Top Menu

Connecting Life with Minimalist Hiking

"How do you wash your clothes?“ is one of the most frequent questions I get asked, closely followed by “Where do you shower?” People don’t ask for the birds I hear in the morning, for the smell of snow I notice floating through the air when stepping outside, for how the changing of the seasons influences my life. have less3 When I open the door of my tiny cabin at first morning light, I see the creek, the huge douglas fir tree, the grassy hill and the forest right behind it. When I step outside -mostly in my pajamas and a pair of boots- the birds let me know right away that they’ve seen me, they know I’m awake. Over time I got to know them too. The brave robin redbreast, the blackbird, the little wren, the bossy jay and the busy chickadee. They visit me regularly. Do I think of how I’m gonna wash my clothes? Do I think of when and where I’ll get the next opportunity to take a shower? No. I pledge guilty. I do not. A while ago I decided to integrate trail-life into my off-trail life. I moved to a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods and fields. 129 square feet, no running water (except for a wonderful little creek), no electricity, no bathroom. Instead I get fresh air, meet wild animals and hear the song of the wind in the pine.
have less4

A tiny cabin? A tarp? More or less the same!

  Everything I have goes into a few drawers and boxes. Most of it is outdoors gear. When I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2013, I felt happier and more content than ever before. Everything I needed fitted into my backpack. My base pack weight was around 13lbs, bearcan and ukulele included. Carrying my home on my back, I realized life felt so much “lighter” with so little possessions to take care of and to worry about. A heavy backpack is often filled with fears. And yes, I dare to say, a life with too many possessions, dominated by “having” instead of “being”, is often filled with worries. At least that’s how it feels to me. Since I got home from the JMT I’ve not only been trying to further reduce my base pack weight (which is currently around 8.5lbs), but I’ve also been trying to reduce my belongings. I’ve never been good at throwing things out, but hell I can tell you, the feeling afterwards is awesome. It’s like throwing a heavy piece of gear out of your backpack, something you actually never used but somehow kept howling up the mountains, something slowing you down, making each step harder to take. The load on your shoulders does not only get lighter in a literal way, it also gets lighter metaphorically speaking. Taking less, having less, makes it easier for me to do more of what I love, to live more! Often it’s what we hold onto that holds us back. So be brave… Let go and throw it out! Out of your pack, out of your wardrobe and yes, sometimes, out of your heart. have less1 To me lightweight backpacking is not just something that I love, it’s a metaphor for the simple life I live. A life that allows me to climb the mountains more easily, to enjoy more sunrises, to walk through the day light-hearted and light-footed. Taking less, having less, makes me focus on the important things I really need, and makes me aware of the awful things I do not need to hike my path through life. Of course a simple life doesn’t only consist of sunshine. There is rain, and there are clouds and valleys to climb out of. And yes eventually I will have to wash my clothes. God knows who of my friends I’m gonna have to beg next: “Can I please use your washing machine?” I sometimes get a little shy when I turn up somewhere and realize my jeans are dirty and I don’t smell like an exotic rain shower mixed with papaya flavor. And I sometimes get a little shy when people talk to me about all the newest things they just bought and I have so little to reply. But then, when I sit under the tree in front of my little cabin I know I may have less, but it sure feels like I live more! Now let’s get started throwing things out. And when I say “throw out” I do not necessarily mean “throw it in the trash”. If someone can use what you no longer need, please give it away. Make someone else happy along the way! Recycle, upcycle, do what you can to create less trash! I am aware there are dozens of books on the market covering the topic of ‘simplifying your life’. I never read one. Once I started backpacking it all seemed very obvious to me. My backpack is my point of reference. I don’t need much more off trail than I do on trail. So here are a few tips. They are very basic, still they can have quite an effect… Like I always say, from little things big things grow, and with “big” I don’t mean more, I mean less… of course. have less2
On Trail: Take less, do moreOff trail: Have less, live/be more
Reduce your base pack weight.

Learn the basics from Glen Van Peski!

With a lighter pack you’ll be able to go further, climb higher, hike faster. But that’s not always what it’s about. To me hiking with a lighter pack is just so much more fun.
Get rid of the things you don’t really need.

Never wore that piece of clothing even once in the last year? Throw it out! Having less stuff to take care of, to worry about, creates a feeling of freedom.
Invest in a few quality pieces of gear.

Of the few gear you take, bring good gear, gear that you love. If you start replacing your old gear with lighter gear, do it one step at a time. I’m not saying you should go and buy the newest and lightest gear right away. Give it time to grow… smaller and lighter!
Surround yourself with few things.

Having too much stuff around you can create an unsettling, suffocating atmosphere.
Before you buy anything, ask yourself a few questions: Is this really important? Can I live without? Am I just buying this to make myself feel good, to compensate for an uncomfortable feeling?
Don’t use the biggest backpack you can get.

It tempts you to take too much. We people seem to wanna fill empty spaces, so just don’t get a lot of space in the first place.
Do you really need a house with 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms?

Keep it small: Less expensive, less cleaning, less space to fill with things you don’t need. As a bonus (one that actually really matters) you’ll get a smaller carbon footprint.
Don’t bring stuff based on a “just in case scenario”.

Don’t pack your fears, instead increase your skills and knowledge! Take a wilderness first aid class, learn how to properly navigate, and seek information from others to improve your skills.
Don’t keep things because you think “I might need that one day!”

If you don’t need it now or in the next few weeks, don’t keep it! “Ooo I could use this some day! Ooo I could make something nice out of this….” Right, maybe in 2 years…. Just throw it out! Give it away! Recycle it!
Define what is important to you.

What do you really “need” on trail?
Do you really need a chopping board to cut food? Really, in a gear shakedown I did with one of my students at wilderness school, I asked her to empty her backpack…. First thing she showed me was a chopping board. It’s obvious what I told her to do with that one.
What really matters to you in life? What makes you rich? Set priorities!

Is it a jacuzzi or time with your family? Is it a new truck or the look in the eyes of your dog when you come home early from work? Is it the newest iPhone or a hike in the mountains?

If you don’t need much, you’ll have to work less, creating more time for your family and friends and for doing what you love.

Remember what Thoreau said: “I make myself rich by making my wants few.”
Multiple functionality:

Use single items for multiple purposes. Use your clothes as a pillow, use your backpack as a part of your sleeping system.
Multiple functionality at home:

Yeah that’s a tough one. I can only say what I do. My tiny cabin serves as living room, kitchen, bedroom, gear room, office… Talk about multiple functionality!
These tips are merely a beginning; there are a lot more ideas out there on how to reduce your load, on trail as well as off trail. You don’t have to take it as far as I do but I’d just say: Give it a try. Start small. You’ve got nothing to lose, except for the things you don’t need and the things that don’t matter. ‘Cause really let’s face it, in the end, you can’t take it with you when you go!   This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Helen "Cat" Beckers  

14 Responses to Connecting Life with Minimalist Hiking

  1. BeeKeeper February 10, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    Excellent post! I purposely live in a small house because I never wanted to grow into larger space. Yes my house can get cluttered but my rule of thumb is if I’m bringing in something new, I must get rid of something. For example, I have room for a few pairs of shoes, once that shelf is full, it’s time to either say no to a new purchase or say goodbye to an old not so favorite pair.

    Now that I’m learning to travel and sleep in my car, it makes me even more aware of my basic needs and decisions on keeping my living quarters uncramped.

    When my friends tell me they are carrying 50lb packs and it feels just fine, I think it’s because you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you go leaner and lighter, you never want to go back. I’m never even slightly tempted to add unnecessary items. I want to hike, I want to camp comfortably but with minimal stuff to carry, keep organized and repack.

    Take less and do more is my mantra indeed!

  2. jeremy February 13, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    thanks for this 🙂

  3. Texas Backpacker February 13, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    First let me state that I too am a ultralight backpacker (base weight 8-10#) While I will not suggest that you are preaching to those of us that do not live a “small” life style I do find it interesting that those like you do not think the whole thing through. While you may have downsized your way of life you depend on the rest of us to support your life style. Example: you want to reduce your pack weight below 10#. You cannot do that without man made synthetics that the rest of us that live on “on the grid” work and provide for you. No running water or bathroom facilities. Great for a few, how does that work for a few million people?

    • Peter Dittler January 12, 2016 at 12:47 am #

      I don’t think she was “preaching”. Yes, she needed to take a shower at someone’s house once in a while, but that’s one less shower stall in the world. Yes, she depended on hi tech to produce light weight gear but over all her average consumption is much less than most of us. Quite frankly her attitude in my opinion was not preachy but spiritual. I am surprised you took umbrage to her perspective.

    • Peter Dittler January 12, 2016 at 12:51 am #

      Thank-you for urging me to reduce my pack weight below 30 lbs. Thanks for getting me off my butt to clean my house and thin my possessions.

  4. bigfoot1986 February 13, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

    Wow this is an awesome post, and ever since i’ve started going lighter I’ve noticed that im purchasing less and keeping less. Next year i will hike the AT nobo then i will try to become a trail guide but have already decided to only own a small apartment or house. I only hope more people will read your post.

  5. Kurt in Colorado February 13, 2015 at 11:19 pm #

    It depends on what your priorities are, doesn’t it? I’m happy for Helen, that she enjoys her very simple lifestyle. It’s not practical for all/most of us, who may have families or other responsibilities in the wider world: someone has to provide that washing machine, after all (and the cabin!). I’m curious how she supports herself?

  6. Dan February 14, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    Very interesting and provocative, and in my way my wife and I are in the process of doing with less.

    However age and Grandchildren (real gems) will modify any life.

  7. Chris February 18, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    Romantic lifestyle that only works for a very small percentage of people. I do agree we need to have and want less, and I try very hard to keep this in perspective with a wife and dependent children. Texas Backpacker has a good point: you haven’t thought this whole thing through.

  8. John March 8, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    Well said Helen. Less is more. I adopted that mentality when I moved aboard my 27′ sailboat and now I’m carrying it into my land-based life.
    Trying to get lighter for my upcoming JMT hike – thanks for the motivation!

  9. lilmattyorrMatt December 13, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    Great Post. I live in a 360 square foot studio and am also slowly downsizing. Its amazing what I can get by with which a year ago I thought I couldn’t live without.

  10. Louise December 14, 2015 at 4:44 am #

    I totally agree with the principals of living with less for sure…But minimalist cabins in the woods are a privilege for the first world few. I do as much lightweight backpacking as my farming job allows…Farming even organically, requires I have a barn full of stuff to manage.It cracks me up how the US trails have all these rules about carrying out your poop to protect the pristine wilderness; but as far as I know cares not a fig; as to the carbon load that got you to the trailhead.
    Don’t mind me; I’m just jealous 😉

  11. Rhea Patrick December 14, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    I too realized that a minimalist lifestyle was for me as I thru hiked the AT . For 5 months I lived out of 40 liters and when I returned I decided to convert my off trail life / now I live in 220 sq feet and love every minute – as for sustainability I am going on 4 years . Although everyone is not the same and their story will not be the same the rewards far out pace the negatives .

  12. dara December 16, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    One of the loveliest posts I have read. Just being out and alone on the trail is what brings pleasure. Bringing skills or just being comfortable and knowing you can cope with any problem is wonderful. The less IO bring the more I enjoy . The basics are important – don’t be cold, don’t be wet, don’t be hungry and don’t be exhausted. It takes just a little care to meet those rules. Especially don’t be exhausted except as the poet Beaudelaire said — “Be drunk! Whether on wine, on poetry of on virtue – as you please”

Leave a Reply