Simplicity Lost

There was a time, before the advent of cuben fabric, when going ultralight or lightweight backpacking meant taking less stuff on trips and on developing your backcountry skills to make up for the smaller safety margin. The simplicity of the activity was its greatest appeal for me, providing a welcome relief from a high stress, high interrupt, high tech career.

Silnylon Forever
Silnylon Forever

But I feel like those days are being replaced by a manufacturing arms race to create the lightest gear. Instead of maintaining simplicity, we now have the ability to fill out our gear lists with all kinds of electronic gadgets and luxury items that would have been unthinkable additions, before cuben.

At first the change was subtle, but as I started slashing my gear weight with cuben-based alternatives, I started carrying more stuff on trips, not less. First it was a cell phone; then a personal locator beacon; a GPS next, and so on. The miracle of cuben fabric let me add more and more luxury items to my pack, because overall, my gear weight was still decreasing.

Technologically, the advances we’ve seen in fabrics are exciting. But I fear that we are losing sight of the simplicity that embracing an ultralight or lightweight backpacking philosophy brings. I’m not suggesting that we turn back the tide of technological or product innovation, but I pray we don’t forget the spiritual reasons for going light. It’s not just about weight.

What you you think?

46 comments

  1. I think your own personality impedes you in this goal; mostly your drive to rack up miles but also this thing about being safe and connected via cell phone and locator beacon seems counter to the old "alone in the wilderness" ideal.

    I feel peculiarly uncomfortable when I'm out of things to do in the wild, particularly in winter when silence rules and my existence and mortality trouble me and adapting to that is what I'm out there for and the experience seems to ratchet up my understanding of everything a bit more.

    So the more stuff you take with you and the more you focus on getting to a certain place at a certain time, the less of experiencing yourself and your life free from distractions you get.

  2. The electronic gadgets are a bit of a killer

  3. Very good point! But I like to think that people who really are concerned about light weight aren't relying overly much on technology. The price of cuben fiber products is still so high that it seems only people who are really serious about lightening their loads should buy them. I've got a sil-nylon tarp that I've been using for almost six years now, which cost me a whopping $60 new. For a similar sized cuben tarp, I'm looking at around $300. It'll be a while before I can take that hit, so I'm forced to lighten my load in other ways.

    On the other hand, there are also more reasons for light backpacking than just simplicity (although I like that one the most). It's also about comfort– a 10 pound pack is a lot more comfortable than a 60 pound pack. So for some people, carrying gadgets makes for a more comfortable experience. Well, I hope they can be comfortable without the gadgets as well.

  4. Good point Guthook – I am also leaning more strongly to affordable gear. Many new UL products are absurdly priced.

  5. Among the idea of simplicity is contentment..

  6. The cliche proclamation that gadgets detract from the wilderness experience is a little outdated I think. A cell phone is simply an emergency device and as a person who hikes mostly alone into very remote areas, I appreciate it. Having a lighter base weight because of better gear does give us new choices without overly increasing our burdens, and what we do with that liberation,whether it's a newfound ability to indulge in packing fresh produce, or a book, or our teddy bear, or gadgetry, or whatever, should be free of judgment by others as long as we aren't overtly annoying them with it. Who's writing the rule book on the "genuine wilderness experience", anyway? I've missed picking up a copy…

  7. Easy now. I am not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. I'm writing about my own experience and pondering. And my current backpacking book is "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling.

  8. Thank you for your post. I have been contemplating this issue myself. While loading up my pack, I often ask myself, "Do I really need this"? But, instead of answering a simple yes or no, I say "I have room and weight to spare. Why not?"

  9. Yes, all the high tech whiz-bangs can go. UL camping is about doing more with less. That includes dollars. On my last long distance trip, the wife finally talked me into a cell phone. I have been resisting that device for many years. 80% of the time it was excess weight. I couldn’t use it…mostly because of no signal. I won’t do that again.

    GPS? Well, they only work about 50% of the time. Mostly, at least in the valleys and the terrain I traverse, they fail to get more than 1 or 2 “iffy” connections. I don’t carry that either. A compass doesn’t always work, but, about 95% of the time it is good. Maps? Well, these are usually trimmed copies. Good, but they miss many things. Anyway, a map and compass work about the best.

    Simplicity is nice. I spent too long servicing other people and high tech gadgetry (well since the late 80’s,) they stay home. I worry about the weather, can’t do much about it anyway. I worry about paddling, getting my stroke “just right.” I worry about the hills, and where my next few feet of footing will be. I worry about the eagles flying overhead. I do NOT worry about debugging that blasted widget that keeps shifting the cursor one pixel right or the background job that simply dies for no reason.

    Ahh, the simplicity of simply struggling with that blasted fleidermaus over a lazly tossed fly. The pain in the butt of not being able to plant a stake. These are REAL problems. Well, I think I’ll watch the elephant in the sky… he seems amiable enough…

    Hmm, there’s a nice trout…. Now, the best presentation would be from the other side of the stream, of course!

  10. I'm not sure I'm adding as much complexity to my gear as I'm removing weight(then I don't get out as much or as long as many others who comment here). I am increasing my margin of safety though. When a teenager and doing week or week and a bit trips I'd just use a wool blanket in the summer (and a tarp). And you don't want to know what I used when it was cool. Modern gear is much better. Everything I use (except a GPS and maybe a cell phone (we carried a dime for the omnipresent (except when you needed it) pay phone) had a direct, and heavier less functional, analog in the "good old days".

    That said – I like my GPS – because I can make trail maps and brag about distances (which it conveniently over-estimates ;-) ). I haven't quite graduated from cell phone to spot system but would consider only taking one of the two depending on where and when I was.

  11. lostalot – one of these days, I am going to take a zero day on a trip and just lie around, read a book, and munch around at a nice campsite. That's one thing I've started to long for, inspired I guess by Chris Townsend, who is happy to stay in his tent all day when it's raining or blizzarding, drinking chicken soup and cocoa, and reading a book.

  12. Kimberlie – I can see how you though this was a post about electronics. It's not actually. I should have used different examples. It's about going back to a time when I brought fewer item along, and made more with less. Thanks for calling out the ambiguity though.

  13. Well I thought the spiritual thing was what Phil was referring to. Spirituality to me is just an outdated word for psychology and my psychology definitely changes when I'm truly alone and not mentally occupied with the technicalities of backpacking or other concerns.

    Being able to push a button and contact someone simply defeats the purpose all that hiking and would certainly alter my psychological state and I think others can sense that in themselves as well.

  14. Marco – how true. Those little things, like getting the stakes in, finding the perfect stream crossing point, or finding a good bear bag tree, and are excellent things to focus one's intellect on.

  15. Yes – it's about the spiritual experience of simplicity and the positive feelings one experiences when you can be self-reliant. Psychology, philosophy, whatever label you prefer. Whatever, I don't want to lose it.

  16. It's not about feeling good to me, it's naturally unpleasant for a human being to be completely isolated from others; and with nothing to occupy my mind, reality closes in, and that's unpleasant too. But I think it helps me in life.

  17. Phil~ I understand what you're talking about! The focus on electronics seemed to be more from comments than from your original post. I like a few luxury items.. shouldn't be so defensive about them :) … But I am also known to run out of the house with almost nothing (sometimes unwisely) and just enjoy the being there. So many possible experiences from such a simple activity! Beautiful that we've all found our different ways of connecting with it .. enjoying it.. spiritually.. naturally .. I see nothing detestable about going out there even to just enjoy your expensive gear :) … No right way. Just create happiness for yourself (oh and others too :) ) …

  18. For myself the only reasons I went light was comfort and time. Comfort meant I didn't hurt – my backpack was the same weight as my daypack. Trail runners meant no foot pain. Carrying less gear meant I could be packed in minutes and on the trail.

    It meant I could much longer days and many more miles. I could do the trips I wanted in half or less the time than before.

    But it was never spiritual outside of my cussing going down ;-)

  19. Amen, brother. I wrote about Simplicity in Wilderness Travel not too long ago.

    I don't think that high-end gear choices reduce simplicity if the choices result in taking less, reducing weight and reducing reach. In fact, I'd suggest, as I argue in my essay, that when combined with the idea that "simplicity allows us to connect to something greater such as joy, the journey, what’s truly important and mindfulness" that lighter gear choices can increase the power of simplicity.

    To me the test is this: "the power in simplicity is directly proportional to how directly it allows us to experience the wilderness."

    If a piece of high-end gear fails that test, then discard it for something that doesn't. I.e. a compass and map for a GPS. A friend for a cell phone. Courage for a SPOT.

  20. I can partly relate, in that I see that vendors are trying to push more and more gear … as you would expect. That said, I've always hiked relatively light, and I don't think I've added much gear, I've only replaced and substituted with lighter or otherwise more comfortable items. A sleeping bag is just lighter and warmer than a wool blanket, or the SilTwinn tarp and modern e-vent jacket is lighter than the poncho, windbreaker combo requiring more insulation … An yes, ok, a PLB is modern and heavy, but certainly has is a reasonable risk avoidance tool in some instances.

  21. (more)

    I want to second the theme of lighter weight simply making it more comfortable and safer – so in its own right reducing weight a true luxury. In December I had a chance to use light-weight and fast-packing techniques at Henry Coe State park in California and did about 28 miles and 6000 ft climbing (and 6000 ft descending) in a weekend. No pain, no fuss, stayed dry in a cold winter rain, ate good food (mostly (if you like peanut butter & tortillas)), and as an 53 year old. Without lightweight gear, that would have been very taxing. (I'd take a PLB of some version for my wife's peace of mind).

  22. you can buy ultra light these days … use to it would take skill and learning … now you can have most creature comforts and still walk around under 10 lbs base

  23. In the past, I never carried a cell phone on the trail (most of the places I backpacked didn't have coverage anyway, although that is constantly changing). My current cell is also a PDA and I carry it since I love to read and my reading material is now on the phone. It (and a spare battery for insurance) weighs less than any book I carried and… I can turn on the phone and use it if I need to and have coverage. I also have a GPS but often do not use it or take it. I grew up around topo maps and much prefer my eyeballs, a compass, and map.

  24. Some items are luxuries and some are not. It really easy as that.

    I really need those luxuries during the long winter nights.

    Would you be carrying the PLB if you hadn't dropped the weight in other areas? Is it a luxury?

  25. Thanks for this post. With my young family and a tight budget some of the enjoyment is in being creative…finding pieces of gear from something recycled or from thrift stores or clearance sales. I get satisfaction from taking my kids out into the woods with no glitz or glamour (except sometimes a cell phone for emergencies). They see my passion for being simply together in the woods…prepared and content. More experience with less money, less distraction, less waste, less discontent.

  26. Ultralight hiking equipment is no different than any other technology equipment such as consumer electronics or computers. You generally want to buy the second best to avoid the "early adopter" tax unless that is your "thing." If you want to be on the cutting edge, you have to pay to do so.

    I don't think I have let the lightening of gear influence me to take more things that I would not have in the past – I think I take less now than I did 25 years ago. Every piece of gear is evaluated for necessity on each trip. Each trip does not necessarily need the same gear. Simple enough, I think.

    Regarding cell phones – I think someone already said – they are as much for the people left behind as the people hiking. They really DO destroy the wilderness thing IMO. Its an unnatural thing to reach a peak and see all the cell phones pop out, but it happens ALOT. That being said, I do bring a cell phone on pretty much all trips nowadays. Its a very handy and powerful safety device and remarkably effective and lightweight.

  27. The cell phones thing reminds me of something a friend of mine said way back in 2005 when cell phones were still kind of new (weird, huh?). A few folks were hating on cell phones, and this guy said, "they're just a tool. As long as you own the tool and don't let IT own YOU, there's nothing wrong with it." I liked that. So now I carry a cell phone on longer hikes and use it as a tool. It's nice to be able to call someone in town when I get to a road crossing if I need a ride. I'll never get to the point where I have to whip out the phone at ever peak and let the world know exactly where I am and what I'm doing.

    Phil, also in the spirit of this post, I've been thinking of hiking the Long Trail this summer, and I realized that I already have all the gear (and more) that I need for hikes like that, as well as the hiking experience necessary for the trail. So when I do the LT, instead of pushing for the lightest pack weight (my previous goal when thinking of this hike), I'm going to try for the cheapest through-hike. It's a light hike in a different way!

  28. Guthook – you see exactly what I'm getting at. I heartily applaud your desire to go inexpensive – I still use the 9oz silnylon tarp I used on the LT. Perfectly adequate and I still rather like it.

    I never meant for this post to be about electronics.

  29. Blitzo – I buy old model computer equipment these days and save a ton of money. I once ran a data center where we deliberately bought software licenses on old software releases at 1/500th of the cost of new license. Old is still (very)good. Perfectly good strategy for gearing up, even with lighter weight backpacking gear.

  30. Future Me: "Why you backpackers today are just spoiled rotten with all your fancy doo-dads and such. Why in my day TV's weighed 2 1/2 lbs and only had 30" screens AND THEY WERE 2-D. And our recliners never had any vibrating massagers or A/C vents, we just toughed it out. And you know what freeze dried lobster bisque tasted like? IT WAS MEDIOCRE! Refridgerators were 4 lbs and nobody would pack one. You kids today don't know what a real "wilderness experience" is.

  31. The way I measure simplicity for myself when it comes to backpacking is not the price of what I own because I admittedly own some expensive gear. Getting good, lightweight gear is part of the hobby for me. I have spent money foolishly at times but have also made some excellent purchases over the last few years. I may get one or two items each year now but I am pretty well "dialed-in" to my gear choices depending on the season/weather forecast.

    For me, I measure simplicity more in what I bring. I like reading something on each outing. But other than that, the less the better. I hate having to wonder where in my pack something is. If I cannot readily find something in my pack, I figure I have too much stuff, something I now tend to avoid.

  32. That's a good metric Gerry. I agree.

  33. I love my SPOT because my mom, who introduced me to backpacking, is now 79 and unable to get into the back country anymore, just loves to get my locations.

    But it all the quiet, simplicity and exercise is what it is all about for me.

  34. I have considered a SPOT, especially in view of what happened with my brother in law and I a few months ago. He'd done lots of day hiking but this was his first overnight trip and we were hiking a thirty mile loop, crossing about eight mountain ranges, in a place without cell coverage. With his excess of insanely heavy gear, we got more than a day behind schedule on the hike. His wife panicked and called in the cavalry. When we got to the trailhead at the end of the hike, we learned there was a rescue mission in the works. A SPOT message could have saved a few taxpayer bucks, but at least we kept the rangers from terminal boredom.

    By the way, my brother in law is now a firm believer in lightweight techniques. He even came to my shop a while back to cut an inch or so off all his tent pegs. On the third day of our hike, the trail crossed a forest service road and he stashed about a third of his gear in the woods and we picked it up on the way home. I think everyone has to go through the experience of self torture on the trail at least once to appreciate that "less is more".

  35. will my take on the whole thing is about getting out into nature and breathing the fresh air and taking in the sites and sounds. Now if you want to do that with the latest and greats gadgets that is great. I personally just like to carry with me clothes, food, hammock, headlamp and sleeping bag and let mother nature provide the rest.

  36. David – I'd get a spot. If you lived in NH, you've probably owe the state some money now. His wife did the right thing. You were overdue, in winter.

  37. Bottom line as usual… HYOH

  38. I would like to stir the pot a little more on this conversation… What about minimizing the amount of gear in our closets? Figuring out ways to re-use gear for summer/fall/winter/spring? Building systems as opposed to owning one piece of gear for each condition we will encounter. i.e. if you were going to pick one shelter and one stove for 4 season use, what would it be…

  39. excellent point Damien. We should simplify. I'd probably pick my MLD Grace Duo tarp, and just make do below treeline in winter, so I can tie out to them. Probably add a mod with some velcro to shut one side up. One stove – that would have to be a liquid fuel stove for winter use. I'd use my MSR simmlerlite.

  40. @ Damien, that is the route I took (by necessity). I use a SVEA 123R in all 4 seasons and my winter sleep system is nesting my son's 3 season bag inside my 3 season bag along with my camp layers.

    The trade-off of this type of simplicity is extra bulk and extra weight. I have saved some serious $$ but I need s now cover to winter overnight becuase the bulkiness of my gear requires a pulk.

    Trade-offs…

  41. A tiny mp3 player with headphones can be a lifesaver when you are in a shelter full of snorers. I don't like to walk with headphones, woods or city. I like to hear what's going on around me. I carry a cellphone. New ones can be tracked and located in emergencies. In fact, with the camera/video capabilities, they make a good adjunct to the photo equipment. Just remember not to kill the battery off…

  42. Phil, The person who coined the phrase "hike your own hike" managed to cover a multitude of issues. My basic philosphy has always been to add more smiles per mile. I did that quite well back in the 60s with gear people would consider barbaric by today's standards. But, as the years rolled by and equipment choices increased along with afforadability I noticed a definite equipment creep. I have a dog eared 1968 edition of Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker. Remembering, that all the gear in there while servicable is obsolete today, but not the philosphy in support of the walk. Few people would want to carry 30 pounds of base gear when 10 pounds will do just as nicely and that's what Colin taught me. A lesser know fact about him is he was a Captain of Royal Marine Commandos in WW2.

    I try not to get sucked into the arms race of equipment manufacturers or their devotes. That's a trap for sure.

  43. Certainly is. I liked Damien's post above about collecting less stuff. I'm certainly leaning in that direction. Consumption is a trap.

  44. Friar Rodney Burnap

    I think we need to get back to the teachings of Colin Fletcher the father of modern backpacking he was also the first modern thru-hiker… You can’t go wrong going by his tips and tricks…

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