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Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials

Essentials commentary from BackpackingLight Publisher, Ryan Jordan.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2008-07-15 00:03:00-06

"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.

Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials - 1
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.

Firestarting Essentials

"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.

Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials - 2
The author's Fenix 0.8 oz L0D light casts a blinding beam of light well suited for off trail navigation.

Journaling Essentials

"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.

You can read more essentials commentary from Backpacking Light readers Jim Bailey, Allison Miller, and Mark Henley.


"Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-07-15 00:03:00-06.


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Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials
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Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials on 07/16/2008 16:17:48 MDT Print View

Very interesting. As someone who has (touch wood) not had foot probelms, most of that footcare stuff just wouldn't get a look in my kit. I would swap the journalism/photography gear for a good book...however, to me the MOST important items would be a sleeping bag and food. Sometimes food and insulated sleeping can be found along the way though, so maybe not 'necessary'.

The camp fire and fire-starting material I wholeheartedly agree with. It really is amazing how different everyone's 'important' items are.

'Necessities' should make an interesting topic by comparison. I actually like the term 'important' to encompass both that which is necessary and that which is desirable. 'Important' puts a personal and undebatable perspective on what we choose to carry with us.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials on 07/16/2008 16:18:19 MDT Print View


Edited by retropump on 07/16/2008 16:18:56 MDT.

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Essentials? Importance overriding necessity? on 07/18/2008 00:32:04 MDT Print View

I was admittedly a bit thrown by the content of this article. I fully expected 'necessity' to win out as the prevailing definition of 'essential'. By my read, Ryan chose to describe how some of his gear is evaluated with the 'importance' definition of 'essential'.

All the same, I think this article is very relevant to ultralight backpacking, and I found it interesting and insightful. In the future, I would also like to see an updated article with BPL's take on a 'necessity' essentials list that is more applicable to ultralighters than say "The Ten Essentials" or various adaptations thereof.

In my gear list, I have a hidden column where I evaluate the need for gear on a given trip. My ratings in that column, in order, are necessary, important, and optional. The most scrutiny for leaving behind is given to optional items.

For example, the following is my prioritized list of 'necessary' essentials:

1. Water - includes adequate storage and treatment (bladder or bottle, tablets, etc)
2. Shelter - includes clothing, insulation, waterproofing (wind shirt, vest, rain gear, sleeping bag, warm pad, tarp)
3. Conveyance - a pack, pulk, pannier, etc.
4. Fire - includes spark and tinder or accelerant
5. Food - includes nutrition and protection such as a bear bag
6. Navigation - includes map and compass

Whereas this is my prioritized list of 'important' essentials:

7. Comfy pad
8. Illumination
9. First aid
10. Sun protection
11. Insect protection
12. Bear protection

I can survive with just the necessities, but I need most of the important list to enjoy myself. So I guess my 'essentials' list includes both - with a gradual transition from the 'necessary' items at the top, to the 'important' items at the bottom.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Essentials? Importance overriding necessity? on 07/18/2008 07:56:54 MDT Print View

To me, the definition of essential items should not be blurried by adjectives like "necessity" or "important". Using those adjectives will only cause confusion. There are essential items and then there are comfort/enjoyment items.

Edited by jshann on 07/18/2008 08:20:45 MDT.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: For blisters on 07/18/2008 10:26:59 MDT Print View

Compeed's by Bandaid. Called Bandaid's Advanced Healing Blister:

They go over the blister giving a padded surface. I do tape mine down though.

They are NOT cheap but are worth it. I carry about 6-8 in my pack pocket at all times.

Edited by sarbar on 07/18/2008 10:29:58 MDT.

Russell Dewey
Celox on 07/18/2008 12:39:19 MDT Print View

This stuff sounds great...a better version of "super glue" which was also originally developed by the military to close battlefield wounds! At the Celox webpage you can buy a "home pack" of 10 2-gram packets. All the other refs I've found are for larger 15-gram and 35-gram packages. I have a couple questions. First are the 2g packets enough to do any real good with anything other than a minor wound (I suppose you could use more than one packet if necessary). Second, what about repackaging a larger package into smaller quantities (e.g. 4g in a sm ziplock stored cool and dark)? I imagine it would have some impact on "shelf life"...any comments, ideas?

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
Re: Essentials? Importance overriding necessity? on 07/18/2008 13:50:59 MDT Print View

Jason, what are your bear protection items?

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Bear protection items on 07/18/2008 14:05:31 MDT Print View

My bear protection items are usually just bear spray and a bear bag for food/toiletries (sil dry sack and cord).

When hiking in groups, or where there are no griz, I will often leave the spray behind.

When required by land management agencies, I will bring a bear canister.

The bear bag system only weighs a few ounces and always goes along.

Tim Kropf
(tkoutdoor) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Footcare on 07/25/2008 07:18:23 MDT Print View

I've used an inch wide roll of cotton athletic tape for over a decade for foot/blister care. It wasn't until last summer that I conclusively determined that I needed better fitting boots/shoes to solve my the "wear" problems on my feet. I finally deduced my foot sizing problems effectively last summer and I've only had one or two blisters in the last 400 miles with no foot wrap whatsoever. It used to be that for every single trip I would prewrap my heels to ward off the problems and sometimes avoid them. I found that my feet were narrow and the shoe that felt right was that one that could lace up properly. If I tried on a standard larger shoe the laces would bring the sides of the shoe together until they touched and I couldn't keep them secure enough. When new this wasn't necessarily a problem as it took breaking in the shoes to end up in that condition ultimately. REI measured my feet one day just to be sure and voila! my feet actually wanted a size larger than I was using. Immediately everything didn't fit again, but armed with that information I began trying on all the boots instead of my perceived favorite and after 4 to 5 pairs I found that the La Sportiva Trango Trex GTX fit me perfectly. Since then it's been a little bit of heaven on earth to find that hiking doesn't have to mean foot problems. I thought everyone had to go through that. They aren't the standard UL fare I know, but I UL my backpacking gear so I can take the 7 to 12 pounds of camera gear that frequently lives within 200 feet of me wherever I am on the planet. With the extra weight the moderate weight boots have always been a welcome comfort. I do have some UL trail runners I'm trying to accommodate now as well on a trial basis. I don't like that my feet get wet in them, but in the summer it's fine really. Living in the Pacific NW with lots of water for most of the season I may still prefer the boots when temps begin to drop.

With that background... it used to be that "every" hike over 3 miles would result in blisters on my heels or sometimes on the knuckles of my toes. For this reason it was an absolute necessity to have some rugged way to deal with blisters. The athletic tape will pull skin with it (that has already been loosened by blistering) once it has had a chance to adhere (it sticks so well), but it requires some monitoring to be sure that it gets a chance to bind to the skin properly. I had to be careful that the edges didn't curl up when putting on my socks and didn't curl up before I had a chance to get it to stick well. Dry feet are much easier to begin the process with than wet feet too. Usually in a half hour of walking the tape would bind to my skin and I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. The tape I would leave on for a few days if I wasn't looking forward to the pain of peeling off fresh skin along the edges of the blister once I'd made it back home (until the blister had decomposed somewhat more or less). Using Ryan's liquid product to seal the edges sounds like it might enhance this system as well. I always have some rolled up on a trekking pole, right beside my duct tape and I have a small bit in my pocketable emergency kit with the most basic essentials (less food). Moleskin never worked for me because it would ultimately end up sliding from where it was attached and end up in the bottom of my sock. With properly fit boots the tape is no longer an "essential" of the magnitude it used to be for me. It's usually still with me at all times, but I don't worry about having it if I find my supply has been forgotten because it's now only for backup or friends.

Tim Kropf
(tkoutdoor) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Footcare on 07/25/2008 07:21:00 MDT Print View

Duplicate - mod please delete

Edited by tkoutdoor on 11/24/2008 23:43:18 MST.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Essentials? Importance overriding necessity? on 07/25/2008 16:51:08 MDT Print View

John, surely a "necessity" is as hard to define as "important"?? Necessities are totally dependant on both the individual and the enviroment. A Necessity to someone experienced trekking in the Sahara is completely different to a novice trekking in the Andes. Someone who grew up in the Andes would need to carry far less "stuff" to survive because they know the terrain, the wildlife, the weather, and many other subtle but essential knowledge that a newbie doesn't have. Sam applies to a newbie in the Sahara compared to a local expert. One can thrive where the other would die based on experience (or lack there-of) alone. Put your local Sahara expert into the Andes without any previous experience, and all bets are off...

Adrian B
(adrianb) - MLife

Locale: Auckland, New Zealand
Re: Re: Re: Re: Leukotape on 07/28/2008 19:02:22 MDT Print View

>Leukotape on sale @ BPL

Of course, not actually in stock.

Adam Behr
(justsomeguy) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Leukotape on 07/31/2008 00:43:44 MDT Print View

It's back in stock, for now at least...

Edited by justsomeguy on 07/31/2008 00:45:02 MDT.