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:


Wild Places Breed Humility and Unselfishness


Big Wall Camp
Escalante, UT 2004

Wilderness has a way of making you feel really small, and insignificant.

It’s too bad that the natural tendencies of real people in the real world don’t tend to the same manifestations of humility.

In a Wild Place, it’s pretty easy to look around and be reminded that it’s not all about me.

But back here, in the real world, where there’s people, I’m reminded constantly that not only is it often about me (or at least, I want to think it is), but you also think that it’s often about you.

What a parasitic means of living, and interacting with people.

This is why I love hanging out with groups in Wild Places. Wild Places open eyes to something way bigger than me, or you, so we tend to want to serve others while we’re out there, and think of each other’s well being above our own.

Combine this with an ultralight pack, which requires less effort to carry and makes you less tired, and a simple kit, which means you have less to keep track of and fiddle with, and more time at your disposal, and you have some pretty important ingredients for fostering relationships. Woe to the family, or Scout Troop, or NOLS crew, that continues to carry heavy loads into the wilderness. “But it’s working for us!” is the common response.

“But it’s working for us?” That’s your standard?

There’s more, I promise. So, lighten up, OK? Start here.

The Wilderness Day Planner

The Wilderness Day Planner
Uinta Mountains UT, August 2009

In 2003, Chase and I were about on the same plane with respect to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies about organization. Once, he lined up about 200 Matchbox cars in a big sweeping curve across the living room. When he left the room to go pee, I snuck into the middle of his catenary highway and made one minor adjustment to a car – I flipped it around. I knew he wouldn’t notice.

But when he returned, the bad vibe hit him like a wave of katabatic air, and he knew instantly that something was awry. It took him 6.4 seconds to scan the chain of cars and find the problem. “Dad, please don’t do that anymore, OK?”

Since 2003, however, we’ve diverged. He’s still very organized, but is a little too relaxed about it, and I’ve continued to refine my techniques.

It’s really hard for me not to crop the above photograph. Even this kid’s wilderness room is a mess. Out of the photo, is my side of the tarp. My clothes are folded neatly, thank you, and the rest of my gear is arranged in order of increasing distance from the head of my sleeping bag in response to the probability that I will use an item at any point in time, and rearranged in response to passing time to reflect my changing needs, which go in diurnal cycles. I could write a book about it, but it’s probably not necessary, as the whole thing can be described by a simple set of differential equations. I once even approximated the process with a Fourier Transform.


When I’m on a wilderness trip, it takes a few days before I break the habit of wondering if I have to check my email, voicemail, twitter, blog comments, forum replies, post office box, or windshield wiper when I wake up (I once scored a 25% off coupon from REI in 1987 under my windshield wiper, and I’ve been eager ever since).

It takes another few days to stop worrying about what might be going wrong at work, what piece of my house might be breaking, what gear sale I might be missing, what family member might have died, and how the remaining shreds of my retirement security I might have might be dwindling further.

This is why I like to be in the wilderness on long trips. It takes four days just to detox to the point where the wilderness can actually start to cleanse.

And, when that happens, my side of the tarp starts to look more like Chase’s, and I like it.

I always fool myself into thinking that I can snap my fingers, or say some sort of Wilderness Prayer, or choose my gear more carefully so that the transition is shortened.

But instead, I’ve learned that it just takes however much time it takes, and that patience, and waiting, is usually the best strategy.

For Chase, the transition happens fast. Ten minutes from the trailhead, he’s in, he’s in deep, and he ain’t looking back. It’s crazy – how does he do that?

Then I remembered when I used to be able to do that. It was before we learned how to worry about stuff we can’t control, and general awareness of how sucked into the Big World we are.


When I went to Alaska in 2006, I printed 22 maps covering 700 miles of trekking distance, with detailed resolution, precise grid lines, and optimized coloring done in Photoshop. A few days before I left, I meticulously impregnated each map with a home-brewed concoction to make them waterproof, because printing them on waterproof paper was … well … too easy, you know, something an amateur, or at least, somebody less obsessive-compulsive than I, would do.

Since then, I’ve gone mapless on a number of treks, or otherwise just hacked out quick maps on the fly. Once, I hand drew a map based on what I saw in Google Earth.

On our trek into the Uintas last summer, we printed only one tiny little map of a huge area on a piece of 5×7 photo paper, and shared it. We couldn’t see individual contour lines, read place names, and we didn’t really have a reliable method for estimating distances on the map. We cut off the margins so as not to leave room for silly things like to do lists and appointment schedules.


Part of simplifying, from a backpacker’s perspective, is taking less stuff (fewer things to track) and lighter stuff (easier things to carry) and simple stuff (easier things to use).

Perhaps, as important, we probably don’t hack off the margins as much as we should, or at least, let go of the structure of our lives that allows us (demands us) to be obsessive-compulsive about managing that structure…

Wild Places Here and Afar


The Brooks Range from the Western Arctic
Photo by Ryan Jordan, June 2006.


I really miss the Alaskan Arctic because it’s a Big Wild Place.

I don’t know that I’ve trekked anywhere else where I’ve discovered as much about who I am. Some of that was related to the challenges the Arctic delivered to me, but much of it was related to the magnitude of its sheer remoteness from the clutter of modern living in a first world country.

And so, although I haven’t been back since 2006, I still dream Arctic Dreams. Big ones. And I even have a pal who can live them for me!

I think one reason why I love trekking on plateaus surrounding the Yellowstone Caldera, and in the Absaroka Range, is that they remind me of the Arctic. They too, are Big Wild Places. The difference is that the Big Wild Places Down Here are surrounded by Stewards of Greed.

Fortunately, there are Wilderness Boundaries, and within them, something sacred and quiet.

The challenge is recreating that quiet within the constraints of where those of us other than Andrew Skurka live.

Perhaps I don’t see the fight for a wilderness boundary in the backcountry to be much different than the fight for a psychological wilderness boundary in the frontcountry, like the walls of my home, the people and companies that I write checks to, or even my internet router.

This is why in 2009, I gave up Facebook, my Blackberry, and freecycled our family’s second car, and why our family has been unchained from TV for several years. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that each of these decisions has resulted in freedom, and a more quiet, wildernessy state of living.

But these were experiments – test cases if you will – and now it’s time to get serious.

Remember earlier in this post that while in the Arctic, I learned more about who I was? My hypothesis is that this introspection is translatable to daily living, via simplicity.


So 2010 will be our family’s Year of the Purge: Backpacking Light for modern living.

With the simple of goal of creating a Little Wild Place for everyday living. Not something that we need to “escape to” like the Big Wild Places of the Alaskan Arctic or the Northern Absarokas, but something we live, and work, within.

In other words, the norm…

…rather than the exception.


A Little Nordic Skier Among Big Aspens, Red Lodge Montana (Photo)


A Little Nordic Skier Among Big Aspens, Red Lodge Montana (Photo)

Panasonic GF1, 20/1.7

Our family spent last weekend at a cabin in Red Lodge, Montana, on sort of a family retreat. We played games, skied, snowshoed, took pictures, soaked in a hot tub, sat in front of the fire, watched Little House on the Prairie, baked cookies, slept in.

In other words, we slowed down a little bit.

The beauty of doing this is being able to declutter the mind and soul, for clarity.

It’s the simplifatico approach to making decisions, and our family has a few biggies to make right now.

There is something to be said about doing nothing, and hearing quiet, and relating to each other under an environment like this.

Being away from home here – it’s sort of like wilderness, and provides similar benefits, but warmer!