Simplicity: Gear

It’s too bad Ryan Jordan’s blogging is so stochastic. When he does write, it’s always worth reading and is usually one of the more thought-provoking things I’ll encounter online in that particular week.

The most recent post is no exception.

In it he discussed favorites bits of gear (and when I say gear I mean outdoor gear, of course), and in doing so illuminates two ways of understanding simplicity: practical simplicity (which might be summed up as efficiency), and natural simplicity (which has to do with kit that helps illuminate and reveal the experience at hand, and is thus properly difficult to summarize).  He goes on to discuss how rare the blending of the two is, how infrequent it is that a truly clean and efficient (not the same!) piece of gear also serves to cleanly illuminate the experience of being in the wild.

I can’t disagree.  And after I thought about this for a minute, it struck me as quite sad.

My 80″ by 90″ Spinnaker tarp this past weekend.

This sadness might be the central contradiction at the heart of modern wilderness recreation, which historically is itself an absurd idea.  Our not so distant ancestors would have presumably been appalled that our lives had become so full of ease that we now seek out hardship in the outdoors purely for entertainment (in the complex sense).  It’d be an interesting historical study to examine the accounts of explorers since Christ and try to determine when, and under what circumstances, human enlightenment started to be a conscious end sought.  It’s hard to read the journals of Lewis and Clark without supposing that for the captains at least, “fun” featured prominently in their months in the wild.  So to with Powell, in every subsequent voyage after the 1869 trip science is less and less of a screen for the joy he obviously found in the Colorado Plateau.  And the Kolb brothers too; even reading through Ellsworth’s breezy account of their epics one cannot but see fun and personal challenge as the primary mover.

The paradox here is that while we make seek to recapture some primeval simplicity by going outdoors, our ancestors even going back further than instinctual, tactile memory allows were tool makers.  Gear allowed them to expand across the globe, and while we need far less than we think, humans are still too naked to do without substantial technology in all but the mildest places on earth.

It traces back to the paradox of us humans going outside for fun in the first place: we’ll cut gear (insulation, shelter, food) down to the minimum allowed by our idea of what safety will mean, and no further.  This gets us closer to our ancestral experience (or so we think), and facilitates natural simplicity, but the process of doing so when for comparatively little weight gain and considerably less contemplation we could walk out the door comfort all but assured points towards some kinds of simplicity only being simple when looked at from a very limited perspective.

I’m taking skill out of the equation here, and perhaps oversimplifying generally, but the point stands.  Simplicity is then a mere product of human engineering.  Right?

I’m not so sure.  Our gear has become so good, it does so much work for us, that our practice of outdoor adventure becomes more and more vulgar in its ease and leisure.  This isn’t to say we ought to wantonly cut gear and carelessly suffer, but we should remember that more refined, aesthetic, and noble ways of enjoying life have to do with “creating something beautiful” which can be shared with others, not with an experience which is in the moment always beautifully comfortable.

(And yes, I know I’m avoiding Ryan’s exit questions.  My answer would be something to the effect that gear makers, even the cottage shops, make a profit selling aspirational gear rather than experiential.)

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12 thoughts on “Simplicity: Gear

  1. My motive for re-reading Ryan’s explanations of two types of simplicity was based on a hope that he could explain why something as structurally simple but as functionally useless as a Ti DX stove/chimney thingy always ends up in my pack at the expense of better meal heaters. He failed me but you may be on to something.

    The better gear gets, and I’m not sure you say this, the harder we push, even if only at getting better photos, so the experience never becomes vulgar. And the more obstacles we put in the way of getting dinner heated. I doubt if firing up a Ti DX will ever become vulgar in its ease.

    But, at the end of the day, we should listen to Nike. Just do it. Don’t worry too much about why or how.

    1. Just do it indeed. One of my reasons for writing this today is that, due to writing BPL articles, I’ve been spending more time than ever before thinking about the minute differences in gear, and how to present them. It’s a great learning process, and cool to be exposed to so many toys, but at the same time enlightenment leads to enhanced capacity for discontent, and I worry that I’ve been over-analyzing my own gear closet in ways that wouldn’t have occured to me before. It is possible to overdo this.

  2. My BPL membership has lapsed which is why I hadn’t realised you were writing for them/it. I appreciate why you are thinking along these lines now.

    There are bloggers over here (UK) worrying over how they are perceived after writing about gear they haven’t had to buy. Apparently, they have received some harsh criticism. So I’ve seen a few unhappy posts in the last fortnight.

    Can’t help wondering whether the end of summer has something to do with it.

    1. Gear reviewing is another can of worms entirely. In the last few months I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for how complex and burdensome it is, which has been a headache at times but overall a fun piece of enlightenment.

      It ought to be the subject of a whole ‘nother post/article, really. Perhaps tomorrow.

  3. Dave,

    I grew up camping out in the backwwods with my friends every weekend, year round since eighth grade. We took very little. Then I went to work at an outdoor store and was sucked into the idea of needing the newest, lightest, greatest. That fortunately is no longer the case.

    I then came upon BPL and the philosophy appeared sound but the conversations of the forum members felt odd. BPL posters appear more concerned with weights and spreadsheets, grams and cuben fiber than the actual experience. I believe, if this wasn’t the case, we would see more trip reports containing a little more introspection and less photos of gear.

    I get out pretty regularly and I never think about my equipment unless it fails. My goto pack, in my opinion, is perfectly desiged, both functionally and aesthetically and it weighs over three pounds and was mass-produced ; the Arc’Teryx Needle 45. Heresy to followers of the UL dogma but I can backpack, climb and ski with it. It’s not the lightest or simplest but it works and works well.

    If I’m out on a climb or a backpacking trip and thinking about how cool my gear is, in my opinion, I’m not fully in the moment. What the backpack is made of is not important and neither are the few contents. On a forty mile day, it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter if my pack is a cottage industry pack or a Black Diamond mass produced pack. What matters is the experience. The guys who pioneered routes up El Cap did it in thrift store clothing!

    Case in point, My friends and I decided to hike the Pictured Rocks trail on the first of January. The weather turned nasty and we got our collective ass handed to us and we loved every minute of it. I honestly can’t tell you what I wore or what pack I took, but I do remember the ass pounding we took from the frigid winds coming off Lake Superior… absolute, blissful exhaustion! Then there’s the time I went to Ontario winter camping and forgot my hat, gloves and tent… got by with a pair of $5 wool gloves and a plastic tarp from a tractor store!

    I believe the energy spent examining the minutia of gear would be better spent examining maps of far off places and planning the next set of memories. Gear are the tools to help fulfill our dreams of outside exploration… a small set of tools. A carpenter, when planning to build a house doesn’t sit around before hand talking about how ‘killer’ his hammer is, so why does the average backpacker?

    My solution: treat gear as gear and not a measuring stick. The experiences, internally and externally are all that really matter. Don’t feed the gear monster!

    I hope this stayed on topic.

    Take care,

    rOg

    1. Well said Rog, and something I wish I could follow more exactly myself upon occasion. January first on Pictured Rocks, hats off! While I don’t want to be a luddite, I do reckon I buy into the consumer/externalist mentality I’ve written about here more than I’d like to.

      Btw, this post has blown up today, and I’d like more of you lurkers to get in on this conversation. Cheers.

  4. Not backpacking, but when biking, the best gear disappears into the experience. When my stuff does not annoy me, it is the right stuff.

    Great post.

  5. A few moments of reflection allows me to broaden the above “doesn’t annoy me” passage to pretty much any tool: Gun, holster, waffle maker, car, surgical instrument, name it. All gear is a tool. Good tools do their job and disappear with use. All the OCD over gear/tools is just us wondering if the tools really are the best tool for the job, or whether they can be improved, and by improved, I mean “made less annoying.”

  6. Dave,
    The background in the above photo with the tarp is phenomenal. Crop the bottom 2/3 off and it would be a perfect masthead photo for your blog. A trail disappearing into the golden-illuminated, backlit forest. Times like those are the true, fleeting treasures of being outside. One minute the sun is grazing the earth at just the right angle and intensity to create the true aesthetic moment, and then a minute later the earth rotates a hundredth of a degree and… poof…gone! Awesome!

    rOg

  7. I question my approach to gear but have decided not to change it for the moment (I’m in the midst of other life changes; this can wait). I’m almost fanatically invested in finding things that work exactly as I want them to, where my ideal is three-fold: (1) does exactly what I want, (2) does it how I want it done, and (3) is versatile and durable enough that I won’t have to replace it for a long time. Those items I have that fulfill the criteria are “set it and forget it” things where I can use them almost without thought (but when with thought, the thought is enjoyment in the using rather than frustration). This approach frees me from the typical gear search pitfall of wanting to try everything to find a “best” of all things. For a large percentage of available gear, I can look at it, realize it isn’t going to fit my system, and my interest ends there. On the other hand, the level of research and analysis required to track down items I think I want to try is exhausting, and in comparison probably equal to or greater than the amount of effort expended by the buy-try-gear swap approach.

    This makes me sound inflexible, and to some degree that’s true. I like change, but I like it to come slowly. Part of it, however, is that I have a good idea of how my mind likes to organize things, and where I can adapt myself to fit gear, or a system or technique, and where I cannot compromise and am driven to find gear that fits me and how I do things.

    Simplicity, then, takes on some additional aspects for me. For example, a pack without pockets (or other means of arranging gear) is practically simple in design, but not practically simple in use (for me). A pack with pockets that work for me (in size and placement) is less practically simple in design, but vastly more simple for me to use. Conversely, a pack with pockets the wrong size and place is neither simple in design nor in use (in such a case I’d prefer the pocketless pack to a pack with the extra weight of pockets I won’t use). Simplicity of use (defined by me) will always win over simplicity of design. Sometimes going lighter means eliminating fiddle factor, but sometimes it increases it. My goal in trying to dial in my kit is to find that sweet spot with a minimum of both, ideally with gear rugged enough that I won’t have to baby it or constantly be replacing it.

    Natural simplicity is a bit slippier for me since it seems to overlap a lot with ease of use. Anything that’s easy to use is going to allow me more time and mental energy to be in the woods. Ryan’s example of a mid vs a tarp therefore didn’t make sense to me. If easy = less interaction with gear required = more interaction with the environment, then the mid seems the obvious choice. But then, if you are considering exposure to the elements (tarp wins) or less reliance on technology (cooking with wood wins) to be part of a natural experience, then it seems natural simplicity, too, has a couple different elements to it.

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