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How Much Gear Do You Really Need?

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

--As published in the 2020 Fall Edition of The Leader, The NOLS Magazine

Alpine Trailblazer. Boundless Mountaineer. Mystic Trekker.

Although these spuriously-named, home-in-a-can behemoths strut past your $12 campsite—mocking your couch-less two-person tent and your shoddy picnic site—no self-respecting outdoor educator is going to haul one of these big-ass recreation vehicles into the Wind River Range. Not only are RVs spectacularly ill-suited for backcountry travel, but they’re the god-awful, life-sucking antithesis to everything you value about wild. At least... that’s what you think you believe.

Take the SunWave3 for example. At 3 oz., the solar-powered, portable microwave can heat your freeze- dried enchilada ranchero in 20 seconds, then fold up into the palm of your hand. What’s not to love about that?! Well...for starters, it kind of sounds like something you’d find in an RV, only more compact.

And—more troubling—some of you, just now, abandoned this article to google the fictional SunWave3, just to see if you could spring for it.

In spite of our loyalty and lust for wild, we outdoor folks are routinely duped by our own contraptions. Metaphorically speaking, we often can’t see the forest for the trees—y’know, the ones our Enos are tied to.

In a culture that proclaims, “If you can do it, why not overdo it!” there is a co-dependent billion-dollar industry eager to transform our backcountry excursion into an easier, faster, lighter, simpler, warmer, dryer, bug-free, trendy, luxurious, reassuringly safe and exceptionally cushy vacation. And we don’t have to drag a Mystic Trekker into the Wind Rivers to note the irony.

RVs—and outdoor gear—tend to diminish wilderness. That is to say, “What you bring into the backcountry has a significant impact on what you experience in the backcountry.” Pertinently, gear may thwart death. But it may also shrink our interaction with wild, minimize or remove natural challenges (and the lessons therein), and subtly re-create our petroleum-based urban environment—the one we were trying to escape.

While minimalist, buck-naked backcountry travel is not ideal, there is some value in pondering our more common, affluent predicament: How much gear do we REALLY need? It depends.

On a personal level, what are the aspirations of our trek? State-of-the- art comfort? Nature hike? Exercise? Chill out? Challenge? Enlightenment? Near-death experience? These oft-uncalculated valuations should inform our equipment choices. If we want to maximize wild, the gear we do and don’t haul into the backcountry may require a bit more scrutiny... at least, more than manufacturers let on.

On a programmatic level—where philosophies, goals, and participant welfare prescribe judiciousness—gear-scrutiny is paramount.

As an ‘80s NOLS student, with keep-it-simple proclivities, I found that rations, routes, and risks (along with gear) were highly premeditated endeavors. NOLS was employing a time-tested system. I didn’t particularly fancy all the stuff in my pack, but sure enough, every ounce—minus the couscous—improved my chances of pleasant survival. Counteracting this necessary gear-o-sphere, extra pound-age (the likes of fly-fishing gear, hefty naturalist books and route-finding tools), spurred us into the wild.

In retrospect, NOLS wasn’t wooing Gearhead converts but rather modeling intentionality. “What’s our goal? Will this accessory thing-a-ma-jig help us accomplish that goal? What impact will this gear have on our experience?”

In 2020—the year of Our Exceptionally Fabulous Gear—motives, due diligence, and intentionality can still help us minimize the RV within and maximize the wild without. And occasionally, less is more.

--Ben Fortson

NOLS Grad and Former Instructor

The National Outdoor Leadership School

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