Better to have it and not need it?


from Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.

Earl Shaffer, first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker

When you mention that you tend to be a more minimalist minded backpacker, you will often hear the phrase “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” as a reason to pack a lot of gear.

Next to the equally inaccurate trope of You get what you pay for, the saying of “Better to have it and not need it” is a phrase that is outmoded for backpacking.

Via Creative Commons


And the phrase is not just trotted out for backpacking.

When I recently recertified some medical certs, the list of items suggested by the students (presumably active outdoors people) to carry ended up being monstrous.  I raised my hand, and in my usual subtle, (ha!)  but always polite (thanks Mom!) manner, said that we have a tendency to take gear in place of skill. And that a few carefully chosen items rather than the proverbial kitchen sink, and the skills to go with the chosen gear, will take a person further.  The instructor, an avid climber, happened to agree. She told a story of people who have too much gear getting in the way of climbing and even medical care.  The fellow students? I may as well have been speaking some secret code.

At its logical conclusion, this phrase is a truism. Of course, it is indeed better to have something and not need it.

But strictly adhering to this guideline means you are not only carrying too much weight when backpacking, but you are making outdoor pursuits overly complicated.  Too much gear means more to schlep,  a disorganized mess of “stuff,” and delaying the task at hand because you have too much to set up and sort through.

A tasty bowl of linguine and clams. Good for dinner. Not so much for as a model of organization.  From the Food Network.

Minimalist packing and the skills to go with the minimalist gear is far from new. 

Note I said “minimalist” and not ultralight.  For three-season backpacking conditions, I certainly go sub-10lbs. Winter? I’ll take different or additional gear.

But this frame of thought does not apply just to backpacking. When on a multi-month road trip, I did not pack all my gear. Space is limited. I had to take the appropriate gear to fit a wide range of conditions. And when winter driving, my car is packed appropriately, too.

And I am not saying you don’t take something for the sake of keeping a gear list artificially low in weight.  Not having the right tool for your job at hand is equally inefficient.

Our dispersed camp in the Tushars. To keep it simple, we used a mix of backpacking gear and the small car camping kit for the two different trips in one. We had all the gear we needed it. And no more.  PCO Joan W.

But the mindset of “Better to have it and not need it,” in my opinion, is indicative of the trend typical in the overall outdoor community. Meaning we tend to emphasize buying gear over learning skills and gaining experience.

Be Prepared” is a good motto. But, I am sure Baden Powell meant more than gear.

As Baden-Powell himself said:

The Scout Motto is: BE PREPARED which means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your DUTY.

  • Be Prepared in Mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.

  • Be Prepared in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it

Being prepared physically, mentally, experience-wise, having the skills, and taking the right gear is truly being prepared. Taking too much gear is, arguably, actually a sign of being ill-prepared.

So, let’s stop  saying “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” 

Instead, choose your tools carefully for the conditions, activity, trip goals, and have the skill to know how to use the gear correctly and when.   Your outdoor activities will be more efficient and less expensive.

And, probably more fun, too.

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Sean P
Sean P
5 years ago

This perfect because I’m currently cleaning out the gear closet. Maybe we should be saying, “Better to not have it at all than to have it and not need it.”

I think a lot of people seem to believe that there are perfect pieces of gear out there that will allow them to bypass skills and experience. As we all learn out in the field, nothing works perfectly in all situations and you need skills and know-how to use that gear properly. Good read, as always.

Bob Wallace
Bob Wallace
5 years ago

I agree – and also know that I do not have enough experience. Therefore, I don’t have that skill – so I do tend to “take it and not use it”. We know experience says to review your gear after a hike – but most of us (me) haven’t hiked enough. So I lean on all the experienced people I can. My base weight is about 17 lbs. I think I am doing good, know I can do better, but need more experience. Not worried about what others think right now. Going to hike, going to review, going to tweek… Read more »