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.