisture.

Clothing and equipment incomprehensible to our ancestors are now affordable and even essential. But look again at faces in the old photos and you will find a link with similar pictures today, as visits to national parks and monuments continue to generate great joy and appreciation.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:outdoor gear and low impact camping
Author:Toops, Connie
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 1999
Previous Article:A Walk in the Parks.
Next Article:Taking Root.

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