The versatility of gear is a topic I’ve discussed before. I’ve talked about theoretical versatility as opposed to practical versatility. In this post I wanted to offer a different perspective on the potential methods for evaluating versatility of gear. To that end I want to propose that there are two different ways to look at gear versatility. The first is to look at it from the perspective of each individual item, or piece of kit. The second is to look at the versatility of your kit as a whole. I believe this second method to be more productive and practical when it comes to outdoor gear.
It has been ingrained in us that each piece of gear has to be versatile; that it must have multiple uses, otherwise it is not worth carrying. This is nothing new. This criteria for judging each piece of outdoor gear has been gospel for a long time. Popular exercises of recent years such as “what three items would you bring” have reinforced that approach. The result has been that many people tend to evaluate the versatility of their gear based on how many tasks each individual item can perform.
In my opinion, that approach is not practical for selecting outdoor gear. When we carry gear into the woods, the number of items we bring is never a practical constraint on what we can carry. The practical constraints are weight and volume, not the number of pieces. So, an approach designed to minimize the number of pieces carried rather than the weight or volume of the total gear misses the point in terms of practicality.
I propose that we need to look at gear versatility from a kit perspective. Instead of looking at the potential uses of each items, we need to look at the potential uses afforded by the gear as a whole. I’ll try to explain through a few examples.
Let’s take as an example a blanket as a piece of gear. Using the first approach, and simply evaluating the versatility of the individual item, we would easily conclude that the blanket is a versatile piece of gear. It can be used as insulation while sleeping, it can be used as a coat when wrapped around you, and it can even be used as a tarp in an emergency. When compared to a sleeping bag, which has only one use as sleeping insulation, the blanket comes out on top as being more versatile. So, if we use the item mentality when evaluating versatility, the blanket turns out to be more versatile than a sleeping bag, and conventional wisdom dictates that it should be carried over the sleeping bag. This method for evaluating the value of items would be spot on if we had some random restriction on the number of pieces of gear we could bring.
However, that is not how things actually work in the woods. Other than in armchair-bushcraft exercises, we never have the restriction of number of pieces we can bring. The practical restrictions are ones of weight and volume. So, if we look at versatility through those practical constraints, the outcome is often different. If we look at our blanket, we will see that a blanket that will offer sufficient insulation down to 32F (0C), weighs about 5 lb. We will also see that a sleeping bag rated to 32F (0C) like the Mountain Hardwear Speed 32 for example, weighs 1 lb. So, leaving aside the artificial constrain of number of items carried, but rather using the practical constraint of weight, we can quickly see that for the same weight, i.e. 5 lb, we can bring the Mountain Hardwear Speed 32 sleeping bag (1 lb), a Patagonia DAS Parka (1 lb 8 oz), and a Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent (2 lb 8 oz).
So, if we look at versatility from kit perspective under realistic constraints, the options look rather differently. We no longer have a comparison between whether a blanket is more versatile than a sleeping bag, but rather we have the question of whether one set of 5 lb of gear is more versatile than another set of 5 lb of gear. Which kit is more versatile, a 5 lb blanket, or 5 lb worth of a sleeping bag, a parka, and a tent? In this case it’s clear that the second set of gear is more versatile. You can have insulation while at the same time having rain protection, and you can use your jacket inside your sleeping bag so you can sleep comfortably in even lower temperatures.
Let’s look at another example. Take for instance an oil cloth watch coat. If looked from an item mentality stand point, it is a versatile piece of kit. It can be used as a rain coat, and can also be set up as a shelter. It is certainly more versatile than a simple rain jacket which only serves one purpose. However, if we look at it from a kit mentality stand point, we see that the watch coat weighs 3 lb. For that weight you can bring a rain jacket, rain pants, and a tarp. When looked from that stand point, you get far more versatility from the same weight and volume of gear by going with the second option.
My point here is that we need to move past the obsession with whether each item has multiple uses, and need to start focusing on whether our gear as a whole can efficiently cover those same uses. Multi use items are great. However, if that item weighs as much as a group of single use items which do a better job at covering each of those uses, then from a kit stand point, you get more versatility from the group of single use items than the one multi use item.