The Minimalist Industrial Complex

I am going to start with a history that is kind of true, but ultimately not quite right:

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In the beginning there were backpackers. They didn’t call themselves this, mostly because they had very little time to call themselves anything while they were running from saber-toothed tigers, but also because there was no alternative way to make a living. These people hunted and gathered, eventually inventing things like spears, and chairs, and tents that they could carry with them.  This went on for another 5,000 years or so, with people going into the woods carrying more and more, heavier and heavier things, before finally hitting it’s apex in the early 1900s, when grand mountain climbs became sieges in which masses of porters created what was, for all intents and purposes, a set of very small cities on the sides of mountains. Many mountains were climbed, albeit very slowly.

Then came Reinhold Messner and his lot of alpinists, who told us we’d been cheating. The theory went something like this: Mountains needed to be climbed on their own terms, with you, and you alone, carrying all you need. Because stuff is heavy this meant you would need to carry fewer things, including food. Carrying less food meant you would have to climb faster, which was possible because you were carrying less stuff. Messner was tough, eminently quoteable, and, worst of all, right. So right that he crushed every record imaginable, and many unimaginable, over the the next 30 years.

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This was problem for gear companies. Gear companies make money by selling things, after all, and having the cream of the crop run around showing everyone that you need fewer things proved a tough nut to crack well into the 1990s, when companies finally figured out an end around: instead of selling you new things they would sell you lighter versions of things you already have. And so, the Minimalist Industrial Complex was born.


To really understand the Minimalist Industrial Complex, we have to understand it’s central tenant: buy more so you can have less.

This is, obviously, absurd. Buying more things only results in you having more things. Perhaps you can match this with the kind of cold, unrelenting gear culling program that I find myself incapable of. If so, congratulations, you are very strange. For the rest of us, unchecked minimalism quickly becomes a mental crutch for meshing our gear acquisition syndrome with the fact that we know we would be better off with less, not more, stuff.

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But I could shave a billion pounds off my pack by buying this very expensive thingamajig! you thinkThis, unfortunately, is wrong too. By taking a top down, weight reduction approach this line of thinking cloaks the actual choice you are making. Or put more simply, imagine you have a two pound chair you carry all the time. You replace this with a one pound chair. This seams like a weight savings, which is great. However, by starting with the assumption that your chair is in your pack to begin with you are glossing over the fundamental question: should I be carrying the chair at all? In my experience What do I need? packs are always lighter than What can I take out? packs.

The fact of the matter is that we, as a people who read outdoors blogs, already have enough stuff that is good enough to do the things we care about. There is very little we can buy that will make more than a marginal difference in how heavy our loads are. Gear will wear out, and when it does, it should be repaired.  If it can’t be repaired, then they should be replaced with the best stuff we can afford at the time. If you have a legitimate hole in your gear closet, fill it, but fill it with things that you wont be tempted to replace in six months.

Of course, this way of living isn’t as much fun as buying new stuff. This line of thought is also a horrifyingly effective weapon in the hands of a significant other who wishes you would stop buying so much crap. That’s two strikes on the onset. On the other hand, to paraphrase everyone’s favorite alpinist, mountain problems are best solved in the mountains, not the sporting goods store.

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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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