ArticlesThe Lightweight Philosophy

Why Nessmuking?

The simple question is why? Why Nessmuking? Many wilderness travelers who’ve spent time in the woods using conventional gear and methods, upon seeing someone traveling with just a light bag on their back, a feather light boat, and a smile, often ask why travel so light. They ask, why suffer under a tarp instead of inside the security of a tent. They ask, why not carry a larger stove and many pots and pans to cook larger meals. They ask, why do anything differently than they currently do.

To a seasoned follower of Nessmuking, these questions are hard to understand; it seems the natural way of the woods. There is no suffering and all needs are met. But, for many travelers and outdoors folk, it may not seem a natural way of exploration. Without a basic appreciation of why people travel lightly, misreadings occur, people are turned off for lack of understanding, and, perhaps more importantly, many people turn away before they can realize some of the benefits of traveling light.

So, the question is why Nessmuking? Why the lightweight movement?

For Comfort, Health and Enjoyment

Nessmuk spells out the basic why for the lightweight canoe and kayak movement, for comfort, health and enjoyment lots of heavy gear isn’t needed. That’s the simplest answer, and perhaps the most fulfilling for those that travel in this style. In Woodcraft and Camping, Nessmuk wrote a simple answer to why go lightweight:

Perhaps no two will exactly agree on the best ground for an outing, on the flies, rods, reels, guns, etc., or half a dozen other points that may be discussed. But one thing all admit. Each and every one has gone to his chosen ground with too much impedimenta, too much duffel; and nearly all have used boats at least twice as heavy as they need to have been. The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong, and we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how to do it.

Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.

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Tarptent Double Rainbow Tent in the BWCA
Tarptent Double Rainbow Tent in the BWCA

There is a great temptation in outdoor pursuits to carry more than is needed, simply because the traveler may think that he may run into a situation where an item is needed. Or because gear marketing has taken away a bit of critical thought. Or because most adventures haven’t the time and experience in the woods to know exactly what is required for health, comfort and enjoyment. Or because that’s what the woodsman has always carried. It’s this examining of life, gear, and expectations that Nessmuk is writing about in Woodcraft and Camping and in Canoeing the Adirondacks With Nessmuk: The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears, and he concludes that more and heavy gear isn’t needed, and sometimes that extra gear ends up interfering with the ability to be idle and enjoy a trip fully.

The Seven Whys

For those that need more specific answers to help satisfy the curiosity, here are seven of the most compelling reasons:

  1. One of the top reasons for many travelers following this path is because it is rewarding and fun in and of itself to achieve a lighter pack and gear weight. This is often a challenge for those interested in gear lists, ounces, grams, and it can become a fun game to play. Even Nessmuk played this game as can be seen in Woodcraft:

I get a skillful tinsmith to make one dish as follows: Six inches on bottom, 63/4 inches on top, side 2 inches high. The bottom is of the heaviest tin procurable, the sides of lighter tin, and seamed to be water-tight without solder…

  1. Besides having fun making a new list, beating an old weight, it’s fun when in the woods to see how little of gear one can get by on and still be comfortable. There’s a challenge in that regards, and with many people now traveling successfully and comfortably with pack weights under five pounds, the game is a challenging one.
  2. A more compelling reason, perhaps, is that a lighter load equals faster travel. Faster travel means several things: you can travel faster during the day leaving more time for exploration while expending the same energy as would be spent if traveling with a heavier load or it could mean that the paddler could travel further on the same energy, covering more miles, and completing higher mileage goals.
  3. For those that that care less about traveling fast, a good reason to practice Nessmuking is that by traveling lighter, there is less wear and tear on the body. This is because there is less mass to move, to bring up to speed, to keep at speed, and less resistance as the boat moves through the water. This means that less energy is expended and the body is stressed less. Not to mention easier portages.
  4. Another reason is that a lighter boat is a more responsive boat, so when the conditions get rough, the paddler has to fight less with the heavy load in the boat and can react more quickly to the current or waves.
  5. Two related reasons to switch to lightweight canoe and kayak travel occur in camp. Because there is less gear, there is less gear to keep track of and less gear to pack up when leaving. Setting up and taking down camp is much quicker and less of a chore. And a tarp is simply luxurious in this regard compared to a tent.
  6. The most compelling reason to practice Nessmuking is its emphasis on learning the essential skills of wilderness travel. Traveling light doesn’t make the adventurer learn these skills, and other means of travel don’t specifically exclude the importance of these skills, but with Nessmuking, they are the core of the teaching. Particularly, Nessmuking enforces the learning of the skills of Shelter Construction, Self Trust, Self Belief, and Self Will, Critical Thinking and Flexibility of Thought. It does this by taking away perceived safety nets of extra gear and the marketing beliefs that accompany those extra pieces of unneeded gear. It does this by making each piece of gear carried more important and making some of those pieces of gear function in multiple way, and because they must function in multiple ways, the user must be flexible in thought and thinking. It also takes great courage to confront backgrounds and past history with gear to make a change into carrying lighter and less gear. A person practicing Nessmuking comes to believe in him or herself over this and that piece of gear. Traveling with any old piece of gear or lack of gear becomes possible.

These seven reason aren’t to only reasons to travel lightly, but many find them compelling, and some will not. Nessmuking isn’t the only way to travel, nor is it the best way to travel for everyone in every circumstance, but it can be beneficial for most wilderness travels for the reasons listed above. Now that the why has been explained, it’s time to pack the small bag with light gear, heft the boat onto the shoulder, and set off for the nearest pristine lakes.

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