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At One With Nature . . . : Backpacker John Minch's Motto Is: 'Take Only Pictures and Leave Only Footsteps'

August 20, 1986|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Minimum impact / Maximum fun.

That, in a nutshell, is how John Minch of Saddleback College looks at backpacking and overnight camping in the wilderness.

Minch is a geology professor at the college, one who occasionally appears on TV news shows explaining faults and earthquakes and the like, but his real passion is camping.

Over the past eight years, Minch has taught summer geology field studies classes. He starts with theory classes and then takes his minions into the field for weeklong communes with nature in such places as Yosemite National Park or the Grand Canyon.

In doing so, Minch has become a stickler for cleanliness and detail, so that the environment his groups hike through is not spoiled by their presence. Hence, minimum impact on the environment.

"There's a lack of respect for the wilderness--you're an intruder into it and there are some common sense rules about how you behave once you get there," Minch said. "That's why we have the orientation classes beforehand.

"I've seen people throw paper and orange peels onto the ground. Contrary to what many people think, something like orange peels are not biodegradable."

While Minch is quite serious about his sport, he is not without a sense of humor about it all.

This, from Minch's geology field studies syllabus for this past summer's trip to Yosemite: "There are bears . The bears are better at getting your food than you are at keeping it. The only safe place is hanging from a tree (your food--not you).

"This includes anything which might smell--toothpaste, lotions and especially canned food.

"At Little Yosemite Valley the food will be placed in bear boxes. They are not interested in you and will try to avoid you. If a bear should get any of your food, consider it his-- he does, and he has a few pounds on you."

The overnight hikes that Minch leads usually last from three to nine days, covering from 20-50 miles, depending on how much preparation time and camping experience a given group has.

Minch's student groups tend to be diverse, with a mixture of young and old and experienced and inexperienced campers represented.

As such, he's used to giving his classes the most elementary instructions, whether it's asking them to buy good hiking boots in lieu of tennis shoes or not to bring portable stereos into the wilderness to conflict with the sounds of nature's own symphony.

Although Minch estimates the cost of his own camping gear to be between $800-$1,000, he notes that novice campers certainly don't have to spend that much to get started. Minch's own gear includes items such as wool sweaters and sunglasses that he's picked up for under $10 at garage sales.

Minch said: "You don't have to go out the first time and buy the most expensive equipment there is, although when you hike you do want to have reliable and safe equipment.

"What I recommend for the first-time backpacker is to rent your equipment for the first few hikes and go from there. A lot of sporting goods stores have deals about renting and eventually buying equipment over time. There's not much sense in spending $800 for new gear and then finding out you don't like the sport."

To Minch, the selection of shoes and the packing of one's backpack seem to be the two most important factors in determining whether a hiker will be comfortable--or miserable.

"I typically will go with a 40-45 pound pack, but not much more than that," Minch said. "About one-fifth your body weight is a good rule of thumb. Plus you've got to factor in two to three pounds per day of food, which adds to your pack total.

"And I never pack more than three of anything (as far as clothing). If you wash in the evenings, that gives each item two days to dry out before you wear it again."

Minch has several horror stories to tell about hikers who wore ill-fitting shoes or tennis shoes without proper socks or padding.

"If you don't have good-fitting shoes, you just won't be comfortable," Minch said. "They don't have to have ankle support as much as good stiff (sole) support.

"I usually wear out a pair of hiking boots per year, when I go as much as 150-200 miles over a summer. When you're traveling 28 miles in 20 hours by foot--carrying a 50-pound pack--you just have to have good shoes."

As for the enjoyment of the hike itself, Minch recommends taking a camera along to record the natural beauty of the woods. In his eight years of overnight backpacking, Minch already has taken 15,000 slides--4,000 to 5,000 of those of Yosemite alone.

That goes along with his teaching theory of having a minimum impact on the environment. Plants, flowers, stones, fossils and small animals are not for the taking.

"Take only pictures," Minch said, "and leave only footsteps."

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