The Toothbrush Fallacy

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 8.06.56 PMYears ago I was backpacking with my Boy Scout troop somewhere in the Rockies and vividly remember most of the kids carrying packs more than half their body weight. Climbing up a mountain with 60 pounds of gear on your back flat out sucks. It’s impossible to enjoy hiking when you’re schlepping the weight of a large dog with you, especially as a thirteen-year-old. Two solutions became apparent:

1. Don’t go backpacking

2. Try to carry a lighter load

And that’s pretty much what happened. Lots of people never went again. But those that did generally tried to reduce the weight they carried with them to make subsequent trips more enjoyable. I remember one friend literally trimming the edges off his map and cutting his toothbrush in half to “save weight.” By my back-of-the-napkin math, I’d say this valiant act did just about nothing to reduce the weight of his pack, though it probably did make good dental hygiene less likely. The problem was that his backpack, just a container to carry all of the other stuff, weighed about 6 pounds. His tent and sleeping bag about the same. He had a fishing pole, a camping chair, and an inflatable pillow too that each weighed about a brazillian times more than map-edges and were about as useless.

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 4.37.10 PM

Those holes in the handle save even more weight…

Cutting his toothbrush in half technically reduced this guy’s pack weight, but did it really make a difference? Might he have been better off making other changes instead and keeping his toothbrush intact?

I’ll call this the toothbrush fallacy – sacrifices on small things that make no difference, while ignoring the real culprits.

aeae2f5be10b1d1ee1f502444dbd6921Buying organic low fat ice cream completely embodies the toothbrush fallacy. If the goal is to be healthy, a big win would be to eat more produce, buy fewer processed foods, and spend more time being active. I guarantee that any of these would produce vastly superior results to choosing organic fat-free ice cream. Eating this “healthy alternative” makes us feel like we’re doing something to improve our health and then we wonder why the excess weight doesn’t go away.

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 4.09.32 PM

Because nothing says nature like italian-roast coffee at 12,000 feet.

Let’s not get lost in the labels and forget what the true goals are. If your goal is to be healthy, you’ll probably be fine not choosing the organic ice cream or the “heart healthy” cereal if you eat real food, choose lots of vegetables, and stay active. If your goal is to save weight on a backpacking trip, you can probably forgo the “ultralight” toothbrush and focus more on replacing the big culprits like the tent and backpack or get rid of bulkier items that you could live without.

But hey, if you’re happy carrying around 60 pounds up a mountain, REI sells an “ultralight” titanium french press coffee maker specifically designed for backpackers. Your choice.


One thought on “The Toothbrush Fallacy

  1. wes says:

    Keep trying: Try just a pocket knife, matches, a canteen and cup, a poncho and dehydr food.
    When I was in Scouting, we competed to see who could go the lightest.

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