Simplicity in Wilderness Travel

A kayak and an expanse of Lake Superior at sunset.

A trend in ultralight-speak is defining “simplicity” and its meaning within the context of personal relationships with wilderness travel.

A couple of examples:

Ryan Jordan writes on his blog about Wilderness Simplicity, Flexibility, and Power:

I love Brent Simmon’s recent post about flexibility and power in the context of iOS Apps, and especially, his brilliant observation that

…flexibility is just a tool to use exceedingly sparingly, only when it substantially increases power.

There’s a lot of meat in this statement, with direct relevance to trekking, and trekking gear.

Now, it depends on how one might define power. Traditional definitions might equate power to speed, or distance. A more thoughtful person might consider that efficiency reflects power while on an expedition.

I’d propose that these superficial manifestations of power be completely discarded in lieu of discovering what emotional and mental power is all about, which is simplicity, and the freedom from having to fiddle, choose, and think about stuff that isn’t really that important.

Justine Lichter writes about simplicity on AtlasOmega:

The ultralight or lightweight movement is all about simplicity. Simplicity comes in three main ways: 1) minimizing what you are carrying to only what you really need, 2) having the gear you need be functional and generally without a lot of bells and whistles, so that it is lighter in weight, and 3) carrying less lets you move faster, farther, and more comfortably therefore possibly allowing you to enjoy your wilderness experience even more.

In Nessmuking: A Return to Simple in 2004 before I started my first website, I wrote:

Simplicity dictates only taking what is needed and nothing more … Remember, simplicity starts with simplicity, but sometimes simplicity isn’t simple at all.

In an anonymous letter to the director of Aspen Achievement Academy:

… who am I in all this mess? The wilderness does not answer this question for us; the wilderness reflects silently, simple back to us our own truth, and suddenly, almost as if by process of elimination, we find our lives different suddenly one small taste of the truth about ourselves sours anything less.

Douglas Durham writes in The Original Ultralight Hikers: Seeking Wilderness Simplicity from Modern Day Nomads:

By reducing one’s possessions and comforts — leaving home and going into homelessness — one begins the process of observing the mind responding to external situations and wishing that things were other than they are. Thus if one is wet, one may wish to be dry. In their case they simply accept being wet. By setting out on such a journey with so little, either one learns to control the mental responses or one returns to home.

Harry Drabik, another Minnesotan living on the northshore, wrote in Spirit of Canoe Camping:

This book holds most of what I know of wilderness canoeing. The secret is simplicity, and simplicity is the joy.

The Wilderness Program at Earlham includes Simplicity as one of its wilderness program core principles:

Simplicity and simple living is comprised of two parts: inward simplicity and outward simplicity. The two are, of course, connected. Inward simplicity can be defined by the priorities and goals that you have in your life and how you make decisions about them. Outward simplicity is how you manifest those priorities and goals to the world. This course is all about simple living — both inwardly and outwardly. You will carry everything you need on your back or in your canoe. You will eat simply but heartily. You will have a minimum of possessions and “modern” distractions. This outward simplicity, we hope, will encourage inward simplicity — allowing you to reflect on what is truly important to you and how you want to go about “walking joyfully on this earth” as George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends” once famously said.

On course, you can practice outward simplicity by minimizing your reliance on “extraneous” things such as watches, fancy gear and gizmos, and expensive possessions. You can also practice inward simplicity by narrowing your focus and attention to the things that are most important and of value to you. Learn how to perform the perfect “J-Stroke” or for baking bread. Slow down. Take your time. Make sure that whatever you do, you do it well (what we call in “good style”). Practicing these skills of simplicity can help you re-calibrate what you spend your time on and what is most important to you.

In my lightweight paddling philosophy, I make this observation:

Simplicity is easy to build upon, and complexity is harder to manage. When things are simple, they stay out-of-the-way and using them allows you to concentrate on your journey instead of the piece of gear. Complexity requires a higher level of concentration that subtracts attention from the journey. A more rewarding journey comes from keeping things simple. Gear should only do what it needs to do and nothing more; skills make up for everything it lacks.

When looking at these example — a few among endless more — it seems to me that when we talk about simplicity in the wilderness, we approach it from two directions:

  1. Our gear choices by taking less, using lighter gear and reducing the gear’s reach to its primary function.
  2. Simplicity allows us to connect to something greater such as joy, the journey, what’s truly important and mindfulness.

The two directions seem somewhat unrelated, but I don’t think they are. When Aldo Leopold argued that outdoor recreation is valuable directly proportional to the experience’s intensity and “to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life” he gave us an initial argument that leads us to the crossroads tying these two directions together. (See Experiential Values in Lightweight Canoe and Kayak Travel) Because we reduce what we carry, we experience the wilderness more directly, which increases the intensity. Because a wilderness trip reduces daily life’s complexity to a routine with limited choices — less if we carry less — we experience simplicity, which breaks from our “workaday” life and focuses us on the wilderness experience, which further increases the intensity. Because we have less gear to fulfill our desires, we can begin to accept the wilderness on its own terms, which both increases the intensity and breaks us from “workaday” life.

If we accept this argument, it seems to me that the power in simplicity is directly proportional to how directly it allows us to experience the wilderness. It’s a deep subject that I don’t have all the answers for, but I’m glad that lots of people try to understand.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Great post.