Wilderness Simplicity, Flexibility, and Power

I love Brent Simmon’s recent post about flexibility and power in the context of iOS Apps, and especially, his brilliant observation that

…flexibility is just a tool to use exceedingly sparingly, only when it substantially increases power.

There’s a lot of meat in this statement, with direct relevance to trekking, and trekking gear.

Now, it depends on how one might define power. Traditional definitions might equate power to speed, or distance. A more thoughtful person might consider that efficiency reflects power while on an expedition.

I’d propose that these superficial manifestations of power be completely discarded in lieu of discovering what emotional and mental power is all about, which is simplicity, and the freedom from having to fiddle, choose, and think about stuff that isn’t really that important.

Four stakes and a stick. It doesn’t get much easier than this. Simplicity is one of the reasons I love pyramid shelters, and for most summer trekking in the mountains, why I don’t fool around with extra things like ground cloths and bivy sacks. Above: Dupuyer Creek, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana. SIGMA DP2s.

What if your backpack had only one compartment and didn’t offer a zillion straps and organizational doodads?This is where gear comes in. Consider the following questions in the context of the aesthetic complexity (call it flexibility if you like, but do recognize is it for what it is) and how much power a feature-rich piece of kit really provides for you on a walk in a Wild Place.

  1. What if your shoes provided only enough structure to protect your feet, and didn’t offer pronation control, cushioning, arch support, and speed laces?
  2. What if your cook kit was a pot, a spoon, and a firestarter, and not much else?
  3. What if you left your sunglasses case at home?
  4. What if you replaced your $1000 Orvis fly rod and reel with something simpler, like a Tenkara rod?
  5. What if you replaced your tent with a tarp?
  6. What if you limited the number of items you carried in your pack to 50? 20? How about 10?

I mean – really – what if? Maybe we don’t ask that question enough, and really evaluate the consequences of our kit choices.

These are questions an idealist likes to ask, but the answers reveal practical limitations about how we look at engaging ourselves with (into) a Wild Place. Everyone’s answers are different, of course, because everyone has their own definition of what “power” really means in terms of the success of a walk.

The thesis that I’m exploring is that there is a balance between aesthetic simplicity and functions-features-flexibility, and that I’m still a long ways from achieving the balance that I desperately crave in the Wilds, and that my experiences are still riddled with more complexity than I want.

Here’s a brief, and total gear list that I used for weekend trekking in Montana last fall and this summer. The goal is to achieve an aesthetic form of kit simplicity and see what comes out of it in my experiences.

  • Pack – a 50L dry bag with shoulder straps, and a single mesh back pocket for wet gear
  • Pad – torso-sized foam pad, rolled inside packbag for support
  • Bag – a synthetic quilt
  • Shelter – a pyramid tarp with four stakes and four guylines for mid-point tie-outs
  • Cold weather gear – synthetic hooded pullover and pants
  • Storm gear – waterproof rain jacket
  • Clothing worn – bandana, wool underwear, hooded wool shirt, light trekking pants, wool socks, trail shoes, baseball cap, sunglasses
  • Cook kit – 900ml titanium pot, titanium spork, and magnesium firestarter (packed in pot)
  • Ursack for food storage, contains titanium grill for cooking fish
  • Steripen for water treatment (cook pot serves as water bottle) (packed in pot)
  • Hand sanitizer (packed in pot)
  • Toothbrush (packed in pot)
  • Pocketknife (packed in pot, used only when bringing fishing gear)
  • Notebook, pen, and compact camera (packed in pants pockets)
  • Map and compass (when needed in unfamiliar area) (compass worn on neck, map in side pocket of pants)
  • Headnet (when needed during peak season only) (packed in pants pocket)
  • One trekking pole
  • Tenkara Hane rod, Tenkara line, one tippet spool (5x), license, and fly box with flies (all stowed in fly box, rod in pack) (used only in areas with fishing opportunities)
  • Pak-Rifle .22 + shells (during grouse season)
  • 1.3 to 1.5 lbs of food/day (when not fishing/hunting), 0.8 to 1.0 lbs of food/day (when fishing/hunting)

More important, here are the things on don’t carry on these trips:

  • Pack liner
  • Stuff sacks
  • Ground cloth
  • Water bottle

And I’m sure you’ll find more stuff absent from my list.

Interestingly, I still consider this a pretty luxurious kit, with the following items added purely for comfort, convenience, and experience, and lacking the character of an “essential”:

  • Steripen (it’s not hard to find good water in Montana)
  • Hand sanitizer (there are plant elixirs one can mix up for hand washing as needed)
  • Pocketknife (I only use this for preparing fish and game)
  • Toothbrush (some tasty plants can get you by through a weekend, but not generally longer treks)
  • Notebook, pen, and camera (not bringing these might kill me, but I will admit that they aren’t essential items to wilderness living, and can even be a barrier for those with journalistic aspirations)
  • Map and compass (as familiarity with an area increases, the need to know where you are goes down)
  • Headnet (seasonal)
  • Trekking pole (I can usually prepare a stick suitable for pitching the ‘mid well enough)
  • Rod and rifle (easy enough to leave home by bringing enough food)

Now, realizing that the kit can be distilled to a pack, pad, bag, clothes, pot, spoon, firestarter, and bear bag – without entering the realm of Wilderness Survival – the real freedom of a simple kit becomes apparent.

There are no questions about “where shall I stow this item?”

The need to ask “hmmm…where did I lay that piece of kit?” goes away.

And the activities of gear repair, gear organization, gear finding, gear tracking, and gear using decrease substantially in time.

Which begs the question to the wilderness traveler:

“Now what to I do?”

To which I respond simply:

“Walk.”