"I can't believe I forgot _______."
We've all heard these words before, often muttered out of our own mouths from some remote wilderness location, far from our car, our home, or a store. I can fill in the blank with a number of different items from my own experiences: water treatment drops, an extra memory card for my camera, or that clean set of extra long underwear and socks capable of transforming an evening spent writhing in clamminess and stink to a campsite dance party.
I'm sure you could fill in the blank from your own list of wilderness essentials.
If you ask any hiker what constitutes an "essential" item of their kit, you'll be punished with enough answers to confuse the definition and fill the largest rucksack...because the definition of "essential" embodies two important characteristics: necessity and importance, two words that have caused debate since cave men designed and carved their second tool.
My own limited ability to create a box for these two terms follows.
In the context of trekking, necessity demands that the item be required for the completion of a trek. To that end, food might be considered an essential.
Importance, on the other hand, may demand that the item be required for the enjoyment of the trek.
In other words, defining an "essential" is borne as much out of personal style as it is out of the famous list of Ten Essentials.
When I think about essentials, I don't often think about them in the context of survival (necessity), although I'm not so blind in my analysis that I would intentionally leave things like food and shelter at home. Instead, I consider them in the context of how important they serve my objectives for a given trip.
To illustrate the concept, I'll take you through three categories of essentials that I find to be very important on many of my treks.
Foot care essentials (Leukotape P, Compound Tincture of Benzoin, and a small balm jar for storing enough Hydropel for a five day trek).
Foot Care Essentials
"If the dogs is happy, then mama's happy." - Every stay-at-home mother on her feet from sunrise to sundown.
Some may argue that taking care of your feet is necessary, because if you can't walk, you can't complete your trek. However, having endured so many treks and climbing expeditions with horrid foot problems (blisters, cracked skin, and blackened toenails), I've learned that you can walk long distances with Tylenol, fortitude, trekking poles, and jovial company.
However, on my longer walks, where I'm walking fifteen or more miles a day for many days in a row, I do want my feet to feel good - that's important to me. To that end, my kit of foot care essentials includes the following items:
- Leukotape and Compound Tincture of Benzoin. Leukotape is so far and away the best tape on the market for protecting skin from friction that it's one of the few items in my kit I'm not concerned about improving upon. It's soft, breathable, pliable, sticky, and durable. This last feature - its durability - is its best. I can drain a blister, place a tiny piece of gauze (or toilet paper) over it, apply Leukotape, and then forget about it for a week or more. I use compound tincture of benzoin as an adhesive, primarily to make sure the tape's edges remain sealed to my skin. The combination of Leukotape and compound tincture of benzoin, as unglamorous as it sounds, is one of the most reliable trekking "systems" I've ever used.
- Hydropel. In environments where my feet are ultra-hot (e.g., desert walking) or ultra-wet (e.g., Arctic walking and packrafting), I apply Hydropel to my feet in both the morning and evening. Because it's absorbed into the skin and doesn't just sit on the skin surface, it's a very durable foot lubricant and conditioner. Hydropel doesn't need reapplication very often and is an effective prophylactic that minimizes maceration, friction, and cracking.
"One can enjoy a wood fire worthily only when he warms his thoughts by it as well as his hands and feet." - Odell Shepherd
Shepherd's quote embodies the primary reason why I cook predominantly over fire in the wilds and is the primary reason why I enjoy campfires with groups where permitted and where the environment can accommodate them.
From a practical standpoint, fire offers many benefits to the ultralight backpacker besides its ability to impart cheer. Fire can be used for cooking (you can carry less fuel), for warmth (you can carry less clothing), and for cheer (you can tolerate your own company a little better on solo treks). In addition, fire building is one of the more important wilderness skills to learn for those instances when cold and hypothermia threaten your survival.
A wise but unknown author once wrote:
"How is it that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?"
The humor in this quote is rooted not only in its irony but in its truth! How many times have we attempted to light a fire that was poorly kindled or built with wet wood as a result of our own laziness? Unfortunately, most ultralight backpackers discount those tools used by car campers in wilderness situations, so gasoline, charcoal briquets, newspaper, torches, and case quantities of matches are out, and these useful essentials are in:
- Magnesium Firestarter. There are many of these on the market, but my favorites are those which provide a shower of sparks in a single stroke. Blast Matches are a great choice when weight is not a concern (they are heavy) but the Light My Fire Firesteel provides me with the ideal compromise between weight and function. This product, combined with firestarting material (see below) has resulted in completely eliminating matches and lighters from my backpacking kit. I've been match- and lighter-free for two years now.
- Firestarting Supplies. There seem to be as many different types of firestarting supplies on the market as there are ways to build a fire. My favorites are Tinder-Quik Tabs (the lightest, but with the shortest burn times), WetFire Tinder (which I've found to be the best option in very wet conditions, or when the firestarting material itself gets wet), and 4g Esbit Tablets (which burn for the longest time). Thus, my firestarting materials usually consist of a combination of all three. I'll take more Tinder-Quik Tabs in the summers, and more WetFire and Esbit tablets in wet and winter conditions. Combined with my firestarter (see above), they get stored in a durable and waterproof 5 x 4 inch Aloksak. The whole kit weighs less than two ounces for a typical two-week expedition during the summer months.
The author's Fenix 0.8 oz L0D light casts a blinding beam of light well suited for off trail navigation.
"The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium." - Norbet Platt
For me, reflecting on my experience in the wild in real time is an important part of my wilderness journeys. By the time I return to the trailhead and go back into a life more civilized, I lose the ability to capture the feelings and emotions reflected in the moment of the experience. Therefore, I spend a few ounces on gear so I can record my state of being on my treks - which also allows me to later recall and relive my walks.
Journaling is not just about sitting down at the end of the day and writing lots of emotive drip (which might alter any sort of reputation I might have, or perhaps add something unwanted to a reputation that I don't have). I journal often - be it scratching route notes on a map, gear notes in a small notebook, postcards to family or friends, or admittedly, in rare instances, a dollop here and there of emotive fluff written from the comfort of my sleep quilt at day's end. But it's more than just writing. It's also capturing photos or video (not just snapshots, per se, but careful compositions of landscapes and the people within them).
My important journaling "supplies," then, are comprised of those things that allow me to write and photograph effectively:
- Waterproof Notebook and Pen. I've been using #371-M Rite-in-the-Rain pads for years and have found no reason to find an alternative. They are light, and with the right pen (I use Fisher Space Pens most of the time, but they work well with Nalgene Waterproof pens, and any pencil as well), a joy to write on. Other waterproof papers have a plastic-like feel to them and are not as versatile with other writing utensils.
- Digital Camera. I've had the luxury of using a variety of digital cameras. When photography is the focus of my expedition, my camera of choice is an Olympus D510 DSLR with the Zuiko 12-60mm lens. When I want to take exceptional photos but want to save weight, I use a Ricoh GR-Digital and am looking forward to using the new Sigma DP-1 this summer. Finally, when I want good photos and I'm traveling through inclement environments (humidity, rain, cold, or to take pictures while packrafting), my camera of choice is a shock- and waterproof Olympus 790SW. Regardless of my camera choice, I won't skimp on a case to keep it handy while trekking so I can rapidly grab the camera for opportunistic shots of wildlife, trail companions, or hostile skies.
- Tripod. When I'm planning to intentionally capitalize on photography during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, I'll bring a tripod. If weight isn't so important, then I prefer a taller tripod like the Manfrotto Digi 714SHB with a ball head. If I'm being stingy, as is the case on longer treks, then the UltraPod (for my smaller cameras) and UltraPod II (for the DSLR) are my tripods of choice. I have rigged my UltraPod II to attach to my trekking poles (and a stick or a partner's pole for the third leg), thus creating an ultralight tall tripod that works great for bringing the camera height out of the meadow grasses as needed.
- Flashlight. Although I journal throughout the day, I also journal at night - it's the last thing I do before I go to bed. It's an important part of my wilderness routine that gives me closure to the day. Because I'm usually photographing well past dusk, my evening journaling is spent in the dark, so I consider a flashlight of great importance to this activity (and not of great importance or necessity for navigation on a long trek if I'm walking in daylight hours). My favorite journaling flashlight is the Photon Freedom Micro clipped to the bill of my cap, but when my light needs to serve the needs of powerful navigation, I'll opt for the Photon Pro or the Fenix L0D.
Putting it All Together
I picked these three categories - foot care, firestarting, and journaling - because I found all of them to be important parts of both my morning and evening wilderness routines. While I love the joy of walking long distances, I equally love the joy of wilderness camping. Some folks will find that a comfortable seat is important, others will find that a fishing rod is important. Still others will discover importance in multi-course meals and fully-enclosed tents that provide a safe haven from hordes of mosquitoes.
You'll have to discover your own essentials - whether necessary or important - on your own journey to lighten up. I just ask that you explore options to keep them light, simple, and focused on the enjoyment of your wilderness activities, rather than focused on the gear in and of itself.