Valley Voices

Phil Fullerton: Throwback Sierra backpackers: Brr! Ah-h-h! Ouch! Help! Kraft

By Phil Fullerton

The history of backpacking in our nearby Sierra mountains clearly reflects the broader trends in our society for the past half century: population growth, ecological awareness, increased pollution and intrusive regulations.

This was made clear to me in the recent movie, “Wild,” telling of a solo hike on Pacific Crest Trail. My wife and I have been backpacking in the Sierra from 1957 until age deterred us in the 1990s.

The first amazing thing in this movie was the use of a fancy tent on a clear night! We never used tents unless it was raining or rain was threatened, sleeping under the delightful canopy of stars and shooting comets and awakening with frost on your sleeping bag.

And for “tents” we first used two surplus Marine shelter-halves. These rectangular oil cloths served as ponchos but, snapped together, made a large cloth which could be suspended from trees by hanging it over a central rope. And then came the big advance: tube tents. These were 10-foot-long loops of plastic which made a triangle, open at both ends when suspended by a rope from trees. They were lighter and water tight, except in a wind, the open ends were an invitation to rain or snow.

We killed rattlesnakes upon sight. In “Wild,” Cheryl, the protagonist, walked by a rattlesnake, as we surely would now. In those days, we thought we were making the world safer, but gave no thought to ecology or natural balances.

We got our water out of streams by carrying a tin cup on our belts. No bottles were needed, nor any purifier chemical. Now the pressure of both people and grazing cattle have introduced dangerous viruses, so purifiers and filters are needed. I can still taste the wonderful, cool, spring water!

Cooking was done over a wood fire. We would carry a grill and build our own fireplace. We collected plentiful wood near our campsite. Now the pressure of population means that wood is scarce, so stoves are necessary and often legally required. And in addition, fallen wood has been shown to be a source of nutrients as it rots, so burning it ends a millennium old cycle of regeneration.

Packs have hugely evolved. We started with Trapper Nelson packs which were basically two shoulder-supported boards and a bag. Then Kelty came out with its revolutionary superb waist belt support. We had to go to the Glendale factory to get our pack for a required individual fitting.

As to boots, you could get Red Wing laced high boots or nothing. Now there are super light boots that are not nearly so confining or heavy. And to ford a stream, you used your boots but took the socks off. Now there are special foot covers for fording.

For sleeping bags, we bought surplus prickly duck feather infantry bags. Brrrr. They were cold! We used ponchos and then Neoprene for ground covers; no air mattresses then.

Food was a challenge. We had to use standard foods on the market like Kraft dinners and Rice-a-roni. We relied on fish we caught. We carried a slab of bacon and sliced it for the grease. And there were powdered soups, milk and oatmeal as well. Now there is a huge array of freeze-dried foods that are a delight.

For location, we had a detailed U.S. Geological Survey map and a compass. There was no GPS or cellphones. Once my daughter and I had to walk out 13 miles starting at noon to reach Little Yosemite Valley to report a serious ankle injury to a hiking companion. We did succeed in getting the helicopter there the next morning, but we were plenty tired!

So attitudes and technology have moved on. Yet part of me still longs for the “old” days where we encountered only six people in eight days on the southern third of the Muir Trail; and feasted on self-reliant remoteness, disconnected from the “outside” world.

Phil Fullerton of Fresno is a retired lawyer. Email him at