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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.