Apparently I’m feeling controversial recently, because after telling you not to go to a National Park this summer I’m back with another zinger: you need to stop trying to lighten your pack. Hear me out.

Recently the New York Times Ran an article on business and climbing with this graph in it:Suff vs FunAccording to this graph the less stuff you carry, the higher your quality of experience. Therefore it follows that the best possible experience would come from carrying nothing at all (before you get too angry at me for being literal READ THIS). This is obviously dumb. As a matter of fact it is so dumb that we have made a TV series around how terrible carrying nothing with you hiking is. Worse yet, this ‘lighter is always better’ line of thought is pervasive in the current hiking community. That being said, breaking down what is really stupid about this thought process does teach us a lot about what we should actually bring hiking with us. Lets work through it together.

First, not bringing enough stuff can cause REALLY negative experiences

Here is a brief list of things have never made a person happy: spending a night in the snow without any insulation, amoebaisis, realizing you don’t have a flashlight right as the sun goes down, needing (but not having) a first aid kit, being lost without any navigational tools. What all these things have in common is that they could have been avoided if you had brought the right gear. So in other words, not bringing enough stuff can actually take an experience from good, to bad. However, there are also obvious limitations to this; though that dutch oven makes super sweet cobbler, the cobbler probably isn’t worth the work to take the oven with you.

With that in mind we can say that there are basically three types of gear in the world:

  • The first is necessary gear. These are the items that are so critical that not having them would make your experience bad all of the time. Examples include shoes, socks, water, food, and weather appropriate clothing.
Shoes, super essential.
Shoes, so hot right now.
  • Second, is net positive gear. This is where things get a little more complicated. Unless you are an ascetic, every additional thing you bring (and use) will slightly improve your experience. However, because you are hiking, bringing these things comes at the cost of additional pack weight, which degrades the experience. Net positive gear is the stuff that makes you so happy that it outweighs the negatives of carrying it. Obviously, the harder the hike, the more important pack weight is, changing the break even point (not to let my day job shine through, but the term we are looking for here is ‘dynamic equilibrium‘). Depending on the hiker and hike, examples could include sleeping bags, shelters, camp chairs, camp shoes, etc.
Aravaipa Canyon
Hiking poles and gaiters, not essential, but worth the weight while trudging through the water of Aravaipa Canyon
  • Third is net negative gear. Like it sounds, this is the opposite of net positive gear; or, the gear that is so heavy that carrying it outweighs the benefits of having it. And yes, it is possible to carry so much crap that it results in you having bad overall experiences. Examples could include: dutch ovens, guitars, coolers, etc.
Tarp and chairs in background were probably net negatives here, but an extra pair of socks would definitely have been a net positive after accidentally stepping the in river.

What’s important is that the answer to what you should and shouldn’t carry is hiker and context dependent. For example:

Horsethief Canyon, Looking towards Aravaipa Creek
Horse Canp Canyon, Looking towards Aravaipa Creek

See that camera in the bottom of the frame? My borther-in-law, Pat, is carrying that giant while, I, on the other hand am taking this picture on a small Sony NEX-6 with an Zeiss 16-70 F/4 lens. The difference between Pat and I is that he is a professional photographer who values extreme image quality and I am just a dude with a blog. In this case both our decisions are right: Pat’s carries the giant camera because having it makes him happier than the weight disadvantage, I carry the lighter one because I am willing to sacrifice some image quality to be more comfortable while hiking. It is all user and goal specific. If you are the kind of person who does not take pictures, then for you a camera will always be a net negative.


Obviously there are reasonable limits here, and we all carry net negative gear wayyyyyyy to often. The key is to be smart. If there is little to no chance of you using the item you are considering, it is by definition a net negative. If you know you will use something, there is a pretty good chance it is essential. The muddier areas lay in the middle of these two extremes. If you think there is a good chance you will use the item, you will have to consider whether having it will make you happier than the cost of carrying it. Ultimately this is up to you, your conditioning, and the goals of the trip. My general rule is that if I am on the edge, I leave the item at home.


We started with a graph, so we should probably end with one. The take home message here isn’t simple though. Some things you need, some things you don’t, and some things lay in between. Real life is complicated. However, there is one thing we know one thing for sure: the goal should not be to lighten your pack, it should be to improve your experience.

Disclaimer: This post, and all posts on LesserPlaces, may contain affiliate links– links that allow me to receive a small kickback at no additional cost to you when you shop through them. This is how we keep the lights on. 


Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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  1. Brilliant. I have been explaining this precise idea to my customers when starting the pack selection process. The default attitude seems to be, “I need the biggest, heaviest pack to carry all my stuff, but I have no idea how to choose what to carry. ” My approach is to identify a goal weight (I’ll fill a pack with the weight they think they will carry to help them actualize it, then I remove half in the same pack for effect.) Next, I describe a gear list with three columns: first column is Must Have (death/rescue level emergency preventing); second column is This Makes Me So Happy I’d Carry It To the
    Ends of the Earth; third column is I Could Live Without This If I Had to Carry This in My Bare Hands. We dump everything in the third column until we get down to the goal base weight and when two columns are left and we still have too much weight, we look at budget to see if money is a higher priority than reducing weight or if happiness can overcome discomfort. For many people it’s a process that continues through several trips and it is, as you noted, highly individualized.

    You have presented it so much more eloquently, though. I may adopt your terminology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ann! I really love the idea of making new organize their gear the way you described from trip 1. New hikers always want a gear list when they get started, but, rather than just giving them a single list, your idea of making them think really think about this from the very beginning is a good one.


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