This is the sixth part of a series. Please read the other sections.
I labeled this section as miscellaneous because it doesn’t fit any of my other categories. There could be pages upon pages written about each individual topic as many are hobbies within themselves. However, for the beginner, I didn’t feel a need to get too detailed but generally give what I have observed from the average backpacker (if there is such a thing).
Cellphone. Nearly everyone has a smartphone that can do many things including operating as a Kindle or reading device, play movies, perform GPS duties, most newer phones have really great cameras in them, can even operate as a flashlight in a pinch for a short time, AND operate as a phone for text messages and phone calls! For the beginner, carrying a phone instead of all of these individual items is very common and I often still carry my phone on certain trips. There are really two main drawbacks from using your phone for everything. One is durability. The woods are full of rocks, water, mud, and icky stuff that your phone doesn’t like. A durable and waterproof case is a must. The other issue with using your phone is battery life. Most phones now have built in batteries so it isn’t as simple as swapping out a dead battery for a fresh one. There are ways around this that I’ll address later, but for the beginner on an overnight trip, a phone is a no brainer.
I do feel as if I have to give a word of caution here, however…. We get spoiled with having a signal for our cell phone everywhere we go. There are MANY places that isn’t the case when you are hiking in the backcountry – even just a short distance from the road – so plan accordingly. I set my phone in airplane mode (or turn off) when I’m hiking so it won’t drain the battery looking for a signal (because there’s not one). Many of the functions can still be used such as the camera, GPS apps, music downloaded to your phone, etc while the phone is in airplane mode. Also, dim the screen brightness as that also helps extend the battery life. I believe many new people believe there’s always going to be a signal where they can call for help if they need it. That is often not the case.
GPS device. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one until you decide this hobby is for you. There are affordable models out there that do a great job, but for the beginner, if you want GPS functions, there are many apps that can be downloaded for free or purchased. I personally use the Gaia app and have a blog post comparing the data from the app to my stand alone GPS device. I would suggest BEFORE buying a dedicated GPS device (or really even hiking) that you learn how to navigate using a map and compass. The military teaches it for free (at least that’s how I learned) or some outdoor stores/clubs will have an orienteering class. A compass is cheap, I’ve never had one break, and doesn’t rely on batteries. I often plan my hike on paper (map) and track my accuracy electronically (GPS). IF you rely on the GPS only, things can go bad very quickly if your GPS fails.
Camera. My phone takes some really great pictures. In fact, some of my favorite pictures have come from my phone, not my camera. If you already have a camera, I’d suggest taking it. There are often settings on a camera that aren’t available on a phone and more often than not, the camera will take a better picture. I use a “point and shoot” type camera that suites my needs. I have been with others that have taken their larger (and heavier) 35mm cameras with several different lens. What was said about phones also applies to cameras. There are a lot of rocks, water, mud, etc in the woods…. The camera I use is a “rugged” point and shoot model that is waterproof and shockproof and would suggest something like that for backpacking.
Kindle/iPad/Books. I don’t personally take any of these items. I go to the woods to be in nature by myself or with friends. I enjoy being “unplugged.” You may have a different opinion, and that’s ok. IF I was to take something, it would probably be an old fashioned book. I do know hikers that do this and use the pages they have read to start the fire. Do what works for you.
Light. Yes is the answer. You will need at least one light source. I’d suggest having one set of extra batteries or a backup especially for extended trips. It never ceases to amaze me how early it gets dark in the woods. Trying to set up your shelter, cook, start a fire, looking for firewood or something in your backpack, and nearly everything you do after dark will require a light. I would suggest getting a headlamp. It’s basically a flashlight you wear around your forehead. Wearing a headlamp keeps both hands free to do whatever you are doing. My first overnight trip I didn’t have a headlamp and was holding my flashlight between my shoulder and neck in a very uncomfortable position trying to set up my gear. It wasn’t fun.
I would suggest a headlamp with a night mode although I suspect all models sold now would have one. Night mode is most often a red light but green and blue are also colors I have seen. This keeps your night vision more intact which means when you turn off your light your eyes are semi adjusted to the dark and you can see better. Also try to angle your headlamp down slightly otherwise when you look at someone your light is shining right in their eyes. I also have a small keychain push button light in an inside pocket of my backpack for backup.
Spare batteries/Recharging options. With all the electronics, how do you plan on keeping the items operating on longer trips? Sometimes it is easy to replace the batteries such as in a headlamp, camera, or GPS. Cell phones, some cameras, and other devices that have a built in battery pose a different set of difficulties. How to recharge your items? It all depends on where you are, how much you use the device (or how fast they drain a full charge), and how long you plan on being in the woods. The most common solution is a backup battery device with the cables to charge multiple items. The backup battery device gets recharged in town on resupply days or after the trip depending on the variables above. The answer comes through experience but it’s something to consider. One thing I see newer people consider are solar charging devices. In the woods, I’m often covered by shade and solar devices require a lot of sunlight and a fairly long time to be effective. In your environment they may be a solution, but they are not very practical here.
Knives/Sharp things. Once again, yes is the answer. One of the things I see newer people carry are large survival type knives. Hopefully you do not find yourself in a survival situation on a simple overnight trip. I find that I most often use my knife to open food packets, not to construct shelter from large trees. I would carry something smaller than you think you need. I also bought a cheap multitool and carried it for several trips. I discovered that I never used and it and it has sat in my box of gear ever since. If you are one of the people that can’t leave the house without your multitool, then carry it by all means, but know that your blade will get 99% or more of the use.
Before I talk about collecting firewood and the need for an axe or saw, I must bring up something called Leave No Trace (LNT). Their website (https://lnt.org/) can give you lots of great information. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. To make it simple, my version is to take only pictures and leave only footprints. In the purest form, LNT does not recommend fires. However, to most people camping isn’t camping without a camp fire. I would just suggest being responsible and reasonable.
To be perfectly honest, I camp mostly during the Fall, Winter, and early Spring and I most often have a fire. It’s a relatively small fire and I ensure the ground around the fire and overhead is not combustible. I also most often camp in a designated Wilderness area without established campsites. There are many places that are popular and all the firewood has been collected and burned over the years by the many visitors. I don’t camp there. Most often where I camp there is wood that can be collected and burned without the use of an axe or saw. The really only exception where a small hand saw would be helpful is a large downed tree. Of course, never cut anything living (it won’t burn well, if at all) and be respectful of your environment. I carried a hatchet on one trip and I’ve never carried a saw. My camping partner does often carry a saw, so that helps our ability to collect firewood.
Sitting. The picture of friends sitting around a campfire cooking hotdogs or roasting marshmallows is the postcard for camping, isn’t it? If you have ever sat around a campfire, how and where did you sit? Most often this is done in a setting where everyone can bring their big comfortable chair. That isn’t exactly the case when backpacking. Some people pull up a log or rock. Some people sit on the ground. Others carry a small stool or pad to sit on. I have a small backpacking chair I carry on all but the longest multiday hikes. I have discovered at my age after a long day hiking/backpacking, my back and legs need a break and my chair does the job. The options here are endless but just remember, without some type of insulation barrier, the rocks, logs, and ground will steal body heat and you will cool down quickly.
Trekking poles. Some call them hiking poles. Why do you need them? You may not and I probably would buy other items first, but I really like mine! I use two, although some people only use one. The two trekking poles help keep me from slipping when I’m going downhill – especially when it is muddy or slippery. I’ll put them out in front of me to steady myself if I start to slip. They help me keep my balance when I’m tiptoeing across rocks crossing a stream. I also use them to clear spider webs strung across the trail, push limbs out of my way, and even to slightly propel myself forward on flat ground (think ski poles and skiing). Some people say their knees aren’t as sore when they use trekking poles. I use them on my tarp to elevate one side to set up “porch mode.” So I even use them around camp.
The two most common materials for trekking poles are aluminum and carbon fiber. Of course, aluminum is more durable but heavier, while carbon fiber is lighter and not as durable. The price of carbon fiber has come down drastically, so don’t discount them for a beginner. The handles are generally cork or a synthetic (plastic) material. I prefer the cork handles. They just feel better in my hand and I’ve never had a blister from using them. Some trekking poles come with a shock absorber or spring, but I prefer the ones without. To me, it’s just something else to break and I get a better “feel” of the ground with the models without the spring. While there are models that don’t collapse (think of skiing poles) most models do so they can be easily stowed when not in use. The two most common locking devices are a twist lock and a flip lock. I prefer the flip lock as the twist lock seems to come loose through use at the worst possible time. I highly recommend them and would suggest trying a cheap pair and see for yourself before investing a lot of money on trekking poles.
Insect control. In all except the coldest environments, yes is the answer once again! Nothing is worse that feel as if you are being eaten alive by various insects without any way of relief. While it will greatly depend on your environment and season, there are insects/bugs out nearly all year in many areas of the world. Not only do they make the experience unpleasant, but they can actually carry disease so it is something that must be considered. Regardless of your precautions, one word of advice (even around town) is not to wear anything heavily scented. This draws the insects to you. While I don’t have any scientific proof of this, I have made this observation more than once.
I use a chemical called Permethrin. It can be bought online or in outdoor supply stores. It’s even available at Wal-Mart in the sporting goods department. I spray/soak my outer clothes and some gear in advance and the chemical is active for over a month, which has been shorter than my longest trip. This will repel/kill ticks, fleas, chiggers, and other creepy crawlies. You want to make sure you treat your clothes several days in advance and allow your clothes to dry fully before your outing. As a note, it is lethal to cats when wet, so you do have to be careful. I do wear gloves and use in a well ventilated area. When it is dry, there is no smell and will survive several washings. It works for me, but there are other options if you are concerned about chemicals. There are other areas where the flies and gnats are so bad a head net or net suit is required for protection. I hope not to visit those areas any time soon….
Fire starting device. Once again, the answer is yes! You should always have the ability to build a fire. I find the easiest and cheapest is a miniature Bic lighter. They weigh next to nothing but can literally be a lifesaver. You could get cold, wet, need to start a signal fire, etc. ALWAYS have a way to start a fire even if you don’t plan on it.