11 Nonessentials You Need To Know

Backpacking season is right around the corner, and Chris Simmons would like to take a moment to remind you of all the stuff you won’t be needing when you head into the hills.

  1. Mugs/cups. Everyone wants one, but these things are a pain to pack efficiently, are useless if they aren’t insulated, and weigh something if they are. More often than not, they don’t have a lid. A good compromise: Find a half-liter Nalgene bottle. It’s the perfect size for your morning coffee or evening tea, and with the lid screwed on, it can tuck into your jacket or sleeping bag, doubling as a hot-water warmer.
     
  2. Pillows. Great for car camping, and inevitably inadequate for the backcountry. Most of the time, I drop all my extra stuff into my backpack and use it to prop up my head. I’ve also been known to use the climbing rope, or my boots.
     
  3. Extra Clothes. You’re going out for a weekend—not climbing Mt Everest. Seriously, extra shirts, pants and underwear should be tossed out. It makes packing a ton easier, and eliminates the (perceived) need for #4. On a 21-day Denali expedition, I bring a single change of long underwear, which is only put on when we leave the 14,000-foot camp for the final summit push. I’ll bring an extra pair of socks per three days in the backcountry, maxing out at three pairs total.
     
  4. 100 Stuff sacks/Ziploc bags. Does everything have to go in a bag? And then into another bag? And then into the backpack, which is a big bag all by itself? Seriously? Yes, it makes it more organized, but why are you carrying so much stuff that you need to be that organized? If it’s smaller than your hand, it goes in the lid. The hike or approach into the mountains is often hotter than the climb and time spent sitting around camp, so use your pants, jackets, hats, gloves and your share of the tent or shelter (but see #9) to stuff around the sleeping bag, stove, food and climbing gear.  Afraid it’s going to rain, and your pack isn’t water proof? See #5.
     
  5. Pack Covers. The most clever —and useless—piece of equipment that the outdoor industry every convinced the public was necessary. Maybe it dates back to canvas packs. Your stove can get wet and still work. The tent is designed to get wet and still work. If you’re hiking in the rain, you’re probably wearing rain gear, so you shouldn’t notice the difference between a wet backpack and dry one. Often these overpriced pieces of fabric are held on with just some elastic and a draw string, making them the 2nd most commonly blown-away item (in between trucker hats and poorly-anchored tents).  Worried about your sleeping bag getting wet?  A waterproof treated stuff sack, not necessarily dunk proof, will work 90 percent of the time, unless you’re in the Pacific Northwest. For the other 10 percent (or 30 percent in the PNW) of the time, simply line your pack with a plastic trash bag. Voila.
     
  6. Big-ass boots. Another industry myth: Your ankles are weak. You were designed to walk. Your ankles were intended to walk three  to 20 miles a day, every day, for your entire life. You know who I’ve seen with weak ankles? People with big boots. My pet theory is that the ankle support of big boots actually allows the ankles to remain weak. I started wearing light hikers, approach shoes, and even running shoes as dictated by the trip (snow with aluminum crampons, scramble-y terrain on a climbing trip, pure trail with a little cross-country). A pair of lightweight gaiters like the OR Stamina Gaiter keeps the occasional snowfield and trail rock out of your shoe.
     
  7. Liner Socks. As a teenager, I was convinced that I had to have liner socks. Then I moved out of my parents’ house, and had to buy my own clothes. Liner socks were the first thing left behind in the budget crunch. And you know what happened to my feet?  Not a gods-damned thing.  It’s not your socks that cause blisters, it’s your shoes, and your lack of walking further than the distance between your car and your house/office/grocery store/mall. I bet if you walk three miles two to three times a week in a pair of running shoes (bonus points for doing it on a dirty trail), and have picked out a pair of boots that actually fit well (and weren’t the cheapest thing you could find on backcountry.com), you’ll be blister free.
     
  8. Massive first aid kits. You’re going out for the weekend, or the week. If you start puking, you’re probably going to call the trip off early and go home. Ditto if you have a fever. If you break your leg, you’re calling for a rescue. The stories of people heroically carrying their busted-up partners out to the trailhead are just that—heroic. So really, a first aid kit has to be able to do three things: stop someone from bleeding to death from a big cut, stop someone from screaming in pain from a broken whatever, stop someone from immediately having an allergic reaction. The big issue is bleeding out, stabilizing fractures and allergic reactions, calling for a rescue, and not being over-exposed to nature while waiting for rescue. I can do all of that with 10 feet of duct tape, some sort of pain killer, Benadryl, a cell phone, and a lighter. So could you, if you took a Wilderness First Responder Course. P.S., if you KNOW you get a severe allergic reaction from bees/hornets/wasps/dirt, bring your own epi pen and know how to use it.
     
  9. The Big Ass Camera. If you’re not a professional photographer, or if you can’t take photos like you are a professional photographer, or if you’re not being paid for the photos you take home, then leave the SLR at home, too. I bring a small digital camera on expeditions, and use my cell phone’s camera for everything else.
     
  10. Tents In Mid-Summer. The forecast for the next 72 hours is for warm and sunny and no clouds, and the flies are done for the season. Do you really need to schlep that 5-pound three-season tent? This might be the best argument for the uber-lightweight tents on the market, because they keep the flies off of you. I read stories about climbers hiking into a climb with nothing more than a down jacket, a hat, and the rope for a planned bivy, and nowadays people seem to insist on bring that four-season single-wall six-pound tent ON EVERY FREAKING trip. Alternatively, consider bringing an 8 x 10 tarp for a shelter or ground sheet, and if the flies are bad, sleep with your rain coat propped over your head.
     
  11. Over Hydration. When I started hunting with my dad, he would make me drink a bucket of water in the morning (and consequently I pissed like a horse about an hour later) and we came back to camp in the afternoon when the heat and the thirst drove us in. But that was great, because 1) it’s hard to hunt for 12 hours straight when you’re 12 years old, or even when you’re 20, and 2) water weighs a ton. OK, not a ton, but one liter of water (the standard Nalgene size) weighs 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds (this 1L=1kg=2.2lbs is a useful conversion for lots of stuff). So carrying a three-liter dromedary bag for a 6 hour hike that crosses three streams is STUPID. My approach is to carry two ½-liter bottles. I start the day with one bottle filled (weighing in at 1.1 lbs), and one empty. At the stream crossing, I’ll stop, fill up the empty bottle and treat it with my favorite tool, iodine, and I’ll drink the first bottle dry. At the next stream crossing, I have a treated bottle waiting for me to drink again, and an empty one to fill up. If I make sure to drink 1 liter of fluids at breakfast (one bottle of coffee and one bottle of water = 1 liter) and 1 liter of fluids at dinner (one bottle of tea and one bottle of hot chocolate = 1L), then I just drank 3.5 liters for the day. Toss in a third bottle of water in camp that night, and I’ve drunk more than a gallon, reasonably spaced out throughout the day.

Exceptions to #11: Water bladders work, but with some caveats. I find that I either 1) drink way too much too soon and run out of water at 2:15 p.m. in the middle of the hottest part of the day, or 2) I carry too much water and arrive in camp and find that I’ve carried an extra 2 liters/4.4 pounds of stuff unnecessarily for the last six hours. My compromise? I carry bladders when I know that I won’t be crossing a stream for two hours or more, or the daytime high is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, when the heat really starts to effect me. I also try to budget ½-liter for every hour that I’m in between water sources, so for a 2.5-hour hike between creeks, I’ll carry 1-1.5-liters in the bag. This is an attempt to not over-pack.

Winter.  If the temperature is below freezing, then I don’t bring a water bladder. I’ve just had too many problems with them in freezing conditions. I’ll replace one of my ½-liter bottles with a small thermos. And I’ve noticed that I do better at hydrating in the winter if I have warm or hot things to drink instead of cold (and my core likes it too), so I’ll fill those with coffee/tea/even plain hot water at the start of the day.

Water treatment. This is a controversial topic, so I’ll go ahead and admit that my unorthodox practice goes out on a limb. I haven’t treated my water since 1999, and I haven’t gotten sick yet. This means that instead of carrying water in the example above, I simply stop and take a drink at the creek crossing. If I don’t trust the water (because I see/know/suspect that there is a cow pasture/outhouse/water-treatment plant upstream), then I carry a bottle of iodine. Iodine is small, weighs little, and is effective. Filter pumps are great, but weigh a lot and take time. I’ll bring them along if I’m with a larger group, like five or more folks. The gravity-fed filters are awesome for this application, too. Steri-pens work great, but in my experience they stop operating in the field about 30 percent of the time, for a host of reasons.  So everyone carries iodine as a backup, so why not just use the backup and leave the gizmo at home? Yes, iodine tastes foul. So does Jaegermeister.  That’s why I bring Scotch or a good Irish whiskey. And I’m certain that one day I’ll get sick—but there are drugs for that.