As I sat, wearing torn sackcloth and wailing in grief, mourning the demise of my poor old Eureka 5+ pound tent, this question posed by Backpacking Light rang through my mind. I was cleaning out my gear closet, partly in anticipation for a week-long trip to Glacier National Park in July, and partly because I just couldn't remember which box my extra poncho tarp was stored in.
An interesting question to be sure; many would tell you that whatever piece of gear you would happen to pull out of their pack is "essential" to their trip and that they've spent hours poring over spreadsheets and reading reviews in order to find the perfect balance between weight, form, fit, and function for the particular widget in question.
Others would quote to you the philosophy of the "Ten Essentials" and speak volumes concerning the added safety that they experience because they carry a spare lighter instead of extra matches.
At the moment that I was looking for the poncho tarp, I would have found a plethora of words to describe exactly why the very trip was hanging in the balance, dependent upon me finding that poncho tarp.
I'm guilty, as so many others are, of spending hour after hour obsessing over which stove setup made the most sense for three-season hiking. Reading article after article, arguing and questioning in the forums, talking to old hiking buddies about why they chose their setup. Why do we do it?
Why do we pore over maps trying to decide the best route that will give us the most exciting experience for our time, reading trip reports, nosing through the forums?
Simple; Talking about gear is fun. Planning your trip is fun. We WANT these things to be essential to our trip.
So what is really "essential?" What is it that we can not live without?
Does it really matter if you have a synthetic or a down bag? Isn't this really an issue of comfort?
Does it really matter if you log an extra five miles on Tuesday and get to see that one more alpine lake? Isn't this really a matter of pride?
Does it really matter if you have the latest whiz bang, five-ounces-less-than-last-year's pack with the extra strap here and the buckle there? Isn't that really a matter of preference?
According to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, essential (link to the dictionary entry?) implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.
From that perspective, there are really only three essentials:
1.) The place. If the place does not exist, then backpacking does not exist. Take time to pick up that soda can that someone disrespectfully tossed out by the side of the trail. One can is an eyesore, but the five more that get tossed down beside the first one bespeak a problem.
2.) Your health. If you can't walk the trail, how can you enjoy the trip? Take care of yourself.
3.) Your mind. The best equipped hiker with the most expensive gear, the best planning, and the most knowledge is just as likely not to return from a trip as a first-time hiker if they leave out one critical step: they stop thinking.
So, what is the only true essential that you carry with you?
Slow down for a moment. Stop and think before you act.
Everything else is optional.