When Lightening-Up Moves Beyond the Backpack

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Submitted by damien on

This post was written early in 2012 as a guest post for a different blog, however it never did get published there. I have decided to publish it here instead, although some of the events and locations are "old news" for us :-)

hiking Carleton-Sur-Mer Gaspesie

Anyone who has pursued ultralight backpacking for any length of time quickly comes to the realization that it isn't just about buying gear made of titanium and cuben fiber. Yes we can lighten our load (and our wallets) by geeking out on high-tech gear, but if we really want to get serious we have to roll-up our sleeves and slog through a much more difficult process: self examination.

The self examination process is where we wrestle with our assumptions about what we "really need" vs what we "think we need" vs what we "want". There is no easier and cheaper way to shed excess pack weight than to discard something we don't need. It is also an incredibly liberating experience as it is one less thing to buy, break, manage, pack, or maintain. Our life gets simpler, our pack gets lighter, we save money, and we are empowered to do more with less.

Moving trailer with furniture

Isn't that what this is all about in the first place? Reducing a burden? With the reduced burden of weight we are empowered. For some with bad knees, it might be the difference between backpacking and not being able to do it at all. For others planning expeditions, it might be the difference between success and failure on a high mileage trek. While for people like myself with three kids it means that I can actually take my family backpacking and not be crushed under the wight of group gear.

Where things start to really get interesting though is when the process of self examination spills over into the rest of your life. When you start to look at your home like a backpack, and think crazy things like "I wonder how small of a house I could get away with?". Your mind starts to wander, thinking of what might be possible if only you could only unshackle from a few lifestyle burdens. If you have ever found your brain meandering down that path, rest assured you are not alone.

This is exactly where we found ourselves several years ago. We had passions, goals, and dreams. We also had burdens - which we often justified by referring to them as "responsibilities". It turns out that upon closer examination, many of those responsibilities are really just the fruit of inheriting a normal North American family lifestyle. To bring the analogy back to backpacking... our life was like we had walked into [insert-favorite-outdoor-store-here] and bought all the gear recommended by the salesman. Not a lot of thought had gone into things on our part, we were more-or-less just going with the flow. But we reached a point where we were starting to get intentional and wanted desperately to have a life more like that of an ultralight backpacker.

My wife and I wanted to position our family such that we could follow our passions and pursue interesting projects (that hopefully earn income!). The only way we would be able to come close to achieving any of those things would be to reduce the "burn rate": minimize the amount of energy we spend on maintaining our standard of living (organizing, repairing, cleaning, etc.), minimize our living "subscriptions" (i.e. monthly payments), and learn to be content with less. We needed to downsize.

Chalet kitchen at Christmas

2011 was our year for downsizing. We moved our family from a two-floor, 1200 square foot, four-bedroom house (complete with basement storage, garage, and attic) to a single-floor, 750 square foot, two-bedroom cabin (complete with crawl space, no garage, and no attic). We do however, have a small moving trailer parked in the driveway to use as a buffer as we continue to work out the details...

And there are a lot of details :-)

How many pots, pans, plates, cups and cutlery do we need? What do we do with the years of tools I have collected? What about all those toys? shoes? clothes? books? Do we REALLY need all that stuff?

We have also had to critically evaluate the usage of space. Take a bedroom for example. A bedroom is largely wasted space. It spends the majority of its time unused, and when it is used all we are doing is sleeping in it. How could we make a bedroom into a multi-purpose room...?

Once you head down this path you begin to realize that what you are doing is trading stuff for experiences. Experiences are way more fun. So, while you may have to learn to be content with less, it will hopefully be replaced by the contentment of doing what you love, with the people you love, more often.

skiing at the winter chalet

A few things we have discovered along the way:

  • Because we have less stuff, the quality and aesthetic of the things we do own has become more important.
  • Because we live in a small space we immediately analyze the value of any new thing that comes in the door. Is it worth the space this thing will take up? Can we get rid of something else in exchange?
  • The trick to getting the whole family on board with a drastic change such as this is to have a vision. A vision that everyone understands, and buys into. People are more willing to participate (and take ownership) of the process when they can get excited about the path forward.

Right now we are just in the trial period. We launched our new life last spring but we still own that large house and rent it out. The home we live in currently is a rental. We wanted to see how it would work, and if we could actually do it. Our long term goal (dream) is to build a 700 square foot yurt in the mountains somewhere. To travel. To work on cool projects together. To have the freedom to do what we want without being held back by the burden of stuff.

How has it been working out? So far so good. We are able to get outdoors more often, especially since we now can ski out our back door. We have managed to keep afloat financially, and we've managed not to drive each other crazy (yet!).

packing the trailer

Have the philosophies of packing less and packing lighter on the trail spilled over into your life? If so, how?




In my opinion it's sort of

In my opinion it's sort of weird that the idea to "downsize" or "slow" your life comes from backpacking, but it's good despite where it comes from...

I honestly believe that our lives would likely be better if we would - to certain extent - own less, work less and have less pressures to keep up a certain life style and standard of living. Working in projects or otherwise part time, living in a little cabin, foraging wild greens, fishing, sun & wind power for the little electricity needed, wood stove to warm the cabin, etc. That would be awsome! It's probably not for everyone and maybe it's better that way... But I'd like it. At the moment I'm technically homeless, my belongings stuffed in small single room cabin at my parent's place and trying to downsize them to fit into my car... Interesting to see where this all leads.

PS. You probably know Hig & Erin but worth mentioning as a great source of inspiration: http://www.groundtruthtrekking.org/blog/?cat=19

To bring the analogy back to

To bring the analogy back to backpacking... our life was like we had walked into [insert-favorite-outdoor-store-here] and bought all the gear recommended by the salesman.

That's a really excellent analogy.

Once you head down this path you begin to realize that what you are doing is trading stuff for experiences. Experiences are way more fun.

So true.

I have been slowly reducing our stuff levels for a couple of years now. We get less spare time than many families (for reasons too complicated to go into here) so it is taking a long, long time. However, the benefits just from a day to day living perspective have been worth it. It seems to me that much like reducing pack weight, downsizing our possessions can potentially become an end in itself rather then a means to an end. It also seems to me that it is possible to go "stupid light".

We still live in a large house, but it isn't a financial burden for us and is low maintenance. We are slowly going through the process of making our life more about doing what we love, but we do have some more complex issues to think about than some. However, a smaller off grid dwelling is in our future plans.

Good luck on your adventure.

So how many bathrooms did you

So how many bathrooms did you have in that cabin? We have quite a bit of space where we live, 2 bed, 1 bath, storage room, 2 car garage, 2 kids. The only complaint I have is the single restroom. We're definitely spread out compared to previous places we've lived.

The problem with bigger places is you don't end up having a good excuse to not buy something :)

Our family of four has lived

Our family of four has lived in a very small house (bach) for the last couple of years and we have discovered many of the same advantages. If there just isn't any room (and I hate to feel cluttered) then that's it. Truth be told we rarely buy anything these days :-)
Our "stuff policy" at home has been governed by our backpacking experiences years ago...."it's not so much guessing what I might need, as knowing what I can do without." This quote has lived on our fridge for years.