Simplify, simplify, simplify!

One of the main themes of Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden” is simplifying complexities in life. Minimizing, paring down, getting back to basics. Ever since I read this book for the first time, I’ve appreciated the wisdom and elegance of simple systems, methods and gear, and this appreciation has deepened with each additional reading. Even in Thoreau’s day, when most of America was rural and agrarian, life was complex and hectic enough to motivate him to spend 2 years in the woods to slow down and rediscover the simple basics. In the 150 years since the book was published, daily life has only become more complex and hectic, and the trend doesn’t seem to be changing. It is true that in modern times we are able to enjoy the benefits of more advanced technology, but it is also true that many people suffer from stress, a lack of rest and excessive debt. I myself have a job involving lots of technical details, so I am always motivated to simplify other areas of my life to balance this out. Naturally, this includes my outdoor pursuits. I’m not an absolute minimalist, both out of convenience and due to my skill level. I admire and applaud anyone who chooses to use less and/or simpler gear than me. My general goal is to continuously reduce and simplify to a level that I’m comfortable with. In the following, I will try to explain the advantages of simplifying and reducing gear, as I see them.

Reliability

As the complexity of a system or device increases, the number of things that can go wrong with it and the likelihood of things going wrong increase. A single-shot, break-barrel shotgun will most likely last much longer (especially without any maintenance) in comparison to a semi-auto shotgun of similar quality. I’ve taken both apart, so I’m familiar with the number of moving parts and mechanisms of both types of guns. Obviously the semi-auto gun is going to have advantages over the single-shot, but I am happy to dispense with the advantages in favor of the solid reliability of the simpler item. By the way, I don’t shoot anymore, but I thought this would be a relevant example to demonstrate my point. A good example of a change I’m making from complex to simple is transitioning from my ultralight spinning reel setup to a simple long telescoping pole with a line tied to the tip. With different bait and a different technique, this setup is just as capable of catching fish for the frying pan, but there’s no reel to get tangled up with fishing line, worn or broken.

Resiliency

This kind of goes along with reliability. Anyone who spends any amount of time in the bush knows that gear gets knocked, dropped, sat-on, frozen, wet…the list goes on. I feel much better about my compass getting knocked around than a GPS unit (plus, my compass will never run out of power). Yes, a GPS may have lots of cool functions, but where’s the fun in having a computer tell you where to go?

Reparability

If a modern camping stove breaks or runs out of fuel while out in the bush, there’s a good chance that you’re not going to be able to do much about it. My folding woodstove is made of a few pieces of steel hinged together, and it’s pretty bomb-proof. Even if I dropped it off a cliff and it got mangled, I’d most likely be able to repair it. If not, I can always just use a small fire on the ground to cook with and dispense with a stove altogether. Complex newer stoves do have their advantages, but I don’t feel like I’ve been missing them.

Replaceability

If you’re one of those few people in the world who are very adept at making most or all of the things they need using mainly materials found in the natural world, you can replace any item you need if it is lost or broken. I don’t think the same can easily be said about a modern fishing reel, a flashlight etc. By the way, this replaceability idea does not apply to me personally except for a few items. I just wanted to mention one of the more extreme aspects.

Economy

Often, but not always, simpler means cheaper. If you reduce the number of items you use, you obviously reduce the number of items you buy. In terms of the simplicity of the gear itself, fewer features usually translates to lower cost. I got my boots for FREE from a military surplus store (they are now selling them for 3 Euros/5 Dollars a pair, or so I’ve heard). They’re extremely rugged Swedish leather boots made in 1968, but were not previously worn and were in perfect condition when I got them. I’ve worn them regularly in the summer, including during my trip to Lapland last year, where I was hiking up and down rocky fells and in swampy muck, and had absolutely no problems, discomfort etc. How much do newly produced high-tech hiking boots cost? I could go out and buy the latest boots, but why? I’d rather use the money for something else.

Reduced space/weight

An area where reducing the number of items you carry can reap benefits is space and weight. If you don’t bring something, you obviously don’t need space for it, and it doesn’t add weight to your pack. I just don’t bother with a camp chair, cooler, Coleman stove, etc. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything without them.

Peace of mind

This advantage is highly subjective. I feel more comfortable knowing that I don’t rely on complex devices which are more likely to fail, run out of power/fuel, break etc. (I imagine that most people would probably feel better with advanced, modern equipment). I have also noticed that, as I reduce the number and complexity of items in my kit, I pay less attention to it, and more to the world around me, which is the reason I go out in the first place.

So what’s a good way to go about simplifying and minimizing one’s loadout? One way to start is to look at your kit and be realistic about what you actually use in the field. If you find that you don’t ever use an item (first-aid kits and emergency/survival items excluded, of course), maybe you should just leave it at home. Following Mors Kochanski’s oft-repeated wisdom “The more you know, the less you carry” isn’t a bad idea either. Continually learning, practicing and experimenting allow you to make some of the things you need in the field, thus reducing the need to carry gear (for example, I use almost exclusively natural bedding materials instead of carrying an air mattress and only cook using wood as fuel, eliminating my need to carry fuel). Another tactic is to scrutinize each item with an eye toward multiple functions so that you end up carrying a smaller number of multi-functional items instead of a larger number of single-function items. My rain poncho serves as both an outer garment and a part of my A-frame poncho tent. My bandana, an extremely simple item, can be used to strain water, as a tourniquet, as a sack to carry berries, tinder, etc. In short, look for useful, uncomplicated, rugged, versatile and low-maintenance items. As the saying goes, “Less is more.” By the way, I find that military surplus items often meet these criteria.

The intent of this article is to share some ideas. I’m not trying to put down other people’s choice to use advanced or more complex gear. As I’ve said before, I completely acknowledge that there are benefits to more complex and advanced systems and devices, and I’m not saying that they are always fragile, finicky or not needed. I’m just trying to express that I often don’t mind doing without those benefits because I see other advantages in my way of doing things. Arguing which way is better is like arguing that green is better than blue, or vice versa. It’s simply a matter of opinion and choice.

About these ads

16 comments on “Simplify, simplify, simplify!

  1. Ross Gilmore says:

    Great article. I think you are very right about reliability. I think that if you bring any technology in the woods, you should know how to repair it, or be prepared to do without it. I think another skill we have lost these days is not just the ability to make things out of naturally available materials, but also to make things out of other man made materials. Whenever I read books about explorers from the 1800s and 1900s, I am always amazed how they were able to repair and create gear out of what they already had.

    One thing that bothers me is that too many people say they are simplifying, when they are just following trends. Carrying a heavier, bulkier, and less warm blanket instead of a sleeping bag to me is not simplifying, it’s just trying to look the part. Unfortunately, that approach is often referred to as “simplifying” or “minimalist”. I say, if you have more gear in your pack after simplifying it, then you have failed at the task. :)

    • Thanks. :)

      Couldn’t agree with you more. I personally tried using blankets instead of sleeping bags (in theory, they are more versatile), but found that they just didn’t keep me warm and weighed too much, so I went back to sleeping bags for the most part. This was probably 1.5 – 2 years ago.

      In this case, simplifying/minimizing didn’t work for me, and I’m not going to stay with a change if it doesn’t actually work in the field. Function comes first, and if something doesn’t function or the functionality is outweighed by some negative factor, it gets chucked.

      The changes which I have made successfully have retained basic functionality and also given me the advantages I mentioned above.

  2. Perkunas says:

    “I am always open to reading comments about your own ideas as well as what you think about my ideas if presented in a well-thought-out way. :)”

    ell then ill keep my mouth shut, unless i can say it in Finnish ;)

  3. Outstanding piece, well done friend.

  4. Ron says:

    A very well put article there, Matt.
    I generally like to agree with it, although I haven’t read Thoreau’s Walden. I just couldn’t get through it or understand what he was trying to say.
    Each of us out there has his/her own reasons why they chose to bring/use x-item, but I do believe that many of us bring a lot of unnecessary or not well thought out items, which indeed does distract them from the purpose and pleasure of going out.
    I tend to disagree with Ross on the blankett-issue, but that’s each to his own.

    • Hehehe, don’t worry, I think most native English speakers don’t understand a lot of what he says. :) I have read that the book has been called “hard to read”.

      As for the blankets specifically, well, they work for some people and not for others. I have tried them, but found them to be too cold. If they had worked for me, I’d probably still be using them, even if they are a bit heavier. If you like using blankets, and they work for you, that’s all that matters. :)

  5. Perkunas says:

    This day i noticed your new post, first i just quickly checked out the first few lines, came across Thoreau & Walden and i thought wow this has to be great post. Thoreaus Walden is the best bookk to me, about woodslife, outside Finland. It goes to depths, mindsets that i like to read. I do like to read manuals and “how to´s” and gear catalogues but i am more and mor einterested about mans soultravel, what makes him tick and through that, affects his gear selections and actions. By soul life i mean soul, not brain. I like to live by the feeling & heart, not so much through brains and adult thinking you know :)

    One thing, id add to you listing, is the ” roughing & toughing it out”.

    Sometimes i get soo bored and kind of sad, when bushcrafters, reject some gear,as it gets wet and cold, even without even trying to manage with it. May it be a chilly night in a blanket, or a cotton clothing in the rain. So what…the more you do it, the more you “suffer” …the sooner you realise youve quenched, hardened your self whicha llows you to minimalize more.

    (And yes, by “you” i mean humankind not you in person.)

    ——————

    “trying to look the part” is one thing wonder. Personally to me, bushcraft is and will be, something dating to days gone, not reaching to future and modern day inventions. If you want to manage as did your Nessmuks etc, its pretty hard to do, without just trying to do it likethey did,by choosing your gearsomewhat similar. You wont ever experience the same nights in the winter by the longfire, with goretexbivy & down sleeping bag. And replacing flint & steel, isnt realistic if youre playing a lost cowboy in the prairie 200 yrs ago:).

    Offcourse, you have to make compromises, but somethings cant be changed and tell us that this is how they did id back then.

    Role playing aint bushcraft either :)…..hard topics.

    ——————————–

    “I admire and applaud anyone who chooses to use less and/or simpler gear than me.”

    Same here !

    Even in hunting i always respect the guy with cheaper,older, broken and worn stuff, for some reason. No matter how hard they yell that its the catch that only counts, but i think that the guy without scope on his rifle is far better shooter than with the one with 2000 euros scope.

    ——————–

    What i noticed is you mentioning

    “I use almost exclusively natural bedding materials instead of carrying an air mattress and only cook using wood as fuel, eliminating my need to carry fuel”

    This is something i cant agree much. Its suggests me that he´s a basecamper, doing his stuff in same location, in which he has legal right to cut boughs(?) down again and again. It doesnt work here much, since if every hiker would cut their beddigns around the camp, there would be 3 kilometers radius of branchless spruce/pine around every campsite :). When man starts to hike & wonder, he cant just cut down wood for fire & bed & shelter building without breaking the law and wasting way too much forest…as there are thousands doing it too, if they are allowed. Getting one good slaaping bad is a good and wise investment. Reject air filled ones, theyre bad in Finnish terrain in winter, and nasty to repair. You can get light & thin ones, that are cooler, and thick & heavier that are warm, and its uo to persons chilli willie factor & comfort demands, what he chooses :). Plus….wallet. Saving just for tha sake of it, and choosing a bad one, is weird, especially you demand soft, and super warm bed under you.

    Shoes
    Sleeping bag
    Backpack
    Compass
    Knife

    Pretty much in that order are the most important pieces of basic Hikers kit. IMO, that is.

    —————————————————

    In some of your posts i think i already mentioned that isee, as well as most of the people, bushcrafters as a tiny special group, and nobody knows how they/we think & work.

    Most of bushcrafters i know and have seen, ar less or more, basecamper types or dayhikers, which affects to their gear and thinking greatly, compared to people who hike & wander (retkeily vs. vaellus). When man starts go hike or even wander, he soon discovers that not all bushcraft “rules” apply. This thing ….being against any type of cooker, burning other than wood, starts to disappear atleast when youre in tundre-like lapland in winter. I do love & respect the old heroes, as you know and their guts, urge, balls, skills to find wood to burn, through 150 cm´c of packed snow….or even trying to find…..without any luck, but melting snow in your shelter, with trangia or some multifuel cooker, is much more easy. Its not bushcraftsy i know, but as you, you might end up some day doing stuff like that, its worth mentioning i think.

    People come from different backgrounds.

    Some are just bushcrafters, and dont want to do any “real” hikes with their bushcraft gear or with any other gear, some get bored to stay in the backyard and try to hike first for 1 night, then two,the 4 etc, and i am sure that many opinions change. You can be a bushcrafter and a true hiker, without turning your jacket, in to a totally modern hiker, but you usually cant call your self any crafter at all, when youre doing all the things with the latest modern gear. Then its just hiking :). I come from scout background and i think i was more like a wanderer before i saw the word bushcraft, so i see these things in a pretty different way than few of my finnish crafter friends. I sometimes, wonder how people admire old chaps who walked across continents with a spoon and a gum, and yet, modern day guys who have all the kit, still paly at the backyard yet they have the funds to travel and all.Somehow bushcrafts worst side is the basecamping, in my eyes, and i am sometimes guilty that as well. Surviving several nights around the year, in the bush and plain areas, with simplier kit,is far more exciting i think. But, modern day world limits us as, as well as allows us.

    ——————————————————

    Repairbility or what was the word….

    umm….This can be attached to thing i said above. You just cant think that everything can be fixed with a pine cone, or pine pitch, nor with a squirrel pelt. If you are on your ski´s and the binding rips apart from the ski itself,as they usaully do especially with those surplus ski´s that man usually doesnt fix properly after buying em, before first trip:). Then you pretty much have to make a makeshift snowshoes, or carry pair in your pack, or have gear to fix em. Epoksy, awl, phillips (usaully) screwdriver is what youll need. Knife and an double bit wont hel a lot unless you make a pair of new ski´s from the scratch, and make new bindings from some belt/leather/pelt etc :).

    When you visit a cabin, you cant pull that jammed old rusty draft adjuster without pliers usually.
    You cant Easily repair door /window hinges. Even filleting a pike and removing lure from its mouth goes easier with pliers/tongs, even small ones help.

    No reason to stick with edged tools only, as you will encounter need for multiool-like tool set, when your hikes get “wider” and longer. Staying in basecamp, can be done with simple kit, especially if its next to your house/car/road. And hey, even in some 200 years ago, i hear, trappers carried tools other than axes an knives too :). So its not a sin, although youre not a rolegamer. Which i see as a good think,hehe.

    Simplifying for the sake of it,of like a double edged sword. Just like any other ” keeping it real”, it usually leads to weird situations.

    —————————————————————–
    Reducing weight & space

    I agree somehow. I am not in to UL just for the sake of it, or in any other way, BUT i do like the idea of leaving some kit at home, but the more, i am interested in gear that isnt huge when stuffed in my backpack. Weight hasnt been issue to me., but offcourse, if smaller packed sie also offers me some saving in weight, its ok. All these nonsense camping chairs, and huge cookers, are ridicilous in most occasions to me, while hiking. Luckily our culture in that area is far different and Finns dont carry stuff like that, except for some “nuuksio” people, who “hike” 200 meters, from the car and drag all kinds of comfortable factors with em,as well as plastic bags filled with cany and ice cream etc. Then they toss out the garbage “somewhere” and leave. The most horrible type of “hikers”:)

    The less you demand, allows you to pack less,and the “tougher” you are, allows the same. As well as “the more you know the less you carry” applies. But if you dont repeat sleeping in thin,lightweight,colder pad , youll always end up sleeping not well, and and are crabky like a lady with pms:), all day long. But the more you repeat, the less you “suffer” and you end up demanding less, as you kind of……get build up to better outdoor human. You dont cry about being little bit wet or chilly when you get used to it, then it becomes normal and wellbeing. But if man does not even try, to tough out his self, and just buys every thing warm and cozy, you wont rise like phoenix , as a new, more primal……….better human:)

    ———————————————————-

    Multiuse of items.

    One is none, two is none,is closer to my approach as i like to have some backup,but it applies more while hiking, in close quarter:) dayhikes and basecamper & backyard bushman games its pretty much all the same, do you have an emergency /replacement kit/item.

    But when you drop you only knife in to deep river, or your compass breaks up, etc, its good to have something to help you back to human civilization.

    Ive seen guys carrying 5 fixed blades, 2 folding knives and a multitool or two…thats just idiotic, unless you are a paid gear reviewer/tester :). Thats the true excess weight, in which many crafters are guilty to. HUUUUGE axe plus a small hatchet, packed in a tiny backpack already filled to the max, are brought to camping ground/basecamp/dayhike, when you could really, adult really ( in finland) do with a knife or a hatchet, or one normal good old axe. Double bit, with two identical bevels, is not wise in my eyes, except for a guy who fells and chops wood all day long for his daily bread. But IF it has one bevel for carving/delicate task an done utility bevel for felling/choppinf,its a multitool of some type, yet i question it, if ou are Not building a cabing out in your forest, or do some other demanding task.Finnish axes had a hammerlike butt, used for splitting wedges,a dn for replacement of axe, bashing in the tent stakes, etc,and to me its the thing i choose, but everyone has their own needs. Just like in knives…..many of us own overly built hd-knives, but i dont judge them as in my eyes knife is the so important that it can be done like that BUT you can get along just fine with more fragile;) constructions as well. BUT in situations when you DONT have any other edged tools, i think you will be rewarded if youre the one with heavy-duty knife. Tadtical knives are different topic and i concider them toyish crap, if youre not a professional working for war campaigns,hehe.

    The more you have tools in you multitool, or in your swiss knife, usually means that youll be able to fix & create things in the wild as well. Dont post a link to 8 inches thick, 345 tool wenger,please, its not even funny, its pathetic :)…..But youll know what i mean i think. And again, the more you travel/hike/craft, the more youll need one. One plier based Leatherman with small saw, phillips driver, one or two flatheads, awl,file, takes you pretty far instead of carrying each tool separately. But pliers are a recommended always, as separate sole item.

    Tarps & ponchos, are as you said, a good investment, even with a modern day tent. You can wrap/tie/fold tarps to various configurations, unlike one shelter made to be used in one configuration only.

    ————————————————
    more ranting bit later :)

    • You have a lot of very valid points. One of the main areas where you seem to have a different opinion relates to “base camp” versus “hiking”. It’s absolutely true that most of my activities are done at a base camp. Not a “back yard” base camp, but a regularly used base camp. This is because I have free use of a 15 hectare/40 acre piece of land (plus many more and larger pieces). So although I hike 30 minutes here and 30 minutes there, mostly I’m doing stuff at a base camp. I cut spruce boughs from here and there from time to time on this piece of property to use as insulation. Of course this isn’t possible to do on public land and isn’t practical for most people, but it IS possible for me. I’m not suggesting that other people do this, I’m just saying what I do. I happen to be lucky in the way I can use private land. If you can’t cut boughs or shrubs, then sure, get a sleeping pad. :)

      Stove vs. wood use. Yes, in some parts of Lapland, especially in the winter, wood isn’t available, but I only “live” in Lapland 1 week a year, in the summer. :D So the gear I mostly use doesn’t have to be ideal for winter in Lapland, summer in the Thai jungle, autumn in the mountains etc. I live where I live, so my gear is going to reflect that. Of course I never meant to say that the stuff I regularly use is perfect for every climate, situation etc. As you know, I’m looking into alternative fuel types for cooking right now so that I’m prepared if/when wood isn’t easily available and for convenience while hiking.

      As for toughing it out with the blankets, look, I want to be warm and comfortable. I’ve spent many nights in the cold and wet, and yes, it has toughened me a lot. After those experiences, though, I want to be warm. Simple as that, and nothing wrong with it. :) If you want to sleep cold, go for it.

      With “looking the part”, I think you’re referring to Ross’s comment. Personally, I couldn’t care less about looking the part. I choose my gear the way I do because I like it. I don’t think you’d say my ahkio looks the part, right. :D ;)

      “Saving for the sake of it, and getting bad gear” I don’t think I ever suggested this. Save where it’s appropriate, but spend where it’s appropriate, too. I’m happy to spend good money to get a solid, reliable item.

      As you know, I adjusted some of my gear and methods last year when I went to Lapland. This was the appropriate thing to do. I’m not going to bring arctic clothing and gear to the desert, so I’m not going to bring exactly the same stuff on a hiking trip as to a “base camp trip”. As I get more experience with longer hiking trips, I’m learning to adjust my gear for those trips. In any case, those kinds of trips are a small percentage of my overall outdoor activities right now.

      Of course everything can’t be repaired with pine cones and stuff. I never meant that. Good tools are essential.

      As to your multi-use comment, that’s the reason why I’m not a minimalist. I carry either backup items (like a folding knife) or items that can be used in a pinch to replace something else (space blanket rigged up as shelter if my tent breaks).

      Thanks for the comments, bud. :)

  6. Ron says:

    Interesting points of view and expression, Perkunas!
    But you sure gave us something to think about, in addition to Matt’s post.

    • It’s always good to hear things from a different perspective. :) It helps us to evaluate our own ideas from time to time. I think Perkunas has a lot of experience in outdoor stuff, and I respect what he has to say, even if we don’t share the same ideas or if there are cultural/language misunderstandings. :)

  7. Rene Potvin says:

    Last year I embarque on a 3000 km solo kayak trip. I knew enough about the kayak part but very little about the living outdoors part. Consequently I brought way too much equipment. I ended up sending back about 20 kg of equipment 800 km into my trip. By the end, I had a 5g alcool stove, one pan, one spoon. The more you know the less you carry really catches the phenomenon.

    BTW you can read about that trip at http://www.miami2montreal.com.

    @living_outdoors

  8. Gary says:

    Great article – some well thought out ideas – thanks.

    Gary (Survivall blog)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s