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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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John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Carrying things because of fear on 01/28/2010 08:13:09 MST Print View

I like the phrase "appropriate paranoia". I hike with some "be equipped" people who I term "bombproof backpackers"

Hiking solo in sparsely hiked areas is an entirely different ballgame in being equipped. Risk goes up even with carrying a PLB for the rare incapacitating illness/injury where help may not arrive for up to 24 hours or more. I really appreciated this when I got a virus on a group hike that took me out in minutes to hours. It makes one think about how they would have "performed" if it had been a solo outing. Staying dry, warm and hydrated should then be your immediate goals.

Actually, I've always thought of prepared/equipped as going hand in hand. Preparedness to me is being appropriately equipped with gear and knowledge for the given trip.

Edited by jshann on 01/28/2010 10:03:27 MST.

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Just in case on 01/28/2010 09:22:29 MST Print View

Thanks for all your continued comments and conversation!

A few specific responses: Dwight, the photo was from Isle Royale, but I'm not sure if it was on the Greenstone after Ojibway tower, or if it was taken on the Minong not far out of McCargo.

Jedd and all: I do carry some "just in case" stuff. In general I pack with no tolerance for being cold, wet, or uncomfortable. I pack enough clothing to be plenty warm, I carry a cushy pad, complete rain gear, and so forth. I also know and accept that at some point my feet are going to be wet and cold, that there'll be a morning I have to wake up and put on wet clothes and go. But that's just not a big deal. A typical pack list is on the community gear lists. I do carry a survival kit and a fixed-blade knife, and some basic first aid conveniences.

My survival kit: emergency blanket, a couple large-ish pieces of aluminum foil, 40' of 250# spectra line, 25' of 500# spectra line, needle and thread, ferro rod, signal mirror, petro-jel cotton balls double-wrapped in foil, and a whistle. I can create shelter, start fire, boil water, and signal for help, and the packet is small enough to easily fit in my pocket. Along w/the survival kit I carry the Grohmann Boat Knife, great for all kinds of camp chores and getting fires going in wet conditions.

My current first aid kit is a couple micro tubes of superglue, a maxipad, a mess of assorted bandaids (I tend to get cracked fingertips on trips), a little antibiotic ointment, and that's about it. I do carry enough ibuprofen for 2 x 800mg/per day, and enough Benadryl for 4 per day. I also started carrying some antifungal powder in a small bottle, but that's more of a "toiletries" thing. I think that's about it; I can fabricate whatever else as needed.

Melissa, liked your feedback and thoughts on multiuse. David, like you said, it's ultimately more about efficiency than just weight. Actually, when I talk to people about carrying a lighter pack, I don't talk about ultralight at all. I just talk about it as backpacking. When you box things in too tightly people have narrow expectations. I just try to create awareness that you can carry less stuff, still be safe, warm and dry, and ultimately have more fun on the trips. In the shop I'll point out how cool technology has gotten... for example, you could carry a full-size 0.75" Z-lite, or you could carry a full-size, 2.5" thick mattress for the same weight and a little more warmth... and, oh, the thicker pad packs down about 5 times smaller than the z-lite. (The Neo isn't always the answer, just an example here!)

Some other thoughts I've had while reading your comments are that the Zipka light I used to carry weighed 2.3oz w/batteries. I never brought spare batteries, because the light would burn 120 hours on one set. I had the same batteries in that LED light for 4 or 5 years. My new light doesn't have such long run time, and I might bring an extra lithium battery, but if it comes down to it and my light burns out... no worries. I have a pack full of gear. I'd stay the night and hike out in the day. But then, I don't backpack when it's dark. Day hike/ski/snowshoe, sure. Or maybe an easy overnight in to a cabin, etc. But that's about it.

I'd also like to point out that I've met many BPLers, and have referred a lot of people to the site. Although many of our frequent forum posters might be in the 10# pack range, I know through personal conversations that many of the people following our discussions don't carry such loads... and that's fine! I regularly meet people who still have a 15-30 pound base, and those people do follow the things we do here. They take what works for them from the site, and apply it to their interpretation or end desires for their backpacking experience. So what if someone carries a 20# 3-season base? Maybe they cut back from a 50# base, and they're tickled pink at carrying such a light pack. There's room for all of us here, and we can all learn from each other's different perspectives.

Anyhoozit, cheers, all! Look forward to hearing some more of your thoughts.

Edited by 4quietwoods on 01/28/2010 10:42:19 MST.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: Re: Acronyms on 01/28/2010 11:33:50 MST Print View


EMT = Emergency Medical Technician
EMS = Emergency Medical Services"

John, I got the E and M right, thanx for clearing up the T and S.


Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/28/2010 13:32:48 MST Print View

I too have been thinking a bit more about this thread. Last night I realised that my longest term regular hiking buddies fit into this category:

"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"

We often hike with a married couple who have had the same bombproof 3.7kg MacPac Olympus tent, and heavy sleeping bags, MSR white gas stove with 8 oz heat exchanger, set of two stainless steel pots (1.3 and 2 litre with fry pan lid), really rugged canvas packs and a host of other 'heavy' gear. They always carry some fresh fruits and veggies, lots of bowls, cups, cutlery, super thick Thermarest know, all the traditional gear we used to all carry. Thing is, they're both happy on their hikes, and proud. Proud because the husband is really fit and strong, so he carries most of the load, and it barely slows him down, so he feels like a real man. She's proud because her husband acts like a real man and is a good 'provider'. They are proud because their gear has lasted for over a decade of heavy use. They are proud because they are prepared for anything, and indeed they have even had call to use their PLB once. There is no way I would or should even consider convincing them that my way is better than theirs, or that they would be safer or have more enjoyable trips if they went lighter.

However, this all changes when we want to do a 'girl's trip' sometimes, and hubby stays at home. We then find that the wife is ill prepared to carry the gear she has available to her, yet she won't accept offers from the rest of us to borrow some lighter gear for these trips. She fears gear that is unfamiliar and distrusts lighter alternatives. So she slows us down, and doesn't really have that much fun :( It is at this level that my evangelism is prone to kick in, and I often have to bite my tongue, and refuse to take some weight off of her.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Be Prepared, Not Equipped on 01/28/2010 14:10:03 MST Print View


Edited by jshann on 01/30/2010 19:06:50 MST.

Dale Crandall
(dlcrandall) - M

Locale: North Cascades
Prepared and Equipped on 01/29/2010 23:53:00 MST Print View

I've enjoyed this good provocative essay and thread. I want to summarize a classic regime for cutting down the gear and weight. These ideas are not mine nor new.

“BE PREPARED” to survive and hike another trip:
Rule 1: The only unforeseen event that you must “Be Prepared” for is to be found alive within 2 or 3 days of the time when someone starts real search and rescue looking for you;
Rule 2: Be sure that you make a plan and carry what is necessary to assure success of Rule 1 in the specific environment of that trip;
Rule 3: No clothing or equipment is critical (as opposed to comfortable) except for what is needed to assure the success of Rule 1.
EXAMPLE: The only real danger here in the North Cascades and similar mountain environments is hypothermia in some combination with injury, wandering so far off your stated route that searchers are looking in the wrong place, or not being able to signal your location to searchers. You won't die of hunger, thirst, wild animals, snakes, mosquitoes (well, probably not), giardia or anything other than hypothermia. You may be miserable, but you won't die. That said, hypothermia is a serious threat. Nearly every year, a few climbers, hikers, hunters, and back-country skiers here get caught in bad weather. Many went out just for the day. Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood are especially notorious. (See links below) Unpredictable weather, especially blowing rain, fog and unpredicted snow (below is a picture taken on the PCT on August 15 this summer) can make you dangerously wet and cold, interfere with making a fire, and obscure you and your attempts to signal searchers until the storm passes.
To address this risk, for this example of risk environment:
a) Be sure that people at home know your route and the time you are supposed to be out;
b) Take some combination of clothing, blanket, bivy or shelter that will keep you dry under a tree or rock ledge in blowing sleet;
c) Be sure you know how (practice it) to build a big fire in the rain with natural materials and be able to keep it going day and night for warmth and smoke (signal) production, and carry the fire starters and tinder (this may the only necessary redundancy of any gear) to be sure you can do it.
With this minimal baseline of planning your route, clothing, shelter, and fire starters, you can then quickly prune your gear list to what you want carry to “Be Equipped”. If you make a bad guess on a Rule 3 item, you'll live, you'll get the chance to innovate, and it will make a good story.

“BE EQUIPPED” only with what you can't comfortably do without (after trying) on the foreseen conditions of a trip. DON'T try to “be equipped” for “possible” non-life-threatening events – meet them as they come and be resourceful.
These methods work for a lot of people:
a) During a trip, don't use anything unless you are forced to use it in order to reach your personal level of comfort and enjoyment – just leave it in the pack, and try to let lightness and simplicity fill the comfort space of the sequestered item;
b) After each trip, take out every single thing you did not use on that trip, (except for the Rule 2 items);
c) Never add anything to your pack unless you know you will use it to reach your personal level of comfort and enjoyment for the conditions of that particular trip (snow, climbing, night hiking, rain in the forecast, etc.), or it is a Rule 2 item for that particular trip; then take those special items back out after that trip;
d) Do keep looking for some lighter item that performs the same function as a heavier one, or a multiple use item that allows you to do away with a single use item with resulting less complication, volume and net weight;
e) Have more fun;
f) Repeat a) through e).


Pacific Crest Trail August 15, 2009

Why this is important:

Edited by dlcrandall on 10/09/2010 17:55:21 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
an old story on 01/30/2010 00:42:49 MST Print View

Once maybe 10-20 years ago, there was a U.S. Marine who was off duty and taking a simple day hike in a wilderness area just north of Yosemite National Park. He had gotten some miles from the road, and had virtually nothing for gear. He fell of a cliff trail and landed at the bottom of a ravine with two broken legs. Nobody really knew that he was there, so nobody was looking for him. His military training kicked in, and he slept in a "squirrel's nest" of leaves. He drank raw stream water and basically just survived as best he could. I believe after 2-3 weeks, he was able to crawl back up the hill and crawl those miles out to the road, and he recovered in a hospital. You have to admit that he was mentally prepared for survival, if not well equipped.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Complimentary Aspects on 01/30/2010 17:13:31 MST Print View

To me the "enlightenment" of learning about lightweight backpacking after decades of using traditional gear seemed to be complimentary to a mindset of lightweight skills.

Almost automatically, as one goes lightweight, comes the concentration on doing the same with less - less weight and less gear.

i.e. one cook pot, not two, a SteriPen and not a water filter, Freezer Bag Cooking and not traditional freeze-dried food, etc.

But along the way I've discovered that I won't sacrifice the sleeping comfort of my ancient Thermarest Lite, regular length for a CCF 3/4 length pad, or my TarpTent Moment for a bivy or tarp. And an internal frame, LW pack is, to me, more comfortable than a lighter framless pack.

It's a learning process and a lot of the learning, as the author infers, is not so much about equipment as skill set of "doing more with less". Finding a better, safer camp site, a cleaner water source, understanding the weather signals of clouds, knowing your first aid well, etc.

I'm not a "survivalist" or minimalist but I CAN survive if I am forced to because I've taken the time to learn and practice survival skills. No, a bow drill won't likely start a flame but it WILL start embers that you can blow into a flame. You need to know that.

Finally, knowing the strengths of your group helps. A good routefinder is given that task, an EMT or paramedic is the go-to person for first aid, and a good cook is priceless. These are skill sets that are complimentary to a safer, more enjoyable hike.


Edited by Danepacker on 01/31/2010 18:12:13 MST.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
"Be Prepard, Not Equipped" on 02/03/2010 20:33:40 MST Print View

Brad - Excellent article! I think if I were going to teach an intro-to-lightweight-backpacking class, I'd use your article as a place to begin.

I began lightening my load a year or so ago. Now, instead of buying the newest things on the market, for each item, I stop and think first about its use, its practicality, its weight, and its necessity. It has made a big difference!

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: "Be Prepared, Not Equipped" on 02/05/2010 08:33:50 MST Print View

Kathy, thanks for the props!

Jay Bonzani
(UltraBound) - F

Locale: NE Oregon
Great Article on 02/05/2010 10:33:05 MST Print View

I wish i could print this out and keep copies in my pack to give to people i see on the trails. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one.

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Great Article on 02/09/2010 10:10:48 MST Print View


Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
But Being Prepared Means Being Equipped!! on 02/21/2010 20:21:51 MST Print View

Nice piece of work, Brad. But you and I and our small band here are no match for them marketing folks at TNF, MH, Gregory, Arcteryx... you name it!

"Better to have it and not need it", the saying goes, "then to need it and not have it". And thus the cash registers never stop ringing...

Brian Ahlers
(bahlers7) - F

Locale: Idaho
Great Article! on 03/22/2010 09:58:55 MDT Print View

Thank you for the insight. That was a great article.