Friday, March 23, 2012

A Backpacking Aficionado's 3 Season System, Part 3: The Little Things

Yes, it's the little things in life that can make all the difference, and I would say this is especially true with backpacking.  In part three of my complete examination of my 3 season gear, I will cover the small details that really add to or aid the experience of temporarily living out in nature.

In case you missed the rest:

Here is a link to part one, here is part two, and here is what my current 3 season gear list in question looks like on geargrams and/or on paper.  And one last time, full disclosure: I am not paid by any brand or company, nor do I get any gear free.

I will start with what I carry not in my pack, but on the front of my pack, worn on my hip belt.  It ends up resembling a mini fanny/hip pack while I hike, and contains the things I usually need the most or that I want to have easy/quick access to, which are: cell phone, flashlight, lip balm/sunblock, compass, Swiss Army Knife (Nomad model), and tissues.  Total it's 190g.  The small ziplock bag is in case it rains heavy and I need to protect things (most importantly my phone) from getting soaked.  I will also store snacks and gum in the hip pack, or a camera if I choose to take one (I usually don't, plus my phone has a camera anyhow).
I will switch out my Swiss Army Knife for a Mora Knife (the "basic" model with a plastic handle) at times, especially if the weather is good and I expect to have several campfires.  I use my Mora to cut and split wood by batoning (which is when you drive the blade through wood by hitting it with something else, like a strong stick).  The weight of the SAK and Mora are nearly identical, the SAK coming in at 100g even, and the Mora only 5g more including a plastic sheath.  The Mora doesn't fit in the hip pack, so I either wear it with a string around my neck, or keep it in the outer pocket of my backpack.

Some ultralight purists will nix tissues in favor of natural materials to take care of their hygiene needs.  I have used natural materials before, but for me it's just so much more easy and convenient to have a small pack of tissues.

Next is my repair and note kit, which I store inside of my first aid kit: pen with duct tape wrapped around it, a few small pieces of paper, mini sewing kit, mini scissors, sleeping mat repair patches, super glue, extra mini spool of thread.  Pretty straight forward kit, stuff can break, tear, rip, etc. so you should have something to fix your stuff, especially if you are many kilometers from civilization.  At 35g for this whole kit, it's hard to complain about bringing it, even if I rarely use it.

My general health/hygiene/safety kit has changed a lot over time.  Here is the most current version: small plastic bag, strong plastic string, concentrated biodegradable soap, mini toothpaste tube (good for about 10-12 uses), spare batteries, hand towel, tin foil, firestarters (more on this soon), matches.  The weight of this kit fluctuates due to the amount of consumable materials like toothpaste and soap.  If there are a lot of bugs out (this is not as common in the spring and fall), I will bring a tiny bottle of bug oil that is only around 20g.  The whole kit is between 110-140g.  Last time I weighed it, before my last overnight trip last weekend, it was 118g. 
I used to take a full sized towel a long time ago, which is heaver than all my small kits combined.  But now I find that a small hand towel is all I need.  I usually only wash my hands and maybe my face; and if I choose to go swimming, I can air dry for a few minutes and shake off water, and then just finish up drying with the hand towel.  

The tin foil has several uses.  For one, it stores my firestarters, which are made mostly of wax, so they can rub off on things.  I also use the tin foil if I catch a fish and choose to cook it in a foil pack in the campfire.  I usually just grill fish on a stick over the fire, but sometimes it's nice to add other ingredients to the fish (like some seasoning, chopped up veggies, and in the fall wild mushrooms).  I can also use the tin foil to make a temporary container for whatever reason.

Now more detail on my firestarters, which I am a bit proud of.  I came up with the idea on my own last year after many years of building campfires.  I have used all sorts of firestarters: cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, dryer lint, pieces of fatwood, tampons, small dropper bottle full of tiki-torch oil, etc.  Plus all sorts of natural materials (birch bark is one of the best natural firestarters).  

Problems is, a lot of firestarters you bring with you (i.e. non-natural) are messy, bulky, burn up too quickly, and hard to use under wet conditions or if they get wet.  Then of course if it is wet out, natural materials can get soaked making it very difficult or impossible to make fire.  For many years my firestarter of choice was small candles, like birthday cake candles or tea candles.  Candles are an excellent firestarter, and are already waterproof, plus they are cheap and easy to find.  Then one day I figured out a way to improve on this choice.

My wife and I enjoy burning big candles at home, but I found that there is always left over wax stubs from these big candles.  I thought that it would be good to recycle all these candle stubs somehow, maybe melt them down into small bars of wax.  But that seemed too tricky.  Melting the wax was easy enough to figure out, and I soon came up with a nice little DIY wax melting station made from an old alcohol stove experiment.  After I melted the wax, then what?  Well I got an idea to take a single sheet of toilet paper, roll it up into a tube, then dip it into the liquid wax, and presto: the paper soaked the wax up, and then all I had to do was set it aside to dry.  

Each wax roll firestarter is only about 5g each (some are 4g, some are 6g, but 5 is a pretty consistent average), and are one of the best firestarters I have ever used.  All you do is set up your kindling and twigs for your fire, put the wax roll in the middle, light it, and then feed the flame.  It burns longer than a lot of other firestarters, it's waterproof, not messy, easy to pack and use, and of course very light weight.  

Plus they are very, very cheap (next to nothing, really--recycled wax and a bit of toilet paper), and easy/fun to make, which is essential because I go through a lot of them, as I usually have a campfire or two on my trips.  I did a quick experiment in my backyard with a wax stick to see how long one would burn.  It burned for 4:40, not too bad for a 5g little wax roll.

Here are a few pictures of my wax roll production facility, first from above: a candle stub, stove is a tin can with holes punched through it, tea candle inside the stove, a few nails to hold a small tin in place to put the wax to melt.  Then a piece of paper for the finished product to cool off, and three fresh wax rolls.
 Side view with the tin on top of the stove:

I won't include a breakdown of my first aid kit, which I have already done in previous posts, and everyone has different needs as far as first aid kits go anyhow.  If you are a veteran backpacker, you already have a FAK (you ought to, at least).  If you are new to backpacking, fine, fine... here is link to a picture of my FAK, which has changed very little over the past few years and served me well.

Well that about does it for the little things I bring with me, and also the final chapter of my series breaking down my preferred 3 season backpacking system.  I mentioned this before, but worth repeating, that my gear list is never static. Depending on conditions and many other factors and variables, what I take with me backpacking changes.  Last week, for example, there was a very low chance of rain, so I decided to sleep under the stars in a bivy rather than under a tarp, along with my buddy Red Alex still asleep on the left:

In the future I plan on doing a review of my brand new Zpacks Zero custom made backpack which I got recently.  Took it out for an overnight trip (same trip as the picture above), and it exceeded my expectations and performed exceptional.  So it will be a positive review, if anything.  Then of course in the summer I will do a breakdown of my summertime system, and as mentioned in my last post, maybe, just maybe, a XUL trip report.

As always, I welcome any questions, comments, and feedback.  So leave comments or send emails and I will be happy to reply :)

Peace out girl scout.