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Being Systematic About Outdoor Gear

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Nothing dooms a trip like slipshod preparation. It only takes one or two little mistakes. Many a veteran backpacker has seen a trip ruined for lack of a map, knife, salt or match. Still more common is the beginner who, determined to camp in comfort, can barely stagger up the trail under a gargantuan load. . . . By systematizing the job to reduce the work, one can make getting ready a pleasant prologue to the trip.

—Robert S. Wood, “Getting Ready,” The Best About Backpacking, page 13



A system is a set of components that work together to achieve one goal. These components may change with climate or personal needs. Systems needed for backpacking include a cooking system, a sleeping system, a shelter system and a pack system.

—Carol Wellman, My Journey to Freedom and

Ultralight Backpacking, Fire Creek Press, p. 112


Central Issues Addressed in This Article

What does it mean to take a highly systematic approach to outdoor gear? How useful would be the idealized nine-step approach to outdoor gear recommended in this article? What approach do you currently use in dealing with your outdoor gear and how effective is it? Do you maintain a computerized master list (spreadsheet?) of all your gear? What are the pros and cons of being quite systematic in organizing gear for trips into the wilderness? When, if ever, should you take such an approach?


Most hikers will take a systematic approach to their gear at some time or other (e.g., preparing for long trips or expeditions farther away from civilization). Most will not be systematic when going on a short day hike of only a few hours. But what is involved in being systematic, either for all trips or only rarely?

This article is based upon two closely related concepts: being “systematic” (an adjective) and conceptualizing and utilizing a “system” (a noun). The Oxford American Dictionary defines the former as “done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.” It defines the latter as “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular, a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.” In this article, I will use both concepts, sometimes independently and sometimes together.

Systematic Process for Selecting and Organizing Gear: Short Version

The body of this article describes an idealized nine-step process for selecting and organizing gear. To provide an initial understanding of this recommended process up front, here is a highly condensed version:

·      Carefully select your CATEGORIES for developing gear lists.

·      Construct a MASTER GEAR LIST using the chosen categories.

·      From your master gear list, develop a CUSTOMIZED GEAR LIST for each trip of any duration.

·      Develop highly detailed SUBSYSTEM LISTS of gear options (e.g., cooking, sleeping, footwear, navigation) for the most important and most problematic categories.

Why Use a Systematic Approach?

Before getting into the details of my recommended systematic approach, it is important to answer the Why? question. Especially why should an experienced hiker be concerned with such a mundane topic as gear lists and gear organization? Isn’t this something that properly belongs in How To articles for novices? 

There are many reasons for being systematic, but the short answer is: our life and well being, as well as the well being of others, may depend upon it. The reference to “others” here includes search and rescue (SAR) personnel. Here are four more reasons:

·      The longer the journey and the further from the trailhead, the more important our gear choices become.

·      Being systematic becomes much more important if going light or solo.

·      Well-constructed gear lists are essential to fully enjoy backcountry adventures, especially those that are different from our usual trips.

·      The more gear we accumulate and the more skilled, knowledgeable and experienced we become, the more choices we are faced with regarding effective use of our gear.

The above provides some concise answers to this Why? question. A more detailed and in-depth answer will be offered in a later section after an exposition of my recommended nine step processes.

Preparing for Longer Backcountry Trips, Systematically: A Nine-Step Process

 Consider the following idealized and highly systematic approach to organizing and selecting gear. These nine steps are most important if you regularly take longer trips into the backcountry. The steps are listed in a logical, but not rigid order. 

 STEP ONE—Carefully Select Your Own Gear Categories (Sub-Systems)

There are many ways to organize and select gear for a trip. Some are very elaborate spreadsheets; others some scribbled notes on a piece of paper at a planning meeting. One recommended list uses six basic categories: carried clothing, worn clothing, essentials, luxury and comfort items, consumables, shared group gear. Colin Fletcher, in his Complete Walker series, has constructed an extensive master gear list using the analogy of house and home to categorize: foundations, walls, kitchen, clothes closet, furniture and appliances, etc. Even though breakdowns like these are interesting and make sense, my research and gear priorities lead me to select the following longer list of categories for my gear lists.

Footwear System

Packing System

Shelter and Sleeping System

Base-layer Clothing

Insulating Clothing

Outer-layer Shell Clothing

Hats and Gloves



Health and Hygiene

Navigation System




Special Needs Gear


Instead of adopting my list of categories or someone else’s, consider selecting your own. The specifics in your chosen category list will then reflect your own unique priorities and what works best for you in the field. For example, some go with only cold food, so no “Cooking” category would be chosen. Those who use only one pair of boots or shoes and one type of socks for all trips will probably not have a “Footwear” category. Some use one pack for all trips, so there is no need for a “Packing System”. Those hiking in hot or temperate climates will probably have no need for three clothing categories. My gear closet contains many options in my chosen categories so they become important priorities on my gear list. To assist your category selection process, see the document titled “Constructing Gear Lists.”

 STEP TWO—Develop a Master Gear List

Obtain a digital weighing scale that has the capacity to weigh in tenths of ounces as well as in grams. Proceed to construct a comprehensive master gear list that includes the weight (in ounces or in grams) of every item in your gear closet, no matter how small. Include gear items currently used, items you might use on future trips and items desired for future acquisition. However, do not include items you haven’t used in the last couple of years, even though they are in your gear locker.  For an example, click on the link, “Don’s Master Gear List Format” to see the first page of my multi-page list. If your master gear list turns out to be several pages long like mine, consider formatting those items you take on most trips in bold print to make them stand out. I highly recommended using a computerized spreadsheet document to input this data into your master gear list. This way you will be able to add, subtract and edit items without redoing to whole list.

Your Master Gear List should have several columns. Consider using these four columns as a minimum: category (e.g., “Outer Layer Shell Clothing”), function (e.g., “waterproof and breathable parka”), brand, model, size  (e.g., “royal blue, REI three layer Goretex, parka”), gear weight (e.g., 18.0 oz).  Under the function of “waterproof shell parka,” my personal list has separate lines for the three models of waterproof parka I currently own and use. Over the years, I have accumulated three different styles of sleeping pads (closed cell foam, self-inflating mattress, insulated air mattress). Within these three styles, I own ten different pads, each providing different levels of insulation, comfort, length, width and weight. Weights range from 2 to 46 ounces. Lengths range from 18 to 76 inches. Of the ten owned sleeping pads, six deserve a line on my master gear check off list because I use each on occasion. The older I get, the more I take an air mattress (so these are bold printed), but insulated pads are still an option.

[Note: in the longer store version of this article, steps 3-9 of the recommended process are developed in detail.]


The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 22 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Being Systematic About Outdoor Gear – Word Format

Being Systematic About Outdoor Gear – PDF Format

The following sub-topics are developed in the complete article:

Systematic Process for Organizing Gear: Short Version

Why Use a Systematic Approach?

Preparing for Wilderness Trips, Systematically: A Nine-Step Process

Additional Observations on STEP ONE: Carefully Selecting Gear Categories

Additional Observations for STEP TWO: Develop Master Gear List

Additional Observations for STEP THREE: Prioritizing Trip Goals

Additional Observations STEP FOUR: Customized Trip Gear Lists

Additional Observations STEP NINE: Obtain Gear Systematically

Reader Participation: Sequence of Adding to Gear Closet

Advantages to a Systematic Approach: An In Depth Answer

Criticisms of Systematic Approaches to Gear

Reader Participation: Customized Step-By-Step Sequence

Utilizing a Systematic Decision Making Process to Resolve a Specific Gear Problem

Additional Issues for Reflection

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