You Can't Escape Energy: Losing a trail of waste

Although nothing happens without energy, the human world tends to use disproportionate amounts of energy to accomplish tasks. We have created tools and concentrated fuels or pools of energy that provide "work-arounds" of the natural world. And that can be great! But it can also be inordinately wasteful. By comparison, the natural world's energy use has zero waste. Everything is used for something. Waste products from some things support processes for others. As I lay the foundation for Backcountry Bonsai, I'm doing so with deep consideration of biomimicry, an awesome field you'll hear loads more about over time that bases design on naturally-occurring functional structures. For the moment, however, I want to consider that concept of zero waste... and how we can re-evaluate our approach to energy requirements in the field and at home. Sound too heavy? It's not, I swear. It's really pretty light:


Use less.


Instead of trying to do the same thing in basically the same way, see what you can eliminate. Conceptually, what I'm suggesting is a whole-hearted commitment to change. It's not just "How can we do 'X' more efficiently," but is significantly "How can we eliminate 'X'?"


Instead of assuming that given components are vital to a product or process, and that modifying them is the key to efficiency, I suggest that we start with trying to eliminate a component or operation entirely. Doing that gets rid of product, labor, & weight costs associated with an item all the way back to extracting the raw resource. A good common backcountry example might be the cookpot sets popular with many backpackers. A typical set could have a big pot, a smaller pot, a couple of bowls, a frypan, a lid, one or two removable handles, and a storage bag. They're nifty. Tidy. Organized and "with it." But you're cooking on a single one-burner stove. Boiling water for a one-pot meal. Even with two people, all you need is one pot & handle, one lid, and a bowl for the person not eating out of the pot. The other things are extraneous. Wasteful. You can eliminate the additional weight and bulk of a pot, a frypan, a bowl, maybe a handle, and a storage bag... something like half the weight of the set. If you could work this backwards and buy only what you need, eliminating half the cookset wouldn't just save you the weight and money, but would save the raw materials, labor, processing energy, and transportation of that extra stuff... it would conserve resources & reduce energy expenditure. It's an approach that gets us closer to the zero waste inherent to the wild.


It’s a broad-reaching philosophy and way of life that could have massive implications in our daily lives. In fact, I think we’re seeing parallels in the burgeoning artisanal movements such as slow food, tiny homes, and maker spaces. There’s a sense of vibrancy, and of satisfaction, appreciation. There’s more connection with the development process, the product, and the purchase exchange. Big business and conventional wisdom tell us that you can’t earn a living if your production process is here in the US, but a lot of small business owners are discovering that it’s perfectly feasible… in no small part, I believe, by streamlining the entire process… by, yep, eliminating waste. By selling direct, instead of selling to middlemen who sell to middlemen who sell to retailers who sell you the product… the price being marked up each step of the way, it fails to reflect the essence of the product itself.


Our in-house design and fabrication considers all aspects of cost—not just short-term monetary outlay & profit margin, but attempted reflection of true cost. What’s the impact of producing the raw material, getting it to production, forming it, shipping products?  What’s the potential impact of a product’s life cycle, even after it’s been loved too much and too long? The process leads to us creating things with a purity of form based on raw function. Determining actual needs helps us eliminate excess material, which can reduce handling time and processing steps. Some of the production methods we use are more complex & require somewhat more advanced techniques, which wouldn’t be feasible if we were outfitting things with random primpery. Stripping waste from our products also benefits performance, in that using less makes lighter-weight & more stream-lined things that benefit purposeful intent. It forces you to make it better, almost mandates more integrity to the structure and finish. It's not enough to make something lighter, or even stronger and lighter, but it must also work better... if it doesn't work better, if there are lower-performing aspects of design, then it's wasting potential. In other words, if a lighter & stronger tent had a crummy entrance design that soaked the inside during storms, when an ounce or two of material & a bit more thought could create a storm-worthy entrance... it would be wasteful to carry the weight of the tent minus that extra material. If material is there, maximize the function of the material... if you’ve put 29 ounces into a rainfly that leaves parts exposed, but 31 ounces would provide total shelter, man, you’ve gotta take it the whole way.


I evaluate every aspect of Backcountry Bonsai to find and follow the most sustainable path. In a sense, any form of energy we can conserve in one area can either offset something less efficient, or “merely” help make up the difference of manufacturing small-batch goods here in the Great Lakes. To me, though, it’s more than a matter of efficiency… it’s also a matter of respect, for myself, the company, our neighbors, our customers… for everything and everyone we might touch. That probably sounds a little overboard, eh? But it comes down to a recognition that there isn’t waste, per se. There might well be a difference in utility or accessibility, but everything has some potential value. It reminds me of an almost Depression-era mindset… which then makes me think that given technological advances in the ensuing 80 years, we really oughta be further ahead than we are… but that’s a topic for another day.


Our tag line is “Get More For Your Ounce,” and the preceding is kind of what that phrase is all about. You can’t really maximize potential without minimizing waste, without making everything “count.” When it comes time to hit the trail you don’t want any wallflower ounces. Those things gotta work for the right to be on your back. A heavier pack requires more energy to carry, which requires more fuel (food), which makes the pack heavier… covering mileage becomes more difficult, there’s more risk for injury… but most importantly, it’s not as much fun. When you get out there it’s to re-create, in whatever way pleases you most. Make it less like work. Make it feel more like a dayhike. Allow yourself to appreciate and enjoy the rugged beauty you encounter. Hear the waves hitting shore, watch the sands shift, feel the earth respond to tree roots manipulated by wind in the canopy… Turn your energies toward letting your body and mind explore without distraction.

Peeling Back Layers: Reconstructing effective use of cold-weather apparel

I think of it as "The 'L' Word," because when people hear "Layering," they tend to zone out. It's a term that carries with it an almost dismissive familiarity, but even avid outdoor enthusiasts frequently have an incomplete understanding of the concept. It isn't really about staying warm. It's about staying cool. It's about temperature regulation.

Layering is about keeping your cool, NOT about getting you warm.

The easiest way to be warm is to grab the biggest, poofiest hooded down parka you can find. If you're doing much more than belaying an ice climber or standing at a bus stop, though, it's easy to overheat... and although being too warm might sound great, your body doesn't see it that way. The "You" of your heart and mind might cherish excess warmth, but your body has one mission: Keep it neutral. If you're too hot, your body will work to cool you down. 


It might strike you as cruel, but it is eminently usual. If we give this particular rabbit hole more consideration, it's quickly apparent that your situation can only snowball until you're totally jammed. To wit, you're overheating so your body starts cooling you down... so you bundle up more, and your body redoubles its efforts to cool you... so you put on an extra hat and do some jumping jacks, and your body works even harder to cool you... all in all, it's not a scenario that ends in comfort, which is why I stress the importance of staying on the cool side of comfort.


Be proactive in removing layers... Take them off before you're too hot. There's a sensory sweet spot in that area between feeling cold and feeling that you'll be warm soon; when you sense you've started warming, or that you're not cold, it's probably time to shed a layer.  The more aerobic your activity level, the more proactive you need to be in removing layers. You don't need to wear much when your metabolism is cranked to high! 


Imagine that you're in your house and the thermostat is on whatever "regular" is for you, maybe 68*F. You're comfortable, maybe wearing a long-sleeved shirt or even a flannel. Now imagine that the thermostat's set at 80 and the furnace is humming along... if you're like me, you won't be wearing much more than underwear. Or maybe you visit someone who you know habitually has their heat set high, so you wear a bit less clothing there than you would at home. Just as these indoor situations are a microclimate of sorts, your body maintains its own microclimate. 

Your body doesn't really care what the weather is like outside. Or inside, for that matter. Your body just wants to be the same temperature, all the time.

By way of example, I've had a sedentary day. I was wearing a very thin merino wool henley and an unbuttoned flannel at the desk; my dog started bringing me bits and pieces of laundry, which means he's bored and it's time to go for a walk. I keep the house around 65F, and it's a bit below freezing outside, around 28F. I tossed on a fleece vest (okay, wool, but same idea), an uninsulated rain jacket, and a hat on our way outdoors. I wore a pair of leather work gloves that were stashed in the jacket pocket and we walked about a mile. When we got home I removed all but the thin merino shirt, since the walk had boosted my metabolic heat production & I was too warm in the flannel. The point is that I didn't need to add much of anything to go outside, because I knew that the activity would turn on my "furnace." 


If I had gone out to sit on a log for a few hours instead of walking, I would've needed to dress differently. Adding layers does add insulation, but if you're headed out to hunt from a tree stand, for example, wearing enough layers to stay warm can restrict your mobility. For sedentary activity you're probably better served by just throwing on one or two big thick layers... 


I know, sometimes it's hard to feel motivated about going out into the cold. Sometimes we don't care if wearing a really warm jacket will make us too warm... if we're going outside, darnit, we're gonna be warm. When it's bitter cold and I'm headed out snowshoeing, and I want to make sure I'm warm enough, I'll toss on a sort of "ceremonial" down jacket or something. I know I won't be able to wear it long. But it gets me out the door feeling cozy, and after moving 5 or 10 minutes I shuck the jacket and stash it. Actually, for single-digit snowshoeing my "go-to" combo is a wool baselayer, a super light windbreaker, a down vest, and a hat. The down vest never stays on long, but it's sure nice to have!


There's a lot more we could discuss, but I wanted to get this idea out there for you as winter comes on. I've met countless people who have approached "layering" as "wearing a bunch of layers to stay super warm," and thought this angle of the concept might be of help.

Comfort In The Cold: An Overview

Let's kick this off with a little role-playing game: You... are not you. "You" have never traveled outside the tropical rain forest you know only as "home." There's no electricity in your village, the outside world is a sort of bizarre fleeting concept... and then one day a stranger shows up. An anthropology grad student. And you fall madly in love. When they ask you to leave with them, you can't suppress your exuberance when you say "Yes!" And this new love of yours gets a quizzical dancing look in the eyes, and says they'll show you a place where boiling water freezes in mid-air... a far, far away land called "Northern Minnesota," where the world is white many months of the year.


You get to Minnesota as summer is drawing to a close, and people warmly welcome you with you tips about how to dress in winter... and you inwardly smile a bit smugly, because you're wearing the sweater that a friend used to wear in the mountains. In fact, you're thinking about taking the sweater off right now, and it doesn't seem likely that temperatures could change THAT dramatically. But as the weeks start going by it gets COLD! And your new friends smile, and say something about the leaves all still being on the trees... and you start to listen to all their snippets of advice. Before long you feel almost dizzy with all these ideas on how to dress for "winter," and although you think there must just be some connection you're missing, a bunch of those ideas seem to contradict each other. What should you do?!


Let's start with a look at physiological need... completely aside from your comfort and not wanting to feel cold, why does your body need to stay warm? What is it trying to do? Why do some areas seem to get colder than others or, conversely, some parts seem sweaty while others seem almost numb from cold? Why does it seem like lots of clothing doesn't seem to make much difference on some parts of your body, but worn elsewhere even something thin can make you feel much warmer? In a word: survival.


As rude and cold and calculating as it might seem, your body is quite aware that some parts of it aren't critical for survival. Conversely, if other parts of your body shut down you'll die... so your body is "wired" to sacrifice some parts of itself to save other parts. Long before you actually get to the ragged edge of survival, though, your body lavishes attention on its critical parts: your brain, heart, & organs. The thing is, your body can only produce a finite amount of heat... like a small furnace in a big house, when things get really cold you have to close off some rooms. If your body senses that critical areas are getting cold, it shunts heat away from your extremities and brings it to your core. That's why our toes & fingers can so often feel cold when we otherwise feel comfortable. 


Imagine, if you would, a house with well-insulated walls... and no insulation in the ceiling or roof. That'd be nuts, right? (It's pretty common for houses in northern latitudes to have two or three times more insulation overhead than in the walls.) Consider that analogy as it relates to winter apparel: If you're wearing a big poofy down parka, it wouldn't make sense to not also insulate your head. You would lose a wildly disproportionate amount of heat through your head.


Let's use a cooking example along a similar vein: You're broiling some steaks and smoke billows from your oven. The smoke alarm pierces your ears. You get out a fan... and close all the doors and windows? No, of course not. The smoke couldn't go anywhere. You open the windows and doors... you REMOVE THE BARRIERS to airflow. You put as little between the outdoors and your smoke-filled kitchen as you can, because doing so will get rid of all that air that would otherwise linger in your kitchen for days.


The point is that "creating" warmth really means RETAINING warmth. Your body produces heat; it's your job to keep that heat near your body, which we accomplish by creating DEAD AIR SPACE. Great insulation is sort of a nightmare-ish labyrinth for gleefully excited warm air. We make it more difficult for warm air to escape the microclimate over our skin. If you insulate some parts of your body and not others, the parts that are not insulated will, obviously, lose a lot more heat... which is why you can be wearing a big down coat and be cold, but add a hat and stay warm. By extension, if you wear a super-thick, wind-resistant jacket and counter it with a thin beanie with an open weave... you're obviously not as well insulated on your head, and you will minimize the efficiency of your big down jacket because you're blowing all kinds of extra heat out through your poorly-insulated head.


This is partially where the old saying, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat," comes from. Your head can lose proportionately more heat for its given body surface area, precisely because of mechanisms that shunt blood from your periphery to feed the core... there's more blood flow there, and it's more exposed.


Thermoregulators throughout your body constantly collect data and forward it to your main computer. If your temp is dropping, your peripheral blood vessels will constrict, which will help shunt warm blood to your core. Conversely, if you're overheating, your peripheral vasculature will dilate, maximizing surface area exposure and radiant heat loss. Incidentally, if you're wearing clothes or footwear that constrict or compress, it can have a similar effect of diverting some blood flow away from the periphery and toward your core. And this, this seems like a good place for us to pause. Next time we'll talk about what the whole concept of "layering" really means, when it works best, when not to dress that way, and how to make it work effectively when you do.

The Power of Down

Down fill power is one of the most broadly misunderstood concepts in the outdoor industry, even by those who sell down-filled products. Through my work in specialty retail I overheard countless misguided explanations of fill power from  people impressing companions with their knowledge, retail staffers, and a whole stack of others who should've known better. I think that what happens is people try to "run" with an incomplete understanding, and fill in their gaps of knowledge with supposition. Let's take a nuts n' bolts look at fill power.


The fill power numbers are those that you'll frequently see on a hang tag or even embroidered onto a product, usually a number ranging from 500 to 900. Maybe you'll see a "625" or a "900+" or a "750..." but really, why do any of them matter? What do they mean? It's super simple, but also super critical to understand this core concept... in fact, it's so important I'll set it apart:

The fill power number represents how much space one massed ounce of that down occupies. 


By extension, the weight of one ounce (as weighed on a scale) of 550-fill down will occupy 550 cubic inches. One ounce of 900-fill down will occupy 900 cubic inches.


The significance, the difference between those fill powers, relates to that old proverbial question about a glass half-full... Given the same weighted amounts, 500-fill down won't fill as much space as 900-fill down. In fact, an ounce of 900-fill down fills nearly twice as much space as 500-fill down. But that doesn't mean that 900-fill is better! That's so important I'll say it again:

900-fill down is NOT BETTER than 500-fill down.

It IS different, and it CAN be better for SOME situations... but sometimes 900-fill down is a WORSE choice than 500-fill down. Similarly, 900-fill down is NOT WARMER than 500-fill down... but this is where things can get confusing for people. 


If you have equal weights of two down samples, the 900-fill sample will fill nearly twice as much space. Given that the purpose of insulation is to create dead air space, the 900-fill sample will create a lot more dead air space. An ounce of 900-fill down is warmer than an ounce of 500-fill down, BUT IN PRACTICAL TERMS other variables will almost always be more significant in understanding how warm something will be.


I say this because each fill power rating has its own sort of specialized niche. An automotive analogy: A 3/4-ton pickup can't accelerate or handle like a Corvette, and the Corvette can't haul a load of lumber.


The reality is that 900-fill down won't be used in applications better-suited to 500-fill down, or vice versa. The advantage of higher fill powers is that you can use less of them to achieve the same amount of warmth of lower fill powers... Higher fill powers allow you to use less weight and less bulk to achieve the same amount of warmth. This DOES NOT MEAN that a 1/2"-thick  900-fill jacket will be as warm or warmer than a 2"-thick 500 fill jacket. The amount of loft, the poofiness, is what determines warmth. It's the thickness of the jacket, not the fill power of the down, that ultimately determines how warm the jacket will be. 


It is the THICKNESS of the jacket, not the fill power of the down, that determines how warm a jacket will be.

If I made two jackets as examples (maybe this is something we can do for a future video?) and filled both of them to 1-inch thick, using 500-fill down in one jacket and 900-fill down in the other jacket, they would be equally warm. Re-read that part! EQUALLY WARM! The difference would be that the 900-fill jacket would use less down to get that thickness, so it would be lighter weight and would pack smaller.


And that, friends, is the reason to use higher fill powers... you can create lighter weight things that stuff into smaller balls. It wouldn't make a lot of sense to use 850 fill inside a nylon shell that could be made with a lighter-weight nylon.


Lower fill powers, frankly, are better for routine use. The products made with lower fill powers will cost less... both because the down itself is less expensive, and because the materials enclosing it are also less expensive. Lower cost aside, the lower fill powers are also more versatile, more resilient. They don't require as much fussing or attention. Here at Backcountry Bonsai we ran some experiments on the effects of humidity on down, and found that the lower fill powers retained their loft better than higher fill powers under humid conditions. Anecdotal experience also indicates that higher fill powers are more susceptible to losing loft and/or matting under more extreme or prolonged conditions. 


Heavier shell material will actually compress higher fill-power down, whereas it will not have the same effect on lower fill powers... We believe that, by extension, and in consideration of our humidity testing, lower fill power downs are overall more durable. (Gross comparison, what's easier to break... one toothpick, or ten of them in a bundle?) So a lower fill power product can cost less, work better under worse conditions, and last longer... the trade-off being that it does so at the expense of some additional weight and bulk.


You will also see down billed as "grey" or "white," and you should know that color has NO effect on insulating properties. In our experience working with material that weighs less than an ounce per square yard, we prefer grey down simply because it is less "contrasty" behind the rich fabric colors we prefer. (White down is more visible through the material, and the whiteness somewhat "fades" the material color.) Hey, pop quiz: What weighs more: A ton of feathers, or a ton of bricks? 


I hope you said they weigh the same! In a similar way, 700-fill down is 700-fill down... regardless of whether that down was sourced from duck or goose. "Goose down" has a certain cachet, I'm guessing because of some historical basis, but if all other factors are equal, duck and goose down of the same fill power are of the same quality, same warmth, same weight, and same compressibility. True eider down, the undisputed king of all downs and easily costing 10 times more than "standard" 900-fill downs, is duck down.


One last thing we should address: all of the downs we're talking about are hypoallergenic. Do you have allergies? Horrid allergies? Cool. You'll be fine with down. What people are allergic to isn't down itself, but the dust and dander and extraneous oils & dirts associated with FEATHERS. Feathers, by the way, are not down. Feathers have quills... you know, like those super-old-school feather pens in the ink well. Feathers poke. Feathers can wreak havoc on allergies. A lot of upholstery and even home bedding is filled with feathers... they're tougher, they "give way" less, so they maintain more cushion. (If you had a pillow filled only with 900-fill down, when you laid your head down there wouldn't be anything left but two layers of nylon between your head and the mattress.) I had a featherbed for a short while... could NOT sleep on it, because of all the allergens associated with feather products. When you start talking about down, though, from fill powers 500 and up... you're not talking about feathers anymore. The down we're talking about, even the 500-ish stuff, is pretty high end. You're gonna love it.

Exuberant Curiosity

We approach design with a peculiar mix of science and art, reaching far into the realms of textbooks and "Hey guys, watch this!" It took the death of a man I hadn't seen in nearly half a lifetime to realize he had a sizable hand in shaping this perspective and approach to life. During the funeral service they requested that people share memories, and as I sat I tried to shape words that fit a man I remembered as almost bizarrely enthusiastic. Imagine, if you will, a bit of Doc from "Back To The Future," a glug of Sylvester's "Sufferin' succotash," a mounded cup of Steve Martin, and a dash or three of the guys from Mythbusters... When things didn't go as planned, his standard enthusiastic response was "By God, that's FANTASTIC!" Deconstructing the mess, understanding what happened, was part of the daily game.


He was the father of a best friend & an active leader in our Boy Scout troop. His role in my life was largely between ages 10 to 18, and it would be silly to discount the impressionability of a lad... besides, what we were doing wasn't REALLY learning, it was playing around, right? At 16, my friend & I rigged a model rocket with a fireworks-filled tip and mounted it under the front bumper of my car, complete with launch wiring run to the dashboard. For the big reveal we sagely parked facing a tree farm behind the family house, and amidst the snickers and glimmering of eyes it was hard to tell if the boys in the car or the man in front of the house enjoyed the moment more. Even after the rocket veered wildly off-course, directly toward his dad, who ducked, which allowed for a splashy hit against the side of the house, he merely called out "I think you guys have to work on those flight controls a bit more," wavering betwixt sternness and glee. 


What he embraced & embodied was an exuberant curiosity. Unsuppressed, earnest engagement. Smacking his lips on the meal of life like a gourmand at a 5-star dinner, trying to divine and confirm the exact blend of herbs and spices in a delectable dish. It's an almost child-like quest for understanding, of learning not just "why," but why "why" matters, and what you can do with the knowledge... how it plays into the broader game at hand. 


Here at Backcountry Bonsai we live the same way. The fruits of our labors, the poking and prodding and questioning and delightful fails... all feed way to products that succeed in the woods, on the trails, and in life. Quirky? You BET! We don't have much interest in doing the same ol' just cuz that's how it's done. We want our goods to maximize our experiences... and yours. If we go about things differently, we do so because it works better. We strive for a ruthlessly purposeful industrial aesthetic that's moderated by appreciation for arts and crafts. We strive for function, and for accessibility to the products, yes, but beyond the products, access and engagement in your outdoor moments. 

A backpack full of Zen

Working as a packfitter I fielded all sorts of random questions about backpacking equipment. But a few years ago someone surprised me with a unique question: "What's the most Zen backpack?"

            My immediate response was, "No backpack at all." I wasn't trying to be flip or smart-alecky, it just seemed like the most reasonable and realistic response. The look on the guy's face, though, told me that I needed to come up with something more.

            "Look," I said. "If you want Zen, you don't want clutter. You don't want excess. You don't want a pile of stuff between you and life." I thought for a moment more. I envisioned saffron robes, shaved head, a wooden bowl, a blanket. Wandering, hands out-stretched, full of lifes bare necessities. Full hands seemed inconvenient. Impractical. Not Zen.

            It didn't strike me as Zen to make life needlessly difficult. The act of eschewing any worldly possession is, in itself, an obstacle to life. It creates a virtual or practical clutter even in its absence of things, by making things more difficult to do. Zen, after all, is not purely, or even mainly, about ascetism. It is about cognizance, and within that cognizance finding balance. For someone who wishes to travel the backcountry, striking out with literally nothing but the clothes on their back is not the most balanced approach. Not taking anything is, in a sense, a denial of the existence of the useful nature of everything.

            I continued talking with my customer. "The reality, though, is that it makes sense to bring a few essentials with you. Food, water, shelter. Seasonally-appropriate clothing. A source of fire for cooking and warmth. And it wouldn't be practical to walk through the woods with an armload of stuff. So it makes sense to carry your few things in some kind of bag or pack."

            "If you really want a Zen backpack," I continued, "then you need to conscientiously select 100% of the items you choose to take. You need to decide what your essentials are: they can differ for each of us. And the essentials can change, depending on the nature of your trip. If you go on a summer trip it'd be silly to bring a -40*F sleeping bag and an expedition parka—but it'd also be silly if you didn't bring those things on a winter trip in Alaska. In a way, knowing what to bring in your pack is another way of knowing—or learning about—yourself."

            "I guess if you really wanted a 'Zen' pack, the best place to start would be something relatively small and clean, uncluttered—just the basics. You don't want a big expedition pack. You don't want something that emphasizes ice axe attachments and avalanche gear. You don't want a bunch of extras and options—just a good, basic, functional pack. Probably something with a frame and a hipbelt, maybe around 40 liters in volume. The principles you're looking for are the same as those used by ultralight backpackers."

            I proceded to show the customer a few packs. He tried some on, we wrote a couple down, then he said thanks and went on his way. I spent the next week or two considering his question.

            "What's the most Zen backpack?"

            I'm not sure if it's the backpack itself that's the most important figure in this question, or if the items in the pack are more pertinent to the answer. Of course, it's some combination of the them; the pack and contents are inextricably linked and a reflection of the system as a whole. Less stuff is better. Stuff that encourages form to take shape from function. A big heavy synthetic sleeping bag will require a bigger, heavier backpack.

            I think that rooted within the question is the notion of self-reliance. How little can you take and still thrive? How little do you need to ensure your safety and comfort—to ensure your welfare? What is the least you can carry and still have fun? (Because, let's face it, if you're going backpacking it's probably for re-creation.) And will this load you decide to carry allow you to take care of yourself, or will you have to rely on others for subsistence, shelter and other aid?

            I got a little side-tracked when I started thinking about a pack that allowed for self-reliance. One of the first lessons I learned about backpacking—and life—as a Scout was that I had to keep myself strong and ready so that I could help others when they needed it. In my mind that somehow cemented as "I must always be strong and take care of myself, or I'll be weak and others will have to sacrifice for me. I'm a leader; I can't be the weak link. I always have to be the one taking care of others." I didn't understand that part of the deal was that others had to be strong when they could, too, and that sometimes I might need help—and that accepting that help was not only okay, but good. Only recently have I begun to understand that we cannot function independently—even as we carry our self-reliantly loaded backpacks we're depending on the support of others.

            Someone had to design the pack on my back. Their design was based in some way on their personal experiences and observations: in other words, their designs were inherently influenced by the designs of others before them. Someone had to make the design into a functional piece of equipment—and for them to do that, someone else had to make the material, someone else had to gather and process the raw resources. Even the most simple modern design executions are wildly complex—it's hard to truly comprehend the materials sourcing and manufacturing. It's hard to grasp multi-component synthetic weaves, how the fibers came to be. I suspect that for a pack to be as "Zen" as possible it would have to be made of materials that our consciousness can grasp. It is easier to connect on a level of reality with silks and cottons. But to insist on that would be to struggle down another hidden path. Better for now to work within the framework of what's available. What is real, now.

            I used to confuse self-reliance with being completely (and overly) "prepared." My pack would have fifty pounds of "stuff" before I added food. Fifty pounds of "essentials." Backpacking was hard work. I enjoyed being outside, and away from people and cities. I assumed, for years, that laboring under a heavy pack to cover a few miles was just what backpacking was about, just the way you do things. More recently I've come to realize that I had been carrying a lot of things I didn't really  need. "Comfort" items that actually reduced my comfort on the trail. My backcountry life, of all places and things, needed to be simplified.

            I'm now every bit as warm, dry and comfortable as I ever was—but I don't carry more than fifteen pounds (before adding food), and I enjoy my time on the trail much more. I can cover more miles, sure. But most importantly I can pay more attention to the trail and its surroundings than ever before. My trail life has been deeply enriched by having less gear, and gear that is eminently functional. Once I began to design and build my own backpacking clothes and equipment I became painfully aware of how much weight even seemingly insignificant options added: edge binding on a vest added 1.5 ounces to what had been a 3-ounce vest. Adding a draft tube and draft collar to a sleeping bag added over 2 ounces to a 12-ounce bag. I'm learning to eliminate excess materials and frills, both from my backpack and my life. Going backpacking now is more like going for a walk in the woods, and less like trudgery. I'm getting  rid of the excess. I conscientiously select every item in my pack. I've made several large donations to thrift shops of what I once considered essentials in my daily life. I'm learning to pare things down.

            As I consider the question "What's the most Zen backpack," I keep coming to one thought: A backpack full of Zen is one that is essentially full of consideration. A Zen pack is an examined pack, a life examined. Each and every component of the pack and its components have been conscientiously chosen or acknowledged. Each variable has been tailored as closely as possible to fit the needs of the user without excess.

            As a packfitter, people regularly ask me to identify the best pack. They come in, they see dozens upon dozens of packs on the wall, and they try to simplify their choice by asking me to direct them to the single "best" pack on the wall. "There isn't one," I tell them. "The best pack is the one that fits you and your needs the best. The only way to know which pack that'll be is to try a bunch of them on." The same is true of the most "Zen" pack, and the most examined or balanced life.

            The end result could be different for us all. But the deeper "answer" inside us all can be strikingly similar. The path we take to choose and fill the packs of our lives is one full of consideration. Of conscientious decisions. Of items completely adequate for a task but without extraneous frills or options. A Zen pack, like a Zen life, is one which seeks harmony and balance in fulfilling its obligations.