On our YouTube channel, I was recently tagged by Adam Thompson in something called the Top-5 Backpack Gear/Tag 5 People Challenge. You may know Adam by this online handle Serial Photog, which he uses on his Instagram and YouTube channels. Check him out.
Okay. Here’s my highly personal, non-trendy, DIY, makes-me-happy list:
5. Garbage Bag
I don’t remember when I started lining the main compartment of my backpacks with garbage bags, but it’s been at least 25 years and I’m sure it was because of some hard lesson learned.
Like the time we took my brother-in-law Brian backpacking for the first time. This was way back in 1994, and I’d been doing the garbage bag thing so long I didn’t think to tell Brian to do the same with the pack we loaned him. We were in Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was August. All the way from Kentucky to Denver, temperatures were at or above 100, with no precipitation. Up in the mountains, there was snow on the ground, and it rained the entire nine-mile trek to our campsite. By the time we got there, the rain turned to sleet.
We set up camp, and as we unpacked our things, Brian discovered that nearly everything in his pack was soaked. My things were dry, of course, and I ended up giving my dry clothes to him when his teeth wouldn’t stop chattering.
A garbage bag weighs nothing and makes for a great insurance policy against rain, slipping during a creek-crossing or any other kind of water emergency. I never leave home without one.
4. Aluminum Pot & Grabber
One of my backpacking pet peeves is Gearhead Guy. You know who I’m talking about. The guy who shows up in camp with all the cool and trendy gear, which is perfectly fine. What’s not okay is that he insists on giving everyone within earshot a 45-minute lecture on every marvel he pulls out of his bag, explaining why it’s the highest expression of the art and craft of backpacking.
If you’re like me, you spend the rest of the evening beating yourself up for not pushing on to the next campsite.
Accuse me of reverse-snobbery if you wish, but there are two pieces of gear I’ve carried on every single backpacking trip I’ve ever been on—my aluminum cookpot and grabber. Have I considered the purchase of a Jetboil? You bet. But when comes down to it, I can’t bear to break a streak that goes back to the late 1970s.
And why should I? I can’t see that anyone has improved on the design of my simple pot and grabber. Unlike packs, pants and shoes, which eventually wear out, these essential pieces of gear keep plugging along, doing their job flawlessly, regardless of the weather or how badly I treat them.
3. Star Crunches
Like every hiker I know, I obsess about the food I carry on the trail. Food is fuel, of course, but it also needs to taste good. This leads to endless experimenting, particularly with freeze-dried dinners, which deserves a separate post at a later date.
The one area I’ve locked-in and don’t fool around with is bars. There are endless brands of energy bars for the trail: Cliff Bars, Luna Bars, Lärabars, Granola Bars, bars from Kind, Nature Valley and countless other brands. I mostly hate these bars, as they are too dry and too densely packed, like a perfect snowball, mixed with mud. For me, I prefer the Star Crunch, from Little Debbie.
Sure, the bars above have been scientifically engineered to deliver the proper balance of protein, carbohydrates and other magical elixirs guaranteed to propel a loaded-down hiker over the next big mountain. But you know who engineered the Star Crunch? A mom who loved her family and knew that what they really wanted was lots of sugar, caramel, milk chocolate (none of that fancy cacao!), a cookie and some Rice Crispies to top it off with. Probably Little Debbie’s mom, God bless her.
Yeah, I’ll carry one of those fancy bars, depending on what’s on sale or what kind of mood I’m in, but I NEVER leave home without a bunch of Star Crunches.
2. My DIY Food Bag Rope & Carabiner Thingy
Years ago, my dad and I were backing somewhere on the AT. After we’d finished eating one afternoon around dusk, Dad saw me grab my paracord and asked if I’d hang his food with mine. I took his food back and walk off, looking for a perfect hanging tree. At that time, I had non “system” for hanging my food. I’d look for a rock or maybe a stick to tie around the end of my cord, then use it for ballast to carry it over a limb.
That evening, as dusk turned to night, I provided the entertainment as I failed, time and again. I ran out of rocks, as the ones I found slipped through my poor knots. A stick got hung on a lesser limb, and I had to put my entire weight on it to finally break it free. Finally, after too much effort and stupidity, I did it.
As I drifted off to sleep that night, I began thinking about how to do this easy task without looking like a jackass half the time. Over the course of my next few trips, I experimented with different methods of getting my light cord over a tree limb without bringing any extra weight. I could throw a baseball with pretty decent accuracy, so I started there. I realized that a baseball is basically a bunch of yarn (cord) wound tightly, with a cover over it. This led me to change my cord management from looping it to winding up into a tight ball that ended up being a little smaller than a baseball, with the same basic weight. I got out in the backyard and tossed my cord around and liked what I had, but there was something missing.
To just throw a wound-up ball of paracord into a tree didn’t return much on the expenditure of effort. Sure, it went where I aimed it, but sometimes it didn’t unwind, or I’d have a foot of cord hanging off of one side of the limb with 49 feet of it pooled up on the ground below the other side.
I finally figured out that I could tie a carabiner to one end of the cord, hook it around my left index finger and give it some slack before throwing the rest of it over the limb. This ensured that I had an even distribution of the cord and could easily clip on my food bag and hoist it up into the heavens where nothing in the world could possibly disturb it. And if I didn’t get enough cord over the limb, I could simply wind it back up and do it again.
It’s nothing fancy, but all my hiking buddies end up clipping their food onto my line whenever we hike together.
1. Anti-Monkey-Butt Ointment
When I was younger, I used to get bad rashes when I hiked, especially when it was warm, and I got sweaty. If you’ve hiked much, you know what I’m talking about. Them old butt cheeks start to rub together while they’re wet, and before you know it, you’ve got a case of monkey butt.
I’ve never really had issues with blisters, knees, ankles or anything else. But I have had a few trips ruined by a bad case of monkey butt.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with petroleum jelly (too greasy) and various powders (okay, until they turn into spackle), but never found the perfect solution…until a kindly old lady working at Kroger turned me on to the miracle cure for monkey butt—Monistat’s Chafing Relief Powder-Gel. Yep. THAT Monistat.
I popped-in at Kroger, hoping there might be something that would cut down on the friction without making a mess and taking up too much space in my pack. I asked a young stock clerk, and he asked an older guy who took me to health and beauty and asked a white-haired lady who immediately knew what I was looking for. She walked me over to an aisle I’d never visited before and pulled a small box off the shelf and handed it to me.
“Is this what you mean?” she asked.
I read the description: “Relieves chafing from moisture, movement & shaving.”
“Yeah. All of it but the last part. Thanks!”
She smiled and went back to work, and I’ve been free from the tyranny of monkey butt for many happy years.
This stuff goes on clean, is smaller than a tube of toothpaste and works like a champ. If you suffer from monkey butt, try Monistat Chafing Relief Powder-Gel.
And there you have it. Five things I never leave home without. Of course, I could’ve described my pack, sleeping bag and tent, but there’s an avalanche of words written and recorded on those big-three items, so I decided to dig a little deeper and look at some smaller things that make my life on the trail a little better.
How about you? What are five “personal” items you hate to leave home without?