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.
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.
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.
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.
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.