Beyond the Ten Essentials
It's not enough to have the right gear. You also need to know how to use it. And you have to make sure it's in good condition, ready to do the job it's meant to do, whenever it's called upon. Case in point: I've carried the same nickeled brass match safe for two decades or more, but I don't often use the matches. The match safe is my fail‑safe, in other words. It's my emergency backup. That said, the last time I put the contents to the test—more than a year ago now—the first match out of the 'safe lit on the first strike. But, as I discovered, a year can be a long time.
The same uncertainties dog butane lighters. I use them often to light stoves and start kindling, and so long as there's butane left in the reservoir, they've never let me down. But butane gets torpid as the temperature drops. This doesn't matter if you keep your lighter in an inside pocket, but you can't count on a lighter stored in your pack to give you a flame in sub‑freezing weather. I knew this, but I assumed that a few minutes tucked in my sweaty armpit would reawaken my chilled lighter to its duty. Not true. Perhaps I didn't leave it long enough. Or maybe my armpit wasn't quite as cozy as I thought. In any event, my lighter stubbornly refused to light on that day by The River. It worked fine when I got back home, however.
I assumed… Well, most folks have heard the one about assume making an ass out of u and me. And no one much fancies being mistaken for an ass, does he? The only safe rule? That's easy—
Frequent, thorough inspections offer the only real assurance that your gear will work as it's supposed to. This is the idea behind prefloat checklists, after all. But even inspection isn't enough by itself. You also have to…
Put Your Gear to the Test
And do it on a regular schedule. You don't have to worry much about the stores you use every day. They're not likely to last long enough to deteriorate. But what about the things you use once in a blue moon? Like, say, the matches in my backup match safe. A lot can happen in a year's time. Which is why I'm going to do more than just check to see that all my essential gear is in my pack in future. I'm going to make sure it works, too.
With that end in mind, here's my new inspection checklist:
- Map(s) Are the maps in the map case the right maps at the right scale (large scale for hill‑walking, intermediate scale for paddling, small scale for cycling)? Is the map case intact, with no tears or pinholes?
- Compass Does the needle pivot freely? Is the capsule free of bubbles? (Farwell's old USMC‑issue lensatic compass relies on induction damping. The downside? The needle's a little slow to settle. But it never suffers from bubble trouble, either.) Is the declination offset correct? Is the lanyard intact, and are the securing knots sound?
- First‑Aid Kit Are the plastic bags free from pinholes and tears? Does the tape stick? Are the emergency water‑purification tablets, aspirin, ibuprofen, and antacids still good? (It pays to write the pull date on the bags or bottles. Better yet, buy meds in dated blister packs. And plan on replacing gauze pads and other sterile dressings every year—or immediately, if the sealed packets become soiled or damp.) Has the ACE wrap lost its stretch? Replace it.
- Knife Is it sharp? It should be. A dull knife is a dangerous thing. Is it free from rust? (Even stainless steel rusts, and rust will destroy a blade over time.) Is the sheath in good condition? Does it hold the knife securely? Will it protect the blade from nicks—and you from the blade?
- Food and Water Is the food packaging intact, with no pinholes or tears? Check the pull dates, too. Food that's past its sell‑by date is usually safe to eat, but why take chances? Is your water bottle or bladder clean and free from mold? No? Scrub it out or replace it.
- Matches and fire starter Ah, yes. Matches. Do they light first time, every time? You can't test 'em all, but you can (and should) test a representative sample every month or so. Is your fire starter dry? (I carry a plastic bag of tinder as well as a few petrolatum‑impregnated cotton balls.) Is the reservoir in your backup butane lighter full? Does the striker spark?
- Flashlight or Headlamp Are the batteries good? (An inexpensive multimeter really earns its keep here.) No? Then did the light turn itself on in your pack? If it did, tape the switch or immobilize it in some other way, so that your light lights up only when you want it to. Do you have spare bulbs for any light that needs them? (One of the great advantages of LED lights is their longevity. You can't replace the LED "bulb," of course, but you'll probably never need to.) Has the strap on your headlamp lost its elasticity? Replace it now.
- Sunglasses and Spare Eyeglasses Are the tiny screws that hold the bows secure? Do you have a protective case for each pair? Are your spare eyeglasses from your latest prescription? Do you have reading glasses? (If you need them to read a book, you'll need them to read a map.) Are the lenses suited to the environment, e.g., amber in low light, full mirror or dark gray in strong sun, and total UV block anywhere and everywhere? (Polycarbonate lenses give your eyes better protection from impacts than glass can. That's worth thinking about if you're a whitewater boater, hunter, or cyclist.)
- Sunscreen Check the pull date. Is it stored in a plastic bag? (Few things can make as much mess in a pack as a burst tube of sunscreen.) And if you use lip balm (I do), check to see how much is left in the tube.
- Extra Clothing The list changes with the season. Make sure you've packed what you'll need—and that it's free from tears and holes. You'll probably want a head net and tight‑weave pants in summer (biting flies and ticks); heavy socks, balaclava, and wool mitts in winter; a fleece jacket or down vest and an anorak in all seasons.
That takes care of the Essentials, but most of us have other, almost‑Essential items that require regular inspection, too. Here's my list:
- Poncho or Tarp If you have one or the other, you'll never be without a roof over your head. Check grommets, ties, and seams—and make sure you also bring stakes and guys.
- Rope A 25‑ to 50‑foot length of 11 mm braided polypropylene or 3/8‑inch laid nylon is a very useful thing to have in your pack. You could call it a lifesaver, in fact. So inspect it inch by inch along its entire length. If it's cut or worn anywhere, retire it. And if it gets wet, be sure to dry it thoroughly first chance you get.
- NEOS Overshoes These can serve as both cold‑weather mukluks and warm‑weather wellies. But they won't be waterproof if they have holes in them. Check for cuts and tears. And check the plastic bag that they're stored in, too. Overshoes get dirty, and you'll want to keep the other things in your pack as clean as possible.
- Yaktrax Unless you grow your toenails really long—and walk barefoot in all weathers—you'll need these handy gadgets, or something like them, to help you keep on your feet when all around you are falling down. Make sure the rubber retainers haven't been torn, that the wire traction coils haven't rusted through, and that the storage bag hasn't sprung a leak.
OK. That's my list of almost‑Essential items. Yours will probably be a little different. No matter. True Essentials aside, the things you carry in your pack are less important than what you carry in your head. But if something is worth carrying, it's important that it works. That's why I lost no time in replacing the matches in my match safe. I've also got a firesteel on order as a backup for the unreliable butane lighter. After all, to paraphrase a notorious indoorsman, allowing myself to caught out in the cold once can be excused as a misfortune. If it were to happen twice, however, that would be nothing less than carelessness. Fortune is infatuated with the efficient, after all, and I want to keep Lady Luck on my side.