Gambling with gear …

It’s the the night before your big backpacking trip. You’ve been a good camper and packed all of your 10-plus essentials, checked the seals on your water bladder and made sure you have enough chocolate Goo packets to feed a small nation.

While test-hefting the final weight of your pack, your mind can’t help but wrap itself around the memory of those steep switchbacks halfway up the trail. You keep recalling the sweat rolling down your brow and the burning of your quads accompanied by constant mental curses.

Not even 10 seconds later you start pulling things out of your pack to lighten the load. What can go?

What about that medical kit? You haven’t used that during the last few trips. Hastily, glancing around the room as if you were on the lookout for the backpacking police, you grab a couple of Bandaids out of the kit, then stuff it quickly back into the gear closet.

We’re all guilty of it — gambling on gear. Lightening your load of important gear in order to make it up the trail with less sweat. Its the old trade off of hassle vs. safety.

Here’s some tips on how to make a trip safe without literally breaking your back.

Traveling in a group? Split up some of the burden. Everyone should have some of their own key items, but if you will be staying together, it’s not necessary that all members of your group come loaded to the gills with gear.

For Search and Rescue, each team typically divvies up our gear. One of us carries the tent, stove and cooking gear, another has the heavy call out rope and technical gear.

Caveat: Make sure you still keep enough gear with each backpacker to keep them safe and warm if they do get separated from the group.

Invest in lighter weight solutions, especially on key items. That titanium cookset, lightweight down jacket, and the ultralight sleeping pad may initially cost more than their heavier counterparts, but you’ll be more likely to bring them than the bulkier version. The weight they free up in your pack can be used for other critical gear such as your first aid kit.

Knowledge weighs nothing. Depending on what you want to do and where you want to go, it’s a very good bet to stock up on related training. Your best gear in the backcountry are your skills.

• Wilderness first-aid courses teach you the basics of how bodies work and break. You’ll learn when you need to evacuate ASAP and when you can still stay and play. You’ll learn how to improvise with your gear and backcountry materials. You get lots of critical hands-on experience to help you stay calm when things hit the fan. For an excellent local resource, look into the Wilderness Outings course taught in Idyllwild.

• Backpacking skills courses. You can take anything from a basic day clinic such as those offered by REI to a multi-day backpacking and snow travel course like National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) or the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course and beyond. Whatever you want to do, the training is out there to help you do it safely.

Improvise wisely. Think critically about what you can and can’t “MacGyver” in the backcountry.

Try to stop severe bleeding with pressure from your dirty clothes (that you need for warmth) while shivering in a snowstorm? All of the sudden you might be pining for that pile of sterile compresses nestled back home in your gear closet.

Bottom line: think it through before you discard a piece of gear from your pack.

Bring multipurpose items. Multipurpose gear means more functionality for less weight. I like to keep a stock of multipurpose gear such as bungees, plastic bags and duct tape, just to name a few.

For example, two durable contractor garbage bags can form a pack liner in the rain, an improvised rain jacket or even be joined end to end around my sleeping bag as a makeshift waterproof bivy for weather emergencies.

Still feel like grumbling about the time and expense of investing in good gear and training for the off chance of an emergency?

Just remember, it is a gamble every time you go out unprepared. Sooner or later, if you spend enough time in the Wilderness, something happens to everyone. The only question will be if you win or lose your bet.


  1. Great article, but there is a process improvement method to carrying all the gear you need, at the lightest possible and affordable option.

    Highly recommended research for me is BPL website, Andrew Skurka the ultra light backpacking super star and Mike Clelland gear improv genius.

    I will share with the readers the links that it took me a while to gather:

    Mike Clelland:
    Andrew Skurka:

    Look on Youtube for very cool video tutorials by both dudes. I'm a geek fan, can you tell?

    Basically, it starts with a simple gram/ounce kitchen food scale.
    Weigh every item, and log its description and weight.
    an awesome free reporting tool is Gear Grams.

    If you are slightly OCD, or highly organized, this is very cool. For people that are intimidated by checklists – walk away now and stop reading.

    So, first, weigh all your gear and log it on Gear Grams, the graphs are really cool. I saw that my favorite Buck knife weighed over a pound, so does a can opener etc…

    I replaced heavy items with lighter options, that still serve the same purpose, but at few ounces, instead of lbs.

    example: leave the MagLite flashlight with 8 D Cell batteries, and take a headlamp with spare AAA batteries.

    The top 3 anvils are the tent or shelter, sleep system and the backpack.

    The Backpacking Light philosophy is that when you reduce that 45 lbs pack weigh does to 25 lbs, you can probably go with a smaller lighter back, instead of WWII bomber pack.

    The easiest thing to do is de-duplicate items with same function, multi-use gear.

    example: 6 ft of Duct wrapped around a sharpie marker is the ultimate in multi-use. it's tent repair, shoe repair, blister patching, etc.

    Your day clothes and emergency clothes should all be your night sleep clothes.

    Some people get into the hobby of inventing and improving their own gear: this is called MYOG