Thursday, March 21, 2019

How becoming an Ultralight Backpacker turned me into a Minimalist between trails....

As a long distance hiker everything eventually comes down to the weight of your pack. What are you carrying? Is it a necessity? Does it have more than one purpose? Is it durable enough? Carry too much and the trek becomes physically unbearable. Carry too little and you will lack for something. As in life, with backpacking it is all about balance.

When the idea of trekking across Canada began to germinate in my mind several years ago, I had barely finished hiking two sections of Ontario’s beautiful Bruce Trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory and had more experience as a walker on local trails and pathways in provincial parks than I did on long distance ventures. On the Bruce Trail – an 800+ km pathway – I carried an older tent that weighed over 10 lbs, my empty backpack was 8 lbs, I had a stove and 6 fuel canisters, 4 metal SIGG water bottles, etc, etc. In other words I was prepared to the point of being physically crushed. Now, to be clear, I completed my goal of 300+ km during that hike – but it hurt. By contrast my time on Spain’s Camino de Santiago and France’s GR65 were wonderful. On both of these treks I carried only the bare necessities. As a result, I ‘floated’ across the two countries enjoying the sights, sounds, people, food, and of course the red wine.

So when I started to draft out a plan to trek across Canada it became clear that I wanted to enjoy my time in nature, and that to do that I had to reduce the weight of my tent, my sleep system, and my backpack, carrying only the things I absolutely needed. The problem was – I felt I needed so much, especially at home. So I set myself the challenge of really questioning everything I owned, and everything I purchased, to get into the habit of assessing my needs versus my wants.

As a result, for 3 years I have been selling things from around my house to reduce my possessions. I used Ebay, Craigslist, and Kijiji, and ended up paying for my hike along Newfoundland’s beautiful East Coast Trail (that is a month in nature paid for by unnecessary stuff). Many DVDs, Lego sets, Playmobil toys, old computers, discarded cameras, piles of clothing, sports equipment and the like left my house. This process accelerated 12 months ago when the plan to hike across Canada for 3 years became a reality. Furniture and clothing was donated, more was sold, and new purchases, with the exception of camping equipment - were limited. Less and less was debited so that I could keep track of my spending, and this also reduced my monthly bank fees. In addition, less and less was charged onto the credit card which in turn reduced my debt and interest payments.

In the process I began to notice a number of things about myself, how much I earned, and my own habits. What follows is a list of things that I have learned about myself and my at home lifestyle while preparing for this trek and becoming an ultra light backpacker.

(1) Whether I thought so a year ago or not, I had a lot of stuff – in my backpack on expeditions and in my home. The difference between needs and wants is sufficiently blurred now that it can be hard to distinguish between them. But figuring out what we need compared to what we want is an essential mind set to get back into. For example, I love reading, and I love the feel of a book in my hands. However, the thought of carrying a book or books on the trail is a non-starter, and so e-books are now a regular part of my world.

(2) Whether I knew it or not – I can be an impulse buyer, and I don’t need to be. I admit that I am guilty of buying the newest light weight tent, sleeping bag, or backpack. I love to research equipment each year and revel in upgrading to the newest, lightest, and most functional gear. As a result however I closets full of old equipment which was barely used but which I have moved on from. My house was the same way, full of impulse items, upgraded items, and a lot of dvds and books. There was no need for most of these things to either be purchased or remain stored away. Reconsidering my purchases, donating items, and recycling things has literally given me several rooms back that used to be full.

(3) It isn't bad to not buy things, and I don’t feel better when I do. It seems that consumption and now over-consumption is the new norm. If you don’t get the most recent phone, the newest game system, or this season’s fashions you are viewed as out of touch. I used to feel pressured by cashiers who highlighted the week’s sales or who offered store credit cards. Yet keeping up with everyone’s expectations is not only expensive but it never made me feel better either. If this mindset goes too far, even well-paid people end up impoverishing themselves, and this doesn't make anything better.

(4) If people judge you on your stuff, you need to hang out with different people – like the type of people who are on the trail! Why did I have over 20 dress shirts? 10 pairs of dress pants? Who was I trying to impress? Admittedly as a scientist and a scholar I present at professional conferences from time to time. But not 20+ days in a row. This is all before I mention how many t-shirts, night clothes, and hiking clothes I have. In short a year ago my closet was absurd! My kitchen was the same way – a toaster, a toaster oven, a microwave, and an oven? What was I thinking? I don’t even think I have used most of these appliances more than 2 or 3 times in my life! In each of these cases it was clear that a lot had to go. I now have 7 dress shirts, a few pairs of pants, and my trekking gear – and that is it! The rest is now – hopefully – of use to others who are able to benefit from it.

(5) Since I wasn’t out shopping or eating out, I spent more time with friends and family. Once my habit of going out to stores came to an end, I found that not only did I go out less, but that as a result I spent more quality time with friends and family. I re-established old friendships and had those types of great conversations with people which I had only previously had on the trail.

(6)The Less I had the More I traveled! Having less, spending less and selling off the excess meant I had more money, which in turn meant that I traveled more and saw more of the world. Not a bad trade off for not having rooms full of clutter! And if there is one thing I know about travel and nature is that it is addictive. Once you get out there and realize how great it is, you want to get back out there, you want to stay out there. As a result, every time I saved enough to travel, and ventured down another trail, it only pushed my resolve further to get rid of more so that I could get back outdoors. Add to this the fact that on my hikes I was now carrying less, meant that I had a better time out there too!

(7) My house feels so much more open, more spacious, and more relaxing without clutter. One of the things I love about backpacking is that you have everything you need on you. You open the tent at the end of the day and you don’t have to worry about arranging things or cleaning things. Interestingly, once I removed so much of the excess furniture, clothing and knickknacks from my house I began to have the same feeling when I came home each night. My house felt more open, more welcoming, and more relaxing. (That said I still prefer my tent to my house)

(8) My house is far larger than I needed which meant I paid more to buy it, paid more to insure it, and was paying more to fill it! About 4 years ago I came to realize that I was paying more to store the stuff I was buying. Since then, one of my favourite quotes has been “if you are organizing and storing your stuff, you have too much stuff” – this was certainly true in my case. I had a house with a guest room, which then required an extra bed, an extra wardrobe, extra rug, extra hangers, and extra shelf...and then pretty soon that shelf was filled with stuff....why? Similarly, 5-6 years ago while camping, I had a larger and heavier tent which required a larger backpack which I then filled with other stuff, which allowed me to hike in pain day after day. Since these days I have reduced what I use and what I carry, thereby increasing how much money I have at the end of each month, how often I can now travel, and how much I enjoy my regular hikes.

(9) Given how much I owned, given how much space I needed, and given how much I owed for it all – it was clear that I didn’t own my stuff, my stuff owned me! This was true not only in terms of the money spent buying things, but also because of the amount of time I spent repairing things, replacing things, cleaning things and upgrading things (I have a drawer which has 5 old digital phones in it). When I was traveling I often found that instead of enjoying the moment, whether in nature or a cathedral, I was worrying about my house and my stuff. What if someone broke in? What if it was stolen? What if there was a fire? All of these concerns are understandable – but when you are more worried about your stuff than about enjoying your hike then things are going astray. Now don’t get me wrong, there are things I love and which have great sentimental value to me, but I soon came to see that if I couldn’t even enjoy being away from home because of my stuff then it had too much control over me and things had to change.

(10) Once I stopped buying and had my credit card paid down, I realized that I made more money than I thought I did – especially when not paying down the interest on things. This means I could pay off debts faster, save up faster, and go on trips sooner to see the world and enjoy life more!

(11) From buying less things, I had less weekly recycling and garbage from less packaging. This means by buying less my environmental footprint was less – which feels great!

(12) Donating gently used items to regional charities and thrift stores and giving to the local Scout troops feels great! No I don’t believe my stuff was the best, but it is nice to think that all the usable stuff and clothing and furniture that was taken away, and all the gently or non-used camping gear went to someone who could use it, who needed it, and that it was useful rather than filling a landfill or sitting in my closet.

A few hints to become Ultra light on the Trail and a Minimalist at Home: 

(1) Reduce a little at a time – 1 bag or 1 box a week in your house, and one item at a time during each local camping trip –give it a try and strive to distinguish between what you need and what you have added ‘just in case’ or ‘just because’. I suspect, like myself, you’ll be surprised at how much extra you have in your pack and in your closets.

(2) A cluttered backpack with tons of stuff gives you more backaches and more headaches on the trail. Similarly a cluttered house and cluttered closets give you higher debts and bigger frustrations. Reduce the clutter and everything becomes easier to manage – on the trail and in life.

(3) Once you reduce you can afford to get outdoors more, and if my time on the trail is similar to yours, time in nature quickly shows you what is necessary and what isn’t – as a result, when you get home take the time to re-evaluate. These days I would rather have less, more versatile, and more durable equipment than lots of stuff.

As I close out this entry, let me be clear. By ranting about all of this I am not complaining about my life. Not at all. All of these issues were self induced and are the very definition of First World problems. They are the difficulties of privilege. The reality is however, that it took becoming an Ultra Light Backpacker to realize that I have enough – in fact I had more than enough! I certainly never have lacked for anything – and even now that I have dramatically reduced my life down to reflect my backpacking world – I still don’t lack for any necessity, but I do feel a heck of a lot better. Taking a turn towards minimalism has helped to fund my upcoming 3 year trek across Canada on the Great Trail, and this has helped me realize that the purpose of life is not – and cannot – just be about having stuff.

As Ultra light backpacking taught me - The less you have the further you can go, and the less you have the easier it is to get back out there hiking...

See you on the trail...

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