The Inverted Ten Essentials Scale: A Very Bad Idea
The Inverted Ten Essentials Scale (I.T.E.S.) ranking system is a completely irresponsible way of approaching minimalism on the trail. You can take my word for it: I invented the grading method. Therefore I can attest to its foibles, shortcomings, and dangers. But I.T.E.S. is not meant to be a philosophy in and of itself intent on propagating minimalism for its own sake. It is merely a method for assigning a rating to an effort, to be applied after the fact.
I came up with the idea for the Inverted Ten Essentials Scale when I was chuckling to myself over a copy of a nationally published trail magazine. Yet again, in a graphic sidebar, with its nagging subtext, I was being lectured about what was absolutely necessary to carry. As I perused the familiar list, I was amused by how few of the Ten Essentials I usually carried on the trail. And that gave me the idea of assigning a numerical value to the disparity between the Ten Essentials and the number of those essentials one actually carries. This number could then be used to compare the style or purity of an unsupported effort, whether it be an ultrarun, fastpacking trip, or thruhike.
Over the weeks, I mentioned my idea for I.T.E.S. to many of my ultrarunner and adventurer friends. They all responded one of two ways: either they laughed and immediately started calculating their own I.T.E.S. score for a recent trip, or their tone became stern and they warned me that it would be wildly irresponsible of me to publicly propose such a grading system. Either way, I could tell I was on to something.
The Ten Essentials (10Es) was originally developed by The Mountaineers, and consisted of a list of precisely ten items intended to address two questions of backcountry survival: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night—or more—out? The Classic Ten Essentials are comprised of a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, firestarter, matches, knife, and extra food. As of the 8th edition of "Mountaineering: The Freedom Of The Hills" The Mountaineers have re-envisioned the 10Es as the Ten Essential Systems: navigation (map & compass), sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen), insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp/flashlight), first-aid supplies, fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candle), repair kit and tools, nutrition (extra food), hydration (extra water), and emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag).
Obviously, ten is an artificially round number, and by that very tidiness is unlikely to be precisely the number of items that are absolutely essential. And the items listed on the 10Es very slightly depending on who is promoting them, whether it be the Washington Trails Association, the American Hiking Association, The Sierra Club, or any number of other organizations or governing bodies. Therefore, because of the gravitas and influence born by these groups, the idea of venturing into the backcountry with fewer than 10 of the 10Es has become anathema to most people's idea of responsible wilderness travel. But questioning the soundness of conventional wisdom is a lifelong practice of mine which has served me well. And not even widely honored backcountry commandments like the Ten Essentials can escape my heretical mental vivisection. To my mind, the Ten Essentials are neither ten nor are they essential.
Consider the Boy Scouts, one of the many vocal proponents of the Ten Essentials, albeit rebranded as the "Scout Outdoor Essentials". In many ways, even at 42 years of age, I wish I were a better Boy Scout, and still aspire to doing a better job of upholding the Scout Law. Goodness knows the world would be a better place if I could be a little bit more trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And there is obvious logic to the motto "Be Prepared". What concerns me is the open-ended scope of that guideline. Be Prepared ... for what? For ANYTHING? There is definitely a tipping point beyond which each additional item you carry in order to be prepared for anything increases the odds of anything happening. Not like a self-fulfilling prophecy, more like a feedback loop. Being prepared for anything necessitates itself. The more you carry, the more likely you are to need the things you carry. I propose that "Be Reasonably Prepared" is a more elegant principle.
The I.T.E.S. system is easy to use to grade your performance in these terms. Simply add up the number of items from the Ten Essentials list that you carried. The lower the number, the more pure the effort and the better the style. So the "Be Prepared For Anything" crowd would always be pinning the I.T.E.S. meter at a 10+ out of 10 Essentials. The "Be Reasonably Prepared"s would be a 6 or 7 out of 10, maybe less.
However I realized that a more nuanced grade was needed, another data point. There's also a disparity between the number of the Ten Essentials that I actively take, and those I passively take. So I revised the formula to g/n/10+. For instance, every pack I own (except for my old Dana Designs workhorse) has a whistle built in to the buckle on the sternum strap. A whistle is not on the classic or modern version of The Mountaineers Ten Essentials (the O.G. of 10E lists), but is included by the Boy Scouts of America and the American Hiking Society. Since a whistle is not universally considered one of the Ten Essentials it is denoted as a 10+1, an add on to the Ten Essentials. I also include the whistle in my count of gross 10Es, but not my net 10Es. The gross total includes all 10Es and add-ons you are carrying, whether by design or accident and whether you use them or not. Net 10Es are all 10Es you carry by choice and use. So if I was carrying 6 n10Es plus my pack had a built in whistle I would not carry otherwise, and my watch had a built in compass that I would not elsewise have bothered with, that would be rated an I.T.E.S 8/6/10+1. (A compass is universally considered one of the 10Es, so it is included in the 10 and not added on with a +1 as is the whistle.)
As examples I have assigned I.T.E.S. grades to my two successful Only Known Time projects: the 2012 Double Wonderland, and the 2013 Sextuple Grand Canyon Rim to Rim. The Double Wonderland rates a 6/4/10+1 according to the I.T.E.S. system. The Sextuple Rim To Rim also garners an I.T.E.S rating of 6/4/10+1. For the Double Wonderland I carried a knife (universal 10E) but not a map (also a universal 10E). On the Sextuple Rim To Rim I carried a map, but not a knife. Both of these projects could accurately be graded a 4/10, but since I was burdened with an unwanted sternum strap whistle and built-in compass on my watch, the 6/4/10+1 rating gives a more detailed idea of what was actually at my disposal in a survival situation.
I have the goal of not carrying anything that has only a single purpose. To my reasoning, anything I carry that I don't use is just additional weight, weight which burns calories, wears on muscles and minds, and taxes ligaments. My experience of the universe and its sense of humor is such that I would expect a first aid kit to cause me injury, so I don't carry one. My plan is to use clothing and, if necessary, pieces of my pack to improvise bandages and splints and slings as necessary, with the main goal being to insure that they aren't necessary.
By no means do I carry an extra day's worth of food. I try to carry only exactly as much food as I will need, erring on the side of risk, preferring to carry a little less than necessary, rather than a little more. I have fat stores that could keep me alive for a week in a survival situation. Other factors will cost me my life well within that time frame, so I don't fear starving to death. And in the hundreds of survival stories I have studied, I can't recall a single instance of someone starving to death. Dehydration kills much too quickly for that.
Again, I try to carry exactly as much water as I will need. This has caused me trouble, but not of the life-threatening sort. In the Grand Canyon, due to a number of idiosyncratic but completely avoidable factors, I filled a bottle with untreated water out of Bright Angel Creek. It was warm and tasted swampy and immediately registered as the sketchiest water I had ever imbibed. I drank less than 1/4 of that bottle, but it was enough for me to contract giardiasis. Weeks later I was light headed, lethargic, had no appetite, and was losing a dangerous amount of weight. Moreover, I lost the months of June and July for adventuring and have left numerous planned OKT projects on the table as a result. But I was in no immediate danger on the trail. And numerous detailed accounts I have read of people suffering extreme or deadly dehydration demonstrate over and over that while dehydration kills far more quickly than starvation, it still takes time. Many people survive for 24 to 36 hours without water beyond the time they initially become desperately thirsty.
For clothing, I never carry anything I consider "extra". I carry a wool shirt, neck gaitor and arm sleeves, one or two fleece hats, wool liner gloves, weatherproof shell mitts, a puffy jacket, and puffy pants, and I do so intending to use every piece of gear. But I think many of these items do fulfill the spirit of "extra clothing" in the 10Es.
I carry a brimmed hat for sun protection, but do not carry sun block or sunglasses. I run very hot, so sunglasses are either fogged up from body heat, or streaked with dripping sweat. Either way, they end up obscuring my vision rather than protecting or enhancing it. It's extremely rare that I use sun block at any time in my life. And I am so long conditioned to bear safe travel that I simply would not slather myself in a rich, tropical scented marinade, even if it is SPF 50+.
I.T.E.S. is the result of an untethered mind wandering into the wilds of the 'What Ifs' and emerging not all that rattled. When I guide my mind down reasonable lanes of possibility, I run through scenarios like mental computer simulations. MacGyver is my patron saint. If I can't improvise what I need to survive, I don't deserve to. And the SOS button on my SPOT transponder is my CTRL+ALT+DEL.
I accept the risk. I spend a lot of time alone in the woods working, playing, and living. By simple mathematical probability I am more likely to die in the woods than people who stay in the safety of their homes watching teevee on the sofa. They will never be mauled by a bear or pounced on by a cougar or hit by lightening. They won't be incapacitated by hypothermia, disfigured by frostbite, or struck down by heatstroke. Dehydration, bloodloss, shock, and exposure are not even risk factors for them. But then, I'm extremely unlikely to meet my Maker on a couch. And I Give Thanks for that. If I must I will die of dehydration, or hypothermia, or exposure. I might fall prey to wild beasts, gravity, or hubris. A broken bone, erroneous turn, or misidentified berry may bring about my end. But God forbid I lose my life commuting to or from work.
I'd like to think that I evoke John Muir, although I'd be perfectly happy if I call Edward Abbey to mind. But there's an even more curmudgeonly desert dweller whose words resonate on my behalf in Hunter S. Thompson. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!”