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Be Prepared, Not Equipped

The main reason my pack got lighter was because I realized that being prepared had little to do with the equipment I carried.

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by Brad Groves | 2010-01-26 00:00:00-07

The main reason my pack got lighter was because I realized that being prepared had little to do with the equipment I carried. I had first learned to backpack in the Boy Scouts, where fellow youth and adults alike took the motto "Be Prepared" to be synonymous with "Be Equipped." Truth be told, we weren't just equipped... we were equipped for just about anything. Socks and underwear for nearly every day. Full-size towel, washcloth, and toiletry kit - with a sawed-off toothbrush. The odd trenching tool and hatchet would find its way to the pack. We had a habit of carrying back-ups of back-ups - if something failed, we reasoned, we'd need a replacement to cover it since we were so far "out there."

Back in the day when I adhered to the motto "Be Equipped," I traveled the backcountry with a back-up stove. Just a little hexamine stove and several tubes of tablets, but a stove and fuel nonetheless. I used to carry a lantern and a flashlight... and a small spare flashlight. (At one point, years later, I realized that I regularly walked the woods near my home without a light, and for a time quit carrying any light altogether.) I carried a repair kit with several colors of thread, patches, and adhesives for everything on my back. I carried spare buckles and cord and webbing, duct tape and safety pins and - in the day - a bevy of clevis pins and rings. My first aid kit was stocked for just about anything short of a full-on freeway accident. My dad likes to tell people about my first backpacking trip, walking behind me and seeing my legs from the knee down... and nothing else. I got my first severe ankle sprain on that trip.

Be Prepared, Not Equipped - 1
Packed and ready for anything. No, really: ANYTHING!

We kids were intrigued by all the cool gadgets we could carry, and our adult leaders were pleased because we had enough stuff to be safe. (Funny how "safety margins" can lead to unsafe loads.) What we all missed was that we were going about the process backwards, subverting knowledge by carrying equipment. It's a trend that I see continuing not only in some Scouting programs, but in widespread expectations of all backpackers new and old.

So what does it mean, this concept of "Be Prepared?" How can understanding it help us pack smarter... and lighter? What truly clarified the concept for me was a Wilderness-EMT course. If you want to talk about something that's gear-intensive, EMS is a great place to start! We use tons of highly specialized equipment on ambulances. We see most of that equipment as critical for doing our jobs efficiently and effectively, but when it comes time to hit the woods, we can't carry most of the gear. A major component of the W-EMT course, then, is learning to improvise using materials you're likely to have on hand.

"Multiple-use items," you say, "of course." But it's not quite that easy - nor is figuring out the best or most functional use of your gear.

One of the first steps for me was realizing that "Be Prepared" didn't mean "Be Redundant." I don't (and didn't) need more than one source of light. I didn't need a clean shirt, or extra clothes in case mine got wet, because everything I take dries quickly. I didn't need a splint in my first aid kit, because I can easily make one from just about anything. I used to bring more fuel than I needed, just in case... and it was easy to grab an extra fuel canister (or two!) that I never used. I didn't need a pot, a bowl, a plate, a fork, a knife, and a spoon... One pot, one spoon, and a mug will do just fine.

The big step for me in really understanding "Be Prepared" was what I call the "Superman" or "Alien" clause. In other words, I need to be prepared for reality, not for situations that could only happen "if Superman came down to fight a battle against an evil guy freezing Florida solid in July." I didn't need to be prepared for any situation that could occur at any time in any place - since each of my trips occur at a given point in time, in a specific place, with a limited number of situations possible.

A summer backpacking trip in Michigan will not get (much) below freezing, so there's no point in hauling the weight and bulk of a zero degree bag or expedition parka. Only once have I ever had a problem with a stove, and that was because I hadn't maintained it at all in years... so I don't need a backup stove. Besides, if something horrid happens I'll just build a small fire. A three-person mountaineering tent is completely unnecessary for most two-person backpacking trips. I don't need a pocket knife, sheath knife, multitool and sharpening stone. One good blade, and maybe a strip of sandpaper, will do 95%+ of what I need. And I don't need a seven-pound pack to carry a twenty- to thirty-pound load.

You might think I exaggerate the problem. And yet, I met a guy recently who takes great pride and (stated) pleasure in carrying a 120-POUND pack. Even for long weekends. He told me it was great, because he was ready for anything. Not only did he carry every piece of the military ECWCS (Extended Cold Weather Clothing System) layering system for every trip, but he carried his complete military sleeping bag system for every trip. A -60 F bag, with bivy, for trips at least 90 degrees warmer at night and inside an expedition tent. He allowed that you sure knew it after hiking a six-mile day, though it was a great way to travel. I allowed that it didn't make much sense to carry an extra few pounds of sleeping gear that would never see the outside of a stuff sack, but kept to myself that I usually hike an easy six miles or more by lunch.

What I'm getting around to saying is that being prepared is more of a cognitive thing than an equipment thing. Much of preparation is planning. Mental gymnastics more than grunt work. Education, knowledge, organization. Just like going for groceries, it's a good idea to make a list and stick to it. Minimize your "unknown" variables by making more "known," but allow a small cushion for error. Being prepared means planning ahead for possible and expected conditions.

Be Prepared, Not Equipped - 2
This makes my back and knees much happier... and my eyeballs too.

That's important enough to repeat: "Planning ahead for possible or expected conditions." If you're planning a four-day summer trip, don't plan as though you'll be taking a month-long trip in the arctic. Leave the snowshoes at home! There is a difference in being prepared and being burdened. Having "extra" is frequently not a good thing... it isn't always wise to have "extra" for something that won't happen. Being prepared requires understanding not only the weather, terrain and demands of the trip, but requires understanding the components of your gear, how each works individually, and how they work together.

I suggest that you think of being prepared as doing more with less, NOT doing less with more, as I used to believe. In fact, I might be inclined to argue that what most people think of as being prepared is actually its antithesis, that their approach is to do less with more. And although that might be good for a budget, no, that's not a good thing when you're carrying a bunch of gear through the backcountry.

Let me say that I have been extraordinarily offended by the strident self-righteousness and superiority expressed by some ultralighters. Many times have I come across language saying, if effect, that "people carrying heavy packs are inexperienced and stupid, whereas people carrying light packs are experienced and bright." I know that I had been backpacking nearly twenty years before I lightened up. Doing so wasn't a matter of overnight experience or a sudden giant leap in IQ, but rather was reflective of a shift in my priorities and interests in backcountry travel. Now that I have lightened up and found that if anything I'm MORE prepared and comfortable than I used to be, I'm simply hoping that my words can help others find the same pleasures in a lighter pack.

Now to the tough part. When I realized that my trips would be more enjoyable with a lighter load, I refused to get that lighter load by being unprepared (or uncomfortable). What I didn't expect was how comfortable I'd be in camp and on the trail with that lighter load. Even though I had less, trail life was even easier... no more digging through bags or pockets of things, everything I needed was right at hand. What I ultimately came to realize was that it was possible because of the simple act of consideration.

Before, I would shove extra things into the pack "in case." When I made the move to lighten up, I spent more time actually thinking about each thing going in the pack, and I found a lot of overlap. I found some of the biggest differences in my clothing. I mean, if you think about sitting around a summer campfire, you'd probably envision yourself in a t-shirt, and maybe a flannel shirt on a cool night. So why would you need much more warmth than that when backpacking? My typical three-season kit now includes just a long-sleeve baselayer (worn at all times), a midlayer, and a thin down vest... more than adequate for any temps I'm likely to encounter. You might say that I'm well-prepared, even though - or perhaps precisely because - I don't have the spare long underwear top, the thin jacket, the thin vest, and the fleece jacket that used to be in my pack.

And that's what it comes down to - consideration and planning. If you're prepared for a given situation you'll be able to respond in a positive way given your circumstances. In other words, think of your backpacking endeavors in the light of a jazz musician. Know your craft, your tools, and the context in which you'll use them well enough to pull off some killer improvs. Be able to adapt to your situation, and you'll be well-prepared.


"Be Prepared, Not Equipped," by Brad Groves. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2010-01-26 00:00:00-07.


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Be Prepared, Not Equipped
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 13:10:56 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Be Prepared, Not Equipped

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 13:57:23 MST Print View

Hi Brad

Very nicely put.
And I did like the 'alien' bit.


Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
RE: "Be Prepared, Not Equipped" on 01/26/2010 17:13:17 MST Print View

Bravo! Well done

Dan Cunningham

Locale: Land of 12,000 Loons
Agree! on 01/26/2010 17:41:38 MST Print View

I like how you separate the concepts of being prepared with being equipped, as the two are completely different. Interestingly, I never made the distinction until I started packing light. I think the exercise of deciding exactly what goes into your pack makes you think through the possibilities more than just throwing items in for the just-in-case scenarios.

John Whynot

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 17:49:13 MST Print View

Well thought out and expressed. I also like the alien line -- it captures the mindset that thinks more stuff = better prepared...

Matt Lutz
(citystuckhiker) - F

Locale: Midwest
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 18:03:01 MST Print View

<--card-carrying Eagle Scout.

So true, so true. I learned a while ago that being prepared does not equal being equipped. Ray Jardine and BPL gets credit for much of that realization.

James Lantz
(jameslantz) - F

Locale: North Georgia
Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 18:03:10 MST Print View


I appreciated your thoughts very much, especially the admonition not to think of ourselves as superior to the traditional crowd. Our job is to be ambassadors, educators, & enablers for the lightweight style of backpacking & to remember, as you did, that most of us were once "traditionalists". My epiphany came 3 years ago, when after being exhausted at the end of a 3 mile 1500' climb on the AT carrying a 60 lb. pack I had what I call my "Scarlett O'Hara moment" when I said, "As God is my witness, I will never carry a heavy backpack again!"
My buddy & I were able to recently cruise from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap on the AT in 3-1/2 days(a distance of 72 miles) with 14 lb packs. At the 3 shelters we stayed at along the way, we were asked lots of questions & enjoyed sharing our experiences & equipment details. I always refer people to this website as the most complete resource to start their lightweight transformation, should they so choose.
Thank you for your insightful article.


Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 18:27:31 MST Print View

Part of being prepared IS being equipped appropriately rather than being not equipped.

Agree that you should pack for the expected conditions with perhaps a reasonable margin for error, but when you hike someplace like the Southern Alps of new Zealand, it is often impossible to predict the conditions, so the margin of error becomes larger than, say, a summer trek in the Sierras. Unpreparedness (as in lack of adequate gear AND the knowledge to use it) is a big killer of tourists taking to the backcountry in NZ. Many don't appreciate how rapidly and without warning things can go from a very nice summer's day to a sub-zero blizzard and whiteout conditions that may last for days...or from small side creeks to enraged floods even when it hasn't rained where you are hiking. People here also get into trouble from lack of equipment because they plan on making it to the next hut. If events arise that interfere with that plan, it can rapidly become a life-threatening situation.

I must admit that most of my lightening up has not involved much in the way of being 'less equipped', but more from merely finding lighter equipment that does the same things. My bag still needs to be safely warm below freezing, even in summer. My tent still needs to withstand gale force winds, my pack still needs to deal with off trail abrasive bush-bashing while carrying my load comfortably and my mat still needs to insulate me from the ground. My stove still needs to cook food in a reasonable time in strong winds and rain, and my boots still need to protect my feet from pointy sharp plants, scree and river gravel. Most of my equipment I could clearly live without, but choose not to for the sake of my enjoyment. This includes a fully enclosed tent to keep biting insects at bay, trekking poles, a rain jacket and a windshirt. However these are also much lighter than I used to carry. I now tear my trail books down the spine to make them lighter, but I still bring something to read. My light is very much smaller and lighter, but I still bring a light and spare battery. And so on and so forth. I still agree that knowledge and planning are the front-line preparedness requirements, but I don't skimp on the equipment either!

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 18:54:03 MST Print View

Hey, all- Thanks for the comments so far!

Matt, I'm a card-carryin' Eagle, too... James, glad the comments worked for you. I transitioned that paragraph badly; I meant to start the paragraph by saying something like "Please understand that I'm not trying to say this is the only 'right' way to travel the backcountry." I guess I was trying to "soften the blow" of my words?

Lynn, you fell in my Kiwi trap! I figured it would be you, Roger, or the gentleman from Alaska who pointed out that some of y'all travel real backcountry that could be 20 below or 80 above the same day, that an overnight trip could take place in fields of flowers and life-threatening snow storms within a matter of hours, unlike the rest of us posers. But I think that even in the extreme climate changes you can experience in a given trip, you still practice some of the same principles that I espouse. For example, you don't carry two stoves, do you? Plenty of layers, but no more than you'd wear at once? And so forth...

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 19:12:28 MST Print View

"you still practice some of the same principles that I espouse. For example, you don't carry two stoves, do you? Plenty of layers, but no more than you'd wear at once? And so forth..."

Wellllll, these days we carry both a "real stove" such as an alcohol or propane/butane one, and use a Ti-Tri as the pot support and windscreen. This does give us some redundancy if, for instance, our fuel leaks. I also carry some redundancy in clothing, especially base layer/sleeping layer, socks, gloves and wind layers. I don't think that has changed much over the years, it's just that my base layers are a lot lighter now, and I've added a wind layer that I didn't use to carry. So maybe I'm getting worse at this UL game with age!

And yeah, this global climate change is gonna wreak havoc with the ULers sense of preparedness ;)

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 20:25:29 MST Print View

Hi Brad

> some of y'all travel real backcountry that could be 20 below or 80 above the
> same day, that an overnight trip could take place in fields of flowers and
> life-threatening snow storms within a matter of hours
Happens ... these two scenes were a couple of days apart and seem to meet most of your criteria.

But I still agree with you: we carry a lot less gear these days, but we select that gear much more carefully. I think that is what you are driving at?

On the second of the days shown we did have a bit more of our clothing on in the morning than normal, but we were still quite comfortable - and had one warm top each in reserve. We put that final warm layer on when we stopped to have morning tea, sitting on a log from which I had cleared the snow. :-) My memory is that we enjoyed our morning tea.

The only time I ever carry two stoves is when one of them is an experimental one ... just in case it breaks!


Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Clarification on 01/26/2010 20:47:09 MST Print View

Hey guys- We'll get weather with highs in the 70s and lows in the (high) 20s sometimes, but nothing too crazy.

The thing I wanted to clarify is that to be under-equipped would be un-prepared. If you really can expect such dramatic changes, then you need the gear for the situation. Being prepared does require carrying the right equipment, just not more than you need, etc...

Unknown abc
(edude) - F
"Be Prepared, Not Equipped" on 01/26/2010 21:38:59 MST Print View

Thanks so much for that brilliant article Brad!!!!

David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Be Prepared, Not Equipped" on 01/26/2010 21:42:05 MST Print View

Brad - What is the blue bag attached to your pack shoulder straps in the photo?

Ian White
(DeuceRegular) - F

Locale: Southern Jefferson
Re: Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/26/2010 23:20:39 MST Print View

That was a good read. I hadn't separated those two concepts in as clear as terms before. This will be helpful when explaining safety issues to "converts."

After my epiphany moment in the midst of a thru-hike (JMT '04), the bulk of my weight loss has been -like others - in the lightening up of equipment that I still carry. I have lost some redundant items, but the weight change has really come from lightening the big three. Back then I counted pounds not ounces. I lost 4 pounds by changing packs, 3 by changing tents, and 2 by switching sleeping bags. I did this in a year, and could afford to thanks to ebay.

Then I found out about BPL, and after that I switched out of using white gas stoves and saved some more weight, and also started getting into lightweight clothing, and leaving extra shirts behind. The point is that I still feel safe in the backcountry, and perhaps more so because I am not getting fatigued on the trail. I think that is from focusing on being "prepared" rather than "equipped".

Juston Taul

Locale: Atlanta, GA
Good Read on 01/27/2010 00:30:08 MST Print View

Thanks for the article Brad. It spoke the truth. I too use to carry everything including the kitchen sink. My pack weights were up to 40-50 lbs at one point in time. Your article made me laugh because you basically described me. Backups of backups... items that were never used. How refreshing it is to carry a pack with base weights under 10 lbs. I don't feel that i'm lacking anything.

I think the fact that i've done so much research on subjects, and that I have learned so much through sites such as BPL, has allowed me to drop the weight. Knowledge for me equals less weight in my pack. Thanks again. Cheers mate.

Shontelle Adams
(shonkygirl) - F

Locale: Central Coast, Aus.
"Be Prepared, Not Equipped" on 01/27/2010 02:10:59 MST Print View

Lynn, I appreciated your Southern Hemisphere perspective, having just returned from a 5 night / 6 day hike of a section of the Australian Alpine Walking Track where we experienced days of high 30's (Celsius) down to 5 degrees at night and the day after we left they had snow (so disappointed we missed that) I feel that I need to have equipment to handle the extremes.

However my pack is slowly getting lighter and mainly through actively registering everything that goes into my pack with its weight and considering it's purpose, then removing redundancies eg do I really need a full cutlery set - knife, fork, spoon, plus a pocket knife? Now I only take my pocket knife and a long handled spoon (would love to find a long handled spork). And of course a lot of my gear is getting lighter as I purchase new equipment/clothes. Really appreciate all the information and advice I find here on BPL.

Roger, I love the pictures, looks very similar to what I was walking through last week (minus the snow), can you tell me where exactly and what dates?


Peter Rattenbury
(MountainMule) - F

Locale: Australia
As Light as the Environment Allows. on 01/27/2010 03:13:47 MST Print View

I join others thanking Brad for his perspective. My perspective is one which comes from much tramping through New Zealand conditions, and boy, you need backup sometimes when its been seven days of solid rain, everything wet overhead, most of your gear saturated [ in spite of good husbandry and appropriate raingear]. So you travel as light as you can given the circumstances. Sometimes you need [not want ] a complete dry change of clothing for example. And some of the light kit designed for wide open spaces would be shredded in close-up bush bashing. That's why New Zealand gear has reputation for toughness born of experience. I guess conditions in Washington state and along the AT are comparable?
This is not to say Brad's principles do not apply. We match gear to the anticipated environment.

David Lewis
(davidlewis) - MLife

Locale: Nova Scotia, Canada
There are no absolutes on 01/27/2010 06:24:28 MST Print View

Each trip should be taken on a case by case basis. The goal of a 3 pound base weight or 5 pound base weight or whatever is purely arbitrary; it's an academic exercise. That's why I always tell people that is it NOT about weight. Lightweight is simply the natural OUTCOME of packing in a much more thoughtful, considered and efficient way for every trip with it's given set of circumstances.

It's about being ultra-efficient. NOT ultra-light.

Edited by davidlewis on 01/27/2010 06:25:18 MST.

WV Hiker

Locale: West Virginia
Being prepared on 01/27/2010 07:04:48 MST Print View


Great article and spot on on the difference between prepared and equipped. I have been backpacking for around 25 years and I used to carry packs up in the 60 pound range. I didn't really carry a lot of redundant items other than clothing. My epiphany came in 1995 and I've been working at lightening the load ever since. Like some others here my main weight savings has come in finding the lightest versions of the gear I want to take. Is there still redundancy? Yes, but only a little - mainly in my fire starting kit and lighting. I still take some items that are a bit heavier for the comfort factor but I'm putting in longer days and feeling less tired and that is a big part of being prepared. If you're too tired you don't handle situations well.