A little planning goes a long way…
When I started working at Life Tools in 1991 I learned to fit backpacks. Big backpacks. Customers were coming into the shop looking for packs that could take them on two-week adventures. Lowe Contour IVs, Gregory Wind Rivers, Mountainsmith Frostfire IIs–big packs pushing 6000 cubic inches. In those days, the idea was to get a pack that would carry you through your most ambitious adventure. You didn’t want to skimp on capacity.
By the time I left LT and was working with my friends Troy and Pam as a rep for Osprey things had changed. Ten years after the heyday of big packs our dealers told us that demand for large load haulers had dried up. Interest has shifted to smaller packs more suited to a weekend on the trail than an extended backcountry adventure.
The short answer, I think, is time.
Nobody has any anymore.
Twenty years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to plan a 10-day or two week outing in the mountains. Today, most folks are hard pressed to put together a block of time that long away from work. Year after year surveys of outdoor participation show that one of the biggest barriers to participation is free time.
We all seem to have less free time available to us, and competition for that free time is fierce. Digital devices provide a constant stream of distraction. We don’t leave our jobs at the office anymore, they follow us home in emails and texts. Weekends are packed with catch-up tasks around the house. It’s tough to break away for a couple days, let alone a week.
The upshot is that when we do have an opportunity to break away for an adventure we need to take it. Outdoor adventures don’t just happen on their own. You have to make them happen. And the best way to do that is with a plan.
Which brings me to the 80 Percent Kit.
The 80 Percent Kit is a concept that you can use to simplify packing for impromptu adventures. Like the Simple Clothing System and Possibles Pouch, its a way to eliminate barriers to packing, planning and getting out the door. The idea is simple: put together a core of camping gear that represents about 80 percent of what you would take on any trip. Assemble this equipment in one place, preferably in one big duffel bag. When opportunity presents itself, grab the bag and fill out the last details on the way to the car.
I’m talking about a truly universal kit for outdoor travel. It doesn’t matter if you’re going backpacking, canoeing or sea kayaking, your 80 Percent Kit should be up to the task. The final 20 percent will account for the specifics of your plan. If you’re headed out on a solo canoe trip your kit goes into a portage pack and the canoe goes on the roof rack. If it’s a backpacking overnight the kit goes into your pack. A fist full of dry bags will get you on the water in a sea kayak. You get the idea.
I’ve kept an 80 Percent Kit ready to go for the past couple years. The specifics of the gear included in my “go bag” shift from season to season, but the principle remains the same. You’ll need to plan for shelter, sleep, cooking at a minimum.
Here’s what’s in my 80 Percent Kit right now:
If I’m headed out alone I pack an ultralight sil-nylon tarp that I sewed years ago off the pattern in Ray Jardine’s book Beyond Backpacking. Under this tarp I sling a Sea to Summit Escapist Inner Bug Tent. A Tyvek ground sheet rounds out my tarp system. This complete shelter system weights less than two pounds and is big enough for Cristi and I to share on ultralight trips.
If Pedro is joining the party we need a little more room. In this case we swap out the bug shelter for an REI Quarter Dome 3. This airy tent doesn’t weight much more than 5 pounds and has plenty of room for the three of us. Tarp and ground sheet stay in the kit.
My go-to sleeping bag is a ragged-out Kelty Polarguard bag that I bought back when I worked for Outward Bound in Ely. It was supposed to be a 20 degree bag when new. Now it’s closer to a 40 or 50 degree bag, but I like the fact that I can dry my clothes overnight in a synthetic bag without it flattening the loft. If it gets cold I sleep in my clothes.
My sleeping pad is a Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Long. It’s pricey but it is amazingly plush, warm enough for three season use and not much heavier than a Z-Rest Pad. I pack a Cocoon Ultralight pillow plus a fleecy pillow stuffsack for comfort.
My 80 Percent camp kitchen is basic. For cooking I pack a Jetboil MiniMo–a sub-pound stove and pot combination that boils water in a flash. The MiniMo runs on Isobutane canisters, so one of these is packed as well along with a scrap of green scrubbie for cleanup.
Personal eating gear is usually limited to an Aladdin mug, titanium spoon and MugMate coffee filter. These items are detailed in my post about the Possibles Pouch. A lightweight plastic bowl is in the kit but doesn’t always make the cut.
For water filtration I pack a Sawyer Squeeze. This compact filter is lightweight and easy to use. I improved mine by swapping the mylar squeeze bags for a Smart Water bottle. The bottle is easier to fill than the mylar bags and works almost as well for pushing water through the filter. If you’re looking for a more detailed dive into hacking the Squeeze you’ll find it here.
Along with the Squeeze I pack a single water bottle. Frequently a 1 liter Nalgene widemouth. For ultralight backpacking I swap this bottle for a Smart Water bottle with a flip top.
Odds and Ends
A few final items complete the gear list. I pack a stout plastic trowel for digging cat holes. This rides in a small stuff sack with some paper towel to serve as TP.
Clothing and sleeping kit ride in two 20 liter Sea to Summit eVent Dry Sacks. These roll-top bags are dry unless submerged and light enough for backpacking. I have an ultralight Big Agnes Pumphouse stuff sack that doubles as a pump for my sleeping pad, and this might make the cut as a clothes bag instead of one of the eVent sacks. Just depends on what the weather looks like and how many extra layers I’m packing.
Food goes in two or three home-made stuff sacks. I pack a length of para cord to sling these up in a tree if I’m traveling in bear country.
Putting it Together
With the gear listed above I’m ready for a quick backcountry adventure on short notice. All that remains to be added to the 80 Percent Kit is food, clothing and a pack to stuff it into.
For food I keep a handful of freeze dried meals on hand. I typically pack a freeze dried meal for dinner, cheese, sausage and nuts for lunch, and coffee for breakfast. Your culinary preferences may be more elaborate than this, but it shouldn’t be hard to put together a few meals for a long weekend on short notice. If you have a few dried dinners on hand you can probably round things out by raiding the pantry on your way out the door.
I’ve covered outdoor clothing suggestions in a series of posts outlining a suggested Simple Clothing System for outdoor adventures. If you don’t want to dig all the way into this series of posts you can cut to the chase by reading this article on what to wear in different seasons of the year. If you use the Simple Clothing System approach you’ll always know what to pack and what to leave behind. This takes all the guesswork out of packing for an adventure on short notice.
Pack it Up, Pack it In
My go-to backpack for the past decade has been a Go Lite Jam pack. This ultralight pack holds about 60 liters of gear and weighs just a hair over a pound. Problem with the Jam is that it doesn’t carry comfortably when the load creeps above 25 pounds. On a hike up to Cold Mountain a few seasons ago I had to carry fresh water to my summit camp from a spring at the base of the ridge. The full water bag took my Jam pack out of the comfort zone and I started looking for an upgrade. I eventually settled on a Granite Gear Crown 2 60–a sub 2-pound pack that handles loads up to 40 pounds or so without too much trouble.
On lightweight solo canoe trips I can fit all my gear easily into a Granite Gear Quetico pack. The Quetico rides better in a solo canoe than a conventional backpack, and offers a little more room than the Crown for packing canoe camping luxuries.
Sea kayak trips replace backpack and portage pack with dry bags. My favorite dry bags are Cascade Designs Kodiak Sacks. These urethane coated nylon bags are tough and slide easily into the nooks and crannies of a kayak. Most of my bags are 10 liter size. I have a few tapered Kodiak Sacks that fit into the bow and stern of my kayak, and a handful of heavier Baja and Black Canyon drybags for stowing gear beyond the footrests in the cockpit if necessary.
[Cascade Designs doesn’t make the Kodiak Sacks anymore, which is a shame because they’re much easier to pack in a kayak than conventional PVC dry bags, and they hold up better than ultralight nylon drybags. Like the man said, “if it’s good, they’ll stop making it.” ]
What About the 20 Percent?
The 80 Percent Kit covers the fundamentals and if I head out the door with nothing more I’ll be fine most of the time. Certain adventures require a few more bits of gear, and that’s where the other 20 percent fits in.
On the hike up to Cold Mountain I knew I would need to pack water to a dry camp, so I carried a Platypus zip water bag. For a weekend on the Georgia Coast I would need even more water. In this case, my MSR 10L Dromedary Bags make the cut. In heavy bear country I’ll pack a bearproof canister for extra security. Canoe and kayak trips put the emphasis more on comfort and less on weight, so it’s tempting to throw in a Crazy Creek chair, Gransfors Bruk hatchet and Silky Gomboy Saw. And when it comes to winter trips, all bets are off. The whole kit gets revised.
The point isn’t that the 80 Percent Kit is perfect for every trip. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough 80 percent of the time. That’s good enough to get you out the door for a quick weekend or overnight. It’s good enough to get you off the couch, away from the screen and into the woods for a quick recharge.
And 80 percent of the time that’s just what the doctor ordered.
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