I love outdoor gear. Like really love it. When I walked into Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada for the first time, it was like all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once. A giant warehouse full of every bit of kit for every activity you could ever imagine. The walls were covered with brightly coloured jackets, shoes of every make and model, backpacks ranging from 5L to 100L and innumerable ways of carrying water/coffee/beer or any other beverage you could possibly desire. Gear is one of my favourite things to read about. I love researching it, comparing different models or brands, searching out the best deals, reading testimonials, watching video reviews – I love it all.
When people have asked me what I would do if I didn’t do my current job, my answer is selling outdoor gear. The outdoor shop down the road from where I grew up used to have a twice annual car park sale and it would be some of my favourite days of the year. There is more than one spreadsheet comparing different models of tents or stoves saved on my computer. I have even made some gear myself to get it just how I want it. But once I met a man with the coolest piece of gear I’ve ever seen.
This man’s name is Derry Kingston, and if you’ve ever been tramping in the northern part of Te Waipounamu (also known as the South Island of New Zealand) you may have heard of him. I met Derry in December 2017 when my sister and I walked the Heaphy Track, one of the Department of Conservation’s Great Walks. We enlisted Derry’s services in relocating our car from the West Coast end where we began, to the Golden Bay end where we would finish. Derry has been credited by some as the inventor of the car relocation service for trampers, and was (probably) the first guy in NZ to have the idea. When he started, Derry would meet the trampers at the trailhead, take their car key, drive their car to the other end of the track and then start walking back, meeting them along the way to give them back their key. When he relocated our car, he had so many bookings we had to repack the back seats so we could squeeze his crew of drivers into the back of my 2 door ‘94 Isuzu MU.
Derry has walked the Heaphy over 400 times, the vast majority of them continuously over about 19 hours while on car relocation jobs. That is no casual undertaking, as the Heaphy Track is the longest Great Walk, at 78.4km with about 2400m elevation gain, no matter which way you walk it. He also didn’t start until he was 60, thinking it might be a good way to stay active.
So what was this mystical piece of gear? What could this backcountry Kiwi legend possess that was so unbelievably cool to a self confessed gear nerd?
It was a yoghurt pot. An 800g plastic yoghurt pot that had been recycled to be used as a large cup.
I stood in the shelter at the beginning of the track, my pack filled with the 17kg or so of things I would need to ‘survive’ the next 3 days. Derry stood beside me, holding the yoghurt pot and sipping the crystal clear water he had just scooped up from the nearby stream. He must have seen me somewhat staring and said something along the lines of ‘Yeah when I knew the weather was going to be good I’d usually just take this and a pocketful of muesli bars’; referring to one of his non-stop relocation tramps.
It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Imagine knowing a bit of country so well, the likely conditions you would face and your own personal abilities that in the end you didn’t really need any more gear other than the clothes on your back and a drinking vessel. And not only that – Derry didn’t need to go to Hunting and Fishing to buy the latest insulated tumbler with a lifetime guarantee, he just found something cup shaped and went with that.
Before the safety brigade freak out (which admittedly I am also a part of), yes I am sure he had good layers for the subalpine sections, he carries a PLB, and even when that failed him once (by being ejected from his pack when he fell down a slope) his habit of ensuring his wife knew his itinerary and documenting his trip intentions in hut books allowed for his successful rescue.
With sufficient knowledge and a willingness to rough it a bit, you can reduce your gear to the bare minimum. This concept appealed to me greatly. I had spent so long getting caught up by the details of this fabric and that battery life I had neglected to realise the most important way to prepare yourself for time in the backcountry was to learn about it. To whittle down the large box of kit to what you would really need for the specific range of conditions you could expect to face.
Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to give up all creature comforts in order to be a ‘worthy adventurer’. There’s nothing wrong with carrying a Moka pot out to the bush on a personal trip with mates, hell there’s even a shelter in the Southern Alps where you can order a bottle of whiskey that will be delivered by helicopter, waiting for you to ski up there and enjoy it. And yes, I still own a titanium spork and a dyneema tarp that weighs less than my trailside morning tea. But whenever I am packing for a trip, or find myself pouring over the latest range of ultra-light backpacks, I always think about Derry and his yoghurt pot. I think carefully to ensure whatever I am packing or purchasing will be used, and will add to my enjoyment of the trip. And I always pay the (usually inexpensive) price of a paper map and a guidebook about the area I’m about to go into. Because the more we know about the country, the less stuff we need to go out there. And in the end, getting into the country and away from most of our stuff is what we all really enjoy.