How to Backpack Gear Properly



Packing Camping and Survival Gear



(c) copyright 2003, by Gary Benton

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When hunting for caribou in Alaska we often trekked through miles of extremely difficult country to get to game. And, as you may guess, the weather was always terrible, or at best headed that way. The equipment I used in most case was the best I could afford, but I often experimented with ways to save money (These days, while I do make some gear, I prefer get the best outdoor gear I can afford to purchase). I noticed during our hunts that all of our backpacks were very heavy and would dig into our shoulder blades. What really got my attention was how difficult they seemed to be to balance correctly. My time big game hunting in Alaska taught me that you could improve on the gear you carried. Most importantly, those trips taught me how important it is for your pack to have proper weight and balance.


All of us who hunt learn that improper weight and balance is a problem after only a few hours. How many times have we taken stuff along that we really didn't need? Well, what do we take and what do we leave? I have developed a system that always seems to work for me. After each hunt or overnight camping trip I lay all of my equipment out for cleaning. I make a list of all items. As I go over my list I make a check mark on things I did not use at all. Then I make an x mark by the name of items I used only once or twice. I then consider if I could really do without the item in the future. An exception to my rule is my survival manual and my first aid kit. They are emergency items and will always be taken, used or not. I then remove those items not used at all or very often. I do not take them on the next trip. If on the next trip I find I need them, they go back into my inventory for re-evaluation on a future trip. Each item is constantly being evaluated for usage versus weight.


Another way to cut down on weight is to consider your water supply. Ask yourself two questions, where will my water come from and how much do I need? If you are going on a short afternoon or morning hunt a canteen will do. However, for longer periods of hunting you will need more water than a canteen full. If you hunt or camp in public designated areas water may, or may not, be found on the site. If you want, you can even purchase water in plastic bottles or pouches for your trip. Remember to keep the weight idea in the back of your head. If you decide to use stream or other water source make sure to purify it using water purification tablets. You can purchase water purification tablets any sporting goods store.


Many foods can be unpackaged and then repacked in plastic bags in many cases. If you use dehydrated or freeze dried commercial meals they are usually very light. Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) are military surplus (cost is around five to seven dollars a meal) and they come in a heavy-duty plastic pouch. I cut the pouch open, remove the individual items I will eat or need and then repack them in large zip lock bags (Do not open the food pouches in the main pouch. I am talking about removing the main heavy-duty plastic container and then selecting your choices). A typical MRE package will contain gum/candy, toilet paper, a main meal entree, crackers, and other little goodies. One of my favorite items in the MRE’s is the small bottle of hot sauce, which can be used to spice up any meal. MRE's can be eaten hot or cold and have been designed to give you lots of calories for any activity.


Additionally, if you take dry goods, i.e., powdered milk, coffee, tea, sugar, beans, oatmeal, pancake mix, pasta, or other such items, repack them in zip lock bags. You can actually premix some foods, so all you have to do is add water. I often do this with pancake mix and powdered milk. At the campsite, I just add water in the morning and soon have the smell of fresh pancakes in the air. Make sure to mark the contents of each zip lock bag with a permanent marker. You can use this hint for any powdered or dry foods. Keep in mind, cardboard boxes and metal or plastic cans have a tendency to poke into your back, and for sure add to the weight.


Two items that are always with me are my first aid kit, with emergency treatment manual, and my survival book. Both of these items I purchased at a military surplus store. The survival book is Air Force Pamphlet 64-5 and my emergency medical manual is a pamphlet put out by the Red Cross. You can find many different kinds of publications out there, some free and some at a small cost. Make sure they are well written, easy to understand, and small. Once again consider weight. Read, not scan, both of these pieces of information. This is so you know what to do before you need to do it. Besides, it is not comforting to the victim of an injury if you are beside them reading a manual as you treat them. That seems to leave a bit of doubt as to your proficiency in first aid procedures.


Always have a good quality compass and a map of where you are going. Most importantly know how to use a compass and read a map. Know the difference in magnetic north, grid north, and true north. Learn to triangulate your position and how to count steps to give an idea of distances traveled. While many folks can read a map they have some problems with the contour lines on them. These lines indicate increases or decreases in terrain. That is especially important for hunters, because we usually have to walk over the ground shown on a map. Each slight climb will take strength away from you and a long hike makes your pack seem to weigh that much more. Go around high spots or swamps and not through them. It is actually faster in the long run and much safer. I may cover map reading and navigation at a later date. It is too complicated to go into here with the space I have.


What about other hunting gear considerations? Well, first consideration should be the type of backpack you want. On short afternoon hikes it doesn't really matter much. I usually just take a fanny pack made of light nylon. But, on the longer trip you want a large, but lightweight, pack that can handle all of your needed supplies. My preference is the military surplus ALICE pack with frame, available at most surplus stores. There are many fine commercial packs on the market, so shop around. I would like to suggest nylon instead of canvas. Nylon is much lighter.


Also, I have found air mattresses to be heavy and not worth the sweat to carry them. I use a rubber/foam pad (once again, military surplus) that can be rolled up and tied to my pack. Cots, stools, camp chairs, and tables, I avoid like the plague. They are heavy, even the light ones, and I am just as comfortable sitting or eating on a log.


Additionally, tents are nice but they do add weight. If you absolutely have to have one get the best quality and lightest one you can afford. Make sure you try it in the back yard before you attempt to use it on a real hunt. On a moose hunt once, friend of mine took a newly purchased and highly discounted tent, only to discover it was a play tent for children. It only covered about half of his extended body once erected. And, of course, it rained for three days. I usually just carry a tarp for shelter. But, it is your back that has to carrying all of the items you want to take along, not mine.


My cooking gear consists of a small pan, a small pot, and a small coffee pot, all constructed of light weight aluminum. I carry a few sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil along with my eating utensils (metal spoon, pocket knife, metal plate, and small plastic bowl). That is pretty much it. I don't need a can opener, because I don't take cans. I can peal veggies with my pocketknife and I never need a bottle opener. Of course, like all true hunters, I do have a coffee cup, and yep, it is aluminum.


Hunting trips and camping are constant evaluations for me. I keep what works and what I need. I judge usage against weight. I am willing to do without an item I don't use often or at all. If possible, I try to buy items that serve more than one function. I like to have a good time when I hunt and that is hard to do if you are exhausted after packing a heavy load all day long. I also like to rough it when I camp, so it my way may not be for you. Regardless of your decision, I assure you, you will pay in sweat or pain for anything you carry. So, evaluate, discard, and then retain. It is a constant battle of mind over what matters.




Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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