The Lightweight Philosophy

Lightweight Paddling Philosophy

Back in 2004, I wrote an article called Nessmuking: A Return to Simple. In it I argued about the need to emphasize skills over equipment in the lightweight movement, because if you have the skills to survive in the wilderness, you can carry less and travel more simply. The argument continued that enjoyment is increased through simplicity and flexibility achieved through skills. I named the philosophy after Nessmuk, the pen name of George Washington Sears, who wrote for Forest and Stream in the late 1800s. His book, Woodcraft and Camping, which despite being over 100 years old remains relevant to today’s wilderness enthusiast, mixes the practice of bushcraft with a lightweight philosophy that emphasizes skills over equipment, a do-it-yourself mentality and fledgling environmentalist world view. I used some of Nessmuk’s philosophy combined with what I’d learned through my long-distance hiking and paddling trips to develop a lightweight wilderness philosophy usable within the paddling community. To make the philosophy available to paddlers, I created the website called, which is now

The temptation is 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. That is not how to do it. -Nessmuk

The more you know, the less you carry. -Mors Kochanski

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

I viewed Nessmuking as a living philosophy open to new ideas, and I wrote this viewpoint into the philosophy under the skill “Flexibility of Thought.” Since then, I’ve changed my ideas based on new experiences from tripping, lessons learned while guiding, new instruction and ideas learned from others. Based on the new ideas, I’ve decided that my lightweight paddling philosophy needed an update. This update concentrates less on trying to convince you to travel light and more upon the reasons I travel this way and the philosophy’s tenets. I’ve kept this as generic as possible, so it applies to backpacking as easily as it does to paddling.

Why Lightweight Canoe and Kayak Travel

These are the reasons for traveling lightweight that are most compelling for me.

  • For comfort, health and enjoyment: Nessmuk wrote that “we have gone to the blessed woods, handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule.” He suggested that we travel with only enough for “comfort, health and enjoyment” because it would increase enjoyment of the wilderness.
  • More agile: A lightly loaded canoe or kayak feels more responsive and agile when on the water. It’s easier to pull ashore, transport across portages, control in waves, wind and surf. It’s more efficient, which can mean the boat is faster or that it requires less work to paddle the same distance.
  • Less stress: Less weight means less stress on your body. Bringing less gear, means less stress on the mind when organizing, setting up camp and packing everything away; there’s less to remember.
  • Simplicity: 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. Further reading: The Laws of Simplicity.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo da Vinci

  • Flexibility: Less and lighter gear won’t necessarily provide flexibility.  My argument is skills trumps gear, and those refined skills offer more flexibility. For example, if you’re trained to launch and land through surf, you can break camp on wavy days. Or if you know multiple tarp set-ups, you can create a shelter to give you the most comfort for the weather and place.
  • Connection: Traveling light connects us to the pioneers who traveled in a “go-light” fashion out of necessity. It connects us to fur traders and the original native travels who also went lightly.
  • Human-Earth Dependency: We depend on this earth for survival, and by traveling light with less, we have less modern conveniences to serve to separate us from experiencing that dependency directly.
  • Sportsmanship: Utilizing skills over gadgets is more sporting. And choosing gear that enhances our skills instead of replacing them makes our journey more sporting.

Lightweight Tenets

I divide my lightweight paddling philosophy into a triangle with each corner representing an equally important aspect. The aspects are skills, fitness and connection. Each of these aspect breakdown into further points.


This is a skill based philosophy and to show that, the skill section breaks down into two types: general skills and mental skills. Both are equally important.

  • Shelter Construction: The ability to build a protective shelter out of the materials on hand. Sometimes, this is a bushcraft skill, but, during other times, its knowing where, why and how to erect your shelter system.
  • Fire Starting in All Conditions: In Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival, Mors Kochanski writes, “When all else fails, fire is the simplest means of providing comfort and warmth against cold and wet in the Northern Forests.” Paddlers almost always face the risk of immersion in cold water.
  • Map Reading & Navigation: Knowing how to located yourself on a map and plot your destination.
  • Wilderness First Aid: When you’re away from the hospital system, you need the skills to handle medical issues.
  • Safe Terrain Negotiation: Having the knowledge and skills to safely travel across the terrain you expect to encounter. For example, if you’re paddling a whitewater river, you need to know the skill required to get down the stream. Those skills are different from someone paddling in canoe country with flat water and portages.
  • Food, Water, Living: Knowing how to live in the wilderness, prepare or gather food (if needed) and have the skills to set-up a comfortable camp.
  • Crafts: The skill of creation, repair and modification of gear to your needs.

Mental Skills

  • Risk Management and Assessment: Some risk is desired and facing that risk is rewarding. This is the skill to assess those risks accurately and manage them to a level that avoids accidents
  • Mental Fortitude (Self-trust, self-belief, self-will, self-motivation, manage anxiety, manage emotions): Develop the mental prowess to succeed under stress. Further reading: Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes.
  • Flexibility of Thought: Keeping the mind open for new directions, solutions and ideas.
  • Critical Thinking: Examine, evaluate and conclude.
  • Trip Planning: Being able to plan a trip within a selected group’s skill level that provides the desired rewards.


  • Fitness: Maintain a level of fitness that allows the accomplishment of goals without injury. Increase the fitness level when required by trip planning.
  • Training: Learn proper paddling and traveling skills into muscle memory. Use the training to learn skills that help minimize injury. Learn safe, effective and efficient ways to move your boat.
  • Practice: Make the skills permanent and instant through continued practice.


  • Meaningful: Learn what is meaningful to you during your travels and focus on those points to increase your enjoyment.
  • Wilderness: Experience the wilderness, its natural rhythms, what it means to travel through it and create a bond with the areas that you visit.

People protect what they love. -Jacques Yves Cousteau

  • People: Build deep connections through shared experiences either while on a journey or with those that experienced something similar. Share experiences with others to enrich everyone’s lives.
  • Yourself: Connect with yourself and experience what you’re capable of.

I’m open to ideas. Did I miss anything that you believe is important? Would you do anything differently? Why do you travel light?

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  • I paddle light kayaking incase I have to land on a rocky shore and lift my boat up on a ledge etc in a surf. We did this on one trip I quickly grabbed my boat and put it safely up while my other partners who packed heavey were beating their boats around…in which I had to go help. I would love to do a scavenge trip someday and just live off what I pick/kill etc.

    great article

  • Thanks, Lee. It sucks pulling a heavy boat up a ledge.

  • I think you meant terrain, and not terran in the Skills section.

    We (3 families, made up of 5 adults and 5 kids in age from 7 down to 3) went for a week of canoe camping earlier this summer. We camped on one lake, which we had to portage 730 meters into. We brought much less than usual!

    One thing I noticed is the trust level throughout the group needs to be higher than if you each carried a pile of gear in. You need to trust that everyone brought what they agreed to bring, whether it was food, shelter, tools or skills.

    We all had a blast, the weather was great, and are going to go back together next year!

    Oh, and everyone should take a Basic Wilderness first aid course. it’ll make camping with kids less stressful!

    Keep up the good work…

  • Thanks for the spell check, Dave.

    Great observation about trust. I’m so used to traveling with the same people that it’s easy for me to overlook how important it is for group comfort.

    I agree with you about the WFA. They teach great skills and doing them is a blast. It’s not a bad idea to have one person in the group trained as a Wilderness First Responder, but that’s a big time commitment that not many have.

  • Yes, comfort is relative.
    If you plan on spending a lot of time paddling and you will have to do some portaging, a minimalist lightweight mentality will be safer and more enjoyable/comfortable.

    Studying ultralight backpacking will really help.

    Also, most gear that outdoor retailers sell/recommend is too heavy for anything but car camping or short day trips.

  • I agree that comfort is relative. Although, I don’t think traveling light sacrifices any comfort vs. traveling heavy, which is a common misperception.

    My one nit-pick with ultralight backpacking is the cultural emphasis on gear. I think the emphasis should be placed on skills. Many of the bloggers in the ultralight movement have those skills, but not many write about them on any regular basis. I think that’s a mistake. One I hope to avoid.

  • […] the American traditions of self-reliance, hardihood and woodcraft. The basic tenets of the lightweight philosophy include all three […]

  • […] Updated lightweight philosophy here. […]

  • […] my lightweight paddling philosophy, I make this observation: Simplicity is easy to build upon, and complexity is harder to manage. […]

  • Hi Bryan
    Like your philosophy.
    My bag is overlanding, then going off into the unknown with a Nessmuk on my back.
    Love his Woodcraft and Camping.
    Interesting, I’ve sensed a surge of guys (usually Americans) who are ‘against’ the ultra lightweight brigade, stating they would rather carry more so they have more capability in the field.
    Your idea of skills replacing kit is a timely reposte.
    Keep up the good work.
    Incidentally, like the links too.
    PS Have been using Evernew stuff for a while and love it, especially their stove and pan. So light and multifunctional

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