The HPG equipage taxonomy is a systematic approach to thinking about backcountry living systems -- what you need to carry and when. For seasoned backcountry travelers, it may serve as nothing more than a way of understanding under which circumstances each piece of gear we produce is most useful. For everyone else, we hope it serves as a good introduction to their own integration with a backcountry or austere environment.
Our Equipage taxonomy is based on the very solid military taxonomy of first line, second line, and third line. Since our focus isn't combat operations, we have made a couple of modifications. First, we've added a couple of sub-levels (.5 and 1.5) that represent very real distinctions in the gear we carry. Second, our taxonomy isn't universally additive - in the military system it is understood that if you are carrying 3rd line, you are by default also carrying 1st and 2nd line. For our uses, the higher "lines" or levels often replace one or more of the lower lines. For example, a backpacking trip consists of 0.5, 1.0, and 3.0.
Backcountry travel gear is the interface between you the individual and the environment in which you are traveling. As such, there are an inevitable series of trade-offs in any equipage plan:
- Different environments require differing equipage plans. Obvious, but worth re-stating. There is a lot of overlap between environments, but there are some significant differences. Our sample equipage plans (and even gear design) are biased heavily towards travel in high desert to montane environments up to timberline in the American west through all four seasons. This includes temperature ranges from -15f - 105f and ground conditions from dry to muddy to several feet of snow. Winds as well as violent and spectacular storm events are fairly common. One attribute that is pretty constant is relatively little precipitation. We've traveled a reasonable amount in the Cascades and Olympic peninsula and understand what those environments are like. In general, however, our precipitation plan is to not go where it rains all the time, and to laager up until the storm passes when it is raining.
- Your responsibility for others. As a solo traveler, you only need enough gear to look after yourself. But what if you want to be prepared to help others - either those you encounter, or those you are traveling with? That can impact your equipage plan significantly.
- The greater your knowledge of your environment, the less gear you can carry. First of all, if you have a very good sense of the environment you will encounter on a given trip, you can go light to start with on your shelter and insulation layers and be prepared to bail out if you see that the environment is moving outside the boundaries of what you expected. If you aren't interested in a bail out as part of your trip plan, you go heavier. If your knowledge of the environment and your sensitivity to it is in doubt, you go heavier. In another example, if you have a good sense of where the more sheltered eco-niches are in your environment (sleeping mid-slope in a dense copse of trees on a southern exposure for example) and you make use of them, you can go lighter on shelter and insulation layers than if you slept wherever you found yourself.
- The greater your skill level, the less gear you can carry. At it's extreme, a skilled bushcrafter with a good axe, saw, fire starting materials, and something to harvest game can build a cabin fit to survive the winter and with luck procure enough food to make it through until spring. However, this approach takes a huge amount of time. Would you rather carry an extra 3lbs and have a very snug little shelter that goes up in 10 minutes, or would you rather start camp construction every day after your nooning so you have enough daylight hours left to build a snug camp? Remember that if you are thermally stressed or hurt, your skill level goes down significantly. Plan accordingly.
- You are always operating within an energy envelope and every equipment and behavior decision affects that context. This is a very important concept that is rarely understood or addressed by backcountry travel educators. At the beginning of any journey, you have a baseline reserve of energy. This consists of your physical fitness and your mental fitness and it goes way beyond gym time. If you slept poorly the night before or are bothered by a personal problem, your overall fitness level is reduced before you take one step of your journey. Your ability to travel and your decision making ability are both compromised. Every step you take reduces your fitness level by some amount. Every recovery period you take increases your fitness level. In life, but especially in the backcountry, you should always be monitoring your fitness level and making decisions accordingly. What does this have to do with gear selection? Here is an example. You choose to travel with a modern "ultralight" load. Due to the much lighter weight of your pack, your fitness level isn't reduced nearly as much as you travel so you arrive at camp with a higher fitness level than you would otherwise. However, your sleeping pad is a 3/4 length closed cell ensolite pad and your shelter is a simple tarp. It takes you 45 minutes to get a good pitch on your tarp that protects you from the prevailing wind because there aren't any really good spots where you are. An hour after you lay down, you're still not sound asleep due to the discomfort of your sleeping pad. A storm blows in and the wind reverses 180 degrees. Instead of sheltering you, your tarp is now funneling wind and hail into your sleeping position. You throw on every piece of clothing you have and re-rig your tarp in the middle of the storm. After an hour of messing around, you're back in your bag and chilled. Finally you warm up and fall asleep exhausted for a fitful few hours of sleep. Come morning, your high fitness of the evening before is a distant dream and you're wishing you'd carried enough gear that the night's storm occasioned nothing more than a smile and rolling over in your bed to fall back into a deep and rejuvenating sleep. Or maybe no storm blew in at all and you wake up still ahead of where you would have been if you carried enough gear to weather the storm in comfort. A whole book could be written about the energy envelope and how it affects backcountry decision making and equipment selection, but hopefully the foregoing gives you enough of an outline to incorporate it into your own planning.
- You can't cheat the mountain. Bear Claw Chris Lapp of Jeremiah Johnson movie fame uttered our favorite piece of wisdom and it always applies. It doesn't matter how physically and mentally hard you are, there is some guy out there who is harder. And on the one day that you happen to be the hardest dude in the world, the mountain can still eat you for breakfast. Your equipage plan is a thin layer of insulation that, combined with the appropriate measure of humility, might keep you alive another day until the mountain eventually claims its due anyway. Plan accordingly.
All of these trade-offs, plus the arbitrary nature of any taxonomy, means that the HPG equipage taxonomy is subject to much variation between environments and individuals. Regardless, it is a useful heuristic for understanding how to think about integrating with your environment, and how to evaluate the gear we produce in the context of how it will be a useful part of your backcountry equipage. The taxonomy itself is to the right.