This is part 5 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment
- Portable Backcountry Shelters
- Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
- Fueling the Furnace
- Dressing Appropriately
- All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
- And, Finally, What To Put It All In
- An Example Gear List
First aid kits are kind of in a class of their own. You hope to use pretty much everything you take out into the backcountry with you, except for your first aid equipment. That’s the one part of your gear that you would just as soon stay buried deep in your pack.
But, even though you will likely not use it, you should be prepared for at least the most common medical disasters that might strike while you are out. Just what that constitutes will depend on where you are going, who else is with you, and your own abilities to deal with minor medical emergencies. I remember when I first started getting serious about backpacking I bought a pre-packaged first aid kit from REI, along with a small book on backcountry first aid. I carried both of these for several years, along with an ever growing array of additions to the kit that I had read about and felt would be good to have … just in case. My first aid kit slowly grew to what must have been nearly 4 pounds; for one person.
Today it weighs just about 5.4 ounces. The book is long gone. The SAM splint for a broken leg is gone. The tick puller and tweezers are gone. I hardly ever get blisters on my feet, so why cart around all the blister packs. The amount of burn I might get with a canister stove is pretty small, so most of the burn stuff is gone. And maybe most importantly, I know how to deal with most of the things I am likely to encounter without needing a massive first aid kit. I realize that if I ever break my leg I would like to have the SAM splint, but I can get by without. If I ever get a tick, I suspect I can get rid of it without the puller.
There is nothing wrong with being prepared for dealing with backcountry first aid. And I would highly recommend that new comers go overboard in this area. But as your comfort level and skill improve, you will most likely find that you are leaving more and more of your first aid kit behind.
The first thing that comes to mind under toiletries is toilet paper. And this is, at least to me, an important element. I know there are those who use leaves, grass and pine cones, but I have not yet brought myself to that point except in an emergency, and even then I can’t imagine using pine cones. Be frugal in your use of TP and it should go along way. And take along an extra ziplock bag or two so you can bag up your used TP and bring it back rather than leave it out in the woods for others to find. The use of wet wipes and anti-bacterial hand cleaner are also recommended as a part of your kit for cleaning up afterwards.
If you are going to be out long, you may want to make provisions for taking a bath if you can. Some use soap for their bathing, but I recommend against it. Take along a bandanna and use it as a washcloth and just scrub down and rinse off. It takes care of most of the stench and leaves you feeling refreshed, without polluting the wilderness with your soap.
You can get a pretty small toothbrush and toothpaste to take along. I have a toothbrush with a little tube of toothpaste built into the handle. Pretty handy. And really nice to brush your teeth after a day of non-stop eating.
Depending on where you are, insect repellent may end up high on your list of essentials. I generally wear long sleeves and pants and soak them in permethrin before leaving. That leaves only the back of my hands and my head as targets for the blood suckers. So a bit of deet and maybe a headnet are all that is needed to avoid becoming a pin cushion.
Again, depending on your destination, you may need some help with sun protection. It’s not fun getting sun burned and having no place to go to get out of the sun. Long sleeves and pants help here as well, along with sun glasses and a wide brimmed hat. But having a small tube of good sun screen can help those parts that stay exposed. A lip balm with a high SPF is also recommended, burning your lips is no fun. Be generous with it when needed.
There are a number of medications that I keep apart from my first aid kit because they fall more into the area of consumables rather than emergency items. These include acetaminophen to ease the aches and pains before bed; benadryl to deal with congestion when sleeping, and some vitamins. Your list may vary, but I would recommend you keep them separate from your first aid kit so you don’t have issues with using up what you need in an emergency before the emergency happens. It’s a bit easier to remember to resupply as well if they are kept separate.
A map and compass are considered essential by most folks. But they only have value if you know how to use them. A map and compass without the skills to use them is just dead weight. That being said, get a decent lightweight compass and a decent topo map of your trail and learn how to use them. Your chances of needing them is slim so long as you stay on well marked trails, but they can be very valuable if the trail is poorly marked, or you are leaving the trail all together. A map and compass are also useful to help you to identify mountains and lakes as you go by and to help visualize where you are in the day’s journey. I will seldom go out into the wild without them.
A GPS serves some of the same function as a map and compass, especially those with built-in topo maps. A GPS can simplify discovering your location if lost or uncertain and can also give you a rough idea of your altitude, which can also be useful. The downside is that they are heavier than a map and compass, unless you have lots of maps with you, the screen is very small for replacing a map, and they consume a lot of batteries if used a lot. I have a couple of Garmin eTrex units, but I seldom use them unless I am expecting a lot of snow.
Probably my most used piece of navigational equipment is a watch. I have a Casio Pathfinder that I wear pretty much 24/7. It is solar powered so it never runs down. And it does an auto sync to the national time standard every night, so it keeps pretty good time. Plus it is an ABC watch. When out on the trail it is generally set to Altimeter so I can track my elevation up and down the hills. So long as I generally know where I am on the map, the elevation can help to pinpoint a location. At night and again in the morning I can check the Barometer and see what the weather might be doing. And I always have a Compass handy to get a rough estimate of direction.
A small digital camera is another piece of electronics that I pretty much will always take on a trip with me. I take lots of pictures so that I can better share my trip with the wife when I get home.
I have begun taking my phone along as well, although until recently it was not as important. I have a Bible and a few other books on it. I have also watched movies occasionally, although keeping the display active for several hours will drain a battery pretty fast. I have tried a couple of the GPS apps for my phone but have never found them to be to satisfactory. Most recently I have teamed my phone up with the newest SPOT Communicator to be able to send text messages home.
I have had a SPOT for about 3 years now and it has become a standard part of my gear. Most recently I have upgraded to the Communicator which links via Bluetooth to my phone, allowing me to send any short text message I want. I could drop nearly a pound by leaving SPOT, the phone and extra batteries at home. But it provides a comfort factor for my wife. Taking it along makes it easier on her when I am out and she can get periodic notices that I am OK and can see where I am.
If I will be out long I will generally take along my iPod Nano to listen to music when the day or the climb starts getting long and draining. Listening to tunes can take my mind off the drudge and into a better place. A charge will last over a week the way I use it.
All that electronics stuff uses electricity in the form of batteries. Be sure you either have enough batteries with you or a way to recharge them. I got a solar charger once, but it would not work with my Droid. And after thinking about it I realized I could carry a lot of batteries for the weight of the charger. So I took it back. I still look occasionally but am satisfied at this point with extra batteries for the devices I take along.
A headlamp is, at least to me, a very important piece of equipment to take into the backcountry. I have yet to attempt to hike by headlamp, but I have setup and torn down camp using one. And it simplifies getting up and going potty in the middle of a dark rainy night. They are also useful if you want to stay up and read for a while before calling it a night. I have had one trip out with a malfunctioning lamp, and while it was OK, the inability to see at night was a concern.
I learned to use trekking poles some years ago and am on my second pair now. What a difference they make for creaky knees. I don’t use them as much now with a lightened load, but they still prove useful on steep ascents/descents or rough terrain. I also use them sometimes to create a porch with the tarp over my hammock. While I may leave them behind on a short trip, I can’t see being without them for long trips.
I seldom use a knife while out, or pliers or screwdriver. But I almost always carry a small multi-function tool. It is one of those emergency preparedness things that I like having available, jut in case. They weigh very little and can be very useful if you have to fix something in the field.
Believe it or not I used to carry a real fly swatter when I would go out. Somehow it made me feel better, being able to extract some revenge on the flies, especially horse flies. Now a days I don’t bother and will use my hat if I need to swat something.
A decent pair of sun glasses is very valuable if you will be in the high country on a somewhat sunny day, especially if over snow. Having a strap on them to allow them to hang around your neck when not in use is also helpful.
Having along a few feet of duct tape can be pretty handy for repair of torn equipment. I wrap a few feet around a trekking pole to have it handy and eliminate the the cardboard tube it is normally wrapped around
I used to take a small pair of binoculars, but no longer do. I used them so seldom, and they didn’t seem to help all that much, so why bother.
A good book can be great when you are by yourself, all setup for the night, but not ready to go to sleep. I have seldom taken an actual book but do have the Kindle software loaded on my phone with a book or two to peak at if the occasion warrants.
For several years I took along one of the camp chairs that you could stuff your sleeping pad into and would set it up for camp use. But they are not as comfortable as sitting in a hammock so that is a pound plus I no longer take. Plus I don’t really sit around in camp all that much anymore.
I also used to take a chunk of light weight rope along with me, just in case. And I did use it occasionally, mostly for hanging food. But with an Ursack now I can’t find an excuse for taking the rope, so it stays home now.
There are any number of other things that you could bring with you: showers, a kitchen sink (I have one), cook wear, etc. Most of those things are unnecessary and only add to the weight of your pack and the chore of getting it into the backcountry. Leave them behind and enjoy the trail with a lighter pack.
Remember that everything you take, you have to carry. Yes, it may only weigh an ounce or two, but it doesn’t take too many ounces to equal pounds. I probably take about 2,000 steps per mile, times 20 miles in a day equals 40,000 steps. And if I have an extra pound in my pack that is 40,000 pounds of weight that landed on my feet, knees, hips and shoulders during the course of the day that did not need to be there. Is the pound worth that effort? Then by all means carry it. But if not, then seriously consider leaving it at home.