My Little Secret to Living with Less

Posted April 4th, 2009 by Hillary "Tinyhouse" and filed in Issue 2: Downsizing

Grandma Gatewood courtesy of Appalacian Trail Conservancy

One of my new favorite heroes is Grandma Gatewood, the first and the oldest woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). She wore a pair of Keds sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat and a plastic shower curtain/tarp. That was in 1955.

She was an early pioneer of what is now known as ultralight backpacking, a subculture defining and re-defining what it is that we really need. The philosophy is simple:

  1. carry less stuff
  2. carry lighter stuff
  3. make one thing serve many purposes

In this world of mostly long-distance thruhikers it is commonly accepted that the base weight of your pack (including your pack) could be 10 lbs or less (not including consumables like food and water, which vary depending on the trip). For comparison, that’s like the weight of a healthy adult cat.

So we’ve established that what you need to safely survive on a 2000 mile long journey amounts to, well, not much. So what is everything else? It’s what I call cush: cleanliness, pleasant lighting, comfort and security, a sense of belonging. They are more subjective ideas, we all have different interpretations of them and have arranged our lives to suit.

house-size-chartAt the extreme level it’s a psychological disorder called compulsive hoarding. Then there’s a more moderate place where most of America functions, making acquiring stuff a regular part of our daily lives, to greater or lesser degrees. Over time we had to live in bigger houses to keep all that stuff somewhere.

This is a great visualization showing how our houses have grown, even while the average U.S. household size shrinks.

And here is where I’ll tell you my secret to downsizing. Are you ready?

The shorthand is this simple little equation: Stuff = Weight < Freedom. The longhand is that our possessions carry not only a physical burden, but also a weight on our conscience and excess bulk in our creative thought processes, preventing us from moving forward.

This has been a very helpful realization for me in my own journey of moving into a 50 square foot trailer. Separating out my “comfort” items — memorabilia, collections, papers and gadgets of all kinds — from my “survival” items, which could be contained in a small box, makes me understand how burdensome comfort can really be. (Yes, paradoxes abound.)

During this downsizing evolution of mine, going on for several years now, I have found that (for the most part) my possessions bore me, and that what interests me most is not in the physical realm at all. Instead, I’m fascinated by the absence of things — giving my self space to think, create, and act spontaneously in harmony with the stuff of life, which is simple, free, and weightless.

“I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill–then what’s beyond that.”

Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at She is a freelance writer and consultant.

18 Responses to “My Little Secret to Living with Less”

  1. MoNo Gravatar says:

    Inspirational. Thanks for posting.

  2. Tyson StottrupNo Gravatar says:

    Nice post Hillary. Thanks for introducing me to Grandma Gatewood; she’s my kind of human. And that’s a nice quote by the way.

  3. laraNo Gravatar says:

    I learned about thruhikers on the AT (app trail.) I can’t imagine making my own food from the sparsity of so much of that experience. But I loved the idea. I maintain that if the recession continues, I would rather downsize and hike for a few months than worry about making rent. I’m halfway there, and more worry-free for it.

  4. Tammy "RowdyKittens"No Gravatar says:

    Hillary – awesome post and quote. Grandma Gatewood is my new hero. :)

  5. LoganNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Hillary,

    Great perspective. I also had a similar enlightenment recently in the context of a backpacking analogy. Preparing a backpack to meet one’s minimum needs and comforts opens the mind to how simple our nature is and in contrast, how complex we have made our lives with “cush”. Useless treasure or “stuff” surrounds our living spaces and yet in this economy U.S. citizens still ask “where has all our wealth gone?”.

    Preparing a backpack is not only a great exercise for learning to live with less, it is also a very valuable tool to have in an emergency evacuation scenario. Grab the bag and go! I have a guest post on rowdykittens describing my thoughts on the topic. I plan to follow up soon with another post detailing a list of items and pictures, although I can’t say my gear will be nearly as austere as the famous Grandma Gatewood. :)


  6. AnnNo Gravatar says:

    I am downsizing too … and found the things I have been holding on to are primarily for sentimental reasons and b/c of fear – will I need this in the future and not have money to buy it?

    What I am coming to realize and appreciate is that we as a society need each other more than stuff. And stuff just takes up space … I need peace and friends, not clutter.

    Thanks Hillary!

  7. Hillary "Tinyhouse"No Gravatar says:

    Hello everyone and thanks so much for your nice comments. I’m glad you liked the post and learning about Grandma Gatewood. She really is an inspiration for me. I like how you put it so succinctly, Ann, that we need each other more than we need stuff!

  8. [...] with your kids may mean you need to look at ways to simplify your life. You may not go as far as moving into a 50 square foot trailer or piling your 9 children into an camper and surfing for several years, but hey… maybe you [...]

  9. AnitaNo Gravatar says:

    My “downsizing” came as the result of a tornado hitting our house (Greensburg, Kansas – May 4, 2007)
    I always used to think how horrible it would be to be hit by a tornado, but once it happened I realized my family was all ok and the rest was just “stuff”… not much that I miss other than photos.

  10. Maria IsabelNo Gravatar says:

    Absolutely align! And would like to add that I believe the clutter surrounding our environment such as in our homes and vehicles, may be equal to the extra we carry on our bodies.
    Clear the Space!

  11. sunshinepghNo Gravatar says:

    I saw this on Tweetdeck and had to check it out. Very nicely written and I agree 100%. Possessions have ruined many lives. I have obsessive hoarders in my life and just being in their presence sometimes sucks the energy right out of me. It really concerns me when so many people have so, so much unnecessary material things while others are suffering and going without basic needs.

    There is too much waste in this country and not enough compassion! How can we open people’s eyes to this situation? I’m working on a proposal for a non-profit organization that takes on new meaning to “Love thy neighbor”. But until then, how do we open up people’s hearts and free them of the thinking that possessions make the person?

  12. Hillary "Tinyhouse"No Gravatar says:

    Thanks again for the compliments. I agree that so much stuff can be a complete energy-suck even when it’s not your stuff! Anita – what a powerful story, the tornado taught you a great lesson. I’m eager to hear more about it.

    Yes, and compassion… how to teach compassion?

  13. John WilliamsNo Gravatar says:

    When I realized stuff was draining me of energy, time, freedom and money, I found E-Bay. I have sold tons of stuff to others and reaped not only the monetary rewards from the sale of weighty energy, time robbing things but the FREEDOM of living a fuller life with less. Until you do it you cannot realize how much life has to offer without things bringing you down. My only regret is that I have unloaded my things to others and have added to their weight in life.

  14. ClaudiaNo Gravatar says:

    Your grandmother was a smart woman! Thanks for sharing this inspirational article.

  15. [...] If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!The Small Living Journal has just published an article of mine where I introduce my (not so) secret to living with less. [...]

  16. AngieNo Gravatar says:

    I dream of the day when I am not held hostage by my “stuff!” How freeing it would be to downsize in a big way. What an overwhelming process…

  17. JasmineNo Gravatar says:

    I love your journal! My boyfriend and I are in the process of remodeling a 11′ fiberglass scamp trailer (room enough for a full bed, small kitchen, and a closet). Maybe a step further than Grandma. We are moving to Alaska, and this will be our lightweight home for at least 6months out of a year. We have finally cut out a new floor for it. I was just wondering…. what kind of insulation (if any) and wall-covering did you use? We are considering the double foil bubblewrap type and maybe car headliner material. Did you build cabinets? Any suggestions/advice for us? I hope you are enjoying your trailer!! I really would love to hear more about it!

  18. Sharon "Tinycamper"No Gravatar says:

    I learned about getting rid of stuff when I attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2003. My initial pack weight was 53 pounds. By the time I actually got on the trail, I had it whittled down to 23 pounds including food and water.

    When I got back home, I was appalled at all the “stuff!” It forever changed my perspective on what was really necessary and desirable.

    Fast forward a few years. We now have a tiny 78 sq. ft. camper that we use for weeks at a time. Our only disappointment is coming home to the big house!

    Someday we want a tiny house to come home to!