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The Things We Carry

Pockets: You Can Never Have Too Many!

By Tamia Nelson

June 10, 2008
Yes? Can I help you?

Flip through the catalogs or browse the aisles of your favorite outfitter, and you’ll find that pockets have proliferated. What’s so special about pockets? Ask any chipmunk. If he isn’t too busy stuffing nuts into his cheek pouches, he’ll tell you. Better yet, ask a field geologist. She’ll probably be more inclined to talk. (That’s a chipmunk on the right, by the way. I’m the field geologist—or I was, once upon a time.) Of course, we paddlers all know the importance of pockets. Without pockets, where would we keep our Ten Essentials, not to mention our notebooks, sketchpads, cameras, and GPS receivers? Pockets and paddlers go hand in hand. Or to put it another way, pockets keep our hands free for other things. Like paddling. I rest my case.

So where did pockets originate? Well, Mother Nature got the idea first. Chipmunks and gophers obviously benefit from having a place to store food on the run, as do hamsters and many other rodents. But marsupial mums go all of them one better with their integral baby slings—no opossum ever has to leave the kids at home. Humans came late to the pocket game. Maybe it was just a case of “monkey see, monkey do.” We primates have always been great imitators. In any event, fashion historians tell us that our first pockets were flat sacks, suspended from narrow belts and worn around the waist. The modern—as in sewn-into-clothing—pocket is really a newcomer. It only arrived on the scene in the 18th century.

I’m surprised it took so long. The first pockets were really purses, and as the tag cutpurse suggests, enterprising villains were quick to take advantage of their weaknesses. That’s why folks with something to lose started tucking their purses under their clothing, a technique that’s still widely practiced by fearful tourists. But—as anyone who’s worn a money-belt will tell you—this doesn’t rate high on the convenience scale. The solution? Strategically-placed slits in clothing, giving easier access to the wearer’s purse. (You’ll still find similar slits in some outerwear and overalls.) Then somebody got a notion to stitch the purse directly to the slit, and the modern pocket was born.

A Bag for BummingThat said, the old-style pocket survives to this day, even if no self-respecting paddler would ever confess to carrying a purse. We call them fanny packs nowadays, or at least we do on this side of the Pond. Elsewhere—in places where “fanny” has a somewhat risible connotation—they’re known as bum bags, though this isn’t a label that’s likely to catch on in the States. No matter. I have one, and I sometimes use it to carry a small camera, along with a bewildering variety of odds and ends. I’ve been known to leave it behind after a lunch stop, however. That’s one reason I favor…

Sewn-In Pockets

At least for small items. Why? Because I rarely forget my clothes. When I’m on the water I carry my cameras—and binoculars, too—in an ammo can or other waterproof box. But on land, I mostly rely on pockets.

Field VestOf course, all pockets are not created equal. Pants pockets and shirt pockets are OK for wallets, pen-knives, and small notebooks, but cameras and sketch pads need more room. That’s where my vest comes in. My first one was designed for surveyors. Stitched from heavy canvas, it was nearly indestructible, and I used it in the field for years. It served me well, but I wanted something lighter, and when I stumbled across a cotton drill “journo vest,” I bought it. Made from light fabric with a mesh liner to help improve air circulation in hot weather, this vest is just right for the amateur naturalist, artist, or photographer. Mine has 11 pockets in all, including a large “backpack” that accommodates a rain jacket or other shell garment. A hint: Even if you’re as thin as a rail, buy large. If you fill the pockets with stuff—and that’s what they’re for, right?—you’ll find that your vest has suddenly gotten a lot smaller. An oversized vest is also (1) warmer when it’s cold (you’ll have room for a fleece jacket or heavy sweater) and (2) cooler when it’s hot.


As much as I like my vest, though, it isn’t much use to me when I’m out on the water. Luckily, there’s an alternative:

A PFD With Pockets

My first was the green Mad River PFD on the left. It had only two pockets, but each one was large enough to hold a waterproof camera or my sunglasses’ case, along with a compass and some smaller items. There was a problem, though. The Velcro® flaps had wide gaps. These allowed untethered items to float away in gal-overboard situations. Not good. And that wasn’t all. When I went fishing, the Mad River didn’t have anywhere near enough pockets for my fly boxes and other paraphernalia.

Pocket PFDs

So I bought an inflatable PFD made by Stearns and intended for anglers. It’s the second from the left in the picture, and a quick glance will show that it has plenty of pockets—not to mention a sheepskin patch for drying flies. (Watch your hooks!) It works well as a life vest, too. You can pull the red tab and it will inflate in a flash, or you can blow it up in anticipation of need by huffing and puffing into a little tube. But it has one crippling defect: it doesn’t have Coast Guard certification. (At the time I bought it, the USCG didn’t certify any inflatable PFDs.) Current versions are now certified, though they cost at least twice as much as my uncertified vest did. In any case, I still use this vest in flat water, bringing a second, Coast-Guard-approved vest along to satisfy the requirements of the law. More and more often, however, I find I’m using the newest life vest in my wardrobe: a Kokatat MsFIT Tour. Its bright color (third photo from the left) won’t help if you’re stalking wary trout, but in all other respects it’s a runaway winner. It fits well. Very well. In fact, it’s the most comfortable PFD I’ve every owned. It also has plenty of secure pockets and lash tabs. And as shown in the last picture, it can be worn open in hot weather—without negating its certification. Who could ask for anything more?


Well, maybe I could. At the end of every day on the water a paddler’s PFD comes off, and all the pockets come off with it. That’s when you fall back on the…

Pockets in Your Shirts and Jackets

Luckily, we’ve come a long way from the simple patch pocket. Take Campmor’s Trekmor nylon shirts (see the “Persian violet” number on the left in the picture below). True, the breast pockets are standard button-through affairs, but there’s hidden treasure: a deep, airline-ticket pocket concealed beneath the left breast pocket. Not planning on flying anywhere? Me, neither. But the pocket is also big enough to hold a folded quad. All in all, the Trekmor shirt lives up to its name: compass, pen, notebook, eyeglasses, cell phone… The Trekmor has room for all this—and more, besides.

Pockets and More Pockets

Suppose it’s raining, though. What then? No problem. Paddling jackets do double duty, both on and off the water. My current jacket, an inexpensive Kokatat shell (the middle pic above) has just one pocket. But what a pocket! A zipper keeps the contents where they belong, and a heavy-duty mesh vent in one corner drains any water that gets inside. Moreover, the pocket itself is just the right size for a compass, a match safe, and a couple of chocolate bars—or any other small items of your choosing. The best news of all, however, is the pocket’s location. It’s on the upper arm, and that’s just about the only place you can put a pocket on a paddling jacket and not have it covered by your PFD. I like that. There doesn’t seem to be much point to putting pockets where you can’t get at them, after all.

And what about coming in out of the cold? My favorite fleece jacket was also sold by Campmor. It’s no longer available, I’m sorry to say, so I’m taking special care of mine. It has beaucoup pockets, too, including another hidden pocket, also located behind the left breast pocket. But the Campmor jacket isn’t my only fleece. On in-between days—chilly, yet not cold—I often wear a fleece “sport top,” purchased from that grandaddy of catalog outfitters, L.L. Bean. It’s on the right in the photo, and it’s perfect for amphibious journeys. The downside? It has only one pocket, and that pocket must have been designed using feedback from a focus group made up of daytime TV watchers. It’s zip-closed, and it’s on the left sleeve. So far, so good. But it’s tiny—too small for the smallest cell phone, or even a modest set of keys. It will hold a credit card, though. That’s something.


Do you need more space than the pockets in your shirt, jacket, or PFD can provide? Don’t despair. Just look south of the border. If your wardrobe is anything like mine, you’ll find plenty of…

Pockets in Your Shorts and Trousers

And here BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms) set the standard. I like the real thing. Civilian versions are sometimes christened cargo pants, but they don’t always live up to their name. Fashion often gets in the way of function. If the thigh pockets are badly placed, for example, and if you use them for anything more than holding a bandanna, you’ll have trouble bending your leg. Not good.

BDUs and an Imitator

Luckily, the real McCoy isn’t hard to come by. Authentic BDUs have deep front and rear pockets, as well as one large bellows pocket on each thigh. (See a well-worn example on the left in the picture above, and an even more threadbare veteran in the middle—its pocket has been sacrificed to patch the seat.) Wide flaps, each with two buttons, secure the contents. The leading edge of the thigh pockets’ flaps are tacked down. This means you’re not constantly grabbing the scenery as you walk along a portage trail. The buttons are stitched down tight, too. The bottom line? You can carry tons of stuff in BDUs. Too much, in fact. With the thigh pockets bulging, it’s just about impossible to get into a kayak. But that’s a quibble, and the remedy is simple. Empty your pockets!

Of greater concern is the fact that BDUs are mostly cotton, and cotton is far from ideal in cold, wet weather. That’s why I recently bought several pair of Campmor’s Trekmor “2/1” trousers. They’re nylon, not cotton. They dry quickly and they have button closures at the ankles. Moreover, the legs zip off to make shorts. I like the versatility. When the day warms up, I peel off the legs, then zip them back on when cold or bugs make shorts an unattractive proposition. Best of all, the Trekmor pants have decent pockets (see the rightmost panel in the picture above), though it must be said that the single thigh pocket is a pale imitation of the genuine article. The flap isn’t as large, for one thing, and the Velcro® closure is easily opened by any errant branch. The rear pockets aren’t as generous as BDU pockets, either, and they don’t boast flaps, so the contents can slip out. Still, the Trekmor pants make pretty good substitutes for BDUs when paddling. And they hold up well. I’m happy.


Can a paddler ever have too many pockets? I’ve taken an inventory of my usual backcountry outfit and found no fewer than 21. A bare sufficiency? Well…it’s just about enough, I suppose. Come to think of it, though, maybe I could use one more…

...One More Pocket

Pockets. Such a simple concept. But have you ever really thought about them? About where they came from and where they’re going? And what about all the stuff you put in them every time you go paddling? Any way you look at it, pockets are a big subject. There’s only one thing I can say with absolute certainty: You can never have too many!

Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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