Minimalism Tips I Learned From Backpacking

Read Time: 4 minutes, or get to the point.

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Several years ago I hiked the Appalachian Trail. It’s a footpath from Georgia to Maine that’s over 2,100 miles long and it took my friends and I more than 6 months. The longest backpacking trip I had ever done before that was 100 miles and took about a week, but the majority of my trips were 2 or 3 days. 

No matter how long a backpacking trip is, one thing almost never leaves your mind when you have to carry all your stuff on your back, and that is: why am I carrying all this stuff? I don’t mean that from the sense of “Why am I carrying anything at all and hiking through the wilderness?” which is probably a fair question to anyone who doesn’t enjoy backpacking, but more like “Why am I carrying this book, am I even going to read it? Did I pack too much food? Will I even use this hammock? Do I really need all this water?”. 

When you’re lugging 20+ pounds on your back up the side of a mountain, every single ounce comes into question. Believe it or not, whether you’re one day into a weekend-long trip or 4 months into a 6-month-long trip, those questions remain in the back of your mind the whole time.

In real life (not the backpacking world), those kinds of questions might not seem like they make much sense, but they’re just as important to ask – especially in a world where people just want more, more, more, because there are no physical consequences to having more. You don’t have to physically carry everything you own at all times. You do, however, mentally carry everything you own. 

Even if you don’t always notice the weight of it, we all have those closets in our house that we hate to open. Sometimes we have to go in there to get something and it’s immediately overwhelming how much junk we have. This is the case for minimalism. Minimalism is the practice of decluttering our lives and drawing boundaries for what we are willing to accept into our lives. Eventually you get a beautiful balance of having just enough – not too much or too little. In backpacking, this would be a perfect pack. The minimal weight, but still everything you need and just a splash of some things you just like having around.

Since nothing is perfect, and we’re constantly growing and changing as people. We will never get that “perfect pack” – in backpacking, or in life. We’ll constantly be discovering new things to add and subtract from our packs, but we need to keep striving for it. Take out too much and you won’t have something you need. Add too much and you’ll be struggling under the weight of all that stuff (physically or mentally). 

The thing is, only you can decide what your perfect pack is. Other hikers may try to tell you to get rid of this or that, or you have to get this cool new gadget they just got. While you may find some of their suggestions helpful, at the end of the day, it’s your pack. You’re still the one who has to carry it. So only you can decide what you think is worth having in there.

When I hiked the AT, the pack I started with was over 40 pounds. By the end, it was just over 20. That didn’t happen overnight. It was a long journey and I used a couple rules of thumb to help me get there. Since finishing the trail, I’ve adapted these rules for use in my daily life.

The 40+ pound stuffed Osprey Exos 58 I hiked the AT with.
  1. Backpacking Rule: when you get into a town and want to buy something (besides obvious necessities) write it down. When you get to the next town (usually 3-5 days), if you still want it, you can buy it.
    • Real Life Rule: Whenever you want to buy something, write it down. Wait 2 weeks. If you haven’t forgotten about it in 2 weeks, and you still want it. Buy it.
  2. Backpacking Rule: once a week get everything out of your pack and lay it out in front of you. Make 2 piles: things you used in the past week and things you didn’t. When you get to the next town, mail home the things you didn’t use the past week.
    • Real Life Rule: Once a month, pick a room. Go through everything in that room and write down a list of the things you didn’t use this month. Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t make you happy.

For the first rule, you should really take your time and think about how you dealt with not having that thing you wanted for the past 2 weeks. If the thing you wanted didn’t cross your mind much in the past 2 weeks and you found a way to live without it, then you probably don’t need to buy it. Alternatively, if you never stopped thinking about that thing, and couldn’t find a way around it, then you probably should get it. The best book I’ve ever read about rethinking how I spend my money is called Your Money or Your Life. It sounds heavy handed, and maybe it is, but I really enjoyed it and it helped me become much more intentional about my money as a result.

The second rule is heavily inspired by Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering, in which you ask if each item “sparks joy”. There will be some things you don’t “use” but are good to have on hand, have sentimental value, or they’re just nice to look at. These are ok to keep if you want, but you will probably still have a solid list of things to sell, donate, or throw away. 

So there are some tips on minimalism and you didn’t even have to hike 2,000 miles to get them!

P.S. If you’re wondering what hiking the AT was like, my answer is similar to what this guy thought about burning man (complete with the name change and everything).

The Point:

  1. Whenever you want to buy something, write it down. Wait 2 weeks. If you haven’t forgotten about it in 2 weeks, and you still want it. Buy it.
  2. Once a month, pick a room. Go through everything in that room and write down a list of the things you didn’t use this month. Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t make you happy.

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