With a thought leader firmly ensconced, peripatetic Boomers only needed uncomplicated access to the plethora of outdoor equipment then being conceived and manufactured by a nascent industry. That niche became filled by Recreational Equipment Incorporated, or REI as the company is more widely known today.
Organized as a consumers' cooperative in 1938, REI was founded by Mary and Lloyd Anderson in Seattle, Washington. The couple began their enterprise by initially selling only imported ice axes from Austria to other serious mountain climbers. Sensing a forthcoming onslaught of hikers and campers, and growing demand for equipment to facilitate all aspects of the wilderness camping experience, the couple then enlarged their mission to help outdoor enthusiasts acquire a wide variety of good quality outdoor gear at reasonable prices.
Boomers began hearing about REI mostly through word-of-mouth. My story about discovering the outdoors outfitter may be typical.
A close friend and his new bride decided to celebrate their honeymoon in Big Bend National Park. They picked a campsite several miles from the trailhead where they parked their Ford Econoline van. Most of their World War II surplus equipment was heavy and inconvenient to carry. We can imagine the newlyweds schlepping armfuls of outdated equipment to their backcountry campsite.
Soon after setting up their haphazard camp, along came an older man walking energetically with just a single nylon backpack stowing all his worldly goods. He stopped and visited my friends who were obviously curious about the bright red nylon backpack and all the self-contained hiking strategies of this peripatetic stranger. The visitor opened his backpack and showed my friends his tiny Svea 123 cooking stove made of solid brass in Sweden and weighing about 19 ounces, heavy by today’s standards but highly functional as a cooking alternative to a traditional campfire. His goose down sleeping bag was one-tenth the weight of my friends’ heavy Kapok sleeping bags. After a couple of hours of show-and-tell, my friends had an epiphany about the modern miracles of lightweight outdoors travel and asked the stranger for the mailing address of a small outfitter in the Seattle, Washington area, from which this stranger had purchased his cool equipment. Soon after returning home, my friends gave me the mailing address, and I wrote the company for a catalog.
The early REI catalogs were rudimentary: printed in black-and-white ink on newsprint with hand-drawn illustrations of equipment rather than photographs. Ordering involved filling out a form and mailing a check, then waiting until a package arrived days or even weeks later. Back then, all transactions involved mail order sales. I confess some anxieties about whether or not I’d ever see a package and how soon I could expect to see my order arrive by US mail. I was not accustomed to sending my hard-earned money to a company on the other side of the nation. But REI packages always arrived within a week or two, and I soon outfitted myself with as much modern equipment as I could afford, rendering my World War II army surplus equipment to irrelevance and history.
From these modest beginnings, the member-owned cooperative today has grown into a $2 billion retail and online sales juggernaut while maintaining its status for high-quality outdoors equipment covering sports ranging from kayaking to bicycling and backpacking to technical rock climbing. The co-op has nearly 12 million members although nonmembers can purchase equipment also, but those who don’t join the co-op as members lose out on an annual perk: a traditional 10 percent dividend check for equipment purchased during the previous year.
REI not only provided a growing mail-order and retail channel to funnel outdoor paraphernalia to Boomers, the company also became a major re-seller of backpacking equipment manufactured by notable entrepreneurial startups from the 1960’s such as The North Face and Sierra Designs.
With the arrival of a spiritual thought-leader by the charming name of Colin Fletcher, and a nascent technology-driven manufacturing industry producing equipment yearned for by light-weight-seeking Boomers, a cultural and consumer revolution solidified and expanded rapidly. The money flowed through REI and other, smaller equipment re-sellers because this capitalistic generation has always been enthusiastic about spending money on their recreational activities.
The 1970’s have received many succinct characterizations, including, infamously, the “me decade,” a demeaning censure conveyed by best-selling novelist Tom Wolfe. Alternatively, one can think of the decade as the beginning of modern “light travel.” The backpacking movement became more firmly entrenched and ubiquitous. The environmental movement took hold of generational consciousness with the inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and backpacking was one concrete way to convey an environmental consciousness.
Automobile preferences among young people changed from the chrome-laden behemoths built by Detroit to the lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles manufactured by Japan and Germany. Rendering steamer trunks to the dustbin of history, lightweight air travel followed with the invention of rolling luggage and lightweight functional travel clothes became popular among business travelers. The natural products and craft industries took off in opposition to industrialized post-World War II America, projecting disdain for manufactured waste, plastics, and post-consumer waste. Words such as “ecology,” “natural,” “conservation,” “sustainability,” and “organic” became part of the popular cultural lexicon.
Something sustaining also happened within the collective consciousness of this young generation. Backpacking certainly became a popular fad. And personal priorities started shifting under the dark clouds of the Vietnam War, violent racial tensions in large American cities, an accelerating psychoactive drug culture, and a paternalistic, male-dominated social class order. Consciousness shifted from outward activities to inward exploration. Many Boomers transitioned from living in big cities to inhabiting small rural communities and desolate country farms.
Popular psychology morphed from behaviorism as the dominant psychological construct to existentialism and the human potential movement. Carl Rogers, founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, supplanted John B. Watson, who had established the hegemonic psychological school of behaviorism. Titanic cultural and social forces challenged ideologies inherited from the GI Generation, fomenting titanic confrontations between young and old, liberals and conservatives, “the establishment” and a boisterous counterculture.
Few demonstrable physical activities encapsulate these societal and cultural shifts much better than ultralight traveling as recreational sports and higher consciousness pursuits.
Trekking from Hollywood to the Back Country
During the counterculture movement in the 70s, some Boomers experimented with laid-back lifestyles by taking up residence on farms and in communes. Some shouldered a backpack and hitchhiked through Europe and Asia. Still others mounted motorcycles and headed across the nation in epic journeys.
One of the cinematic and iconographic images of the era occurred in a 1969 movie called Easy Rider. Portraying the character of a cocaine-dealing, Harley-riding misfit, actor Peter Fonda begins a cross-country odyssey in search of the real America with his co-star companion, Dennis Hopper. As Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) rev up their Hogs to begin a trip east from California through the American southwest, Fonda tears off his wristwatch and tosses it blithely onto the roadside.
This movie proposes a cultural and sociological narrative that we can think of today as a precursor to “ultralight living.” For example, when Captain America casts his wristwatch to the ground, the literal and symbolic flourish demonstrates his newfound freedom and rejection of obsessive time constraints in modern society. His chosen simplified life includes little more than the leather on his back, his throaty hog, and cocaine stashed in the gasoline tank. This modern aesthete lifestyle does not include excess baggage, neither material nor psychological.
The two adventurers follow their whims and let spontaneity guide their days, which is also one attribute of the wilderness trekking experience. Along the way, they encounter many faces of America: big cities, small towns, bigoted local townspeople, hippie communes, rednecks, makeshift campsites, back-road diners, and whorehouses.
As they take to the open road, cross the Colorado River, and pass through unspoiled buttes and red-colored deserts, the lyrics of Born to Be Wild, a popular rock song by Steppenwolf, reinforces the theme of mainstream culture abandonment:
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah, darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of the guns at once
And explode into space.
I like smoke and lightnin’
Heavy metal thunder
Racin’ with the wind
And the feelin’ that I'm under.
Yeah, darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of the guns at once
And explode into space
Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die.
Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Wild... 
Emblazoned in the collective generational memory by the showcase of this breakaway movie and years of repetition on Classic Rock radio stations, the powerful rock anthem evokes the complementary images of Harleys, Old West tableaus, adventure travel, spontaneous love, and the powers of mind expansion. The lead singer speaks to an Age-of-Aquarius sensibility by inviting Boomers to embrace nature, freedom, wildness, and psychological nirvana. The song proposes escape from societal constraints granted by unstructured rowdiness and lack of discipline, an essential freedom unfettered by final exams, conference calls, staff meetings, project due dates, and planning sessions.
Captain America and Billy stop at a horse ranch to repair Captain America’s flat tire in symbolic, parallel juxtaposition to a rancher who is shoeing his horse nearby. Their odd appearance does not intimidate the rancher, and he admires Captain America’s “good-looking machine.” The vagabonds join the rancher’s family for a picnic, and Captain America compliments the rancher on his simple life of hard work, reinforcing an attraction to the man’s commitment to building a life that is the timeless embodiment of personal freedom:
You've got a nice place. It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.
Although few literally identified with the sociopathic characters portrayed in the movie, many did connect with a lifestyle unburdened by economic competition and calendars controlled by others. The independence to shape each day by personal agendas sparked optimism and youthful fantasies of freedom. Those “freedom fantasies” endure forty-five years later but are finding new ways of realization, from immersive adventure travel experiences produced by REI and National Geographic, notable among many other travel companies, to an explosive contemporary market for recreational vehicle sales. The call to be wild reverberates from the past, and this creative generation is finding new ways to resurrect those defining feelings and experiences from their coming-of-age zeitgeist.
Today we find the same generation on the other side of the life course, a generation with ten-thousand members turning 65 daily. For the past four-and-a-half decades, they have shouldered the adult responsibilities of higher education, careers, raising children, and struggling to accumulate financial resources to pay for a traditional retirement.
Many members of the generation have had searing encounters with mortality with the passing of their GI Generation parents. They have carried the psychic burdens of several recessions, oil shortages, political upheavals diminishing faith in government, nearly a lifetime of warring on foreign soils, international conflicts, and profound assaults to the environment including climate warming. They are aging into another era of social uncertainty with unstable financial markets, unyielding threats of terrorism, and rapid population growth worldwide. In their aging they are perhaps less optimistic than earlier in life and certainly more wary of the vulnerabilities that come along with a biological stopwatch ticking off the laps.
The outdoors adventure industry has been designing and producing contemporary answers to an age-old yearning. With advancing manufacturing technologies and ingenious product designs, backpacking equipment has morphed into ultralight equipment. The 50 lb. pack can now be a 30 lb. load with more functional, higher quality equipment. Thus empowered by diminishing weight throughout the backpack, Boomers today can seek nature’s spiritual nourishment and transformational powers with fewer burdens to bear on their backs. Today’s ultralight equipment—from gossamer tents to featherweight sleeping bags—is ready-made for the same generation that so successfully popularized the Fletcher-inspired trekking sport four and five decades ago.
So, too, the aging of a large and transformational generation inspires new thinking about how to age better than previous generations, not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually. Backpacking is one answer.
Packing a Backpack, Packing a Life
The rigor required by hiking wilderness trails can deliver greater physical strength and stamina. The sense of freedom and spontaneity inspired by backwoods discoveries can toughen emotional stamina to help post-60 adults deal with the vagaries of human aging. Pursuing separation from urbanism and technological society, if but for a few days a year, can liberate the soul, bringing the hiker into closer contact with divine creation, inspiring a new sense of purpose and connectivity to the wider web of life.
What lessons can Boomers learn from ultralight backpacking that have relevant implications to their Ultralight Aging?
First, ultralight backpacking means carrying an intentionally lighter load. To achieve this, we must focus on the details of our lives with the same scrupulous attention required to shed ounces from backpacks. We can learn the differences between that which is essential for survival and good health and that which is superfluous, merely excess baggage. This can involve shedding relationship baggage, home clutter, and social commitments borne of habit rather than intentional decision-making.
Some fanatic ultralight backpackers even cut their toothbrushes in half to lose a gram of weight. They know that excess grams add up to excess ounces, and surplus ounces become too many superfluous pounds that conspire to slow down the traveler, causing pain and suffering on the long trails and ambitious through-hikes. ULA invites such rigor, and we can be wiser about the relationships and commitments in our lives that are important and those that must be cast away to allow us greater emotional and temporal freedoms.
Second, while ultralight backpacking is an adventure sport, with possible dangers to life and limb—and that is clearly part of the adventure—it is nevertheless a recreational pursuit where safety is of utmost consideration. Seasoned backcountry travelers believe in always carrying “the ten essentials,” their precautions credo of preparation. These essentials include equipment and consumer products addressing navigation, sun protection, thermal insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire starters, repair tools, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter.
Committed backpackers learn to navigate in the backcountry, to handle medical emergencies with wilderness first aide training, and to read signs and anticipate changes in the weather that could pose looming dangers. Committed backpackers know that “cotton kills” and therefore wear synthetic fabric clothes to help avoid the deadly hazards of hypothermia. They cultivate the foresight to pack what is essential for a given trip such as a “bear vault” to store food when hiking in bruin country.
Similarly, those committed to Ultralight Aging practice the art of thinking about the possible twists and turns of life ahead. And though many aspects of life are unpredictable, people aging well are also the architects of their lives right up to the final days. They cultivate foresight through continuing education. They engage technologies to simplify the journey forward.
Henry David Thoreau instructed: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Third, ultralight backpackers are remarkably self-sufficient. They carry everything they need for safety, survival, and to ensure the sublime satisfactions bestowed by wilderness travel and exploration. Sometimes they travel in teams, but nevertheless they join self-sufficient, like-minded trekkers committed to the same goals, whether reaching a mountain summit or establishing a campsite fifty miles from the trailhead. Self-sufficiency is the product of preparation. It involves anticipating, planning, organizing, provisioning, and revising. These are same skills required for a meaningful and satisfying later life.
Likewise, those committed to Ultralight Aging prepare ahead, whether it’s renovating a bathroom to make it wheelchair accessible by anticipating a future handicapping condition, or preparing a living will and testament so survivors will know the dying patient’s preferences concerning life-prolonging medical treatments. Although the trajectory of aging will for many eventually shift from self-sufficiency to dependency, ULA encourages us to anticipate how we will manage our own eventual deaths, whether through hospice care or experimental therapies.
Fourth and finally, ultralight backpackers employ modern technologies to liberate themselves from lives inundated with connectivity technologies. This may seem contradictory on first thought. But consider this: modern wilderness explorers respect and adopt the technologies that keep them safe in the wilderness: water purification filters, lightweight rain gear, small cook stoves, and super-bright LED headlamps. These technologies make the wilderness experience more accessible and safer, while simultaneously liberating the hiker from 24-hour cable television news, cell phone interruptions, and endless email solicitations. They tread softly through nature’s wonders, following a dictum that keeps the wilderness more pristine: “Take only photographs; leave only footprints.”
Equally, Ultralight Aging invites us to use technologies selectively to make our lives more engaged and less exposed to hazards. As we age, social isolation becomes a greater risk to health and well-being. Thus, two-way video conference calls via the internet can diminish geographic distances between grandparents and grandchildren. Those suffering with chronic diseases can find sagacious advice and emotional sustenance from online support groups. Those at risk for falls can wear the latest high-technology watches that communicate via the internet to provide 24/7/365 emergency medical alerts—watches smart enough to detect a fall or other non-typical behavioral warnings.
Ultralight Aging means lessening the weight of our histories: the destructive burdens of regrets, failures, bad choices, and emotional losses. ULA means learning new ways to stay safer in our aging bodies by becoming smarter about our capabilities and limitations. ULA encourages us to commit to maximum self-sufficiency during a stage of life too often typified as dependent and needy. We can facilitate this outcome through dogged commitment to wellness principles, physical fitness, sound nutrition, and stress reduction. Finally, ULA employs empowering technologies that can liberate rather than constrain us, setting us freer to roam the unexplored places, to discover the world anew as we did with vigor and wonder during youth.
Ultralight Aging™ is a trademark of Brent Green & Associates, Inc. "Boomers" blog contents © Brent Green, 2005 — 2016. All rights reserved.
 Born To Be Wild Words and Music by Mars Bonfire (c) Copyright 1968 Songs of Universal, Inc. on behalf of Universal Music Publishing, a division of Universal Studios, Canada LTD. (BMI) International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
 Easy Rider, screenplay written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern, released and Copyrighted by Columbia Pictures 1969.