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.
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.
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.