I am an over-packer. No matter how hard I try I always end up with too much stuff on trips. This isn’t a huge deal when it’s a road trip. I toss stuff in just because “you never know.” I am also a game person who likes to have fun activities for people so, yes, throw in that football, frisbee, kite, lawn game, and . . . you get the idea! When I fly and have limited space it can take me forever to make decisions about what to pack.
So, imagine an over-packer trying to make decisions about what to carry in a backpack for 2,650 miles! Quite the process of researching, decision-making, packing, weighing gear, switching out gear, repacking, and whittling down the items I would take. Sometimes this was literal whittling–like cutting the handle off my toothbrush to save weight (a few ounces goes a long way!).
Knowing you’re going to carry everything on your back as you travel changes your perspective on need and want, necessary and luxury. I thought through systems for cooking, water filtration, sleeping, and more in order to hone in on exactly what I wanted to carry. I processed the pros and cons of each item, especially if there was a lighter version available or something with fewer breakable parts. In addition to weight, I wanted systems that were simple to use and did not take much effort at the end of the day because I knew I would be exhausted in the evenings.
As I researched long distance hiking gear I discovered a few things. First, people are EXTREMELY opinionated about the “right” gear, which can make it overwhelming. Everyone is telling you what to buy and I had to decide what was best for me. I also discovered that my current systems for backpacking were heavy and, while perfect for group backcountry trips, the gear was not great for a solo backpacker trying to get in high miles each day. Finally, I realized pretty quickly that a person could spend thousands of dollars on new gear for this trip . . . thousands of dollars I didn’t have so I would need to be resourceful.
While I geek out over new outdoor gear, I also try to have a balanced perspective of what is necessary. I have led students on backpacking trips who don’t have the best gear, shoes, and clothes for what we are doing and they survive. They still love it and end up having a great experience. I also remember seeing pictures of former PCT thru hikers from the 1970s with massive packs wearing heavy boots and jean cutoffs. Any gear I had was lightweight compared to what they used. If they could do it, I could do it! This awareness was helpful for me as I processed the words “necessary” and “adequate” when deciding what gear to replace and what I could get away with using that I already owned.
Even with all of this thoughtfulness and research, over the first month on the trail I switched out gear, sent things home, and left things behind at town stops. If I hadn’t used something within those first few weeks, I determined I probably wasn’t going to need it.
And, even with this continual paring down, I still had things I didn’t necessarily need! Some thru hikers I ran into got rid of things like stoves and sleeping pads over the course of the PCT in order to save weight and simplify their systems of travel. Now, I understand that a hot meal and having something to sleep on are not necessarily things I need in order to survive but I decided that for me those luxuries and weight were things I was willing to carry. They were small items that gave me some respite at the end of the day.
Over the course of the trail I found an ever-growing love of the minimalist life. There was simplicity in this way of living: Having my meals planned and just eating what was in the ziplock bag for that day; not having a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning and wearing the same outfit for a few months; donning my rain jacket and rain pants in the laundromat because all of my clothing items needed to be washed; the reality that what I had with me was what I was going to use because I didn’t have the resources to buy the newest and glitziest gear, nor was I interested in carrying the extra weight of anything more than what was necessary.
Conversations with other thru hikers at the beginning of the trail constantly revolved around gear comparison and how light your pack was. It often felt like a very judgmental conversation, which I got tired of. Eventually I decided to not engage in those conversations. I had chosen my gear based on my needs and the resources I had available. There was a peace that came in choosing to be content with what I had and not trying to “keep up with the Jones'” or being envious of other people’s gear.
The PCT is one of the most tangible experiences of my life in choosing simplicity, living simply, and being content with what I have. This simplistic life and the rhythms I discovered on the trail took away a level of stress and daily decision-making I didn’t have to deal with. This simplification of life freed my mind to think about more important things and allowed more time for relationships on the trail. I found joy in what the trail offered, like watching the sunset each night and sleeping under a starry night sky and not in owning the best things.
When I finished the trail in August and stepped back into a life of options, I was really overwhelmed! There were so many choices of food, clothing, movies, activities, and more. Even something like deciding what coffee mug to use in the morning seemed like a chore! Why do I need 20 coffee mugs in my cupboard when there are just two of us living in my house?! As I unpacked and settled back into my house, I made piles of items I decided I didn’t need. After seeing on the trail I could get by with so few clothes, I was able to cut my wardrobe in half.
While I try to orient my life in the direction of simplicity, it has always been a really hard value for me to embrace. I like nice things and activities that cost money. I like outdoor gear and cute clothes and cars that don’t break down. I like to decorate my house with cool treasures from antique stores. There is clutter around me because I just might use that [enter item name here] again. I get caught up in the newest thing I’m told I need in order to be a better person, rock climber, runner, professional, Christian, etc.
I grew up in the Quaker, or Friends, tradition so the value of simplicity has been a part of my life experience for as long as I can remember. It was a value I saw my parents and others living out. My experience in our meetings for worship included “queries”. The queries are questions that remind Friends of our values and help us reflect on our life as we seek to live out these ideals in the world. The query below comes from the Friend’s community I am a part of and focuses on the value of simplicity:
Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?
This query of simplicity has helped direct my life choices for many years and how I spend money and time. This was no exception on the PCT both as I made decisions about gear and also as I recognized the gifts of traveling light while on the trail. Because of my understanding of scripture, I want my life to be “marked by simplicity”. Choosing simplicity helps me value relationships over possessions. It helps me create space in my day for spiritual disciplines instead of more activity. When I am able to put possessions in their proper place, I find more freedom and less stress and worry.
Most importantly for me, a simple life orients me towards better understanding the needs of others and caring for the oppressed and marginalized. The posture of choosing simplicity as a way to identify with and respect people in my local community and around the world is a daily choice that I try to make. I’ve found that it helps bring me back to a dependence on God and reminds me of the realities many people face.
Just like most of my learning from the PCT, simplicity seemed easier to live out while on the trail. Trying to figure out the balance back at home takes much more intentionality and grace. This balance is especially important in order to discover the freedom and contentedness simplicity can bring but not have it become legalistic and overwhelming. And, while I don’t practice this value perfectly, I do recognize that the freedom and contentment that come from living simply are what I desire for my life. This desire helps remind me to reorient my life in that direction.
What is necessary? What is adequate? Is this item a luxury? Will this activity or thing bring joy and life? How does it affect my relationships with others and the earth? Can I use something I already own and be creative instead of spending money? Is this a healthy use of my time and energy? Will this refresh my soul and build up my relationships and community? These are some of the questions that run through my head as I interact with a world offering me so much to buy, consume, and engage.
The path of simplicity will look different for each person as we interact with our life “gear” and make decisions about what is most important to us. If simplicity is a value you strive toward, what self-check questions do you ask yourself when faced with the pull towards “more”? Beyond possessions, what other things clutter your life and pull you away from living simply? What are the gifts you recognize in your life that come from seeking to live simply?