The benefits of big walks and small packs
On simple living, the 14th Dali Lama has said:
“These are times of fast foods; but slow digestion; Tall men but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It's a time when there's much in the window, but nothing in the room. Their lives have become easier, and that has spoiled them. They expect more, they constantly compare themselves to others, and they have too much choice which brings no real freedom.”
Minimalism is both the chicken and the egg in many spiritual practices; both a method and a result of concentrated effort aimed at better understanding self and happiness. Tramping is itself an actionable form of minimalism; and if you’re reading this, you don't need to be reminded of the benefits of tramping.
For trampers, minimalism is often expressed in the form of simplifying our kits, simple living even if only for short periods, and at the top end of the spectrum, going ultralight. We wrote a "How to" guide on ultralight hiking which you can find HERE.
Ultralight packing, when it’s first introduced to new hikers, generally seems to evoke one of two responses. The first is of amazement, disbelief, and sometimes just enough desire for increased comfort to begin walking the path toward a lighter pack. The other common response also involves a bit of disbelief, along with judgments based on the assumption that ultralighters must be woefully unprepared, or even moochers on the ‘better’ prepared ‘traditional’ hikers who will be called upon to somehow keep them safe in the bush.
I believe this sort of sentiment comes primarily from fear, and possibly a little jealousy. As we in the long-distance community say, "Hike your own hike."
Ultralight packing is essentially a philosophy, not just a kit. Even the ultralight community should take this to heart: the goal should be minimalism first, gram counting a distant second.
Alongside this bigger point, the other purpose of this is to address the fear of the unknown and of being stranded without. To build confidence on the trail, we must first build confidence in ourselves and in our knowledge. The progression toward ultralight tramping should progress in lockstep with experience.
When you start a long walk, or when you start to dial in your kit for weekend trips, it’s fine to take extra stuff you may find useful; just be ready to ditch gear as you find you don’t need it. This will happen to almost everyone when they start long-distance hiking; but even after several weekend trips, you can probably ditch most of the gear you haven't used lately.
My own journey in minimalist hiking was much like my experience learning about hiking in general. When I first heard about ultralight hiking, I didn’t actually understand what it entailed.
Somewhere in the first 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I realized that losing base weight was about more than simply lightening the load. After my first major gear dump, I came to appreciate the sparseness of my kit when it was emptied on the tent floor each night, and packed up each morning. Less to keep track of, less to lose. Each of these things eased my mind more, I think, than the reduced weight did by itself.
Having said that, I won’t deny that carrying less weight leads to "More smiles and more miles", as they say. I think back to the weariness and woe described by Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods), crushed beneath traditional gear. By comparison, I bounded up the mountain, practically skipping with a joy and lightheartedness that lifted my pack like the helium in party balloons.
Soon I came to realize that this sort of active minimalism was both intellectually satisfying, like solving a puzzle, as well as mentally and physically soothing. I donated to hiker boxes until I had nothing left I could give away. It was an experience of unburdening; physically at first, and mentally by extension. I could no longer forget something when I packed up in the morning because I only had a handful of things left, and they all had a specific place in my pack. The moment anything was ever misplaced I could sense it in the way my pack rode.
It was with these realizations that I started my path to ultralight tramping, defined first and foremost through the art of minimalism.
“Packing for the trip is an exercise in values clarification” –Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints
In his book about hiking as a spiritual practice, which I highly recommend, Belden C. Lane makes the argument above after referencing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thoreau said that beyond the four categories of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, all else fell into the category of ‘luxuries’. I would argue even fuel is a luxury unless your adventure takes you into snow and ice.
Cold soaking is a revolutionary approach to outdoorsmanship.
Minimalism, even as a path rather than a destination, teaches you just how little is required for happiness or satisfaction. The focus of minimalism is to realize you can be happy with less; and, that having more is often a major contributor to stress, greed, and other anxieties.
Be drawn toward simplicity: it's the way of the thru-hiking, the central thesis of ultralight backpacking, and the key to minimalism.
By producing scarcity in humans otherwise overrun with modern abundance, nature creates a void into which happiness can be forged through the pleasures of existing successfully in challenging environments.
Although hiking itself is a minimalist activity, many hikers believe they've already minimized enough by leaving the comfort of their own homes. This wasn’t far off from my own experience at first. They say you pack your fears; for me, it was closer to uncertainty in what I might need.
Overpacking also stems from poor initial gear choices. Parkinson’s Law suggests that work will expand so as to fill the time allotted; but the same law could suggest that any space which is created will later be filled, including your pack. I no longer buy gear without having this in mind.
Remember, a lighter pack might be the difference between sauntering through the forest VS trudging along shoegazing.
“Leave your cultural ‘level of comfort’ at home. Reduce your material wants while concentrating on your physical and spiritual needs.” –Warren Doyle, 18x AT Thru hiker and unofficial record holder
In the 60’s, the well-known gear maker Kelty suggested that a good pack weight was between 17 and 25 pounds (7.7-11.3kg). This might make you think everyone could easily be ultralight nowadays. At 17 pounds of base weight, I would be swimming in luxury nowadays. But, that won’t necessarily hold true for everyone. Each person will have a different level of comfort they expect, and some conditions will require packing more gear - this is the core message behind "Hike your own hike".
It’s critically important to think about ultralight tramping as a secondary benefit or the icing on the cake; but the cake itself is minimalism. Minimalism helps to loosen attachment to material possessions and experience freedom, rather than fear or discomfort, in the wilderness.