In Praise Of Simple Equipment Too Useful To Travel Without
Some time ago, I started taking specific note of items carried into the woods that I used more than would be expected. Or put another way, items that are so useful they let you carry less gear and do the same jobs. By this I don’t mean a ‘Swiss army knife’ conglomerate of a dozen tools, quite the opposite! I mean utterly simple and versatile bits of kit that may fall outside the range of de-rigueur packables. Sure, everyone already knows to bring a pot, and a good belt knife, poncho, blanket, etc. But some of the following are often overlooked.
In praise of… The Awl. You didn’t believe me when I told you I meant ‘utterly simple,’ did you? But this is one truly valuable tool when out in the bush. To get specific, I adore the awl on my Victorinox Farmer. For those unfamiliar with this model, it’s a 91mm SAK with alox scales and a most useful toolset, including; blade, saw, can opener, bottle opener/screw driver, and awl/reamer. It’s this specific type of SAK awl that’s appealing because it opens out ‘in line’ with the handle, not perpendicularly like their corkscrew. This gives a greatly increased level of control.
So to the point, what’s so useful about this? Where to begin… First, it’s absolutely perfect as a firesteel scraper. It’s got a nice, sharp-ish edge that gives off some killer sparks, but that won’t make you cry if you ding or knick it a bit. The awl even has a sharp enough tip to let you pry out that splinter, or grime out from under your nails. The edge also comes in really handy if you’re trying to fuzz up some natural tinder, like birch bark or fatwood. Got a messy package you need to open but don’t feel like gunking up your main blade? Enter the awl, a tool ready to take on the dirty jobs so you can spare your hair-popping knife edge. So you’re still not sold on it, huh? How about drilling: it just so happens that the SAK awl drills a hole that perfectly accommodates paracord! Clearly there were divine influences at the Victorinox factory when this was designed.
In praise of… Jute Twine. This is another personal favorite. I know, you’re thinking its blasphemy to recommend a type of cordage other than paracord, but just hear me out. First, and probably most importantly, this is natural cordage. So if you lose some or forget to police it when finished, it’s just going to bio-degrade. No more worrying about littering! The ‘natural’ aspect also means it’s cheap: I found a 200 foot roll of heavy duty jute for $1 at a discount store. As far as strength, obviously Army rangers aren’t going to be subbing out paracord for jute on their parachutes. But it’s nothing to laugh at; it’ll certainly secure an overnight shelter, or camp furniture, or fix a broken backpack strap. This super-lightweight material is also near-perfect tinder for your firesteel. If you need flames, just cut off a small hank and use your knife edge or awl (see?) and scrape it into a fluffy ball.
In praise of… Bandannas. A bandanna is one of the few items useful enough to become part of my every-day carry gear. It goes unnoticed in the back pocket until needed, and weighs a mere few ounces. In the bush there are a million and one uses. First, it’s a simple rag. It’s great for when you’re dripping sweat onto your shades, or if you spilled oatmeal on your favorite boots. It also makes a great pre-filter for water purification (for those of us not using fancy filters), just enough to get out the gross particulate. Though every person should carry and know how to use a suitable first aid kit, the bandanna is an excellent emergency bandage, or tourniquet if need be. Did you find some great edible mushrooms or leaves or tubers along the way? Guess what’s handy to gather them in! Need to wipe some gunk off your knife or help wash pots and pans? Yup, the bandanna again. Preferably after a cleaning, it also works well as a headband or around the neck to control sweat.
In praise of… Contractor’s bags. I’d say most of us have seen these listed in various ‘survival kit’ lists, but if you stop to ponder, there are actually a lot of common-sense uses for these. The reason they’re specifically handy is due to the thicker plastic than most bags. If you’re in a bind, these will help waterproof a natural shelter. I don’t know about you, but when it’s pouring the rain my favorite activity is not running around gathering leaved branches to thatch my shelter. I just wanna get dry! And speaking of staying dry, a contractor’s bag makes a very decent makeshift poncho. When you accidentally fall in a creek, it’s a good place to temporarily store your wet clothes. Similarly, it’s a good place for messy pots that you don’t yet feel like cleaning. If it’s time for bed or just time to sit down and catch your breath, these bags make a nice ground cloth to keep your bum dry.
Overall, every persons needs are wholly unique. What works in the desert might not work in the Northern woods. Something I think we can all agree on, however, is that it behooves us each to concentrate on how we can distill our gear into the simplest of necessities rather than complicate our trips with a myriad of complicated, over-specialized, and cumbersome equipment. What simpler step could there be towards ‘smoothing it’ in the wilderness than lightening our load, by redefining our perceived needs? I’ve only offered a few suggestions of tools and gear that work towards that end, but I also encourage you to take a second look at your pack list next time you go out, just to make sure you aren’t carrying several items when one will do. “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” –Henry David Thoreau.