Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Philosophy of Gear or Why I Bring a Soup Strainer

Why use gear?

Gear makes it easier to perform a task. Is it possible to head out into the wilderness with only a knife and survive? With the requisite knowledge, sure. Is it more difficult? Less likely to succeed? Less comfortable? Yes, yes, and yes. For safety's sake as well as convenience's, almost everyone will carry gear of some sort. The gear may range from a rucksack and a few candy bars to a four person tent, mattress, full mess kit, books, whiskey, and a set of boules for Pétanque. Both methods are correct! The first belongs to an ultralight hiker who has extremely low risk of exposure (mid summer) and knows exactly what she is doing. She is also an expert who is taking risks. The second method belongs to a hiker who loves the luxuries and has the power to haul a heavy load. She is unaccountably obsessed with playing Pétanque on mountaintops. [Do you know this girl? Have her number?] One item both types of hikers should have brought is a towel. In fact, I don't know how they missed it. Something clearly went wrong here; I'm going to have to contact my editor. The only thing I can tell our les belle femmes at this point is Don't Panic.

Clearly, the writer has gone off his rocker. Please pardon us while we eradicate him. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Gear is Functional
Like a towel, gear serves an important purpose. Carefully select your gear for that purpose. The first type of hiker probably wouldn't want to bring a towel at all. (Shame on her!) The second hiker would bring a luxurious towel hand woven from alpaca wool, having a plush pile three inches deep on each side, being six to ten meters long and several meters wide. After all, sometimes there's no grass on the mountaintop. The pertinent question is what type of towel do you want to bring? Does it have to be less substantial than a faerie's wing? Will it need to be able to withstand gale force winds as you shelter beneath it? Will the towel be used as a soup strainer?

Find your purposes
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Hiking fast
  • Hiking far
  • Camping comfortably
  • Camping in complete wilderness
  • Becoming one with nature
  • Wrestle a grizzly
  • Having a tidy campfire
  • Burning huge piles of wood to signal passing Vogons
  • Adventuring safely
  • Hunting
  • Acquiring the latest gadget
  • Reusing gear
  • Going cheap
  • Going expensive
  • Playing Pétanque on hand woven alpaca wool towels
and then get the proper gear for those purposes. Most persons will have a multitude of purposes. Find the ones that pertain to you. For instance, my purposes in no particular order are: hiking, hiking fast, hiking far, becoming one with nature, adventuring safely, acquiring the latest gadget, camping comfortably, and playing Pétanque on hand woven alpaca wool towels. Note that to meet my  purposes I have to bring three separate towels. One tiny one smaller than a zebra's spots so that I can hike fast and hike far. One reasonably sized towel that can be tied up and function as a hammock. And of course one alpaca wool towel. It would be even better if I could use one towel for all three purposes but the gear gods as yet have been unable to conjure anything so talented as to perform all three tasks admirably.

I cheated in that last paragraph. Can you spot it? "In no particular order" is a complete cop-out. For if you love spreadsheets as much as I do, you will surely create a ranking system for the purposes, their potential impact on the other purposes, their cost, their weight, and whether they can turn sunlight into four course dinners. Or, you could go with your gut. That's simpler and will enable you to actually leave on the trip before the sun burns out.

Have I always listened to my own advice? Heck no! I engage with gear as a fun way to stay involved with backpacking and hiking when I am not actually out on the trail. I am interested in the thingymabobs that make my hobby zing. But when I am contemplating a serious trip I will look at what I am trying to do on the trip and tailor my gear choices appropriately. Admittedly, I have the luxury of choosing gear based on the trip because a lot of it seems to float about in my storage area. Sometimes I think it must be procreating. But the point is that putting thought into the purpose behind the gear will clarify gear choices. For instance, a top of the line rain jacket may be totally awesome and cool and be able to start your car from a distance of 50 meters. But it really doesn't have much of a place in 90 degree weather (if you're in 90 degrees Celsius weather, just tell me where to send the flowers). And if you don't have a way to cover your backpack with that $300 jacket, you might be better off with a $10 poncho.

Chances are very good that you are neither the luxury toting Samson nor the backcountry expert carrying only a knife. So take into account your skill level, find your purposes whether they be serious or silly, choose gear based on those purposes, and get out into the woods.

Anyone up for a game of Pétanque?


Disclaimer: I've not played Pétanque in years but I'm definitely up for a game. I'll bring the wine.

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