Little Things That Mean a Lot —
A Look Inside a Paddler's Ditty Bag
By Tamia Nelson
February 7, 2012
Big‑ticket items almost always hog the limelight when we draw up equipment lists and talk about our gear. Boats and paddles probably get the most attention, followed closely by tents and sleeping bags. This is only natural. These things aren't cheap, and if any of them lets us down in the backcountry, the result can be more costly still. A similar logic also operates in the middle tiers of the gear list. Compasses command attention, as do GPS receivers, despite the lingering uncertainty about the future of the Global Positioning System in the States. In fact, we're infatuated with electronic gadgets of all descriptions, from digital cameras and e‑book readers to MP3 players and smart phones. Certain tools seem imbued with special appeal, as well — especially knives of all types. This, too, makes a certain sort of sense. Compasses and knives embody both capital‑R Romance and capital‑T Tradition, and both have undeniable real‑world utility. As for electronic gadgets… Well, who among us is immune from the siren song of the Next Big Thing? Few paddlers I know, at any rate. A broken (or misplaced) digital camera may not constitute an emergency requiring evacuation, but it can certainly put a damper on the fun.
Yet the little things at the very bottom of the gear list also mean a lot, and cost is a pretty poor indicator of absolute value. More than one life has been lost for want of a match, after all, and there are many small items whose practical importance belies their diminutive size. These accumulate in the dark recesses of pack or pocket, and we seldom think about them at all until we need one and can't find it. That's when we discover just how thin a line separates roughing it from smoothing it. Which is why I long ago assembled my own collection of vital trifles and packed it away in a small sack, which I dignified with an old nautical tag: "ditty bag." I first wrote about my ditty bag back in 2001, and I'm almost never without it. But there've been some changes made in the intervening years. In short, …
This Isn't My Old Ditty Bag
My original ditty bag started out in life as a canvas sample sack of the type often used by geologists. Now, however, its place has been taken by a lightweight nylon stuff sack. The "new" sack is actually older than the canvas bag it replaced, but it has two unarguable virtues: For one thing, it takes up less room in the military surplus rucksack that became my getaway pack. And the second? Nostalgia, pure and simple. The distinctive embroidered label marks it out as an Early Winters sack, dating back to the time when that company designed and sold a wide range of innovative outdoor gear. It's well‑made, too, with meticulous stitching, though the urethane coating has mostly flaked away. No matter. It does the job I ask it to do, and that's what matters. (The bright orange color is a welcome bonus, of course.)
Now let's …
Take a Peek Inside
The sack itself is small, about seven inches high and five inches in diameter. The square bottom allows it to stand upright, which can be handy in camp. And what do we see when we peer down into it?
Disappointed? You can just make out the end of a leather eyeglass case, but what's in all those plastic bags? Just this…
There's more in the little sack than meets the eye, isn't there? And the contents fall into four broad categories, beginning with cordage (see Photo 1a below). The rather dirty white line at the top of that photo is 20 feet of 4 mm braided nylon. I use it most often when rigging my poncho as an improvised shelter, but it does double duty as a clothesline from time to time. The remaining cordage is smaller stuff, useful for all manner of chores, afloat and ashore. The 15‑foot length of braided decoy line (that's the khaki‑colored line at the bottom of the photo) is particularly handy as an auxiliary guyline for a tarp or poncho shelter.
And speaking of things that meet the eye, this pretty well defines the purpose of the next category (Photo 1b): two pairs of spare eyeglasses in protective cases. One pair are pricey Bausch & Lomb sunglasses; the other, a tiny pair of folding reading glasses from a dollar store.
Next (Photo 1c) we have a small, flattened roll of bumwad, the Eleventh Essential, held in reserve for times when I'm caught short in the field. Four single‑use handwarmers complete the picture. Like the extra bumwad, they're always taken but seldom used. Whenever the occasion arises, however, I'm very glad they're there. Which brings us to Photo 1d. Let's open the plastic bag and see what's inside:
Now this is much better than bumwad, isn't it? The contents include my spare compass, a tiny Silva Huntsman (2a). Don't be fooled by its small size. It's no toy. In fact, it's a precision instrument. And its utility extends well beyond navigation. The little Silva's sighting mirror is a godsend when I'm trying to locate an imprudent blackfly who's strayed onto my eye and taken up residence, but it could also be pressed into service to catch the attention of search‑and‑rescue personnel in a worst‑case scenario.
A small roll of survey tape (2b) complements the compass. From time to time I've used similar tape to flag a route while bushwhacking. The fact that I feel duty‑bound to retrieve the tape afterward makes such occasions very rare, however, and a GPS does away with the need altogether. Still, the tape is cheap (and light) insurance against a time when my GPS fails to answer the call of duty. The next item — a pair of foam ear plugs (2c) — will strike most paddlers as wholly unnecessary, I suppose. After all, ours is a silent sport, isn't it? Of course it is. But paddlers aren't the only people drawn to remote places, and my corner of Canoe Country sees round‑the‑clock use as a military flight training area. Make no mistake: An F‑16 won't pass unnoticed when it roars over your tent at zero three hundred Juliet at an altitude of 500 feet. The ear plugs are well worth their infinitesimal weight.
To the right of the ear plugs and the survey tape is a bandanna (2d). That, I'd imagine, requires no explanation, though I should mention that it, like the little roll of bumwad, is kept in reserve. I usually have one bandana tied around my neck, one tied to the grab loop of my rucksack, and a third stuffed into a pack pocket. Which is why the bandanna in my ditty bag seldom sees action.
The matchsafe (2e), too, will be a familiar sight to most paddlers. After one experience with strike‑anywhere matches that struck out everywhere, I now carry a fresh supply in several matchsafes. This is one. And next to it you can see my "John Wayne" can opener (2f). It's an invaluable tool for any backcountry cook, and one which I've written about at length elsewhere. Even though I don't carry many canned foods nowadays, I'd still be lost without it. (OK. I guess it's more talisman than tool. But that doesn't make it any less important, does it?)
I'm sure my Victorinox Swiss Army knife (2g) needs no introduction. It's an old model, however, of a type no longer being made. And that's too bad. With two blades, three screwdrivers (including a Phillips), a metal file, a bottle opener, a can opener (the only pocket‑knife can opener to rival the John Wayne, in my opinion), a reamer, and a wire stripper, it can tackle a wide range of chores, from routine housekeeping to emergency repairs. All that's missing is a kitchen sink — and a corkscrew.
Last, but certainly not least, I have another antique, a Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit (2h). It's a clever and comprehensive selection of essential items, equally at home stitching up a burst seam, a torn pack, or a blown‑out jib. Take a look:
Now here's a list of the kit's contents:
3a. Leather pouch
3b. Card‑stock envelope for sewing supplies
3c. Instruction sheet
3d. Light thread and small needles, plus buttons and pins
3e. Needle threader
3f. Small plastic pill bag containing a …
3g. 3‑inch cotter pin, and …
3h. Collet, plus …
3i. Heavy‑duty thread (nylon and waxed polyester) and needles
You don't need to be a seamstress or a sailor to know what most of these items are for. If you've ever sewn on a button you've probably made their acquaintance, …
Though I imagine the needle threader might be unfamiliar…
If so, the handy instruction sheet will make all things clear. (While the Chouinard sewing kit is now history, as indeed is Chouinard Equipment itself, at least by that name, needle threaders can still be had. Dritz makes them, and I'm sure other sewing suppliers do, too.) By the way, the white stuff wrapped around the needle‑threader's card is nylon monofilament. It's a deadly blight when left behind in the water by clueless anglers, but very handy when stitching up a torn pack strap.
One item that I'm sure will require some explanation is Chouinard's ingenious substitute for the traditional sailor's palm. A palm enjoyed pride of place in my original ditty bag, but no more. Now its role is filled by this:
The 3‑inch cotter pin fits through a hole in the shaft of the black plastic collet (3h in the large photo above), which in turn grips a heavy‑duty needle. The instructions illustrate how to use the resulting awl to form a lockstitch, and while you wouldn't want to have to sew a suite of sails with this clever field expedient, it's adequate for most make‑and‑mend chores — even ones involving heavy canvas packs. The cotter pin can also be used to simplify the job of threading a drawstring back through its fabric tunnel, a surprisingly difficult task otherwise.
All in all, the Chouinard sewing kit lives up to its "expedition" billing. Too bad it's no longer made, but if the notion appeals to you, it shouldn't be hard to duplicate. (The collet stitcher will require some ingenuity, of course.) I think it will be worth the trouble. My ditty bag would be sadly incomplete without it.
Big‑ticket items of gear get the most attention, and that's understandable. But if you forget just one of the many seemingly insignificant things at the bottom of your equipment list, it can make a trip go sour in a hurry. It doesn't have to end this way, however. The remedy is as near as your ditty bag. What's that? You say you don't have a ditty bag? Well, now that you've seen mine, you'll have no trouble assembling one of your own. So, what's stopping you? After all, these are little things that mean a lot.
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