Preparing for a long hike or backpacking trip, it’s easy to overlook small, supplemental items when you’re focusing on critical gear like the sleeping bag or tent. Online checklists can be very helpful, but I’ve seen too many of these gloss over or completely miss a variety of kit supplements that can massively improve your experience in the backcountry at little cost to pack weight.
In this list specifically, I’m going to highlight a batch of gear that I use on every single backpacking trip, even though most people wouldn’t consider these items truly essential. The fun common denominator here is that none of these items were originally designed with backcountry use in mind, despite being perfectly applicable.
1. SPF lip balm – Five years ago, I hiked the 95-mile Wonderland Trail without lip balm and I haven’t forgotten it since. Your lips need sun and wind protection and you don’t want to be using sunscreen. Lots of people bring lip balm most of the time, but it's that one time you neglect to bring it that you'll probably learn you'll never want to forget it again. Chapped or burned lips are not fun.
2. Skin salve – Have you ever pulled your foot out of a hiking shoe or boot only to find that your skin is soft, gross and pruney? This means that your skin has lost many of its natural oils and is significantly more prone to blistering. Applying a good salve to your feet once or twice a day revitalizes the skin with natural oils and goes an extremely long way toward blister prevention. I’ve never regretted a midday foot salving session and you won’t either. Plus, application feels like a foot massage, especially when you drive your fingers in between your toes.
3. Leukotape – This stuff is unbelievably useful. It’s got the stickiness of duct tape with the breathable fabric of athletic tape. I recommend it for preventatively taping blister hot spots and chafing areas, as it basically never peels or rubs off. Leukotape also does double duty as part of my gear repair kit and as a bandage adhesive. Or you could use it as the designers intended—for muscle taping.
4. Floss – If you consider your backcountry diet to be about average, then you’re probably consuming massive amounts of processed sugar in the form of energy bars, snack food and candy. I’m not advocating that you stop eating those things, but only so long as you take good cavity prevention measures. I’ve met loads of experienced hikers who don’t bother flossing on short- to medium-length multi-day trips. But considering their diet, there really is no better time! Plus, you wouldn’t want to be stranded 25 miles from civilization with a chunk of dried mango aggravatingly stuck in your chompers, now, would you?
5. Resealable plastic bags (AKA Ziploc®) – I like to keep a variety of bags on hand whenever I’m packing for a trip because they’re extremely useful for organizing food and gear. Bulk snacks are distributed in 200–400 calorie portions in sandwich-sized bags, dinners are stored in and eaten out of freezer-grade quart-sized bags, and my maps and future days’ food are organized and kept dry in gallon-sized bags. Once the food has been eaten out of them, they become trash bags. The downside here is that it creates plastic waste, so try to offset this by avoiding plastic bag use back home.
6. Dried vegetables – In some form or another, you’re probably packing dried fruit, right? Don’t settle for an incomplete diet just because good dried veggies are hard to find at the local grocery store. Add them to your dinners or snack on them for nutritious variety. I recommend Karen’s Naturals for taste, quality, price and accessibility on Amazon Prime.
7. Caffeine pills – Do you habitually drink coffee in the morning and/or afternoon? The backcountry is not a good place to find out what happens if you accidentally go cold turkey. Imagine you didn’t bring enough instant coffee or don’t have the time or resources to brew it when needed. Simply swallow a 100 mg caffeine pill (this roughly equates to one serving of strong coffee). As a somewhat extreme case study, I’ve actually given up backcountry coffee entirely in favor of the ease and convenience of caffeine pills. And let me tell you, I’m not looking back. Caffeine is also a great tool for counteracting “the bonk.” On the rare occasion when you’re hiking or climbing for an exhausting 12+ hour day, you may find that a little caffeine can help perk you up and carry you across the finish line.
8. Antacids – Any time your diet changes, you’re more likely to get indigestion, bloating or stomach aches. Especially as you increase consumption of dried foods and sugars. The backcountry is no place for getting slowed down by these discomforts when cheap, lightweight over-the-counter medicine can remedy it. Pepto-Bismol™ works best for me and I keep it in a readily accessible pill bag.
9. Olive oil packets – Olive oil is a super food, and it’s a great way to bulk up your dinners with healthy fats to fuel the furnace. The problem is that it can be difficult to pack. I’ve experimented by decanting it into bottles and tubes of various types, but I simply can’t tolerate the risk of an oil spill. That’s why I recommend individual packets. They’re small, well-portioned, soft sided and fully self-contained.
10. Your phone for the Gaia GPS backcountry app – Yes, your phone is the most important knickknack in your kit. Without exception, every backcountry traveler should have GPS at their fingertips, and I recommend the Gaia GPS app. By downloading a free topo map in advance, and without the need for any cell networks, this app uses your phone’s GPS chip to pinpoint exactly where you’re standing in the world with nearby trails and mountains spread out around you. Anyone who uses Google or Apple Maps will feel right at home using the interface. I still bring paper maps, but find that Gaia GPS is faster and easier to use when navigating. Remember to set your phone to airplane mode and close other apps to help conserve battery life.
While I’m usually an advocate for packing less random things, each and every one of the items on this list will justify itself as part of your kit on the daily or when you need it most. Happy adventuring and good luck out there!