Last year some 17 million Americans turned the nation's public camping grounds into a season-long traffic jam. This year their numbers will be even greater. So, too, will the volume and variety of the equipment they take with them from air-conditioned travel trailers to a sophisticated array of creature comforts worthy of the yacht Christina.
If this return to nature—or its reasonable 1970 facsimile—brings smiles to the camping industry, it brings only a philosophical shrug from James Gilbert Phillips, a long, lean New Mexican who has challenged the entire concept of camping as it is practiced today.
"The indoors has no place on a camping trip," Phillips says. "It should be left home where it belongs. The forest was once man's haven. He should be able to venture back into the forest and enjoy the wonders and beauty that have always been there. He should be able to live in comfort for short periods of time with a minimum of equipment and with complete confidence in his ability to meet the challenges of any wilderness."
For most of his 49 years, Phillips has practiced what he has been preaching for the past 11. His role as the prophet of primitive camping began in 1958 when he became scoutmaster of Santa Fe Troop 23 of which his son Jim, then 10, was a member.
The troop was soon performing feats most boys only read about. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, flint and steel, a couple of empty cans and pocketknives, they spent periods of from two to seven days in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains sleeping on self-fashioned beds of branches and boughs. At 10� below zero and with high winds drifting snow to 20 feet, they crossed the 12,000-foot Truchas Divide, building snow-block windbreaks for shelter each night.
One of Phillips' most practical, albeit radical, rules of wilderness camping, especially in winter, is to eliminate the need for fire. He stresses the fact that fire is luxury and not essential to survival, safety or even to simple comfort. Too often campers build fires when they should instead be building shelter. In snow or rain, fires are extremely difficult to start and even more difficult to keep burning. Aside from psychological value, they are virtually useless in severe temperatures to anyone trying to sleep through the night without other shelter.
Fire is unnecessary for cooking, since Phillips' ideal wilderness diet requires none. His menu, which is the same for all meals, consists of equal parts of dried meat, raisins, cheese, shredded coconut, bran and nuts. The mixture is not exactly gourmet fare but it is considerably more appetizing than it sounds, and surprisingly satisfying.
Water, which can take some finding on summer camp-outs, is always available in winter wherever there is snow. On his earlier trips Phillips used to suck on snow whenever he became thirsty, but he soon found that this caused his lips to swell and crack. Now he and his scouts carry plastic or rubber ice bags, which they fill with snow and place inside their shirts against their bare skin. The packs soon warm up to body temperature, which eventually melts the snow inside.
The wilderness clothing and gear Phillips has devised over the years is even more radical than his diet. Phillips, who works as an electrical engineer with the Eberline Instrument Corporation in Albuquerque, is involved almost entirely with nuclear research. He would like to say that his wilderness gear was developed with comparable scientific research, but in truth it evolved by pure hit or miss. At first he dressed for winter camping the way most woodsmen and hunters do: heavy underwear, sweaters, quilted jackets, boots and socks. And like most woodsmen and hunters, he found himself less than comfortable. Keeping his feet warm was his biggest problem. He tried various sock combinations, felt innersoles and insulated boots. Nothing seemed to work in severe temperatures. Finally, on a frigid trip outside Santa Fe he tried to restore circulation to his numb feet by wrapping them in a one-inch piece of polyurethane foam. To his surprise, as the night grew colder his feet grew warmer. Today no Phillips' follower ventures into the wilderness in anything but this type of mukluks, and nobody complains of cold feet. "Polyurethane was readily available, inexpensive, easy to work with and light to transport," Phillips says. "I began using it for everything—pants, jacket, mittens, hat and bedroll. Some of those outfits looked wild, but they worked."
To prove how well they worked, Phillips put them to severe tests. Two years ago, with only a backpack, snowshoes and his Siberian husky, Aztec, he traveled into the Idaho Primitive Area to talk to the legendary Buckskin Bill (The Last of the Mountain Men, Oct. 3, 1966). Because dogs were not permitted on the buses out of Boise, Phillips hitchhiked the 90 miles to McCall. Then he took a ski plane the remaining 40 miles to Warren, a small gold-mining settlement. Buckskin Bill lived another 24 miles beyond, across the formidable Burgdorf Summit. To the handful of settlers in Warren, Old Bill might just as well have lived 2,000 miles away—in winter. The snow was piled as high as the houses in the town.