Smoothing It Lightly
Little Luxuries That Don't Weigh You Down
By Tamia Nelson
October 26, 2010
Unless you paddle a freighter and have a partner with Hercule's taste for hard labor—and probably even then—the art of packing for a backcountry trip involves many agonizing compromises. The biggest canoe is smaller than the smallest camping RV, after all, and nobody ever has to portage an RV. So when the time comes to draw up your gear list, you'll find yourself leaving a lot of "nice to have" items behind. The value of each and every piece of gear has to be carefully weighed, with difficult choices being the rule rather than the exception. (It's even harder for sea kayakers and amphibious paddlers, who often struggle to find room for more than the bare essentials.) But unless your idea of having fun is wearing a hair shirt, you'll still have a few little luxuries that you're loathe to leave behind. The pleasure they provide more than offsets the pain of hauling them over the portages. I think of these as the…
Little Luxuries That Don't Weigh You Down
Nessmuk said it best. We go to the woods to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home. I couldn't agree more. I've done my share of roughing it, and though I know I could go that route again if I had to, why do it? The whole point of getting away from the routine (even drudgery) of everyday life is to relax, to take stock for a little while, gain perspective, and recharge the spiritual self. Being unnecessarily miserable just isn't worth it, so I don't begrudge the extra space and minimal additional weight penalty that some items cost. We all have them, even if they differ from paddler to paddler. Here are the ones on my "must take" list, beginning with my favorite…
French Press Coffee Pot Though I'll never comprehend it, some paddlers don't drink coffee at all, while some folks can get by on instant coffee. I'm a confirmed java junkie, and it must be rich, strong, and life-affirming java. Folgers Columbian works for me, but it has to be made properly. Though I'll drink cowboy coffee and perked coffee in a pinch, I haven't looked back since discovering French presses. But my 30-ounce Nissan press is too big to take into the backcountry, even if it does keep the coffee hot for an hour or more once it's made. Instead, I now use a GSI Outdoors Java Press, which brews 20 ounces of real coffee to perfection. And while twenty ounces is only just enough to get me going, it's so easy to clean the Java Press' inner workings that making a second pot is no chore. Farwell appreciates this.
Flexible Cutting Mat The size of a sheet of printer paper, and thinner than the cardboard stiffener in a new shirt, the Coghlan's Flexible Cutting Mat is just the ticket for backcountry cooks looking for a way to ease the meez. Slice and dice the ingredients for a pot of soup, then use the mat to lift and slide the veggies into the pot. It's great for assembling a skillet pizza, too. And unless you regularly use a cleaver you'll find it hard to scar the mat's surface. Best of all, the mat weighs next to nothing and tucks away down the side of the kitchen kit bag.
Small Camp Skillet I love cast iron. I really do. But it's the last thing I want to haul in my panniers on the way to a remote put-in at the end of a rough road, while my bagged boat bounces along in the bike trailer behind me. So on excursions where weight matters, I now use an eight-inch non-stick aluminum skillet, also made by GSI Outdoors. It's light, and it has a folding handle to make packing a breeze. Its gently sloping sides are deep enough for the most delicious frittatas, and it lets me cook up all sorts of stove-top baked goods like biscuits, and cookies—and, of course, pizza.
Collapsable Bucket You can't imagine how indispensable a bucket can be until you add one to your kit after going without for years. The Seattle Sports Pocket Bucket weighs less than five ounces, folds up into a package that fits in the palm of my hand, yet holds 12 liters of water. It will collapse if you bump it when it's full, however, so it's worth taking precautions. At least it doesn't leak.
One Pint Vacuum Flask It's stainless steel, it's slim, it's not very heavy, and it is a lifesaver on a cold day when having a hot cup of java or tea is the only way to revive flagging spirits. My Mega vacuum flask has a cap that can be made to pour without opening the flask, and a plastic-lined cup for a lid. Mine's been all over the country with me, and I wouldn't think of leaving it behind on any paddling trip.
The Stick I'm not as young as I used to be, and a hard day's physical effort can leave my muscles stiff and sore, especially when the evening is cold. The Travel Stick is little more than a firmly flexible rod with eight hard-plastic rollers strung along its length and a hand grip each end. It's only about 17 inches long, fairly lightweight, and it's just the ticket for working out the knots and softening tight muscles. A 15-minute session at day's end sets me up wonderfully for a pain-free night under nylon.
Down Travel Pillow A good night's sleep is essential if you hope to rough it smoothly. Gone are the days when I could sleep with my head on my arm and wake up spruce and hale. Nowadays, my small, goose-feather-filled travel pillow makes a sound sleep possible. It stuffs into a small sack, but fluffs up within seconds. Goodbye neck and shoulder pain!
Evening Tipple Alcohol and paddling don't go together, but when the day's work is over and it's time to relax, a cup of wine or a wee dram of Laphroaig hits the spot. The single malt travels in a stainless steel hip flask, and if wine goes along, it's decanted into a plastic bladder recycled from a box of plonk.
Art Supplies I always carry a sketchbook, pencils, and erasures, and sometimes also take brushes and a block of watercolor paper and a selection of paints. I don't always feel moved to paint when on a trip, but when the urge hits, it's great to be able to seize the moment.
To some of the items I've already listed, Farwell adds two of his own luxuries…
Sansa Clip It's an MP3 Player. It's a voice recorder. It's the size of a book of matches and just as light. Yet with a gigabyte of capacity, Sansa Clip stores enough music to provide entertainment during the most persistent rainy period, and its permanent battery—recharged by plugging a USB umbilicus into a computer— carries that charge for 15 hours of listening. Oh, and it's cheap, too. Farwell's cost than USD40.
Amazon's Kindle 3G This is on Farwell's wish list. How could an inveterate reader not be enthusiastic about a device which can store thousands of PDF books in a pancake-thin box that fits comfortably in one hand? The Kindle's battery life is measured in weeks, which would offer plenty of hours of fireside reading. As a bonus, the Kindle can connect to the Internet through WiFi and cell phone networks, so that at trip's end it would be possible to stop for coffee in a hot spot, read Paddling.net with a rudimentary browser, and send emails to readers who want to share a thought. And it surely won't break the scales, because the Kindle weighs in at a bit more than half a pound. The catch? Amazon has been dragging its feet on bringing sufficient quantities of the Kindle to market, and those who have managed to buy one have not been universally pleased with the device's quality, nor with Amazon's service. Time will tell if the Kindle 3G will find a home in Farwell's kit bag, but it sure would be nice if it fulfilled its promise. So stay tuned!
Is paring your gear list to a rock-bottom minimum your idea of a good time? No? Then you probably have a few items in your pack that aren't absolutely necessary. And you're not alone. After all, we go to the woods to smooth it, don't we? Sure we do—and a few little luxuries won't weigh you down.
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