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Don’t just Focus on a Backpacking Gear List

Whether I’m pumping trail miles, soaking it all in, or exploring the off-trails, my trips are always about gaining intimacy with the mountains and learning something new about myself and those that I am with.  I view my gear and my skills as necessary means to help me do that.

Gear list: Necessary but insufficient

Gear lists are great.  They help us get prepared and organized and, let’s admit it, feel cool.  Some of us use gear lists to scrutinize the things we carry so that we can go as light and minimal as possible without sacrificing safety and comfort. We can also tell a lot about a person’s character from a gear list because what made it to the list are – and better be – deliberate choices.  I’m all for that! But isn’t it so easy to get obsessed over what’s on our gear lists?  The appeal of having a list of the perfect gear might be safety and preparedness at first. But tunnel vision sets in before long.  Be it the “ultralight” or the “king of comfy camping” variety, we end up making the gear list a virtual hall of fame of our belongings. But just like baseball cards, owning the fanciest collection of gear alone won’t keep you dry, warm, or happy in the mountains.  So let’s look at what’s off your gear list for a moment. hiking gear

Enter Skill List. Stage left

If a gear list tells us what we should be carrying on our backs, then a skill list should tell us what we ought to be carrying in our heads.  Not only are they a critical means to keeping us prepared for the outdoors, they can also help us cut pack weight and increase confidence, ease, and trail credit.  For instance, knowing how to start a fire using collected wood can mean leaving the heavy stove and fuel at home.  Plus, you might even get a wink and a smile from that cute friend you wanted to impress.  (Or for some of us, a hard-earned nod from our hard-to-please wives!) So, it seems like common sense to have a list of skills to check off before a trip, no?  Unfortunately, backpacking skill lists, just like common sense, are uncommon!  This might be because skills are so often overlooked and overshadowed by the hype and chatter around gear and gear lists.  Below is my attempt to shed light on the underdog of the things we ought to carry. We should have several skill lists just as we do gear lists to handle varying conditions on different trips.  To keep it simple, I propose having the following 3 lists. One builds on another and they differ depending on trip intensity, duration, environmental conditions.  I teach some of these skills on trips I lead around California's Bay Area.  In subsequent articles, I will expound on how to acquire some of them.

Be sure to check out part 2 of this article

14 Responses to Don’t just Focus on a Backpacking Gear List

  1. Glen K Van Peski May 11, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    Amazing work. So true about neglecting the skills in favor of the gear. I share your love of having to bring your intellect and skills to the wild…

  2. Glen K Van Peski May 11, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

    Spreadsheet didn’t come over so great to a Mac, could you post nice pdfs?

  3. duncancheung May 14, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    Thanks Glen. We’ll make the editable XLS available soon, plus a PDF.

  4. Marta Renna May 14, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    I just checked out your blog for the first time….it is so informative and professional. I know you have been training my son on backpacking for several trips and after reading your blog I feel so much more comfortable…..PS told my son he could only go backpacking if he took you along….of course he is now 32 and doesn’t need my permission!

  5. Wendy Ward May 15, 2015 at 7:30 am #

    The one thing I would add would be a wilderness first aid course, even for short trips Through hiking the John Muir Trail in 2012,(at age 63) It was” enlightening” to meet the number of people who did not even know how to treat a blister. A WFA class will teach basic first aid skill and how to deal with them without carrying that 5 lb first aid kit. These courses can be found most anywhere and only take a week-end.

    • Bruce June 3, 2015 at 8:15 am #

      YES…so many people carry way too much junk that they don’t know how to or won’t use. And why do people let there feet get so messed up before dealing with them?

  6. Q May 15, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    Well thought out. well written. thanks for sharing

  7. Kevin Kurland May 15, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    Amazing article. Helpful tips. Thank you.
    (Love the illustrations)

  8. Joe Cheung May 15, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    So hiking can be a combination of art and science… Thank you for comforting many parents whose sons and daughters are keen hikers but they themselves aren’t (I m one of them).

  9. Richard Salzer May 19, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    “Just because you know how to tell where east is doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry a map and compass.”
    Every hiker should know this.

  10. Sonja Go May 23, 2015 at 2:17 am #

    Very informative article setting new light on hiking as a sport. It makes me want to learn more about the requires skills and reach the next level out there in nature.

  11. Addison Klinke January 27, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    Nice article! I also like thinking about my trips in terms of the skills / gear duality you propose, but I’ve never made pretty skills charts like yours so those were cool to see. You should consider submitting this to some other big outdoor website hubs like The Outbound. I think many people could benefit from reading!

  12. Daypack January 27, 2017 at 9:54 pm #

    Skill, experience and gear are all necessary for a safe and successful hike. Be smart, get experience and pack light.

  13. AlejandroPinnick February 1, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    Duncan, long time no see. Great article! I guess I’m just seeing this for the first time now. Will definitely be saving for anyone that asks my opinion of what skills they should have before they attempt to hit a trail. It’s interesting how at the same time many are discouraged from getting outdoors or hitting a trail because they think they need to know how to make a fire with two sticks and their shoe laces.

    My only suggestion would be to revise “Making a fire/Putting out a fire”. Of course this is my biased opinion coming from socal. Everyone complains down here that they can’t have fires yet many don’t even know how to put them out. Pour some beer on it bro! . . . Yeah that doesn’t always work.

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