Don't just Focus on a Backpacking Gear List

Backpacking + Hiking Tips
May 11, 2015

Whether I'm pumping trail miles, soaking it all in, or exploring the off-trails, my trips are always about gaining intimacy with the mountains and learning something new about myself and those that I am with. I view my gear and my skills as necessary means to help me do that.

Gear list: Necessary but insufficient

Gear lists are great. They help us get prepared and organized and, let's admit it, feel cool. Some of us use gear lists to scrutinize the things we carry so that we can go as light and minimal as possible without sacrificing safety and comfort. We can also tell a lot about a person's character from a gear list because what made it to the list are – and better be – deliberate choices. I'm all for that!

But isn't it so easy to get obsessed over what's on our gear lists? The appeal of having a list of the perfect gear might be safety and preparedness at first. But tunnel vision sets in before long. Be it the "ultralight" or the "king of comfy camping" variety, we end up making the gear list a virtual hall of fame of our belongings. But just like baseball cards, owning the fanciest collection of gear alone won't keep you dry, warm, or happy in the mountains. So let's look at what's off your gear list for a moment.

hiking gear

Enter Skill List. Stage left

If a gear list tells us what we should be carrying on our backs, then a skill list should tell us what we ought to be carrying in our heads. Not only are they a critical means to keeping us prepared for the outdoors, they can also help us cut pack weight and increase confidence, ease, and trail credit. For instance, knowing how to start a fire using collected wood can mean leaving the heavy stove and fuel at home. Plus, you might even get a wink and a smile from that cute friend you wanted to impress. (Or for some of us, a hard-earned nod from our hard-to-please wives!)

So, it seems like common sense to have a list of skills to check off before a trip, no? Unfortunately, backpacking skill lists, just like common sense, are uncommon! This might be because skills are so often overlooked and overshadowed by the hype and chatter around gear and gear lists. Below is my attempt to shed light on the underdog of the things we ought to carry.

We should have several skill lists just as we do gear lists to handle varying conditions on different trips. To keep it simple, I propose having the following 3 lists. One builds on another and they differ depending on trip intensity, duration, environmental conditions. I teach some of these skills on trips I lead around California's Bay Area. In subsequent articles, I will expound on how to acquire some of them.

start a fire

I. FOUNDATIONAL: A skill list for all backpacking trips, most suitable for shorter trips (≤3-days) with lower intensity, no technical terrain (e.g. talus slopes, high water crossings, "all-fours" scrambling), in predictably 3-season conditions.

backpacking skill list

II. PLUS: A skill list for 4-8-day trips, with moderate-high intensity, some technical terrain (e.g. talus slopes, high water crossings, "all-fours" scrambling), in mostly 3-season conditions with small chance of ice/snow encounters

backpacking skill list

III. ADVANCED: A skill list for trips with low margin of errors. (e.g. Winter trips/Desert conditions/Long distance hiking / Extended off trail or night hiking). Technical terrain is hard to avoid and environmental conditions may be harsh (very dry, wet, cold, hot, slippery, stormy, snowy, dark, remote).

backpacking skill list

Complements. Not substitutes.

Yes, you can cut a lot of gear weight just by having great skills. Case in point, if you know how to hang a bear bag properly, you can bring a 2-oz bear bag kit and leave the bear resistant canister at home in many places. If you are skilled at budgeting food, you can save pounds on even an overnight trip. I will go into a range of specific examples in subsequent articles. That said, know that in most cases, skills and gear are complementary. Just because you know how to tell where east is doesn't mean you shouldn't carry a map and compass.

Be more naked.

Knowing the right skills to take with you and when to deploy them can help you gain confidence, cut pack weight, and win friends and bragging rights. Your skills will keep you focused on building memories (sweet and painful ones) out there. The more you rely on your skills, the more minimalist, the more naked you become. For me, that nakedness in the mountains – not literally (to my trail-mates delight) – is what I crave when I'm out in the Wilderness.

Oh, one more thing… The lists above are put together and refined over time based on the accumulation of my experience out there. Yours may and should

be different. That's cool, and I'm excited to hear more. Tell me, what would you add or subtract from these lists? Or tell me a true story about that time when one of these skills saved your butt.

This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Duncan Cheung.