We all know him. He or she is the guy you see out on the trail doing something dumb. Perhaps they are wearing the wrong clothing or footwear for a hike. On a recent hike I observed a young, college aged girl with her boyfriend. She was walking in socks on the trail, not because she was into barefoot hiking but because she wore the wrong shoes and her feet were in bad shape. At other times that guy is someone who isn’t at the right fitness level for the chosen hike or has an overloaded pack. There is also the guy that leaves items for the bear in his backpack on an overnighter and gets his pack ripped apart. I backpacked with some guys that did this multiple times on the same trip. It was amazing they had enough pack to sew back together after a couple days!
We all have seen that guy and unfortunately, sometimes in the past, I was that guy. Admittedly, most of these occasions were long before I reached adulthood when I was still learning life’s lessons.
When I was 16 years old my Boy Scout troop decided to backpack to Mount Whitney. We were set to do a 58 mile, 8 day backpacking trip through some of the most beautiful back country in the western part of the United States. Our food and route were carefully planned out. We had all the permits and I spent hours getting my pack just right. I cut my toothbrush in half, rewrapped my toilet paper, and did everything possible to cut down on weight that I could think of or had read about.
As it grew closer to the day of departure I had not figured out my water situation for the trip. We had a few filtration systems that would be used in our group but each person was responsible for their own canteen or water bottle. This was back in the days before the hydration systems such as the Camelbak. I was thinking of taking an old plastic 1.5 quart canteen that I had used on several other trips but my dad handed me an old 4 quart canteen that looked like it had seen service during the Civil War with the injunction that this canteen would carry so much water that I would never be thirsty. He told me that when the other guys were out of water, I would be in good shape.
Part of me hesitated. It was a piece of gear that was not mine and I was not familiar with it. It was heavy but had a wide canvas strap. I was a high school athlete and knew that the extra weight would probably not be a concern. Besides, I had the lightest pack in the troop due to my diligent packing.
So I decided to take the untested, unfamiliar piece of gear, little knowing that the fateful decision would make me “That Guy”.
The first few days out and things were going great. My buddy and I were leading our group, sometimes arriving several hours ahead of the rest to our chosen camp site. My buddy and I never stopped to filter more water over the course of the day because of the big old canteen. It never seemed to run dry. When his one quart canteen ran out I shared some of my water so we didn’t have to stop. But on the third day I started not feeling well. I was weak, tired, and had no appetite. The others in the group believed that perhaps the altitude and all the exercise was getting too me. By the fourth day I was eating very little. I thought perhaps that I just didn’t like the dehydrated meals we had at dinner. They all tasted the same and had the same dehydrated after taste. I would eat breakfast in the morning but as the day wore on I did not feel like eating.
About day four my buddy was also not feeling well either but he was not nearly as bad as me. I just pushed on and each morning when I awoke I felt better. I thought that I was out of the woods but by evening again would find myself feeling ill. I was growing weaker each day as I burned more calories than I was taking in with my reduced appetite.
On day five my buddy gave me a packet of some sort of lemonade flavored drink mix which I added to my canteen. He also shared some hard candy with me that kept me going. We were still out in front of the rest of the group but the gap between us and the rest of the troop was much smaller. My health began to take a turn for the worse with the lemonade packet. Our leaders thought that perhaps we drank untreated water but the symptoms were not right so that was dismissed. My buddy was sick also but I was really sick. There is nothing worse in the back country than being hurt or sick. There is no place to go and you have to force yourself to keep moving towards civilization. It was a much longer hike to go back at this point than to go forward to the end.
On day six as we camped at the foot of the back side of Mount Whitney in the early afternoon, I vomited. My buddy did also either out of sympathy or because he was feeling poorly. I then realized that I was vomiting mostly what looked like rusty water. Sure enough I took a closer inspection of that old canteen and the entire insides were rusty. The water sloshing around as we hiked mile after mile dislodged small bits of rust. The drink mix seemed to have increased the quantity of rust being dislodged. I had been drinking rusty water the entire week which made me sick. I was that guy that took gear on a trip that he wasn’t familiar with. Now I became that guy with no water the last few days of the trip and that guy who had to bum water off of everyone else. I was also that guy who carried an old empty canteen for two more days down the mountain. But I felt much better and my health improved quickly. I was near 100% as we hiked off the trail and over to the awaiting cars to take us home.
As an added bonus to the story, I lost the lid to that old canteen somewhere on the trail and my dad was mad that it was gone after I got home. Even after hearing the story of how it made me sick! He wanted to try and get the rust out and continue using it. He was upset that it no longer had a lid! I never did find out where he got that old thing and it was mysteriously lost shortly after returning home.
The moral of the story is to know your gear and be familiar with how it functions. Take the time to inspect everything before you go on a hike. Trying something new on a long, multi day trip is never a good idea. The back country wilderness is not the time to find out that a critical piece of your gear is worn out or damaged. Know your gear and know how to use it. Don’t be that guy who uses gear he has never tested or inspected. It can make all the difference.