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.