The Purist Philosophy

Rewards and Pitfalls of Ultra-Light Minimalism

In a previous article about Cell Phones and Safety in the Wilderness, I made casual reference to "the purist philosophy" and quoted a few purist arguments made by fellow paddling enthusiast and avid outdoorsman Bryan Hansel. Shortly after the article was posted, Hansel replied by e-mail to tell me that he was definitely not a "purist." Although the tone of his letter was courteous, it was clear that he had resented the implication.

Hansel's response took me entirely by surprise—especially since he is not only author to a thoroughly purist philosophy he calls "Nessmuking" but also maintains a minimalist-oriented website under the same name. Until now, it never occurred to me that "purism" might be misconstrued as a pejorative term, or that Hansel himself might balk at the title. Certainly, that was not my intention—especially since I myself agree with and admire some of purism's basic principles. Regardless, I am left with one of two conclusions: either the term "purism" is not as familiar as it once was, or my article's explicit critique of the particular purist attitude toward cell phones wrongly implied my broader disapproval of the philosophy as a whole.

Whatever the case, I think some clarification is in order regarding the purist philosophy and its particular advantages and disadvantages.

Purism is Not a Dirty Word

Purism is the broad, generic name for the minimalist philosophy which includes the core principles more popularly known as the "ultra light" or "go light" mentality. In Hansel's particular formulation, this philosophy is called "Nessmuking"—so named after George Washington Sears (a.k.a. "Nessmuk"), an early pioneer of the ultra light mentality. While its many different formulations may vary in name or in the particular prioritization of their concepts, the core principles of all purist philosophies are remarkably consistent. While terms such as "ultra light minimalism" connote a specific, practical emphasis on lightening one's load, however, the term "purism" includes the broader philosophy (of a more "pure" experience in the wilderness") which underlies and drives that effort. In its purest form (no pun intended), the purist philosophy advocates simplicity and self-reliance as the keys to a safer, more enjoyable, and more meaningful (hence "purer") encounter with nature. Like all philosophies, this sort of thinking has many pros and cons, but in the context of wilderness philosophies, there is nothing inherently pejorative about the term "purism." It's just one way (indeed, a very popular way) to understand the means and goals of a rewarding encounter with nature.

The Pros

The purist philosophy has much to teach us. First and foremost, purists rightly assert that the most important tool you can take into the wilderness is knowledge. Knowledge promotes skill and self-reliance. The more you develop your wilderness skills, the more independent you become, and the less you need to depend on your gear. As skills replace gear, your load lightens, your abilities expand, and your sense of accomplishment increases. While gear can break or malfunction, solid skills will never fail you. Even more importantly, there are countless wilderness scenarios which no piece of gear, no matter how sophisticated, can address, and only skill will see you through. Perhaps best of all, skills are rewarding to practice, simple to implement, and never cumbersome. Consequently, the real pay-off of the purist philosophy is its emphasis on simplifying the whole experience of wilderness travel by cutting out the clutter—the cumbersome gadgets and unnecessary gizmos—which often distract one's attention away from the simple beauty and easy enjoyment of the outdoors. To this extent, I am in complete agreement with the purist philosophy and value what it tries to teach.

The Cons

However well-intended, purism also has its downsides—some of which can be extremely serious. One major drawback of the purist philosophy is its tendency to put novices in danger by inadvertently encouraging reckless practices. While the heart of the purist philosophy is to replace gear with skill, and uncertainty with knowledge, most people tend either to overestimate their abilities or to underestimate the potential dangers of the wilderness. Consequently, devotees of the purist philosophy may form unrealistic impressions about their own level of self-sufficiency or what is required for a safe wilderness trip. First-Aid is often one of the first categories to suffer. Navigation is another. Many novices feel they possess sufficient know-how in these vital areas if they know how to dress a wound or find North on a map, but serious First-Aid and Navigation skills go far beyond the scope of these simple tasks. A novice armed with premature skill and incomplete knowledge may know just enough to feel confident and venture into the woods ill-prepared, but when a real crisis strikes, the experience may prove fatal.

For those purists who do possess sufficient skill to be self-reliant in the woods, there is another serious downside to purism: the pride factor. An alarming number of purists take the philosophy's well-intentioned urge toward minimalism to a fanatical extreme, espousing its "less is more" ideology with a zeal that approximates religious fervor and frequently leads to impractical, even dangerous, sacrifices. The purist philosophy goes seriously awry when it loses sight of its primary aim to improve the wilderness experience, and devolves, instead, into an obsessive drive to shave every last ounce from one's gear. Unfortunately, an alarming number of purists get hung up on the latter at the expense of the former. When shaving ounces becomes a matter of pride, not practicality, significant measures of safety and comfort get sacrificed in order to shave a mere one or two pounds. So it is that many "die-hard" purists can be found wandering the woods with insufficient food stores, inadequate clothing, and little or no effective means of filtering water, building a fire, obtaining shelter, or signalling for help. Sure, with the aid of luck and fortunate weather, many such ill-equipped purists may survive countless forays into the wilderness without incident. But when the luck factor evaporates, those same purists may quickly find themselves in a life-threatening situation or, at the very least, unable to enjoy the miserable experience which may result.

The prideful obsession with minimalism gives rise to another serious downside of purism: Rather than apply purist values rationally to consider the potential merit or utility of some new piece of gear, many purists feel obligated to ridicule, malign, or condemn as "useless" any item which they personally don't admire or choose to carry. Often, they do so with a measure of hostility which the situation hardly calls for, demonstrating the extent to which (however illogically) they feel threatened by the prospect of (gasp!) adding to their cargo, as if it were the worst kind of sin. This is the brand of purism which I was referring to in my article on Cell Phones and Safety in the Wilderness, which I described as a "relic of the 1960s 'hippie-generation' philosophy." I described it that way because this tendency appears to be an extension of the classic resistance to, and rebellion against, the "evils" of technology—a tendency which is still a form of purism, but which digresses from those positive purist aims I praised earlier. The severe drawback of this tendency to slide into a defensive, anti-technology ideology is that it leads an astonishing number of purists to reject gear which offers immense practical value or enhanced safety, simply because it is new, technological, and possesses perceptible weight (a negative, even if it only weighs mere ounces). In such cases, logic is overridden by an irrational fear of change and a fanatical devotion to an inconceivably strict idea of purism. Yet oddly enough, when such strict purists do find gear which appeals to them, they suddenly find a host of ways to justify it as "essential" gear, as if it would be an unbearable shame to admit that they have committed the sin of embracing some piece of gear for the sake of convenience or luxury instead.

The Short Take on Purism

Purism is an immensely valuable philosophy that should be embraced, but not without qualification. Like all philosophies, it can go awry if the practitioner loses sight of purism's real goal: a better, simpler, more satisfying experience in the wilderness. Authentic purism demands a serious focus on simplification and self-reliance, not a simple calculation of total weight. Solid skills can and should replace unnecessary gear which can be safely discarded, but it should not replace gear which could prove vital to your well-being. Unfortunately, most purist-derived philosophies which advocate "ultra-light" practices lose sight of this fact. That's one reason why my own, purist-oriented thin-fish packing philosophy deliberately de-emphasizes the concern for weight by giving higher priority to other factors (packability, versatility, reliability, and convenience) and relegating essential safety gear to its own, independent category based almost exclusively on need, not weight. My hope is to restore a better appreciation for the original spirit of the purist philosophy, rather than the fanatical form it often takes and which my article Cell Phones and Safety in the Wilderness specifically responds to.

That said, I don't consider myself a "purist" in the strict sense because I also believe that one's experience in the wilderness can sometimes be augmented by the addition of a few decidedly unnecessary items: an extra pair of clothes, a small camera, a GPS, a good camp stool, a cell phone, or other "luxuries" which add substantial comfort without seriously intruding on the experience (i.e., no radios, televisions, portable grills, porta-potties, or other "family camping" stuff that effectively transports your entire living room into the outdoors—and often annoys fellow campers).

The "Common Sense" Factor

So how does a devoted purist draw the line between necessity and indulgence? How can a purist decide what is prudent to carry, and what is safe to discard? There is no exact science for answering these questions, but good "common sense" (which is increasingly less "common," it seems) dictates that you should not make any sacrifices which put you at any likely risk of real danger or serious discomfort.

Some examples may help to illustrate the point: Can you do without a tent in favor of a tarp? Sure, as long as you're not camping in dense mosquito country. Are you willing to trade your heavy Coleman lantern for a featherlight LED headlamp? Great, I say do it. Would you prefer to replace your 9-ounce camp stove with a 2-ounce homemade (but reliable) pop-can alcohol stove? Be my guest. Should you leave your cell phone at home? Many people say yes, I say no, but neither choice is overtly reckless by itself, so follow your instincts. All of these decisions can be made without any severe impact on your comfort or safety, as long as you understand the trade-offs involved.

Other corners, however, should not be cut.

You may have the know-how to light a fire without matches, but even the most talented outdoorsman would be hard-pressed to do so after a heavy rain. Carrying a reliable lighter or a few matches and some dry tinder could spare you from hypothermia. You may know how to build a terrific shelter out of sticks and weeds, or think it's preferable to sleep under a tree, but carrying a portable shelter (or at least a basic tarp) will do wonders for your comfort if you fall sick and have to rest for a day or two in wet or windy conditions. You may have the experience and skill to navigate by sun, stars, and topography, but no wilderness traveler should ever lack a map and compass. You may be an accomplished spear-fisherman, but don't count on catching all your food. Always pack at least a few meals along from home in case the fishing proves poor. And yes, you may be able to survive for weeks on a strict diet of lightweight Ramen, granola, and trail mix, but a more varied and complete diet will keep you in higher spirits, with more stamina and less chance of illness.

The list goes on, but the point should be clear: Build reliable skills in the wilderness, but don't force yourself to depend on skill alone, which can prove just as dangerous as depending solely on your gear. The goal is to strike a happy balance between solid skills (which no adventurer should lack) and mildly redundant gear (which both complements and bolsters your skills), so that your skills can pick up the slack if your gear fails, and vice versa. In this way, you can be reasonably assured (though never guaranteed) of a safe, enjoyable, unimpeded experience in the wilderness.

Final Words

Ultimately, your own personal comfort and safety needs (as well as the unique demands of a particular trip) must dictate what can be prudently omitted from your cargo, but be sensible. Make sure you're not sacrificing your safety or any of your basic needs. Remember, the essence of purism is not about proving how much you can leave behind; it's about purifying your encounter with nature by removing your dependence upon such items. At the end of the day, no matter what anyone tells you, there's nothing "wrong" or "intrusive" or "impure" about carrying along anything that you deem either useful or essential to your safety or enjoyment in the outdoors.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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