Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Essential Back Country Gear

It seems that everyone who loves backpacking has their beloved equipment list.  I am no exception.  My list, informed by my experience, attitude and views on comfort, has evolved over the years to something a little different than many lists I see.

Having spent two Dispatches on the general subject of back country safety I thought I’d offer my version for the fun of it and perhaps see how many arguments I can start.  I claim to have no definitive anything in this game, just an opinion.  So the more substantive disagreements I generate the better.

If you are new to backpacking you might think to rely upon an expert authority. There are lots of lists from expert authorities; many lists are presented as “ten essentials.” Organizations from the Sierra Club to REI have them and they are all different from each other, though they have many things in common.  I made a typical hybrid for comparative purposes.  I started with the current version of one of the first such lists, the Mountaineers’ Ten Essentials, which you can see on Wikipedia. I then made some typical backpacking-friendly modifications by perusing a couple of well-known lists such as the one you can see here on the web site of REI, my favorite chain store in the world.

Here is a result: a “typical list” of the ten essentials for basic survival and safety in the back country.

1. Navigation: map, compass

2. Sun Protection: sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses

3. Insulation: Sweater, pants, gloves, hat, waterproof shell

4. Illumination: headlamp or flashlight, extra batteries

5. First-Aid Kit (I will cover first aid kits in the next dispatch, so no details here)

6. Fire: matches/lighter, waterproof container, fire starting mechanism

7. Repair/Cutting Items: multi-tool, duct tape, knife, extra laces

8. Nutrition: energy food, extra day’s supply of food

9. Hydration: water bottles or hydration system, water filter or other treatment system

10. Emergency Shelter: tarp, bivy or reflective blanket

There are some general things one might want out of a list like this.  For one thing it might be nice to know why something is on the list – not all items are self-evident.  For another, it seems to me it would be useful to know where the bang-for-the-buck is.  You need a compass; does it need to be expensive?  Do you need to spend more money on a good water filter or will any common water filter do? I try to provide that with my list, below.

This classic “ten essentials” list illustrates the endless possibilities for debate.  Some are trivial.  Some are not.  For example it does not even include the single most important piece of equipment.  I would guess that’s because it is assumed you have it by default, however my experience tells me that is a really poor assumption.

Here then, for sheer entertainment, is my list in comparison, with lots of comments.  I have attempted to put my list in order of importance.

The Top Three Items of Absolutely Essential Back Country Equipment

1.  Boots

2.  Boots

3.  Boots

Hopefully I’ve made my point.  Nothing even comes close.  Your most important safety asset is mobility.  Without it you are in real trouble.  I read Dan Crane’s piece on blisters with interest: bad blisters can be a safety issue; yes, you can walk with them if you have to but bad blisters will change your behavior, your decisions and certainly your attitude.  That can lead to danger.

Some would say boots are a “duh.”  Most organizations don’t even have them on their list.  I argue otherwise.  First, how many people have I seen backpack in athletic shoes?  Second, boots vary widely in their appropriateness to what you need as an individual.  “Wear boots” is not enough advice.  Boots are not something you just wear, they are your life vest.  They have to be positioned as your primary safety equipment and given their full due.

Boots are where you spend your time and money, period.  To start with, only buy them from an outlet that has an expert fitter.  That’s because the fit must be perfect – not good, perfect.  If you need to get orthotics for proper support, do so; then bring them with you.  Try lots of different styles and try them extensively, up and down inclines, uneven surfaces and so on.  Boots must offer ankle support.  The kind of sprain that you can get from rolling your ankle can be as bad as a broken bone, so don’t dare go for low cut styles.

Then get ready to open your wallet.  Boots should be as waterproof as you can get and breathable.  Both are critical.  Pack weight saved is nice; boot weight saved is much better, so pay for lighter boots.  People often overlook the grip.  It’s hard to test in advance so do your homework: boot grip on things like wet rock varies considerably, so look at reports from other hikers or reviewers.

Whatever it costs to get all these things is what you should pay.  Don’t ever try to save money on boots.

After purchase break the boots in (the idea that the modern boot does not need breaking in is false), try them out and return them if they are not just right.

It can be difficult and frustrating to get the right boots.  It may take several tries.  Take your time… perfect boots are worth their weight in gold.

Absolutely Essential Back Country Equipment After Boots

4.  Boot socks

Boots and boot socks should for all intents be considered as one thing.  Wool, smart wool, wicking, whatever, but an excellent fit and no cotton!  I always pack two pair.  You need to have a dry pair in reserve.  In winter wear multiple sock layers.  Just as you layer elsewhere on your person, it works for feet too.  Good socks are another place to spend your money.  The quality makes a big difference.

5.  Insulation

The number one threat to your safety in the Adirondacks is exposure and loss of body heat.   Your first line of defense is mobility: not only can you get to safety, but moving generates body heat.  So, boots top the list.  But you must also conserve body heat as necessary.   The two essential items here are something that covers your torso and something that covers your head.  This is true in any season.  These items must be able to hold heat if they are wet.  Again, no cotton!  Wool is great.  A wool sweater and a wool hat will do the trick, you need not spend much.

A waterproof shell is good too, especially if you’re cool with it not being entirely waterproof, since none are.  But a shell’s role as a wind breaker is crucial in conserving heat.

6.  Gaiters

When I see gaiters missing from an essential list I know right away that list maker has never hiked in the Adirondacks.  Waterproof boots in our mountains are not waterproof without gaiters.

Have we covered feet enough?  Yes, but foot care is simply safety job one, so let’s forgive ourselves.

Meanwhile here we are several items down the list and we haven’t even got one thing to carry in a pack except a spare pair of socks.  Let’s put something in the backpack, shall we?

Having something in a pack implies actually having a pack – in itself not safety equipment, but since we’re assuming one I’ll say spend the money on an ultralight pack.   They are fabulous.  I’ve been at this since the late 1970’s and nothing has improved more dramatically than the backpack.

What to pick next is a toughie if I’m forced to put this stuff in priority order (which is silly, of course).  It’s tempting to pick a water bottle next as hydration is something that can’t wait.  However my definition of safety, per my previous Dispatches, is a life-and-limb definition, not about comfort and convenience.  It’s pretty hard to die of dehydration in the Adirondacks (though hypothermia can kill you quickly if you get too dehydrated).  Exposure and loss of body heat is a bigger concern than the discomfort of having bad tasting water from a puddle, a small rill or a bunch of moss (by the way, your average clump of moss contains enough water to sate your thirst).  So I’ll go with:

7. Sleeping bag and a way to keep it dry

Sleeping bags don’t seem to make many essential lists.  I must be crazy, then.  “Emergency shelter” makes everyone’s lists; indeed, you must be able to avoid exposure from the elements.   But since exposure is not about discomfort but about a loss of body heat I’m pretty confused.  Ever try to stay warm under a tarp?  Many sources point out that you can build a warm shelter.  Ever try that?  I have.  Was it waterproof?  Hah, right?  Short of ripping apart a couple of trees for their bark a waterproof shelter is not happening in the Adirondacks.

If you have a sleeping bag combined with a tarp and/or a high-quality bivy sack you have all the shelter you need.  Here the thoughtful money needs to go into the “way to keep it dry” part.  You can spend a hell of a lot of money on a sleeping bag.  If you are a hard core winter camper, it becomes more worth it; otherwise, your average sleeping bag will do fine.  But get a good tarp!  Lightweight, rip proof, reinforced grommets, large dimensions… don’t skimp here.

I like bivy sacks.  They weigh nothing, keep the bag dry from the bottom and from splatter and incidental wetness.  You buy a bivy sack, put it on the bag and forget about it.  The combination of a tarp and a light bivy sack is ideal.

Of course you could pack a tent but tents are not essential.

8. Water bottle and filter

Okay.  You can survive drinking water without a water bottle but that’s just stupid.  A good, reasonably convenient water supply is crucial.  The filter is obviously useful in avoiding Giardia.  But it becomes essential in the first aid department, which I’ll cover in my next dispatch.

9. Appropriate first-aid kit

I’ll save the contents and discussion of first aid for the next Dispatch, but you have to have one that allows you to deal with accidents, injuries or illness.  Mine is quite different – and smaller – than the typical list.  It does not cost much and is best assembled by you and your doctor.  More next week.

10. Energy food

I include energy food as essential for two reasons, even though it is possible to live for a long time without food.  First, food is so important to psychology, to maintaining the necessary attitude.  Second, food is critical in maintaining both mobility and body heat.

11. Thin rope

My last item is thin but strong rope.  This is another place not to skimp money-wise; get good stuff.  Thin rope is promoted to essential for two reasons, once again both of them related to mobility and exposure: extra lacing if a boot lace breaks and a way to securely position and tie down the tarp.

That’s it! With this gear you can survive indefinitely in the wilderness if you have to.  Everything else is a matter of comfort and convenience as far as I am concerned.  Make no mistake, I typically bring in more than this, for example matches, a head lamp and cooking gear… but not a lot more.

I might as well get myself in trouble by describing why some usually-obvious things are not on the list.  Generally it isn’t because items such as a map or a compass are unimportant; certainly they are good things to have.  However I started this whole series of columns with the idea that reliance upon equipment is a mistake.  In my opinion many of the canonical safety items are perfect examples: their safety value is vastly overrated.

In fact let’s take the map and compass for our first example.  It can be fun to have a compass, but as a safety device how useful is it really?

If you stay on the trail you don’t need the compass.  The map is still very convenient and useful but it is not going to keep you on the trail; you have to do that.

If you lose the trail the map is not going to be very helpful.  Things like sitting down and calming yourself, looking at the shape and slope of the land and retracing your steps will be much more helpful.  You might think that a compass would be useful in this case.  Maybe… but don’t count on it.  Which way is the trail?  Suppose you are sure it’s “south” and you use your compass to point south.  Is the trail really perpendicular to you, directly south?  And will you walk accurately in the direction you mean?  If the answers to these questions are no – and they almost certainly are no – say if there is a modest ten or fifteen degrees of variation, which is nothing in the woods, then your error can easily change what should have been a five minute intersection time into more than half an hour time, with an intersection point nowhere near where you left the trail, or it can even cause you to completely miss.  Fifteen minutes of walking with no happy results when you are lost and “following” a compass can and will completely disorient you; you will second-guess yourself, panic and then you are in trouble.

Effective use of a compass takes precision; if you find yourself calling upon it, be extremely deliberate and as accurate as you can.  If you are a beginner this will take more discipline and practice than you might think.  Sit down a lot and breathe and think and calm yourself. Your relaxed sense of your surroundings is more valuable than the compass.

If you go way off trail – either by accident or deliberately as part of a bushwhack – then a map and compass become more important – but only if you really know how to use them.  The percentage of hikers who could accurately triangulate a position using a compass… well, I wouldn’t want to guess.  It’s not very high.   Not only that, there are many places in the Adirondack back country where compass readings are errant, even wildly errant.  There is a lot of magnetic material in the Adirondack Mountains.  Even experts can be flummoxed but good by an ore vein.

I’m not saying you should not bring a map and compass.  I’m saying you should not rely upon them as essential safety equipment unless you are quite expert.  If that’s the case then you likely don’t need them as essential safety equipment anyhow.

Bottom line: attitude and experience are much more important.  If you have the essential gear then getting lost becomes inconvenient and not dangerous.  If you get hellaciously lost, follow the water out.  That’s likely going to work better than following a compass.

Another example is the ubiquitous knife.  Lots of lists mention the knife as number two or three in priority.  This calls to mind brawny hikers thinking they are Daniel Boone, maybe making a spear or something.  A knife is useful at the campsite, here and there.  As a safety device on or off the trail, a knife is something upon which I have yet to call.  Nor do I know what I’d call upon it for.

A final example is the classic fire-making gear.  Naturally I carry matches; I like to light my stove.  However neither matches nor fire starters constitute safety gear to me.  If you have figured out that your safety might require making an emergency fire then your approach to safety leaves something to be desired.  I cannot recall the last time I heard tell of anyone who saved their life or the life of another by making an emergency fire.  A dry sleeping bag is ten times better than a fire, leaves no permanent damage, doesn’t need replenishing and is guaranteed to work.  Plus anyone can unroll a sleeping bag and warm themselves up.  Try starting a fire under adverse conditions with matches or even a fire starter before you buy into the romantic notion of the “emergency fire.”

This rejection of lots of canonical gear makes for a pretty empty pack.  I’ve got a tarp, a sleeping bag and bivy sack.  Then I have a wool sweater, a hat and an extra pair of socks inside the bag (where they stay dry no matter what).  Finally I have a shell, water bottle, filter, energy food and a small first aid kit in pouches where I can easily get those items.

So with all this room, with what do I fill my pack?  Well, one priority is to be able to attain comfort at the end of the day as described last week.  I’m happy to be as miserable as can be during the day’s work, but at some point I seek something close to back country nirvana to recharge.  A dry sleeping bag just about does it, but I really need a camp pillow and pad to finish the job.  I gave up on inflatable pads: they inevitably leak.  I use solid foam pads which work great but they do shred in the woods and I don’t like that.  Anyone have any suggestions?  A headlamp and spare batteries lends comfort and convenience.  A change of clean, dry under layers is always inside my bag (my wife, reading this over my shoulder, just said “and booze,” but I’ll ignore that).

This still leaves a half-empty pack.   Into that goes the theme of an upcoming Dispatch or two and a favorite back country subject: a multi-tool, matches, a stove, fuel and food, food, food, glorious food.  That’s where my weight quotient soars.  I do love to eat and I’m an advocate of food winning the battle over weight.

Dear readers, I’ll be in the woods as this one is posting.  Let loose the dogs!  What’s wrong with this?  How crazy am I?  What’s your version?

Photo Caption: Maybe carrying a little much? (photo credit:

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    I like a lot of your suggestions Pete but I use trail shoes–not unlike sneakers–in the summer. They’re not for the weak ankled but Jan, who works at the Mountaineer and holds both the supported and unsupported records for hiking all 46 high peaks, recommended them. They’re light, comfortable, and dry quickly. I’ve hiked in trail shoes, sneakers, and even Tevas my whole life and never regretted it.

  2. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    No argument about the trail shoes. I’ve trail-run many peaks in the new balance shoes I use for distance running. I also think experience negates equipment requirements. You and I know when to try something with one type of footwear or another.

    But for serious backpacking with hard trails, bushwhacking, a loaded pack, over multiple days in varied conditions, boots are the choice. For people with less experience I think the message needs to be how important it is to think about feet and ankles.

  3. John Warren John Warren says:

    I would guess most injuries in the back country are the result of improper footwear, experienced hikers and inexperienced.

  4. Jeff Calderone says:

    Hunting hiking and camping in the ADK is fun and comes with risk, as does anything, yet being miles away from civilization causes the mind to wander into relems of the unknown when danger is present.

    While making a camp fire will not likely save anyone, the comfort that it allows is nurturing and can not be underestimated. This comfort allows a certian scense of peace and safety which in turn will keep someone in dire straights with a mentality to keep pushing on to survive!

    While a knife is not essential to survive it comes in handy when trying to build something like a shelter, bow, arrow, spear or snare and makes cleaning game much easyer if a long term survival is needed. Short term survivial usually does not require a knife yet if the situtuation arises a knife is a welcomed and essential tool. IMO

    Proper clothing is essential in the ADK for any extended outdoor adventures. Gaiters, BOOTS + SOCKs that are perfect and broken in, fleece, polypropylene, and gortec gear all make for a pleasant experience. Bad weather is a given in the ADK and freezing rain changing to snow and back to freezing rain is not uncommen while hunting high elevations late in the season.(Nov-Dec)

    I do not camp and hike as often as I would like. My day pack for hunting has all the gear in this article except for sleeping bag,bivy sack, stove and purifyer. Yet this year I will be heading back further than ever before to escape the crowd and those extra essential will come with me for my solo bow hunting trip.

    Following water out is ok as a last resort yet the area’s I go that would be disaster. Get a GPS they have maps and work very well!

    Bring your knowledge and experience if you don’t have one go with someone who does, if you don’t have both just stay out of the woods…

    PS: I bring 4 pairs of hunting boots when I go hunting for the week. While this is not essential for most, it makes hiking in snow, rain, hot, cold and long distance all possible and achievable regaurdless of weather! Having been in sports and going through bad sprains, I do not think I would hike in anything but boots regaurdless of season/weather. I wear them even when not hiking, love the support and comfort and my back loves that even more…

    Again Mr.Nelson your experience is evident in your writing and you knowledge vast, thanks for sharing. This should be required reading for all hikers/campers/hunters in the ADK.

  5. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


    Thanks a million for all the wonderful comments, they are thoughtful and will be useful to people who read them.

    As to fire, I think you are right on. The psychological benefit to a fire is tremendous, no doubt has been since primitive times. I am biased by my wealth of experience which means that I find the comfort and desire to go on from other things, not fire. It should also be mentioned that fires are not allowed in certain parts of the Adirondacks, although for survival you of course do what you must. I would reiterate that the mindset that a fire will keep you warm is a poor substitute for the mindset that proper clothing and a dry bag will keep you warm. But as to the reassuring and comforting effect, your point is well taken.

    As to the knife, I agree again. If you hunt or fish then a knife is automatically essential. If you don’t hunt or fish then relying upon catching game in a survival situation is a bad plan. Both hunting and fishing take experience. I always have a knife, the same hunting knife I’ve had since 1974. It is useful at camp for sure.

    Readers, Jeff’s comments on clothing and especially boots are very useful. Four pair of boots! I understand that, a lot of people wouldn’t until they’ve done it as much as you have.

    GPS… I’ll just say that experience and a cool head are much more important. I never carry GPS on principle, I like getting lost! Yes, following water out is a last resort. But it is sure to work.

    Again, great comments. Thanks. I’d be very curious for you to weigh in on my next Dispatch, on my first aid kit.