One of the dangers of any activity that involves “gear” is that people can get hyper focused on “gear” rather than the activity / goal. Ironically, there is a similar danger for people pursuing minimalism: a temptation to chase after the “perfect” rather than being content with a functional system already in use. I recommend focusing less on “perfect”, and rather focus on removing friction so you can devote more of your time and energy to the activity.

Pretty much every hobby or activity can descend into gearaholism, where the focus switches from the activity to the acquisition, evaluating, reviewing, etc of the gear. You know you are on this path when you spend more time reading about gear, thinking about your next purchase, testing items, than using the gear to enjoy the activity or hobby.

The following has been my journey with backpacking / outdoor gear as I shifted my focus to simplicity and getting away from being completely driven by the newest and best gear. I had similar journeys with photography, audio, and computing equipment. I somehow avoiding gearaholism with bicycling. Cyclists often talk about the correct number of bikes is either:

  • N + 1 for single folks: The optimal number of bikes is one more
  • N – 1 for married folks: the correct number of bikes is one less than will result in a divorce.

Phase 0 (many years)

I was the prototypical boy scout.  I wanted to “be prepared” for any situation, so I carried everything including the kitchen sink, whether or not it was likely to be needed.  If it was theoretically possible, one needed to be prepared for it. Everything was build to survive anything short of a nuclear blast. Heavy leather boots, 1000D Cordura Nylon, etc. A 4-season mountaineering tent was guaranteed to do well in wind, rain, and snow so it would be great in milder conditions. During this period of time I would spend some time trying to find the best option, but once it was purchased I was done. I would stop looking at alternatives and just use the item until it was worn out, broken, or stolen.

Phase 1: Discovery (2 year)

I found that I wasn’t really up to carrying a 60lb pack anymore, and came across people doing adventure racing, Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism, ultralight backpacking advocated by Ray Jardine, the ultralight yahoo mailing list, and later the folks at BPL, e.g. people providing the groundwork for the /r/Ultralight community. While I don’t completely embrace all their ideas, my approach has been strongly influenced by them. I will agree with Andrew… ultralight people need to chill.

I replaced my heaviest items with light or ultralight weight versions. I drop some items I always took but never used and asked the question “Do I actually need these things?” and “Can I improvise or use something I already have to cover this potential need?”

Phase II: Incremental Improvement (3 years)

I treated each trip as an experiment, often varying the items I brought and the approach I took. I was constantly pushing myself, and my gear to the edge, looking to see what the real (rather than imagined) limitation was.

I took a notebook on each trip where I would log the conditions (logging thermometer / mini weather station was very helpful). I would make notes about what worked and what didn’t work. I found both the comfort and the safety ranges of my clothing, shelter, and sleep system. I figured out of various items could be combined to cover unusual circumstances.

I would often bring something extra as a “safety” item, but commit to not pull it out unless it was actually a safety rather than a comfort issue. For example, the first couple of trips that I was using a poncho as raingear and nighttime shelter I carrying a tarptent it case I couldn’t manage severe weather with just the poncho, but didn’t use the Tarptent even though weathering a strong storm with just the poncho was unpleasant.

After each trip I would review my experiences. My goal was to remove at least one item from future trips until there was nothing left to remove. If I was smart, I would have been content with the system I arrive at near the end of this phase.

Phase III: Obsession (4 years)

I was on a quest to find “perfect” gear and to get my pack weight as low as I could. I was a full on gear-a-holic. This resulted in purchased multiple items which provided the same function which were optimized for varying conditions. Multiple shelters, packs, bags, etc. Each trip had a different combination of gear. During this time I spent a lot of cash and engaged in a lot of “catch and release”, purchase gear (often used), use it on a few trips, sell it and try something else. I spent a year trying  super ultralight (SUL) approach, e.g. based weight <5lbs. I recorded my last super-ultralight gear list from 2007.

Phase IV: Comfortably Dialed In (4 years)

I decided to rein my spending, and to get more focused on using rather than buying gear. I started that transition by committing to a zero-cash spend in 2006. If I wanted something new, I had to sell items I already owned to cover the cost. My “budget” was whatever was in my PayPal account. I have a lot of gear that I had accumulated during my obsession phase. The items that were uber-lite and I didn’t enjoy using were sold off. Each trip I selected the optimal system from my “quiver”, often influenced by which items I loaned out to people on the trip I was leading.

I decided lightest weight pack just wasn’t that important. There was no different in fatigue or enjoyment when carrying <20lb with a good pack with a weight transforming hip belt compared to <10lb, so why I was I using a sleeping pad which wasn’t comfortable, using a shelter that didn’t protect me from bugs, just to save weight, especially when I had to carry >15lbs worth of food and water on trails without resupply or infrequent water sources.

My base went when from <5lb to between 8-12lbs depending on if I had to bring a bear can, and if it was 3-season or winter trips.

Phase V: Minimalist (10 years)

I wanted to minimize my possessions so I could focus on things that really mattered to me. I wanted my activities to maximize enjoyment and meaning. This resulted in changing the trips I planned. For example, while I could push myself to do 30 (or in one case 50 miles) in a day, that my sweet spot is more like 15-20 miles/day. While I could do solo winter trips, I didn’t enjoy them, nor hot desert trips.

Eliminated the more extreme trips reduced the conditions I would face. This made it possible to build a “standard” packing list which would cover 95% of my trips with no variance. When I learned the next several days were free, I could pack and be out the door in around 15 minutes. It was OK to carry a bit of extra weight if that removed a decision and allowed me to sell of gear than was somewhat redundant. I downsided my gear, typically striving to have a single item for each function: 1 backpack, 1 quilt, etc. During this time my system didn’t change except when items wore out and needed to be replaced.

Phase VI (current)

I was over constraining myself by insisting on a single item to meet ALL requirements. I decided I was too focused on limiting the total number of items, and that it was OK to have some specialized gear. For example, these days I have two shelters. A GG Whisper for my three season solo trips, and a X-Mid 2 Pro for 2 person and more severe weather solo trips.

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