The Art of Being "Gear-Content"

Storyteller

Matt Van Swol

A minimalist's guide to gear

I’ve never owned a pair of hiking boots. I came to that realization on one of the most iconic trails north of Asheville, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway: the Black Balsam Trail. I was hiking with some of the most experienced hikers in the Southeast a distance of over 13 miles and as all hikers eventually do, we started talking about gear. It was during this conversation that I came to the conclusion that in all my years as a backpacker, hiker, and now as landscape photographer, I had never bothered to purchase a pair of hiking boots. What’s more, I also realized that I hadn't missed them, simply because I never even thought about purchasing them. I began thinking of all the gear I have purchased for the outdoors: a hammock, a 70L backpacking pack, a water bottle, sleeping bag, tent, tarp, straps, lights, cameras, jackets, pants, shirts…the list could really go on forever. As I started listing the gear in my head, I began to realize that 1) I had none of it with me and 2) I rarely used it. Even stranger in fact, was that of most of those items, I had more than one! I had multiple packs, multiple water bottles and hammocks, tons of hiking shirts and breathable pants…yet I wasn’t using any of it that day on the hike or even in the past year.

It begged the question, “why do I own all this stuff?” I’m an avid hiker and photographer and yet I never use any of this stuff, why do I have it? I think it’s the same reason people purchase a $200 pair of hiking boots: we think it will be useful. In the short run that might be true, but are $200 boots really worth it if you are only using them once, maybe twice a year? Maybe, but probably not. I own a $100 sub-zero degree sleeping bag, how many times have I needed that? Not even once, I could probably bring a $8 fleece from Wal-Mart and be both happier, lighter, and use it more than just one-time camping. What about that $50 waterbottle that filters water out of streams, with a pump and built-in-filter? How many times have I used that? Once, maybe twice, and I haven’t used it since. Could I have been just as happy, maybe even more happy, purchasing a water bottle I would use every single day and bought some cheap, dissolvable tablets for water purification? Absolutely.

As I began running through all the gear I owned, I noticed this trend: I would purchase a unique item, something I thought I needed for an upcoming trip, thinking I’d use it again at some point if I "bought a nicer version” of that item. For example: instead of buying the normal everyday water bottle, I’d buy the more expensive water-filtration water bottle, thinking that I would immediately gravitate towards choosing that particular item when I went hiking again. The problem is: I don’t. Why? Because we are both forgetful and materialistic. Our stints between hiking trips are often so long, we need to “store” our gear for the next time we use it and oftentimes, the gear we use on one trip isn't needed for this new trip, because we like to travel different places, with different climates and different environments. So instead, we buy more and different gear for this new trip. By the time you need gear for repeating or continuing an old trip, it’s either out of style, forgotten, or “been sitting in a basement so long you no longer trust it” (my dad’s words, but I suspect he’s not alone).

So here’s what I'd suggest doing: stop buying gear you think you might need for the place you are going. Instead, try packing what you normally use everyday and rent the stuff you realize you need when you get there. Most of the gear you would rent is brand new anyway and a fraction of the cost of purchasing it new. The other gear you have, is stuff you’d use everyday anyway: that school backpack, that plastic Nalgene you’ve had since the 5th grade, the fleece reindeer blanket you got for Christmas that one year. All of that stuff is free and usable for more than just a one-time hiking gig. Take advantage of that! Rent the specialty gear for when you need it, and be creative with what you already have. But don’t take my word for it! What’s the #1 regret that vagabonders have when they quit their jobs to travel the world? They wish they hadn't purchased so much gear at the outset. So perhaps on your next trip, try limiting the urge to go to Amazon and buy gear. Instead, try calling up your buddies, see if they have that “basement gear” you can borrow, look around your own place for stuff you already use and repurpose it, or purchase gear you can see yourself using everyday, and perhaps along the way, you'll discover the art of being gear-content.

Published: August 28, 2017

Matt Van SwolStoryteller

Matt Van Swol is a self-taught landscape photographer, writer, and nuclear scientist for the US Department of Energy. After personally struggling with depression for many years, he is passionate about showing others t...

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.

How to Survive a Freezing Night in a Van

If you want to meet more vanlifers than you knew existed, spend some time in the desert in the winter.

1 Saves

Beyond Leave No Trace Ethics: Packing Out More Than You Pack In

If you’ve spent some time in the great outdoors, you’ve probably heard about Leave No Trace ethics.

1 Saves

Is Your Surfing Habit Getting You into Trouble with Your Significant Other?

New Zealand

Have you ever came across what some may refer to as a conflict of interest in regards to planning your epic family holiday destination?  Well I can tell you about our family experience and how we dea.

2 Saves