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Pack optimization through balance of needs and weight should be the goal for backpacking trips. But, too often we either try to go too light and cut out the things we actually need, or pack gear that goes underutilized. We mourn the gear we left out of the pack in order to cut weight, and lament the things pull out at the end of the trip unused. I do love dialing in my pack, and tracking the ounces or even pounds that I’ve trimmed from my last trip. But I think I love the sneaky comfort items that I’ve muled in even more. I try to keep notes and an inventory of my most and least used gear, and here are some of my revelations from the last year. Most of my camping was related to backcountry hunting, but I’m going to try and keep this list relatable to any backpacker (I’ll get some notes down about some hunting-specific revelations a little later). Some of the items below are packable gear, and some are more along the lines of small hacks. Also, keep in mind that I’m writing from the reference of my camping practices, which is generally a long hike in, setting up one or maybe two base camps, and mainly doing long hikes for 3-6 days, returning to base camp each night. So, if you are mainly doing overnighters or loops, you may want to consider the specifics of your hike before filling up your pack.
New items that I will never leave behind again:
Camp chair/stool – For the last couple of years, I have watched in envy while my buddies have relaxed in ultralight camp chairs while I crouched uncomfortably over my stove each evening. I was really tired of switching between crouching, sitting on uneven rocks, and eating dinner standing up, but even the best ultralight chairs weigh in around 1.5-2 lbs or more, and really don’t pack down as small as I would like. But, this year, I finally found a stool that had the right balance of weight burden and comfort, and it was worth the weight (play on words there for you sharp ones). So this year, I packed in the Micro Stool from Grand Trunk (10.6oz actual weight), which packs down very small and is the lightest seat I could find. It only sets up to be about 10 inches off the ground, but I actually found it to be quite comfortable (I’m 6’0″), and way better than log or stone Mother Nature had lying around.
Extra food seasoning – I eat a lot of dehydrated meals when camping out. They’re pretty good, but I think we can all agree they are not haute cuisine. I don’t usually take a lot in the way of snacks, but try to rely on my main meals to get the nutrition I need. To get the extra calories, and make things more palatable, I’ve been bringing along a couple ounces of olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes. The olive oil makes the rehydrated food texture more relatable to a normal meal, and adds the healthy fats that the dehydrated meals usually lack. Most of the major brands of dehydrated meals seem to utilize Indian and Latin flavor palates pretty heavily, so the red pepper is pretty compatible with most meal options. For the sake of your gut, the last thing you want is to overdo the spiciness, but I haven’t run into that issue yet. Red pepper flakes seem to be milder on the stomach than a lot of the other spices, but that may just be personal predisposition. Pro Tip – Don’t worry about buying special containers for your seasoning, spent airline booze bottles are super light and work great.
My new favorite trick:
Mountain Coolers – aka pure, cold mountain streams. Beer is delicious, but too heavy and bulky to pack in, right? Well, at least too heavy and bulky to pack very far. For reference, a six-pack of cans weighs in at just over five pounds. This year, I implemented the system of packing a couple beers in just a couple miles, then dropping those beers in an icy mountain stream. Then, on my way out, I’ve got some refreshingly cold daddy sodas to celebrate the last couple miles of a long trip through the mountains. I realize that I’m probably not the first person to implement this strategy, but I felt smarter than the lovechild of Elon Musk and Adolf Coors when I cracked that first can of frosty suds while hiking out of the woods this fall. As a side note, there are some precautions to take while leaving beers in stashed in the woods. The unfiltered stream could pass along diseases on the top of the can, so take care with the water you stash in. Also, bears have been known to enjoy chomping through unopened beers, so beware of the critters that may be poaching your cache.
Things I left behind and missed severely:
Camp shoes – Wet boots suck. Tired feet suck. Soft comfortable shoes are awesome. Don’ get me wrong, I’m very happy with the performance of my hunting boots from sunup to sundown. But, after several warm days, feet get sweaty and tired. Getting out of the boots and into fresh shoes in the evening is a guilty pleasure. I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of the soft, forgiving, unsweated liners; or possibly the need for your feet to feet some subtle difference in support. I used to go with the North Face tent mules, which are quite literally down sleeping bags for your feet, but I have graduated to slipper-shoe hybrids to walk around camp in the evenings. I’ve currently got Teva Ember mocs (1lb 3.6oz actual weight), which have the coziness of slippers with the support of a lightweight shoe. There isn’t too much in the way of tread, which helps reduce wear and tear on tent floors and sleeping bags (especially if you’re wearing them to bed on those extra cold nights). The Merrel Barkley Moc is great if you want more of a shoe than a slipper, and they are very light (1lb 0.6 oz actual weight).
Chapstick – My September hunt was earlier and warmer than the last few years, and I definitely felt it in the intensity of the sun, and lack of hydration. I typically don’t bring chapstick because I don’t like to use it hunting due to the scent that usually comes along with it. But this year, my lips became chapped and cracked, and became a distracting and painful nag for most of a six-day trip. It seems silly to leave such a small item behind that can have such an impact on part of your general comfort.
Items underutilized compared to years past:
Earbuds and extra phone batteries – In years past, I have usually used earbuds with my phone to listen to music while taking mid-day naps or podcasts after lights out each night. This year, I found myself using the Kindle app on my phone more often, as well as the notes app to record my reflections of the day. I like to use the ebooks for reading entertainment, but I also like to ability to reference field guides, trail guidebooks, or other articles on woodsmanship or hunting. So, the moral of the story is, find some good ebooks and you won’t need the headphones. Also, remember to utilize your phone’s power-saver function combined with airplane mode, keep your phone from being exposed to the cold too often, and your battery can last for days.