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Gear Lists: A Primer and Philosophy

This Nerd's Approach to Gear and Going Light


So, if you have known me for any length of time, you are well aware that I am a nerd. I keep a running tally in mind of mostly inconsequential things, like how many bowls we have in the kitchen.  I have read hundreds of thousands of pages worth of sci-fi and fantasy books.  I literally named my dog after a Jedi. You' re welcome

Knowing this, it shouldn't be a surprise that my nerdiness has spilled over into my passion for the outdoors.  Thus it is that I have an Excel spreadsheet dedicated to creating packing lists, or Gear Lists, for backpacking and hiking trips.
This idea is not a novel one, not by a long shot. Many people were doing this long before I got around to it. Not only that, but my brother sent me his gear spreadsheet as a template.  I have made some serious changes, but for the most part, it is his design.  Yes, he is a nerd too.  He keeps it under wraps better than I do.  While the concept is simple, this list is much more than a plain catalog of my tents and water bottles.

The Spreadsheet

My excel spreadsheet also includes all the weights of my gear.  Yes I purchased a digital scale and yes I have spent hours of my life weighing backpacks, jackets, water filters, etc. The weight is shown in grams, ounces and pounds, just because I want it to.  I have broken everything down into their parts and weighed them individually. I don't just have a "tent" in the spreadsheet. I have the rainfly, the inner tent, the poles, the stakes, the stake bag, the stuff sack, and the footprint. I have made notes about the performance of the gear, how best to pack it, and the modifications I have made.  I have lists for "typical" summer, winter, and family trips.  I even set up a way to estimate the weight of my wife, Lauren's, backpack load. I have pie charts so I can visually see how much of the weight I carry comes from my shelter, or sleep system, etc.
This is just a small part of one tab of my Gear List Spreadsheet.
Pie Chart Summaries of Typical Gear Lists. Crushed It.
I also have a section dedicated to what type of food I will pack.  Yes, this section also includes the weight of the food items, and takes into account the plastic bags I store those items in.  Not only that, but it also calculates the caloric density (calories/oz of food) so I can make decisions about how to pack efficiently and effectively for a particular trip.
A little snip from the food tab of my spreadsheet.  I have space to fill out 6 days worth of food.
If this seems a bit excessive, well, that's because it is.  I don't need to have a spreadsheet with pie charts and six tabs calculating my backpack weight.  But, I am nerd. And again, you're welcome.

The Load Lightening Benefits

One of the main reasons I have this wicked awesome spreadsheet, besides the pure joy of Excel, is that it helps me go lighter when I get outside.  One of these days I will get around to doing a post on the whole "lightweight backpacking" thing.  But for now, I will just give a quick snapshot of why I like having a lighter backpack. A lighter backpacking kit is often simpler, with less fuss and less complexity than a "traditional" set up, which makes for a more streamlined experience in the back country.  Carrying less weight reduces the abuse on the joints, makes it easier to maneuver, and lets you hike faster, farther, see more, and do more. 

So how would weighing each individual stake for my tent lead to a lighter backpack? Excel is awesome and all, but it doesn't have the power to transform all my gear into ultra-light, high end equipment. The spreadsheet isn't magical (although it is close).  It just helps me to make better decisions.  

It is easy to over-pack for trips into the backcountry.  It is always tempting to take that extra jacket, just in case it gets colder than expected. Or why not toss in an extra freeze dried meal, on the off chance you get particularly hungry?  And you should definitely throw in that hammock for lounging around camp.  And how much weight could your comfy camp flip flops add? Oh, and why not throw in a mallet, to make driving those pesky stakes into the rocky soil a bit easier?

Lounging in the hammock. Renegade Campsite, RMNP.
Having a gear list built up, complete with accurate weights, makes it clear and easy to see how certain items in my pack affect the load I will be schlupping around in the mountains.  It doesn't mean I always go as light as I possibly could.  I still take luxury items with me. For instance, I take a pillow.  Boom. I usually take my kindle, a journal, and pen as well.  Bam. I am also fond of having a hammock for lounging at camp and doing some reading.  None of these things are necessities.  But by using Excel, I know the price, in weight at least, I am paying for each little luxury.

The Spectrum

When it really comes down to it, this giant spreadsheet allows me to make informed decisions about what gear to bring for the particular trip.  For instance, if I am, say, planning for a trip that will last 9 days, cover 160 miles of rigorous alpine terrain, during the summer, I can choose the right gear to achieve my goal for that trip.  In this case, that would mean carrying a backpack that allows me to achieve my goal of hiking 16-20 miles every day for 9 days straight during the summer.  That backpack load would look very different from the one I would carry when I go backpacking with my family, 6 miles from the trail head, for a weekend trip in the fall.  And it should.  Those are two completely different trips.  And these two theoretical trips illustrate two categories of how people can approach backpacking.

Andrew Skurka, who is an absurdly awesome backpacker, came up with two ends of the spectrum of backpacking styles. On one end there is the "Ultimate Camper".  This person spends most of their time at their campsite, relaxing and enjoying creation.  Their priority is comfort at camp, so they bring chairs, roomy tents, a lantern or two, a nice large stove for their gourmet dinners, and maybe a hatchet to make collecting wood for their 3pm-10pm fire a little easier.

On the other end of the spectrum is the "Ultimate Hiker".  This is the slightly-crazy person who spends as much time as possible hiking, moving, and covering miles.  Camp is a protected place where they can recharge the batteries so they will be able and hike another 30 miles the next day.  

The "Ultimate Camper" prioritizes the comforts of their camp, because that is where they spend most of their time.  Their goal is to have a nice campsite, and hiking is a necessary part of being able to make camp where they want.  The "Ultimate Hiker" prioritizes their on-trail comfort, because that is where they spend most of their time.  Their goal is to hike, and making a camp for the night is a necessary part of being able to hike as much as they want and where they want.

What About Me?

So, where do I fall on this spectrum? It varies from trip to trip, but I am never at one complete extreme or the other, just like 95% of the backpackers out there.  Sometimes I just want to cover miles, move fast, and see as much awe inspiring scenery as possible. Sometimes I want to find a nice site, make a fire, and relax in the mountains.  However, because of my back and knee issues (I know, I sound like an old man) weight is always a concern.  I also enjoy getting a good nights rest, and being able to write down some of my lofty, high-brow, esoteric thoughts when I am out there.  So, I have a spreadsheet that shows me how much weight I am carrying, and where it comes from. 

What About You?

 Light isn't always right, and more gear doesn't always mean more comfort. The real issue is to get out there and enjoy it.  You are not going to have the same thresholds for comfort, pain, temperature, etc. as someone else. You are not going to have the same goals and purpose for your trip as someone else. Therefore, how you backpack and hike, and the gear you bring when you do, will be different for you than for anyone else.  And it should be.  There is a saying in the backpacking community that has some real merit: Hike Your Own Hike. Hike in such a way, and bring the gear that you need, to accomplish your goals.  Whatever those goals may be. 

So now, go, build your masterful Excel spreadsheet! Weigh and catalog every piece of your gear, develop typical gear lists for every season and type of trip you are likely to take, and scrutinize the pie charts.

Or, you know, not.

Just get out.  ASAP. Outside.

Matt "You're Welcome" Kreider

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