Blazing a Trail

Applying quality methods for the backcountry

by David Davis

If I was addressing anyone other than quality professionals, I’d say that it was about a million degrees outside. I can’t produce any measurements to back that up, but I can say that it was August, there was a drought and at the end of a full day of backpacking part of the Appalachian Trail, my buddy and I were nearly out of water—our water treatment equipment had failed us.

It’s probably the last place you’d think about quality methods. As I discovered the hard way, however, some of what I’d learned as a quality engineer in the mapping industry should have been on my mind long before we made the trip.

I’m not suggesting you calculate the standard deviation of anything while hiking. Rather, I’ve learned that applying a few carefully adapted quality methods before and after a trip can ensure safety, reduce waste and decrease costs. Done right, these approaches help me focus more on doing the things that brought me outside in the first place, and less on the logistics that enable me to do it.

I’ve tried a variety of quality methods and techniques with my outdoor pursuits over the years, but three have been particularly successful: design for X, the Ishikawa diagram and data collection.

Design for X

I started looking at my loaded pack as a design project, which made it possible to apply a series of constraints. Quantitative design considerations include things such as total pack weight, which can be broken down into base weight for must-have items (such as first aid and a sleep system), and the weight of food and water. It’s then possible to optimize for weight, along with other considerations.

Qualitative design constraints might include the fact that someone on the trip is vegetarian, plus any of the “leave no trace” guidelines related to the particular geography and conditions of the trip.1

Ishikawa diagram

After a trip, I review what went well and what didn’t. For anything that didn’t go well, such as things that didn’t go as planned or gear that didn’t live up to Armand Feigenbaum’s definition of quality, I sketch an Ishikawa diagram. This has helped me improve my trip planning considerably and has changed what I look for in everything from frame packs to trail food to water systems.

Data collection

Initially, I created a gear log to help me plan pack weight. It was a spreadsheet that included each item’s name and weight, which enabled me to select which pieces of gear to bring and estimate a total trail weight. Before I was three items deep into the log, however, it occurred to me that I could collect additional parameters and learn what gear really worked under which conditions.

Now, I also maintain information about how much each piece costs, when I acquired it, what its fate was (for example, it wore out after 10 years of hard use or catastrophically failed without warning on its second outing) and what weather conditions it’s suited for, among a few other factors. Updating the gear log after each trip, I’ve figured out which brands are more durable and which fit me particularly well. I also have saved pack weight by recording which clothing layers work in which temperatures and at which physical activity levels.

Always improving

These days, using quality tools, I seldom find myself unpleasantly surprised on the trail. But as a quality professional, I’m constantly trying new approaches in an effort to improve.


  1. “Leave No Trace Principles,” REI, www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/leave-no-trace.html.

David Davis is human capital professional for the federal government in Washington, DC. He has a master’s degree in management from the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. A senior member of ASQ, Davis is an ASQ-certified quality engineer and manager of quality and organizational excellence, a Project Management Institute-certified project management professional, and a Human Resources Certification Institute-certified senior professional in human resources.

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