Your Kit (Follow Up)

This is an important follow up to Twelve Outdoor Essentials and some of the questions that came up in the com-box.

I mentioned there that I prefer a “systems based” approach to your kit than a simple list of items to bring on every trip. I want to explain a bit more what that means. In the past we would just have a canonical list of items you had to bring on every trip — items like “compass” and “pocketknife.” In recent times, however, there has been a move to emphasizing systems — instead of “map and compass” we now put “navigation” on the list. This is for several reasons, but two in particular.

First, items given on detailed lists are neither always necessary nor always sufficient. On *on some trips* a map and compass (for instance) will not be enough. Beyond a map and compass, I often find that having a watch is an essential tool for keeping track of how long and how far I’ve hiked (Skurka also considers a watch under the heading of “navigation” in his book). Even more importantly, hikers often find themselves using altimeters and more advanced navigation technology like GPS units in more remote areas. While I don’t own a GPS unit (beyond my cell phone’s limited capabilities), I wouldn’t want to rule the item out as “inessential” for every trip. Alternatively *on other trips* a map and compass might be too much or wholly unnecessary, perhaps in a well-traveled park with well-blazed trails.

“Item based” lists also downplay the varying range of item types. “The list says I need a compass, but do I need an emergency button compass, a baseplate compass, or a tricked out orienteering model?” You might ask the same questions for varying degrees of map detail: “will the park map suffice or should I supplement with USGS quadrangles?” “Items based” lists do not offer easy answers questions like this, while “systems based” approaches force you to decide what items to bring each time you go out. One way to think about it is that “items based” lists offer cheap and superficial preparedness, the bad kind (like in the video below). The style, location and circumstances of each and every trip should determine what particular items you bring, while on every trip you should have each of the “essential systems” covered.

Second, lists which are “item based” downplay the most essential thing: your mind. Tools are useless if you can’t use them. “Items based” lists give us a false sense of comfort — “I have my compass, I can’t get lost!” This is silly. The mere having of a map or compass guarantees nothing, and this goes for most items in your kit. They are tools that you must put to use, and if you lack the necessary skills they become dead weight and offer a false sense of security. Imagine carrying bear spray, coming upon a bear, and only then fumbling to read the instructions.

Furthermore, if you are in a park that you know well, or have studied the map ahead of time, you may not need one in the field. If you don’t expect difficult navigation, and you learn basic compass-less navigation skills ahead of time, you can use the sun or other cues to figure out which way is which. Your navigation system, in some limited cases, can be limited entirely to what is in between your ears.

(not willing to pay for this image)

In my view, then, “systems based” approaches are far superior since they force us to develop our kits to be trip-specific and user-specific.

Previously I posted a detailed list with specific items given, and I should explain that. This list is designed for 3-season conditions in Eastern forests and fields for day hikes (not including an overnight stay). Ideally you evaluate every item for every trip, but as I’ve posted on before you don’t want preparation to get in the way of action. It’s helpful to have a ready kit in your trunk or garage to go for a quick 3 hour excursion into the woods, and not have to worry about whether you can start a fire, heal a wound, repel bugs, or signal for help if you get into a bind.

packs differ

Five different kits, five different purposes.

Everyone’s kit is going to be different based on what you plan to do, and for any substantial trip you should revisit what items you take. While everyone will prepare and have some kind of navigation system, not everyone will carry a compass or a GPS unit.

Detailed “items based” lists are always derived from more general “systems based” lists PLUS certain specific conditions, goals, and circumstances. Items based lists are NOT, and can never be, one-size-fits-all.

In the coming weeks I’m going to provide detailed posts on each of the “systems” and offer some of the principles I use in choosing which particular items to bring.

Here they are again:

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration
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3 thoughts on “Your Kit (Follow Up)

  1. Excellent post! 🙂

    I feel like the downside of the systems-based approach is that you need a horse to carry all the verbiage around … but once you sit down, read it through, and think about what it says and why the change recently, you’re much better off for it. You’ve made some excellent points to explain why, both in the post and in some earlier comments.

    An example of what you said. My climbing partner has a story of climbing Mount Rainier and getting caught in awful weather. (It happens.) His team had a map and compass, but these are useless in a whiteout. They also had a GPS, and used its altimeter to navigate back to Camp Muir and wait it out in safety and relative comfort.

    You mentioned a watch as (potentially) part of the navigation system. Winters here in the PNW are dark and bleak. The cloud cover is so thick you can’t tell where the sun is, the light has no direction to it, and even color gets lost. I snow shoe in the mountains, on the west side of the Cascades where the thick Doug fir forest enhances the sad effect. I used to bring a cell phone and use it to know what time it was. But I started taking pictures with the thing, and the battery would drain. Then I’d have no idea what time it was, or when I had to turn back to reach the car before nightfall. This is the reason I bought a wrist watch. (And yes, a watch can be used as a compass, too.)

  2. Pingback: The Twelve Outdoor Essentials | Treadin' Trodden Trails

  3. Pingback: The Essential Wilderness Navigator (for EXPERT Wilderness Navigation) | mountainviewranchstore.com Blog

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