The Packing Principles

I’ve been seeing a lot of curiosity about my packing list lately and so I figured I’d write some thoughts down here to use as a universal reference for discussions and so you’ll all have the low down on my philosophy regarding the subject.  Realize that my packing list changes as conditions and location change.  Sometimes I include gear lists in my blog posts, especially when I’ve altered something critical or changed out something significant, but usually I keep this information to myself.  I feel that your kit is a deeply personal item, a reflection to some degree of character, and is ultimately one of the keys to success in the backcountry.  And as Marshall said in Joe vs the Volcano “I’m just hired to drive the car, mister.  I’m not here to tell you who you are.”

History

When I was about 12 my Dad handed me a tattered and well-used copy of Colin Fletcher’s The 1000 Mile Summer.  I was getting old enough to decide what went into my own pack and we went on trips all the time when I was a kid.  I read this book, and then re-read it several more times because Fletcher was my kindred soul I figured.  He had done all the things I wanted to do.  He had been well beyond the things of man and had returned to tell the story.

Soon thereafter I picked up copies of some of his other works including the Backpackers Bible and The Man Who Walked through Time.  Fletcher and my Dad became gurus on the subject of going places.  They knew a lot about how to make it happen and happen so you’d want to go do it again.  I mention this, because this is where I started.  Both of these people gave me the permission I needed to go figure things out for myself.  They gave me a glimpse of how they did it and this is what I used to move forward.

When I was 15 I worked a summer for the Student Conservation Association building a segment of the Colorado Trail in the Four Corners region.  When our trail work was done, as a reward for our volunteer labor that summer, we received a backpacking trip from the start of our work site to Little Molas Lake high above Silverton, CO.  I figured I was ready for the multi-day event.  I had saved my money and bought what I imagined was the best backpack and backpacking gear money could buy from Gene Taylors.

I did ok on the trip, but in hind sight I spent a lot of time fixing things (some of them catastrophic gear failures) as we went along.  When I got home I resolved to test my gear before I took it into the field.

Lots of trips later, six seasons working for the US Forest Service on the Flat Tops Wilderness, years in the Army and my never ending personal quest to get into places that no one has ever been or is likely to be have refined my packing list and techniques only a little.

The Present

First principle of packing: weight is bad.  Yes, I’m the kind of guy who will drill holes in toothbrush handles, clip off zipper pulls, rip out shirt tags, and sleep less than warm and toasty to save a bit of weight.  All that material adds up.  It’s uncomfortable and slows me down when I’m on the trail.  I find it personally and deeply satisfying to cut things from my pack.  Sometimes I even think about the thing I didn’t bring with me and smile at the ounces saved.  Other times I’ll focus on something in my pack that maybe I don’t really need with me there, waiting for an opportunity to use a little ingenuity rather than the thing.  It’s a fun game, next time it won’t come.

Second principle of packing: comfort is the compromise.  Corollary: necessity is not compromised.  I really love it when Tess and I have to go to Seattle on a Friday.  When we leave we’re invariably slowed by people headed out on their vacations.  Often these people are driving or pulling big RVs named as if there were some possibility of adventure with that much encumbrance.  The philosophy at work here is Let’s get away from it all, but let’s take it all with us just in case.  This is not my philosophy.

Rather, I propose that you reduce your suffering by reducing your encumbrances.  What is the least you can bring, compromising your own comfort from time to time, while still being happy in this place you aspire to know?

How likely is just in case?  In my experience it’s not very likely if you’ve thought about what you need ahead of time.

This principle in practice is illustrated by the sleeping pad dilemma.  Go into any outdoor store and head for the sleeping utilities section.  There you will see a vast assortment of sleeping pads.  The diversity of materials science should astound you.  The many promises of a good night’s sleep may humble you.  You’ll have options aplenty, but wait a moment and consider that during any 24 hour period you’ll probably only spend a third of that time using one of these devices.  That’s in an optimal situation.

When in the backcountry I regularly try to push further than the average in an attempt to squeak a little more out of the trip than I might otherwise.  That eight hour sleeping budget gets chopped when the headlamp comes out.  The stars turn overhead and eventually I’ll find someplace softer (I hope) to lie down for a while.  If I’m packing a tiny light weight pad it might not even get used because I know I’m going to get some good sleep regardless of rocks and sticks on the ground.

The sleeping pad selection at the store gets cut down drastically first by the weight is bad principle.  The sleeping pad may be cut from the packing list entirely by the comfort is the compromise principle.

Third principle of packing: the technology has been around forever.  Reflect for a moment on Ötzi the Iceman.  This guy had everything you could possibly need to prosper on the trial in 3300 BC.  The basics remain pretty much the same although they may have become more refined in the interim.  Food, fire, water and the possibility of shelter this is all you need.  Ötzi didn’t have a double-espresso with goat cream foam in the morning, you don’t need it either.  Ötzi didn’t carry an extra pair of camp shoes or a camp chair.  Refine your gear list, avoid getting sick or murdered by competing tribes, and you’ll live long and happy on the trial.

Safety

I do carry devices that while not necessary have proven useful in the past.  Recently I encountered another hiker who had fallen off the Kendall Catwalk along the Pacific Crest Trail – North (#2000). I used my cell phone to call out for help.  I was lucky that I was able to get a signal at all, he was lucky that I had some experience dealing with bad situations.  The cell phone was a convenience that proved its worth because I didn’t have to figure out how to get a severely injured man out of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on my own.  This is not to say that it wouldn’t have happened if the phone hadn’t worked.

Currently, I’m taking a SPOT device into the back country with me.  Its main function is to send “I’m OK” smoke signals to my loving wife who doesn’t always come on these trips with me.  For this purpose it’s worth the 10 ounces of additional weight.  She knows I’m ok, and I’ll have a belay line I can count on if ever the crazy stuff happens to me.

Notice that these devices fall well outside my principles of packing.  They’re not something I need, but comforts I’m willing to haul for the comfort’s sake.  If I never have to use either one that will be a good thing.

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