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My Choice is Simple

by Zaring Robertson

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I drafted an article describing how, slowly but surely, I had begun finding myself in the ultralight crowd. The first effort wasn’t particularly interesting though. It was not much more than a gear list, with a lot of numbers followed by “oz.” I decided the rewrite should explain why I had made my recent gear selections. As I worked on the article some more, I realized my decisions were not so much about weight --they were about simplicity.

Even if some of us do happen to have birthdates that coincide with the Baby Boom, most nature-loving, live-off-the-land outdoor types are loathe to admit to materialism. Yet, the credo of backpacking is to be prepared for every contingency. Thus, it is easy to be attracted by gadgetry and overkill.

In the enthusiasm to equip myself for any possible weather or emergency, I used to end up with a lot of redundant gear. Despite the fact that my sister gave me a wonderful Svea 123 when I was a teenager, I thought it prudent to bring along a can of Sterno anyway, as well as a wood saw, “just in case”. Even though I can’t stand the stuff, I used to always drag along a tin of Spam to cover the possibility of getting lost or injured and having to spend more time in the wilderness than originally planned. My first tent worked fine, but I always carried mosquito repellant too. Although I never so much as take a day hike without my poncho, I figured it wouldn’t hurt also to have a sheet of plastic. After occasionally losing or experiencing a problem with an item on one trip, I started carrying “backup” on later trips. This habit resulted in burdening myself with an extra pair of shoes; two or three flashlights; three or four ways to start a fire; multiple repair kits and half a dozen “organizer” pouches. Sometimes, I was sucked in by advertisements for cool-looking stuff I didn’t really need at all. Something about knobs, levers, straps, bells and whistles just put a gleam in my eyes. I fell for inflatable this, multifunction that and electronic anything. Finally, I should mention that my pack was an oversized, external frame model, and if there was no room inside, I could always tie things to the outside. In fact, my load was so heavy that I began to keep a folding stool where I could reach it easily for my frequent rest stops. Ironically, the stool itself was part of the excess!

Eventually, however, I began to notice what a nuisance it was to get ready for a trip. Actually setting up a campsite seemed to take as long as getting there. It slowly occurred to me that I was trying to make the wilderness accommodations equivalent to home. In doing so, I was importing a lot of associated stress factors into my recreational pastime, and creating some additional ones. At home, the electricity rarely goes out, and my mattress never springs a leak. Yet, on backpacking trips, I not only fretted over whether I remembered the various repair kits and extra batteries, but also which pocket I stored them in and if they would work when needed. Along with the typical fantasy of “being the first human to step foot in this place”, I started to wonder what it would be like to travel as the pioneer longhunters did, with little more than a bedroll and bean pot. As this revelation was occurring, my backpacking also evolved from group hikes to solo treks. The campsite was no longer the focus of the trip, but merely an incidental feature of it. It was not important to carry all the comforts of civilization – just enough to avoid discomfort. With experience came the confidence of knowing my Svea would not malfunction; that GPS is silly in the Southeast, where a road is never more than five miles in any direction; that people do not need Phillips head screwdrivers or wire cutters in the backcountry; and that it’s okay to wear the same underpants more than once, or not at all. I learned that I could stand erect and/or string a hammock under a tarp, which is so much simpler to set up than a tent. I figured out that candles do not quit unexpectedly, like flashlights, and holes do not ruin closed-cell foam. Engineers teach us that more moving parts increase the risk of breakage, and I thus adopted an “anticomplexity” philosophy about my camping gear.

It turns out, then, that my lower pack weight is only an added benefit of limiting gear to simple, functional items. Another plus is that I now have enough left over to equip a small Scout Troop!

About the Author

Zaring Robertson (zaring@lex.infi.net) is a full-time lawyer/bureaucrat in Kentucky state government, and part-time hiker/naturalist throughout the Southeast,


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