The Stowaways

Every outdoorsman has the checklist: the necessities of any hike or multi-day trek. Water, tent, sleeping bag, food, boots…

I usually begin a multi-day journey by taking out every piece of camping gear I own, splaying it across my living room floor — my wife is always so happy about that — like I’m a five-year-old unleashing the full fury of the toy box’s contents for a massive play session.

Maybe, my kids and I have more in common than I thought. After all, camping and other outdoor gear is just toys for big kids.

But somewhere in the middle of that mess is always a small pile of what I call the “Stowaways.” These are items — some, essential survival tools; others of sentimental value — that I can’t leave home without, yet are no-brainers to pack because they take up almost no space and weight at all. Even if they serve no purpose, I have to have them with me just for the comfort of knowing they’re in my pack or pocket.

Here’s a list of my Top 10 Stowaways:

10. Pirate flag – This is my newest stowaway. I took it with me on a winter backpacking trip to Tiadaghton State Forest’s Black Forest Trail in north central Pennsylvania. I clipped it to the back of my pack, flying my freak flag, so to speak. Since then, I’ve taken it on every hike. I keep forgetting to take it out for photos since I’m usually hiking to a schedule. It’s a small flag bearing the emblem of William Teach, also known as Black Beard (my trail name).

9. Pencil and paper – I never leave home without some way to write, particularly on longer trips when I want to document the trek’s little adventures. That helps me write about them later on, spinning colorful webs of prose about how my boots failed me in the first 2 miles of a (planned) 40-mile trek.

8. Rope – For as long as I can remember, back to my days as a Cub Scout, I’ve carried various lengths of rope in my pack after seeing it listed as an essential carry item in my father’s Boy Scout Handbook from the 1960s. For much of my youth, the rope I carried was mainly cotton rope, the kind your mother might use to hang laundry outside… reminds me I owe my mother a laundry line. Today, I carry 80 feet of 350-pound test paracord. This thin nylon sheath-and-filament cord is similar to that used to tie parachutes to the jumper, although that is of much higher quality and test limits. But 350-pound test is good enough for most uses, including bear-bagging food, or hauling a friend who weighs less than 350 pounds out of a canyon in an absolute emergency. With the cord, I keep a large, climbing-quality, locking carabiner. Just in case.

7. Pocket knives – That’s right, I said knives, plural. I always carry two on shorter hikes: my 3-inch black Gerber and a small Columbia multi-tool with a blade tucked away next to the screwdriver, bottle opener and mini LED flashlight. I keep the Gerber in my pocket and the Columbia in my backpack.

20120417215409On longer treks, I’ve been known to carry four knives, including a French-made Opinel No. 8 folding knife that I found at a junk sale for $4. Sweet deal considering they cost more than three times that price new. Update: I gave the Gerber knife to my brother (Airborne Sgt.) as a Christmas gift. He gave me a Black Diamond ATC device and a watch. 

6. Knife sharpener – If you have knives, there’s the possibility you’ll need to sharpen them. Since middle school, that has been a Boy Scout wet stone. I recently bought a carbide sharpener that does the same thing much quicker, but I still take the wet stone for sentimental reasons.

5. Compass – With today’s technology, it’s very easy to forget that when the batteries run out on your GPS or satellite-linked smartphone, nothing works better to find your way than mother Earth. Or more specifically the magnetic fields that clutch the needle northward. For most of my trekking life, I’ve carried a Boy Scout compass given to me by my father when I first started adventuring into the wilds. Still works like a charm despite being 50 years old. I’ve recently retired it for shorter hikes, but I carry it in my backpack with a newer compass in my pocket on longer treks. Someday, I’ll pass it on to my son so he too can find his way. Update: I gave this compass to my oldest son, Toadstool, when he joined Cub Scouts. This fall he used it to earn his Map & Compass Belt Loop and Pin.

4. Quarters – I keep $1.50 in quarters taped together in my pack. In years past, this made a lot of sense. It would be just enough to get me a call on a pay phone. You don’t see a lot of them anymore, even in small towns. Maybe its just superstition at this point, but some inner reach of my brain’s instinct says I might just need these some day. Definitely not for gas; $1.50 would buy you a little more than a third of a gallon. Could buy a whole Snickers bar though. That’s way better.

3. Water tablets – I recently bought a water bag and bite valve hose for my backpack. That holds half a gallon of water. I usually carry another quart canteen. But if I run out and am lost, I want to be able to purify natural water sources to stay hydrated.

2. Toilet paper – Never…leave…home…without it. ‘Nough said.

1. Totem – I forget which summer it was, or where exactly I found it — maybe it was summer camp or a backpacking trek as a teenager — but I found this soft piece of wood and began carving faces into it like a totem pole. Over a couple years, I added features and better defined eyes, noses and brow lines. I even drilled a hole down through the center intending to use the carving as a handle for a sheath knife. It didn’t take me long to figure out it wasn’t going to work. Instead, I refined my carving. I consider my totem a good luck charm, keeping me safe in my travels. I never leave home without it.

What items of comfort, necessity or sentimental value do you stow away in the backpack?


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