The Lean Approach to Wilderness Travel

Eric Ries coined the term “lean startup” in the context of entrepreneurship, but most folks think it’s about running a business with as little overhead as possible.

Nothing could be further from the truth, or more damaging to the entrepreneur that is assuming that zero overhead is the key to success.

It’s not in business, and it’s not in backpacking. We’ll get to trekking in a minute.

One of Eric’s great philosophies is that of doing rather than just planning.

At some point, you have to get to market with a product that doesn’t have to be perfect, because your customers may hate it anyways.

And, at some point, you have to take a walk.

The amount of time people spend spreadsheeting, buying gear, testing gear, returning gear, weighing gear, cutting tags off of gear, weighing gear again, finding the right stuff sacks for the gear, packing their gear, unpacking their gear, repacking their gear, and then repeating this whole process in preparation for a walk borders on insanity.

“But this is my thru-hike!”
“But I’m going to Alaska!”
“But I’m…”
“But I’m…”
“But I’m…”

Yeah, I know. Been there. I get it.

But at some point you have to be honest with yourself.

Maybe it’s a waste of time?

When I packed for a recent traverse across the Beartooths, I ordered a pack from Joe which arrived a few days before I left and thought, “huh, let’s give it a shot”. Then, without a spreadsheet, or plan, or a pack load test, or the right stuff sacks, I went through the shed and pulled out a bunch of gear I hadn’t used in a while, threw in a firestarting kit and a pot, and called it good.

Ten days later, after a snowy and wet August trek, I ended my hike remarkably happy.

Now, I have to admit – I wouldn’t take that exact kit again – I made notes and modifications and remembered the pain caused by some of the items – and made sure my next kit was much better optimized for the foul conditions of high mountains.

This is what Eric calls a “pivot”: act, assess, change, go. The pivot is the change-go piece.

Analytical backpackers might do better to spreadsheet less, walk more, and pivot.

Spreadsheeting is interesting, pivoting means you have some amount of intelligence, but trust me when I tell ya: walking is where it’s at.

Here’s my list of best pivots from 2011:

  1. Closing the backpackinglight.com gear shop. This pivot left me facing our membership community again. What a joy! Working on new products for them behind the scenes has interjected new excitement into my daily work.
  2. Working from a home office again. I love my view of the Bridger Mountains from my house, the smell of hot chili cooking in the slow cooker, the sound of Stephanie coaching the dog, and the scratching of Chase’s pencil as he does his homework.
  3. Watching fewer fiction movies and more documentaries about social and environmental activism, humanitarian projects, etc. I like the feeling of being more connected to the planet.
  4. Packing for all of my trips this year using a paper, rather than an electronic, gear list.
  5. Sleeping in a tarp again, in the deep of winter.

What pivots have you made this year?