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So I got linked on Facebook to a lifehack article about backpacking.   My friend Garry said I probably either knew them or something better, but I thought I’d offer a few comments on things I’ve seen here. I will admit that after reading the article I found that most of the tricks there are not things most hikers/back country people would use. Or, they’d use those tricks differently and for different purposes.

So, let’s start at the top of the list.

Good ole #1, the aluminum can stove. They say it works well off of alcohol, and they’re right. It’s a dangerous stove by most back country standards though as most gas or liquid stoves have an off valve that makes them safer. The alternate to this is the old Boy Scout oven.   One tuna fish can (cleaned out); cardboard strip (cut to the depth of the can), and candle wax. Be sure you know your fire regulations if you’re using this sort of improvised stove as a lot of park rangers tend to frown on fire in the parks (Especially during Fire Season In California).

2.   The hand span trick for knowing how much light you have left. On the surface, this trick seems clever, until you realize that not all days are the same length. If you try this in winter and want to time getting back by sundown, you’re going to be doing a bit of walking in the dark.

3.   Instant Lantern: Great car camping trick. But for back country, you’d use a smaller bottle if you used it at all. Better trick: Put the head lamp on the fabric of your tent on the outside. You still light up the whole tent on the inside, and don’t silhouette yourself if you need to change or just get out of your dirty clothes.   Aaand I just ruined camping with your girlfriend for a lot of guys. I’m not sorry.

4.   Duct Tape. Oh yea. Duct tape is great for a lot of dry repairs. It’s also great to use in the construction of dry bags for your socks and whatnot, but do you really need the whole roll? No. In fact, duct tape is only going to be a good fix for something so long as that something stays dry. Get it wet, and you have non stick tape. Most SOL kits have a small roll that they started without the cardboard.

5.   Medicine Bottle Storage. Old prescription bottles are great dry bottles for any number of things (I use ’em for matches and firestarter kits).   Pocket survival kits are good, IF you’ve trained with your tools and know what you’re doing with them.

6.   Cotton pads for firestarters.   Good idea, but the cheaper and easier way to go is to get the lint out of the lint trap in your dryer and spray it down with hairspray, and or allowed to soak in mineral spirits.   Done properly, it’s almost a poor mans gun cotton. Upside, it WILL light. Downside, it WILL burn quickly. Also another great use for that medicine bottle is to store lint and a bit of alcohol or Vaseline.

7.   Chips make great tinder, but you’ll never catch a back country hiker using calories for fire. NEVER. Food is better used for food when you have a dozen miles to go before your next resupply drop point. That said, Doritos crushed into crumbs make a good… Um, I’m not allowed to tell you. Nor how to do it… :p

8.   Altoids tins… Rust. Otherwise they’d be a good idea. And putting batteries in one?? BAD IDEA.

9.   Waterproofing your backpack with a trash bag liner. This is actually a good idea if done right. For the Inside of the pack, you want the most durable trash bag you can find, and put your clean clothes in it to keep them dry. Outside your pack, the thick plastic garbage bags work best as a poor man’s ruck rain fly. Works for grunts. Want the best, though? Get one trash bag, and two cans of spray on rubber. Coat the trash bag with the spray on rubber and keep doing it until you get about 1/8 ” thick. You now have a military spec wet weather bag.

10.   Ruck Sack Physics. The diagram is basic backpacking 101. The video is an amusing masterwork. What I do to my Osprey Kestral?

PhD Ruck Sack Physics

PhD level Ruck Sack Physics


11.   I’ve seen a million and one uses for an empty toilet paper roll. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one for an Ipod speaker. I know someone out there is going “Tagg, welcome to the new millennium.”

12.   Toothpaste (and ointments) in a straw.   Okay, here’s where my dentist is going to kill me. Kids, carrying toothpaste into the back country is not often a good idea.   Why? A. Most animals think it smells like food or sweets and will go after it for that scent.   B. It’s poisonous in large quantities (that’s why there’s a warning Not To Swallow It..). And when you’re talking about a ground squirrel or a raccoon, a regular tube IS a large quantity. C.   Bears that eat it are then confused for rabid and put down by the local rangers. D. Knowing all this, it’s usually advised that if you carry tooth paste, that you do so in the smallest tubes (the straws are good) and keep it in your bear vault. Downside is that the tubes may explode with either altitude change, after freezing, or after getting too hot, and toothpaste then in your food is NOT a good idea.   How do you brush your teeth? With a tooth brush and mouthwash (rum works well for this and you CAN swallow it…).

13.   Tic Tac Spice Rack: Is actually a good idea. It’s better to stagger them top to bottom in a row, label on the tops of the containers, and duct tape the whole row together to keep the integrity of the containers. This way if you jar it or drop it, you only lose half your spices.

14.   Crayon candle…. Okay, you’re out in the woods, surrounded by wood in all shapes and sizes, and you light a CRAYON!?!? Aside from pissing your kids off, I don’t really see this one as a regular use sort of thing. Most hikers won’t bring crayons when other things work better.

15.   Waterproofing with beeswax is an oldie but goodie. It works great with seams in your boots, tent, pack. It also makes you a bit attractive to insects. Use with caution. DON’T use it on your sleeping bag, and only use it on the sleeping bag of someone you really really hate. Stuck out in the field and don’t have beeswax? Pine sap works just as well for waterproofing and glue. Pine sap also works really well as a natural adhesive in case your duct tape isn’t sticking.

16.     The stuff sack pillow. Another oldie but goodie. Variants include: The Camelback Bladder Waterbed Pillow, The Stuffed Jacket Pillow, The Jacket Stuffed Into It’s Own Sleeve Pillow, and The Leaf Bag.   The inflated ziplock pillow is only good for about three minutes.   They leak.

17.   Toothpaste dots. See toothpaste entry from earlier. Same thing.

18.   Okay Maps. I’m going to have to do a whole other entry on why I prefer the good old map, compass, and land nav/orienteering skills. For starters, the skills don’t run out of batteries.   For second, Okay Maps Don’t Include Trail Maps. Kinda important there.

19.   Coffee coffee, buzz buzz buzz…   Listen, I’ve seen (and done) so many ways to get coffee out in the field, I literally can’t count them all.   I’ve seen filters made out of socks (don’t recommend it), panty hose (works better than socks, but barely, and better for tea than coffee), wax paper (NOT a good idea), and canvas (weak coffee, tastes horrible). The people who make gear know this, and as such you get a metric ton of gizmos and gadgets to get you a cuppa joe. Starbucks?   If you want Starbucks, Stay In Town.   I pack Dunkin.. :p You want to go hardcore? Try pine needle tea. Now you’re a survivalist.

20.   Microfiber towels. Also great as ground cover. If you get (and are willing to carry) a few more, you can stuff them down your pants and in your shirt as extra insulation. They’re softer and better than pine needles (which also make great insulation as well as tea..).

21.   Soap in the Outback. I find it amusing that they say to bring soap FOR the bugbites, when scented soap is often the CAUSE for the bug bites. If you want to bring soap and have it Double as bug spray, get it in cayenne pepper, or garlic, or get the most antiseptic smelling medicinal soap you can find (tea try oil works well). You’ll keep the bugs off better and keep cleaner that way.

22.   Upcycling. Field tested. Not great with coffee (melted spoon) and not great with hot food/fire (same reason plus plastic BURNS well too..). Good intent, fails unless you’re going cold food.

23.   The lanyard shower caddy…. Is for Air Force camping. You’re not going to see this back country.

24.   Dental Floss. Okay, I do carry dental floss out in my pack, but it’s not for dental reasons. But they show it as good for sewing gear back together. To this I say: Try 550 cord guts. It works better, stays stronger, and doesn’t waste your sterile stitching material on things other than stitches. You see, the reason *I* keep dental floss (only the unflavored variety works for this trick) in my first aid kit is for emergency stitches. It’s the only stitching material that you can get over the counter that ships sterile. Thank you to the combat medics that showed me that trick.

25.   Lifestraw. Ah.. Product placement. Once again, there’s a whole industry that focuses on the filtering and purifying of water to make it safe for you to drink. This industry completely ignores the old sense that is boiling water to make it safe. Little known secret; there have been back country hikers that have done both the JMT (John Muir Trail) and the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) that have gone through the Sierra Nevadas without filtering water. They were fine. The trick is knowing where to get your water and what to do with it. Lifestraw? Don’t need it.

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