I first entertained the idea of long-distance hiking after discovering Mike Clelland’s book Ultralight Backpackin Tips. I’d gone backpacking before, and it had been beautiful, but I had been in a lot of pain; in Backpackin’ Tips, which is like Ray Jardine distilled for the modern age and hilariously illustrated with cartoons, Clelland gleefully advises you to cut most of the stuff off of your pack (a process he calls after-market alteration), make a stove from a cat food can, and wear an old pair of running shoes. This, he promises, will set you free. I followed Clelland’s advice: I hacked up my REI pack, altered everything else I already had to make it as light as possible, wore the pair of discount running shoes I’d had for years (I wasn’t much of a runner) and went on a four-day backpacking trip on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with my friend Finn, who I’d also evangelized (We’re not even going to bring, like, a knife, I said to him via text message). Aside from getting back to the trailhead and finding a shell of scorched metal and puddles of melted glass where Finn’s car should be (Finn’s car, along with two other cars at the trailhead, had been broken into and torched to the ground, but that’s another story), the trip was sublime. And it was then, during those glorious four pain-free days along the Duckabush river in the Olympic Peninsula, that I first entertained the idea of long-distance hiking at all. The conversation in my brain went like this:
I love this.
I love this so much.
I wish I could do this forever.
If I hike the PCT I can do this for, like, FIVE MONTHS.
And I was sold.
The brilliant thing about Clelland’s philosophy is that he walks you through the process of becoming ultralight without invoking a single company or brand. The sleeping bag, tent and pack you already have, he says, are good enough; just alter them, and replace smaller gear with lighter versions that you fashion yourself from bits of trash. And if you don’t already have a sleeping bag, shelter or pack, you can make your own- there are patterns on the internet for free. These patterns exist thanks to the legacy of Ray Jardine, the long-winded and prolific hiker/writer who got the ball rolling on the ultralight hiking conversation back in the seventies. Many of these DIY tarps, quilts and packs are still based on Jardine’s designs. This is because Jardine’s designs are, in their most basic element, rooted in simplicity- and it turns out that you can’t improve on simplicity. You can only continue to strip away, and strip away, and strip away. Jardine’s intention was not to brand his designs; it was, sometimes almost obnoxiously, to spread the Good Word of Ultralight Hiking. Copy my designs, he seems to be saying. Take them. They’re yours. They’re yours.
But of course I am a Good American Citizen and like my fellow Americans I derive pleasure and gratification from not making things myself but by spending hours online, often in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping, looking for the exact perfect object to BUY in order to solve my problems/make my life more meaningful/temporarily soothe my aching existential despair. And so, while preparing for my first long-distance hike, I did what so many other long-distance hikers have done before me; I combed the blogs of successful hikers, picked the ones who I felt I could relate to the most, and created a gear list that was an exact amalgam of these different hikers’ gearlists, down to the brand of underwear that they wore. (If you’re curious, the gear I ended up carrying for my PCT 2013 hike was an amalgam of Wired’s 2011 PCT gear list and NotaChance’s 2012 PCT gear list. I had a feeling that somewhere between the super-cautious and methodical hiking style of Wired and Chance’s endearingly arrogant disregard for her own body’s needs in favor of maintaining a seven pound base weight, even in hypothermia rain and even in the sierras, I would find my own hiking style. And I did.)
I bought nearly everything fresh for the PCT- even my popcan stove I was too lazy to make myself but bought on ebay, for three dollars, from a man who I imagine makes them in his garage, after long hours of work, just to decompress. I picture this man wearing his realtree carhart jacket against the winter cold (there’s a space heater in the garage, but it doesn’t do much to cut the chill) and sitting at a plywood table littered with bits of popcan shavings. The table is lit by one of those bright lights with, like, a cage over it, and on the left side of the table is a cluster of pepsi cans. This man has his family save the cans for him, and he carefully scours the red “pepsi” paint off of each one, in order to make the stoves less toxic when lit. The man is listening, I think, to Billie Holiday.
The problem with buying all my gear fresh is that some of the ultralight gear I wanted was very expensive, and I am poor. I am not poor, of course, in the global sense- whenever I use the word “poor” in relation to myself I imagine several billion people all over the world, laughing at me. Compared to nearly every other human on earth, the amount of resources I consume daily- electricity, water, paper products, consumer goods, gasoline, toilet paper, the depressing and earth-destroying infrastructure that makes it possible for me to have, for example, a smartphone- the amount of resources I consume and have access to is absolutely mind-bogglingly insane. I am, in fact, wealthy beyond my wildest imaginings. And if you are reading this then chances are that you are, too. But I am “poor” in the sense that I have always chosen to live below the poverty level- instead of getting a “real job” which would allow me to “accrue savings” or “go to the dentist” I choose to work seasonally (about half the year) in order to prioritize things like adventure, my writing, and laying in the sun with a cup of tea, staring off at nothing.
I did not have the money to buy the gear that I wanted and so my thoughts turned to sponsorship. I am not an athlete; I have never played any sports. I knew nothing of the world of sponsorship; what did that word even mean, anyway? What I did know is that I had been blogging for a while and my blog had a bit of traffic, and maybe these gear companies and I could engage in a mutually beneficial relationship wherein they gave me free or discounted gear and I helped them sell more gear by talking about the gear on my blog. I never imagined sponsorship as being anything more than this very basic arrangement and, to be totally clear, it’s not.
Things went well- I got discounts on a few pricey pieces of gear, putting them within reach of my budget, and everything else I was able to afford. Brooks sent me a couple of pairs of shoes, I think by mistake- their Cascadias were (and still are) the most popular shoe on the trail, a fact I imagine they came to regret when scores of hikers contacted them mid-hike, wanting replacements because their shoes had “worn out”. As far as I know they’ve since stopped “sponsoring” PCT hikers, and they’ve added a disclaimer to their website saying that Cascadias are not suitable for long-distance hiking, which I think is hilarious. I’ll keep wearing the Cascadias, because they work for me and because you can get previous years’ models discounted online, which means that I will continue to contribute, via the bit of traffic from my gear list, to the popularity of the shoe on the trail- and Brooks will continue to have to deal with hikers complaining that their trail runners have disintegrated after, if you can imagine it, a thousand miles. Dear Brooks: I’m sorry. Sort of.
The one troubling thing with my newfound quasi-sponsorship was my relationship with a single company- let’s call them Company X. On Company X’s website they asked that sponsorship applicants have two things: a near-evangelical love for ultralight backpacking (which I do) and a desire to use their gear (which I did). The application was geared towards people like me: non-athletes with little understanding of what sponsorship entails, only recently introduced to the hiking world. Basically, they were looking for noobs. And although the copy on their website made it seem as though this gear company fostered a sort of cliquish community/family- just a bunch of cool/loveable ultralight hikers come together to spread the good word! Just sort of casually! I am a pretty perceptive person and I saw it for what it was- another opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship in which I helped Company X sell more gear and they allowed me access to gear which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
And for a while, my relationship with the company seemed exactly that. We had a purely professional relationship in which they wanted me for just one thing- my blog traffic, and I wanted them for just one thing- their gear. This felt good to me. It felt like healthy boundaries, and a clear understanding of intentions.
And then things got murky.
The first thing that happened was that I set out on my 2013 PCT thru-hike and so became part of the actual hiking community, which exists, contrary to how you may feel after spending hours on the PCT facebook page, on the trail (if you can imagine it) where people are actually hiking (try and picture it). On the real physical actual trail I began to hear stories about Company X from nearly every person that I met who carried one of their products. “They never sent the gear that I ordered,” said one hiker, “and they won’t respond to my emails.” Or, “The gear they sent me arrived defective, and when I contacted them they said they would replace it, but then they contacted me again and said that the company couldn’t afford to replace it.” Or, “They finally fixed my defective gear/order mistake after several months of rude, off-putting emails from their customer service person.”
These were not, I have to tell you, whiny thru-hikers as in the case of Brooks Cascadias, calling the company to say that their gear had worn out after thousands of miles of rigorous use. This was real, straight-up, awful customer service. This is the absolute worst nightmare, short of ordering something from a website that doesn’t actually exist, of anyone who buys things from small companies online. What if they fuck it all up? What if there’s a problem that requires contacting the company and it turns out that, instead of a customer service professional on the other end of the line, there’s just a hedgehog eating a strawberry?
At the same time, the nature of my relationship with Company X was becoming less and less clear. I would get group emails encouraging me to do specific things: write for their blog, go on group outings, wear a hat with their logo (which I would be required to buy, but with a discount!), make business cards that displayed my name AND their name, hand out stickers. I wrote for their blog but I wasn’t able to go on any group outings, as I was actually thru-hiking at the time, and I found the hat (it even comes in pink!) and business cards off-putting. And my experience of their customer service mirrored what I had heard from others- I would wait weeks for a response to my emails, and the response would invariably be very short, and very rude. Soon I was confused: what was the nature of our relationship? What was expected of me, and what was I getting in return? And why was the hedgehog with the strawberry so mean? Did the hedgehog hate me? WHY did the hedgehog hate me? And if the hedgehog hated me, why was the company sponsoring me? One time, when I had an issue with a piece of gear, I got the president of the company on the phone, and he was very friendly and things happened in a prompt and professional manner. But that was the one moment of ease and clarity in our long and murky time together.
By this time I was in the middle of my second thru-hike of the PCT. I’d continued my sponsorship with Company X simply because I couldn’t afford to buy my own fucking gear. And that seemed fine- I’d met several people on the trail that were carrying Company X’s products specifically because they’d seem them on the gear list on my blog, and I could see on my stats page how many click-throughs went to the company’s website (it was a good number) so I felt like I was doing a good job of holding up my end of the deal. Not that, at this point, I even knew what our deal was anymore. In two years I’d gotten about $500 worth of product from them- I’d say that this product was “free”, but it wasn’t- it was a trade. That’s what sponsorships are. Company X was growing, and sponsoring people in the hiking community who were able to influence the gear choices of other hikers (via blog traffic, instagram followers, leading hiking trips, whatever) was simply a tactic in their growth. Their customer service still sucked and they’d recently moved their production facilities from the U.S. to Vietnam, which made them no longer a cottage manufacturer but a mid-sized company depending on good ol’ fashioned slave labor to get ahead.
But before I could think about any of this too hard, they fired me.
I was staying at a trail angel’s house outside Snoqualmie when I got the email- they had heard, from their “friends on the PCT”, that I had been “trash talking” them. They were ending our relationship. P.S.- I had offended everyone in the company.
It took me a moment to get over the fact that Company X had used the term “trash talking” in a professional email with me, and then I realized that, in a sense, they were right. I’d been having many conversations on the PCT, that summer, that went like this:
Me: “Hey, I see you’re using Company X’s gear! What do you think of it?”
Hiker: “It’s pretty good, but I had a bad experience with their customer service.”
Me: “You know, I like carrying their gear, but their customer service sucks. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
In hindsight, this lackadaisical criticism of the company in casual conversation was an attempt for me to reconcile my own feelings about the company with my desire to maintain our relationship just so that I wouldn’t have to pay for gear. I hadn’t taken the time to really think about my relationship with them in a while, or to acknowledge the mixed feelings I had about this relationship. It had all seemed so simple in the beginning and then, at some point, it wasn’t anymore.
The email from Company X left me with a surprising amount of feelings that I couldn’t begin to sort out. But mostly, I just felt gross- I felt gross about the way they had acted, about how I had acted in response to the way they had acted, about all our bad boundaries and lack of communication and mutual assumptions. I felt grossed out by my own naivety in the face of everything and by how I had continued to represent them to the world for so long, in spite of how I really felt.
It felt like a weird breakup. Like I’d been dating someone and we’d stayed together far too long after it had gone sour, but I hadn’t realized until it was all over.
After my breakup with Company X, I swore off sponsorships for good. I didn’t want to feel that way again- and it definitely wasn’t worth the gear. I still get the hebe-jeebies thinking about their weird, confusing responses to my attempts at communication, especially juxtaposed against the image they promote on their website of a happy hiking community based entirely around consumption of their products. Recently, though, a friend said to me that probably not every company is like Company X, and I realized that this is likely true. Ethical ultralight gear companies with healthy, professional communication DO exist. One day I might have a relationship with one of these companies, and that might feel entirely different.
In the meantime, dear reader, here are some words of wisdom for you.
If you are sponsored by a company, you then represent that company. If the company sponsoring you makes their products in Vietnam, for example, then you are the face of a company that benefits off of what is essentially slave labor. So before you accept sponsorship from anyone, ask yourself these helpful questions:
-Do I actually like and respect the company? Not just the gear, but the company itself?
-Are the company’s ethics in line with my own? Where are their products made? How are the workers in these factories treated? Are their materials sourced in an ethical way (down, for example)?
-Does the company have good customer service? Will I be embarrassed to tell people on the trail, who’ve bought the products and interacted with the company, that I am sponsored by this company?
-What is expected of me, and what do I receive in return? Does the company communicate in a clear and professional manner? Do they show through their actions that they value our relationship and have respect for me, as a human being?
-Do I have any misgivings at all?
If you’re not happy with your answers to any of these questions, then you might want to reconsider your quest for a relationship with this company. Just buy the gear straight-up, find a used version on ebay, buy from a different company or make your own gear, ala Ray Jardine. You don’t need to be sponsored in order to hike.
Some people can afford to buy their own gear and yet really, really want to be sponsored, just for the sake of sponsorship. Hiking is not enough- they need sponsorship to feel good about themselves. They need corporate validation to feel as though what they’re doing is even real. I don’t understand this but it happens, and it seems as though it’s happening more all the time. Maybe this is a result of the growing popularity of long-distance hiking. Maybe it’s the influx of people leaving corporate jobs in order to live more “simply”, and their inability to leave the corporate way of thinking behind. I don’t know. What I do know is that this manic branding of the hiking experience creates a lot of noise on the internet, and this noise can feel, when you’re googling things late at night in the off-season, as though that’s what long-distance hiking is. Like that’s what the hiking community is. But it’s not.
The long-distance hiking community is the people you meet on the actual trail- regular people, just like yourself. People you walk with, people you huddle with in a pit toilet during a windstorm, people who make you laugh when you’re cold and soaked from the rain. People you look for, people whose lives you get caught up in. People you meet when you least expect it- they’re tired and maybe a little grumpy, sitting alone on the bank of some stream poking at their blisters or soaking what may be the beginnings of tendonitis, and you stop and share your bag of cheese crackers and begin a friendship that, unbeknownst to you, will last the rest of your lives.
You don’t need flashy gear or sponsors or instagram followers to meet these people. Likewise with the trail itself- the soft sandy path, the forest, the wind- all of these things are free. The sunsets, the stars at night, the moon over the joshua trees- all of these things are there for the taking, forever and ever and ever. They exist in abundance for everyone huddled in their sleeping bags on the ground, bearing witness, fighting sleep to get one last good look at the milky way. Long-distance hiking is not what’s on the internet or what’s in your backpack. Long-distance hiking is you, in your dirty, sweat-soaked clothes, trail runners all beat to shit, trying to make it over the mountain and then pausing, at the top of the pass, to sit with your back against the granite and watch the clouds move over the ridge opposite. And there’s some sort of bird, it might be a hawk, but you can’t tell. And you’re eating crushed potato chips and thinking about where you’ll sleep, and you wipe your hand across your face and realize that your face is covered in dust.
I first met Scott Williamson in 2013, on the PCT. Scott Williamson held the PCT self-supported speed record for five years, whittling his time a little lower every year, until he lost the record that summer to Heather “Anish” Anderson’s awesome, unprecedented hike. (I still choke up when I think of how exciting it was when she crushed the overall speed record.) Scott and I crossed paths in Oregon- I was headed north and he was headed south. As far as I know, Scott Williamson hikes the PCT every year, usually southbound. And if you’re out there, you might see him too. One thing I really admire about Scott is that even though he’s such a boss of a hiker, he’s not, as far as I know, sponsored by anyone. He’s out there on the trail simply because he loves to hike. He knows the PCT better, I imagine, than anyone. When I met him he stopped to chat with me even though he was in the middle of a 45-mile day, and I noticed that nothing he was wearing was branded at all save for his shoes, which seemed like inexpensive road runners.
And as for his pack- as far as I could tell, he’d made it himself.