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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Ten "Nonsentials"

Some Very Bad Advice from BACKPACKER

By Tamia Nelson

February 5, 2008

Every day brings a fresh wave of junk mail to my door. I discard most of this unwanted bounty without even bothering to open the envelopes, but not long ago I spied a come-on from BACKPACKER among the tide wrack. I'd been a charter subscriber to this venerable publication, so my curiosity was immediately piqued. What had my old friend gotten up to in the years since we'd hung out together, I wondered?

Ten NonsentialsThe answer, I'm sorry to say, could be summarized in two words: No good. That was my conclusion based on the evidence before me, at any rate. The highlight of the magazine's come-on was a little flyer seductively entitled "10 TIPS for backpacking LIGHTER and SMARTER." Well, OK. This sounded pretty good so far, especially at the price. Backpackers aren't the only folks to agonize over ounces, after all. Paddlers need to travel light, too, particularly when they get to the put-in on a bike (as I do, from time to time), or when there are long portages ahead. And who among us doesn't welcome a little help in the smarts department? So I scanned the flyer in happy anticipation. But I didn't get very far before BACKPACKER's come-on had turned me off, and by the time I'd finished reading I was convinced that their tips were worth exactly what they cost — nothing. Or even less. In my mind, I'd already christened them the "Ten Nonsentials."

Here's why.

Most paddlers — at least most of the paddlers I've known — love making lists. I know I do, at any rate, and I've certainly done my share of list-making over the years, including compiling "A Paddler's Decalogue." There's more to this than amiable eccentricity. We canoeists and kayakers draw up lists for some very good reasons: to guide us through the maze of trip planning, to simplify food shopping, and to insure that we don't leave anything important behind when we head for the put-in. (The Mountaineers' "Ten Essentials" still form the core of all my gear lists.) Under the circumstances, then, it's not at all surprising that BACKPACKER wanted to get in on the act with their "10 TIPS." But they shouldn't have bothered. Don't get me wrong. The idea was a good one. The execution, however, left much to be desired. Will BACKPACKER's tips lighten their readers' packs? Possibly. But what about making them smarter? Not on your life.

Still, it's possible to learn a lot from other peoples' mistakes, isn't it? So let's consider each of BACKPACKER's tips in detail, beginning with …

TIP #1.  Don't pack when you're hungry. [NB I'm quoting this and all subsequent tips verbatim.] How many times have you walked off the trail with 2 pounds of uneaten food? Calculate how many calories you'll actually eat, and select light, calorie-dense foods to reach that number. Discard extra packing.

Shock! Horror! Two whole pounds of uneaten food? That's as much as a quart water bottle weighs when it's full. How could anyone be expected to carry such an awful load? Of course, there's at least one burden that's even harder to bear: walking off the trail with a hollow where your stomach ought to be, all because you were a couple of pounds of food short. Maybe the folks at BACKPACKER have never been delayed by bad weather, lost a food bag in a capsize, or helped a hungry companion to a handout. But I have, and I've missed more than a few meals as a result. I'm betting that most of you have, too. Eventually, I learned my lesson. Extra food was one of The Mountaineers' "Ten Essentials," and there was a good reason for this. When you're self-propelled, food is your only fuel. You can't travel far on an empty tank. So bring plenty, even on a day trip.

BACKPACKER got one thing right, though. You can save weight by discarding any unnecessary packaging before you leave home, and you should.

TIP #2.  Try teamwork. Does your group really need two compasses? Lose redundant stuff like extra first-aid kits, cameras, and toothpaste.

Teamwork is great — up to a point. It can't substitute for self-reliance, however. Groups break up for all sorts of reasons. Who gets to keep the shared compass then? More important, who goes without? Share your toothpaste by all means. But stop at that. Why? Compasses get stepped on or dropped in the lake all the time. A single accident can empty a first-aid kit of dressings. And a lot of folks like to spend some time alone, even when they're traveling with a group of friends. Birders go looking for warblers while their companions nap. Shutterbugs go solo in search of the perfect shot (and I've never met one who liked sharing her camera). Lone anglers head back upstream to fish a tempting pool. That's why no backcountry traveler should be without both a compass and first-aid kit. Ever. In fact, unless you're an MD or an EMT, it makes sense to have some sort of medical handbook with you, as well.

Redundant? You bet! But try finding your way back to camp at the end of a long day stalking trout without a map and compass — or heading off a crippling blister without moleskin. A group medical kit makes sense for expedition paddlers, but it's no substitute for individual first-aid kits. The bottom line here? Redundancy is not a dirty word.

TIP #3.  Downsize your DEET. Practice portion control with your bug dope, sunscreen, toothpaste, condiments, even your prescription meds. Use film canisters or plastic bags instead of the original packing.

Portion-control your prescription meds? This goes beyond bad. It's doubleplus ungood advice. Backcountry travel doesn't always go according to plan. Three days of gale-force headwinds can throw even a carefully thought-out schedule into disarray. And if it's no fun to go hungry, it's even less fun to run out of the medications you need to stay healthy. Diabetics need to keep their blood sugar under control. Every day. Hypertensives need to keep the pressure down. Every day. The list goes on and on. A lot of paddlers, young and old, have chronic medical conditions. If they have their meds, there's no problem. But without them ….

Pills don't weigh very much. It pays to bring more than you expect to need on a trip. And think twice before you repackage your prescription medications, particularly if you'll be crossing any international borders. Cops get mighty curious when they find film canisters or plastic bags full of pills. So if you're tempted to remove your meds from their original containers and bag them, better be sure to have a copy of the prescription(s) — and hope that your doc back home has the time to come to the phone. Otherwise, your trip just might end before it begins.

Downsize the DEET if you feel you must — don't blame me for your bites, though! — but bring plenty of whatever you need to keep your motor running, even when you're running late getting to the take-out.

TIP #4.  Pick items that multitask. Anything that does double-duty lets you unpack something else. Think of the possibilities — hiking poles to rig a tarp, socks as hand warmers, and a tarp worn like a shawl.

Multitasking? It's a great idea in theory, but it often comes up short in practice. What if your hands and your feet are both cold? Do you really want to choose between them? Or suppose you have to leave the shelter of your tarp to do some chores in a downpour. Will you be happy to tear down the tarp and abandon your gear to the mercy of the storm? Not likely.

Even purpose-built multitools sometimes fail to measure up to the job. After years of carrying a jackknife-like multitool in his bike bag, Farwell's gone back to bringing a set of individual Allen wrenches and a separate screwdriver. The reason? The Allen wrenches and screwdriver on his multitool didn't fit in tight spaces. So when he needed them most, they often let him down. A funny thing happened when he made the switch, too. It turned out that the Allen wrenches and screwdriver together weighed less than his old multitool. Now he's got tools that always do the job, and he's shaved an ounce or two from his load into the bargain. It's a win-win scenario.

Conclusion? Multitasking makes sense only when it makes sense. And that's not too often.

TIP #5.  Forsake your fork. Our idea of essential cookware: One pot (bowl), one lid (plate), one mug, one spoon. Need a second pot? Okay, but leave the mug behind.

What can I say? This isn't my idea of essential cookware. A solo traveler might get by with such a spartan cookset, but even Farwell — whose culinary ambitions seldom go beyond making tea and heating stew — likes to have two pots (one for the tea and one for the stew). Moreover, after burning his mouth badly during one "go-light" outing, when he drank hot tea right out of the pot, he'll never leave his mug behind again.

What about larger groups? Forget it! Saving ounces is important, but efficiency is more important still. And two pots (with lids) is the irreducible minimum for efficient camp cooking for two (or more), even when using a stove. Unless you like eating all your meals in installments, that is. Leave your fork at home, by all means — I often do — but be sure to bring enough pots. Remember that you'll want a pot to heat water for dishwashing and bathing, too.

TIP #6.  Carry only what you're wearing for short trips in moderate conditions, and only these five other essentials: Shelter/raingear, sleeping bag, water, food, and fire starter.

Talk about downsizing! The Ten Essentials have shrunk to five — three if you consider that "shelter" and "sleeping bag" weren't on the original list. (It was intended as a guide to the minimum kit for day trips.) Still, it's good to see that BACKPACKER isn't prepared to leave all the food at home to save weight. That said, do I want to head out on the water with only the clothes I have on my back? No thanks! Include me out. Canoe Country, like mountain country, is notorious for its unpredictable weather. I've been snowed on in August, and seen temperatures drop thirty degrees Fahrenheit in the wake of a summer thunderstorm (the hail was an added pleasure). "Moderate weather" is a statistical abstraction. It doesn't happen too often in Real Life, and when it does, it doesn't last. So — unless you're prepared to start out on every trip wearing three or four layers, and then shed as you go — carrying some extra clothing in your pack is a must, no matter how sunny it is when you leave. Call it insurance for a rainy day, if you want. In any case, it needn't weigh you down. Modern fabrics can be light and compact and still be warm, even when they're wet. My "getaway pack" rides on my back like a feather, but I can live out of it for a weekend if I want to. Lighter than that I don't need to go.

TIP #7.  If you run out of sunscreen, white toothpaste can be used in an emergency to cover crucial areas and prevent burning.

No kidding? I can't say I've ever tried it. I suppose it might work. But why not just bring along enough sunscreen in the first place? (It is one of the Ten Essentials, after all.) Looks to me as if this "emergency" is the predictable result of "portion control" (see TIP #3) run amok. Or you could wear a brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants. What's that? You only have the clothes you wore in the car (TIP #6)? Too bad!

TIP #8.  Think small. Eye-drop bottles are a great way to carry small amounts of Tabasco, soap, and first-aid disinfectant. Pop off the topper [dropper?] spout and rinse the bottle with a mild bleach solution before refilling. Mini liquor bottles work also.

Hurray! I've found something I agree with. Up to a point, anyway. Small can be beautiful, as long as it isn't too small. On the other hand, I'm not sure that I'd rely on a bleach solution to clean anything that plain old dish-detergent and water couldn't take care of, and I'd be very leery of using an eye-drop bottle for Tabasco®. I can be wonderfully woolly-headed at the end of a hard day, and Tabasco® isn't something that I want in my eyes!

TIP #9.  Prepare for darkness. Mark important items like your flashlight, headlamp, watch, and water bottle with glow-in-the-dark tape so you can easily locate them at night.

Well, maybe. This tip won't save you any weight, but at least it assumes you've brought a flashlight or headlamp, and that's good. (A flashlight is one the original Ten Essentials, though it's not on BACKPACKER's pared-down list — see TIP #6.) But I'm not keen on luminous tape. It leaves a sticky residue behind when it peels off, for one thing, and dirty tape doesn't have much glow-power. It's better to stow your flashlight (and other essentials) in a handy pocket before you turn in. Have a place for everything, in other words, and keep everything in its place. It doesn't get lighter (or smarter) than that.

TIP #10.  Use your watch as a compass. If you are lost without a compass, point the hour hand of your watch at the sun. Halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch will be south. This even works with Daylight Saving Time.

Bad idea. Bring a compass instead. Better yet, bring two. You won't notice the extra ounce, and a watch is a mighty poor substitute for the real thing. Anyway, digital watches don't have hands, and the sun isn't always shining when you're lost. If you're still inclined to test this slick trick, however, ignore the bit about it working with Daylight Savings Time. It doesn't. And thanks to the fact that solar time and mean time differ by a variable amount in different seasons — the difference is summarized by something called the Equation of Time — expect charmingly inconsistent results. Oh, yes, BACKPACKER's instructions work only in the Northern Hemisphere. So don't get lost south of the equator.

Better yet, get a compass. And learn how to use it. That's a lot easier than fiddling with your watch.


The Bottom Line at Last

There you have it. My take on BACKPAPER's Ten Nonsentials. And though a few of my caveats can probably be dismissed as matters of taste, there's little doubt that many of BACKPACKER's tips are Very Bad Advice indeed. 'Nuff said? I think so.

Who wouldn't want her pack to be lighter? Not me! I begrudge every unnecessary ounce, whether it's in my boat or on my back. But a lot of the things we carry are necessary. Remember the Ten Essentials? They're not just for climbers. They're for anyone who spends time in the backcountry, whether they're paddlers, snowshoers, cyclists, or birdwatchers. Sadly, though, this vital point seems lost on the folks at BACKPACKER. Instead, they offer the unsuspecting reader a list of their own devising, a list I've christened the "Ten Nonsentials." Even though the advice is free, it's worth far less than the asking price. Too bad.

I'm sorry, BACKPACKER, old friend. I won't be renewing our acquaintance. And now you know why.

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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