Ryan Jordan

The Practical and Natural Simplicity of Backcountry Gear

Everyone has different objectives when they visit a Wild Place.

Some go to escape, some go to return, some go to get exercise, some go to fish or photograph or climb or rest, and some go to play with gear.

I love playing with gear at home, in my backyard. I loathe having to mess with it when I’m in a Wild Place.

For me, visiting a Wild Place is about rest, recovery, detox, and the experience that is being delivered by the environment.

In almost every case, I don’t want my gear getting in the way.

When I am seeking an experience free from the clutter of fiddling with gear, I tend to lean towards gear that is simple to use, at the expense of adding a few ounces.

— Packs —

Carrying even 20 pounds of weight in a frameless pack gets old quick. My tolerance for bad pack design is extremely low, and while carrying heavier loads in frameless packs doesn’t hurt me, knowing that the pack is failing to function the way it’s supposed to is a nagging irritation. Maybe it’s my personality type (I’m a strong Myers-Briggs “J”), maybe it’s my engineering background, or maybe it’s a belief that most cottage packs seem rather carelessly designed.

Often, my trips involve carrying packrafting gear, fly fishing gear, photo/video gear, or climbing gear. As such, I prefer a more carefully designed pack that can distribute the load effectively while fitting properly, and maintaining the load mobility that I value in a frameless design.

However, there is something about carrying all that is required for survival and comfort in a tiny homemade sack slung over your shoulder like Huck Finn might have done. The simple benefits of this style are psychological, rather than practical, but still very real.

I've been working with a cottage manufacturer on a backpack that is exceptionally comfortable and adaptable across all load sizes and ranges. Here, I'm carrying it on an overnight trek in the White Cloud Peaks of Central Idaho this summer - a small load of less than 15 pounds. The same pack is used on my longer expeditions, like a glacier trek in the Canadian Rockies, where I carried nearly 40 pounds and a much bulkier volume of gear. The pack weighs about 2 lb, is designed to carry 45 lbs in comfort, has an internal frame, a rolltop closure, is made with a heavier version of Cuben Fiber, and has no external pockets built in. For more information about this pack, visit Hyperlite Mountain Gear and check out their "Porter" model.

— Stoves —

There is no shortage of both homemade and commercially available solid fuel and alcohol stove systems that perform inefficiently, slowly, and with more complication than necessary.

These shortcomings are magnified in bad weather, especially wind.

When I want stove simplicity, I simply want a stove that works, boils fast, consumes miniscule amounts of fuel, and is simple to setup and put away, and can be used inattentively. I’m thus a huge fan of the Jetboil SOL Ti, which meets all of these criteria.

The Jetboil SOL Ti is the stove I've been wanting Jetboil to make since their introduction several years ago. The pot-stove-kit weighs 8.5 oz and I can enjoy hot meals and drinks every night and every morning for a week on a single 100g net weight canister. It boils 0.7 liters of water in 2-3 minutes in foul conditions while consuming less than 4g of fuel. Remarkable.

My other favorite way to cook is over fire – either over a wood stove, or over the fire directly. The Bushbuddy Ultra and the Backcountry Boiler are probably the only two wood burning stoves on the planet engineered with both performance and simplicity in mind.

— Mess Kits —

Ultralighters (including me) can get pretty fanatical about making sure their gear serves multiple uses. One classic example is the magic little titanium mug that serves as a cook pot, eating bowl, and drinking mug. I’m not convinced, however, that this is necessarily the simplest system for a mess/cook kit. My idea of simple(r) is being able to cook a volume of water in my pot (enough for a meal and a drink) and then distribute that hot water into a cozy-wrapped bowl to dehydrate dry food, and a small mug for drinking. If I’m really trying to save weight, the mug is the first to go, because I know I can always drink out of my pot.

The following video shows one example of a simple cooking system that can be adapted to both group and solo travel.

I can’t recommend enough the need for an eating vessel with no less than 3 cups of capacity for expedition use. Most ultralighter’s skimp on the volume of their eating bowl, and the result is food being spilled, small meals, and failure to adequately rehydrate them.

— Simple Fishing —

The day I discovered tenkara gear and fishing was the day I knew that for me at least, fly fishing would be changed forever. I’ve never, ever had that experience so fast with any other piece of gear.

Eliminating the reel and fly line means eliminating all that is expensive, complicated, and unnecessary for backcountry fly fishing, and stripping both the gear, and experience down to its essential components and actions.

The tenkara rod's simplicity lies in the fact that no reel, or fly line is required. The simplicity of tenkara fishing is based on its elimination of line management, resulting in focusing on manipulating the only part of the entire system that matters - the fly alone.

— Shelters —

There is no shelter that is faster, or easier, to setup than a pyramid tarp. It offers full perimeter protection in stormy conditions and a space-to-weight ratio that makes spreading out, drying, and organizing gear more pleasant than when cramped into a tiny tent.

I believe that the pyramid is the most versatile of all types of ultralight shelters.

That said, there is an element of psychological simplicity in using a small, and simple, tarp – an element of simplicity that should not be understated, or undervalued.

There is something about sleeping under an open tarp that is immensely satisfying. Maybe it’s the views. Maybe it’s the exposure. Maybe it’s the risk of knowing that if mother nature breaks loose, you could be in a bit of trouble.

Maybe it’s just knowing that you have replaced your multi-tens-(or hundreds)-of-thousands-of-dollars-home with something that weighs half a pound.

The tarp camper enjoys a sense of natural simplicity that may only be bested by sleeping in a bivy sack under the open sky.

— Two Types of Simplicity —

And so, there is more than one type of simplicity. I classify the two major types as “practical simplicity” and “natural simplicity”.

Pracitical simplicity is that type of simplicity where I crave not having to fool around with anything, and where everything is just plain easy and effective. Practical simplicity is all about the gear.

Practical simplicity is embodied by my internal frame pack, my gas stove, my tenkara rod, and my pyramid tarp.

And then there is natural simplicity – that type of simplicity where the process brings you more in touch with the natural world, thus becoming less about the gear and more about the experience. Natural simplicity has a strong aesthetic component.

Natural simplicity is embodied by sleeping under a tarp (not the tarp itself), and cooking on a wood stove (not the stove itself), and the tenkara style of fishing (not the rod itself).

Wood fire and wood stove cooking is not always practically simple, especially in exceedingly wet or foul conditions. In addition, if you lack firebuilding skills, it can be time consuming. However, for the patient and skilled, the rewards in terms of natural simplicity are strong. The aroma of a wood fire, and the sizzling of foods cooking on it, are valuable sensory experiences in the backcountry because they are so opposite of the sensory experiences we have in the civilized world.

— Blending Natural and Practical Simplicity —

Gear that is practically simple that also allows for natural simplicity to be realized is extremely rare.

For example, the tenkara rod embodies both practical and natural simplicity in a way that no other piece of backcountry gear can accomplish, and that’s why I think it’s truly a “home run” piece of gear, and perhaps the most extraordinary advance in backcountry gear in the past decade.

My second place vote would be Devin Montgomery’s Backcountry Boiler – a wood burning stove that turns a pint of cold water into boiled madness in a few minutes using grass, or pine needles, or your trash as fuel.

Two wood stoves that offer both practical and natural simplicity are the Backcountry Boiler (left) and the Bushbuddy Ultra (right). The edge goes to the Boiler for its ability to integrate both pot and stove into a single unit, and for its greater efficiency (less waste heat), leading to faster boil times, and allowances for poor quality fuels.

For gear to be heralded as having both practical and natural simplicity, it must:

1. Be light in weight;
2. Be efficient in performance;
3. Be easy to use;
4. Offer tactile benefits during use; and
5. Increase your connection to the natural environment.
6. Have a design that reflects aesthetic simplicity.

— A Call to the Cottage Industry —

Mass market manufacturers are incapable of designing and marketing gear that blends both practical and natural simplicity because the concept is too hard to educate people about. You simply cannot appreciate the value of it, until you (a) experience it; (b) practice it; and (c) refine it. Mass manufacturers don’t have the time. The sales season is only a few months long, after all – and with the need to make sure they are addressing the latest trends in colors and fabrics and features – who has time to educate consumers – or allow them to experience the benefits of simplicity?

And so, as usual, it seems like it’s up to the cottage industry.

That’s not a bad thing.

Except that few of them seem to be pursuing it.

Tenkara USA and Boilerwerks are hitting home runs, but are exceptions – companies that have extreme hyperfocus on what they are creating. The rest of the cottage industry seems to be limping along doing the same old things – that is – trying to be like mass manufacturers, or otherwise trying to compete on the basis of selling features rather than design or performance aesthetics.

Opportunity knocks.

— For Discussion —

1. What gear do you use that embodies your perception of simplicity?
2. Why don’t we see more “simple gear home runs” out of the cottage industry?
3. What simple gear do you want that doesn’t exist, that embodies both natural and practical attributes of simplicity?

— Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life —

I explore the concept of simplicity in more detail in my letter Ultralight Gear for the Ultralight Life, but don’t necessarily limit the applicability to backcountry gear, but expand the discussion to include gear, supplies, and processes that have the potential to impact your life as a whole on a daily basis.