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As many of you may know, I have slowly been building and refining my minimalist backpacking setup and documenting my progress in an ongoing youtube series called Minimalist Monday. The goal of this exercise is to build the most complete and functionally useful setup for two people (Jax & I), so we may effectively and comfortably survive/thrive in a broad range of environments and conditions. However, as is always the case when packing for a long trip (especially a wilderness adventure with indeterminate duration and varying weather conditions), there is a delicate balance between the weight of your gear and its functional yield which MUST be maintained.
This sweet spot for pack weight is different for each minimalist survivor. For me I place a very high value on comfort. The more comfortable I am, the better my morale. The better my morale, the more likely I am to survive and thrive. Because of this, my pack might be slightly heavier, and include more redundancies than you would ordinarily expect from a minimalist setup. However, I'm sure you will agree it is always better to be safe than sorry. This has been my general approach to life, and it has served me pretty well thus far. I like to be prepared, nay over-prepared!
As I've reassessed my gear in the Minimalist Monday series, I'm now confident Jacqueline and I will be well equipped, when it's all said and done, for most any prolonged adventure into the wild. However, those adventures are few and far between. While it is great to be prepared for an epic journey or a hardcore survival situation, it is worth noting that the vast majority of my experiences in the bush consist usually of day trips and long hikes. For these more common and routine wilderness forays I do not carry my full minimalist backpacking setup. Instead I opt (with some shame I admit) for a small Camel Back with little more than water to sustain me; not exactly best practice. So why is it, when I have spent years assembling my minimalist backpacking setup, and poured countless hours into its refinement, that I have never applied the same logic to my day-pack?... I honestly don't have a good explanation for you. However, our recent trip to Montana has changed my entire perspective on the importance of the day pack, and completely rearranged my focus (at least for the time being) on the value of EDC & small packs.
Historically speaking, my primary outdoor experience has taken place in a fairly focused portion of the Colorado rockies, which I have enjoyed for nearly 30 years. I never imagined getting lost or stranded in these woods. Nestled high in the mountains, I grew up with distinct peaks and rock outcroppings to guide my way and determine my location. While I now realize the error in this way of thinking, it was my hubris and incredible familiarity with the land that led to this blindspot. Furthermore, the sparsity of heavy vegetation and thick undergrowth at that elevation (8500ft) makes it easier to move through the forest, as well as get a bearing for direction. Simply put, carrying an emergency day-pack in the comparatively benign woods around our home always seemed unnecessary to me, and luckily chance never proved me wrong. The wilderness in North Western Montana, however, is a horse of an entirely different color.
While exploring Missoula and familiarizing ourselves with what that part of Montana has to offer, we decided we had to assess the hiking scene in one of the many abundant parks nearby. The path was well trodden, and clearly popular among the locals. When we had followed the trail sufficiently far enough so that we no longer were encountering other hikers, we thought it might be fun to venture off path a little ways (no more than 100 meters) to get a feel for what Montana's North West backcountry might have in store for us. In direct contrast to our home turf, it was immediately apparent that the trees are far larger and the foliage more dense than anything to which we are accustomed. Thick moss grows abundantly, and the undergrowth is far more dense which inhibits a clear line of site. Furthermore, gray, cloudy skies often obscure the sun, making it difficult to quickly gather one's bearings. In a way that is hard to describe, the forest is simultaneously magical and enchanting, as well dark, foreboding, and massively intimidating. It has the unique ability to inspire, while simultaneously drain one of their perceived bushcrafting/survival prowess. We stopped to marvel at the sight of it all, and relax for a minute while we tried to imagine calling these woods home.
If any of you have seen the movie The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, then you will likely remember the giant, blood-thirsty grizzly bear with a taste for human flesh. Unfortunately, that was the first image to flash across my mind after the initial awe. Immediately following was the thought, "I wish I had remembered the gun, or brought bear mace, or some type of defensive measure in case we encounter an unfriendly." I am not entirely sure how great the threat of predation is in the Montana bush, but from the regular signage posted at park trailheads encouraging hikers to carry bear spray, I have to assume the threat is tangible enough.
Needless to say, I felt very ill prepared at that moment. Of course, nothing came of this fear, no daemon bear burst forth from the undergrowth to consume us. However, the thought was certainly a jolt to my system, and it made it immediately apparent to me that my approach to minimalist carry would have to change if Jax and I are to transition our lives to Montana. This notion was only compounded further when we were both a little frightened to discover that the trail, when we eventually rediscovered it, was not where either of us had remembered it being.
As previously noted, we were no more than 100 meters off trail; and yet, in that distance, we were able to disorient ourselves. What if we had gotten lost? What if we were stranded there overnight? I cringe to imagine the possibilities.
Since returning to Kentucky, I have reflected upon this experience, and it has entirely rearranged my priorities in terms of emergency preparedness, and the value of the EDC small pack. Our brief foray into the Montana wilderness made it painfully obvious just how easily a good time can turn south, and if you are not just as prepared for the day hikes as you are for the long adventures, you can very easily find yourself in a life or death situation. I am incredibly fortunate to have learned this lesson as gently as I did. Part of being a good survivor is recognizing your limitations and blindspots, owning up to them, and adapting for the future so that you don't make the same mistakes. I have certainly seen the error in my ways, and I can guarantee you Jax and I will not be venturing into the Montana bush again without the bare minimum in wilderness survival gear.
I’ll be discussing this experience and sharing the contents of the daypacks I have put together for Jax and I in the coming installments of the Minimalist Monday series. Subscribe to our channel to be notified when it’s up, and let us know if there is anything else you’d recommend we include in our packs.