The Art of Being "Gear-Content"

A minimalist's guide to gear

By: Matt Van Swol + Save to a List

I’ve never owned a pair of hiking boots. I came to that realization on one of the most iconic trails north of Asheville, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway: the Black Balsam Trail. I was hiking with some of the most experienced hikers in the Southeast a distance of over 13 miles and as all hikers eventually do, we started talking about gear. It was during this conversation that I came to the conclusion that in all my years as a backpacker, hiker, and now as landscape photographer, I had never bothered to purchase a pair of hiking boots. What’s more, I also realized that I hadn't missed them, simply because I never even thought about purchasing them. I began thinking of all the gear I have purchased for the outdoors: a hammock, a 70L backpacking pack, a water bottle, sleeping bag, tent, tarp, straps, lights, cameras, jackets, pants, shirts…the list could really go on forever. As I started listing the gear in my head, I began to realize that 1) I had none of it with me and 2) I rarely used it. Even stranger in fact, was that of most of those items, I had more than one! I had multiple packs, multiple water bottles and hammocks, tons of hiking shirts and breathable pants…yet I wasn’t using any of it that day on the hike or even in the past year.

It begged the question, “why do I own all this stuff?” I’m an avid hiker and photographer and yet I never use any of this stuff, why do I have it? I think it’s the same reason people purchase a $200 pair of hiking boots: we think it will be useful. In the short run that might be true, but are $200 boots really worth it if you are only using them once, maybe twice a year? Maybe, but probably not. I own a $100 sub-zero degree sleeping bag, how many times have I needed that? Not even once, I could probably bring a $8 fleece from Wal-Mart and be both happier, lighter, and use it more than just one-time camping. What about that $50 waterbottle that filters water out of streams, with a pump and built-in-filter? How many times have I used that? Once, maybe twice, and I haven’t used it since. Could I have been just as happy, maybe even more happy, purchasing a water bottle I would use every single day and bought some cheap, dissolvable tablets for water purification? Absolutely.

As I began running through all the gear I owned, I noticed this trend: I would purchase a unique item, something I thought I needed for an upcoming trip, thinking I’d use it again at some point if I "bought a nicer version” of that item. For example: instead of buying the normal everyday water bottle, I’d buy the more expensive water-filtration water bottle, thinking that I would immediately gravitate towards choosing that particular item when I went hiking again. The problem is: I don’t. Why? Because we are both forgetful and materialistic. Our stints between hiking trips are often so long, we need to “store” our gear for the next time we use it and oftentimes, the gear we use on one trip isn't needed for this new trip, because we like to travel different places, with different climates and different environments. So instead, we buy more and different gear for this new trip. By the time you need gear for repeating or continuing an old trip, it’s either out of style, forgotten, or “been sitting in a basement so long you no longer trust it” (my dad’s words, but I suspect he’s not alone).

So here’s what I'd suggest doing: stop buying gear you think you might need for the place you are going. Instead, try packing what you normally use everyday and rent the stuff you realize you need when you get there. Most of the gear you would rent is brand new anyway and a fraction of the cost of purchasing it new. The other gear you have, is stuff you’d use everyday anyway: that school backpack, that plastic Nalgene you’ve had since the 5th grade, the fleece reindeer blanket you got for Christmas that one year. All of that stuff is free and usable for more than just a one-time hiking gig. Take advantage of that! Rent the specialty gear for when you need it, and be creative with what you already have. But don’t take my word for it! What’s the #1 regret that vagabonders have when they quit their jobs to travel the world? They wish they hadn't purchased so much gear at the outset. So perhaps on your next trip, try limiting the urge to go to Amazon and buy gear. Instead, try calling up your buddies, see if they have that “basement gear” you can borrow, look around your own place for stuff you already use and repurpose it, or purchase gear you can see yourself using everyday, and perhaps along the way, you'll discover the art of being gear-content.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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