Packing your Backpack: Survival Of The Fittest

We made a brief stop in Los Angeles over the holidays to see family and pick up some things that we couldn’t find in South America. As we secured visas, acquired needed immunizations and H1N1 shots, we also had an opportunity to re-evaluate what we were carrying in our backpacks. It was interesting to note which items stayed in the backpack and which items didn’t survive. Having recently been in the Galapagos, I immediately thought of Charles Darwin and his idea of Natural Selection. Darwin defines Natural Selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved." This idea is simple and powerful: as with individuals, items in our backpacks that are best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive.

While Darwin coined "Natural Selection," it was Herbert Spencer that came up with the term "Survival of the Fittest," a term that Darwin liked and often used himself when writing about evolution. An examination of some of our things deemed ‘not fit for survival" revealed my wife’s curling iron (never used), my son’s gold medals from a Peruvian swim meet (stashed in a corner of his pack and never taken out), my daughter’s giant hair brush (useful, but too big) and my beach towel (used only twice). These things were not constant problems, but certainly were top of mind every time we trudged through a bus station or hoisted our backpacks in to a taxi trunk.

When it comes to the items within the finite area of a backpack, we are talking about the intersection of space and utility. If it takes up space, it had better be useful. The items that took up space that didn’t survive were either a) not useful or b) less useful than a competitor. In the first category, the tag line is "use it or lose it." My wife suggested she and I carry silk pillowcases to with us to cover the rough hotel pillows we often encountered. Presumably, these pillowcases helped delay the onset of facial wrinkles that accompany middle age. Neither of us ever used them so we "lost" them. In the second category, my Quicksilver board shorts lost out to a competitor: I found some khaki walking shorts with a swim liner that allowed them to double as a swim suit. Both the silk pillowcases and the board shorts went the way of the Dodo. In some cases, changing geography dictates obsolescence. The alpaca woven chullos that were essential in the Andes, were dead weight once we got to the coastal areas. The same was true for our hiking boots. As we head to the Mediterranean, these will not be in our backpacks.

On the topic of backpacks, a special note of nostalgia is in order. My daughter is carrying the same black REI combo pack that I carried when I backpacked around the world over 20 years ago. The pack goes by the moniker "The Black Hole" because of its ability to absorb and hold anything that I’ve wanted to put inside it. Like the zero gravity black holes, it seems to suck in everything around it. From one generation to the next, my daughter is now lugging around The Black Hole while I am using a new Eagle Creek Switchback 25 roller pack.

Whatever pack one is using, the same Darwinian principle applies. Items in our backpacks that are best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive.

1 comment:

  1. The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.