A Backpacker?s Guide to Making Every Ounce Count: Tips and Tricks for Every Hike (2015)
TWO RULES TO UNDERSTAND
Idon’t have a lot of rules surrounding my gear, but a couple need to be mentioned up front. Rules keep us in line. I know that we are talking about backpacking, but some rules can keep us alive.
Every backpacker out there has his or her own rules.
Rule number one is: (Enter your own personal rule number one here.)
There are folks out there who have a list of the items that go into their pack first—on every trip. You may even have your own set of rules you go by while planning for a trip, during the trip, and after the trip.
For me, I keep a few select items in my pack at all times: my knife, headlamp, cook kit, water filter, and a few other items. Right now, my pack is hanging up in my gear closet, but the pack is not empty. There are a few items stowed in the pack ready for my next trip. You know, the stuff that does not need to be maintained other than taking the batteries out of the headlamp.
Some rules can be broken, bent, or otherwise ignored. However, one rule that cannot be argued since it is a fact of science more than a rule is called the Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three
The Rule of Three has been around since the beginning of time.
The average person, in average situations, can survive about this long:
✵ Three minutes without air
✵ Three hours unprotected from harsh elements
✵ Three days without water
✵ Three weeks without food
Did you notice the pattern here?
The next rule of Five Cs is an actual rule, and one that I have seen over the years and have adopted on my own trips into the wild. I am not sure who came up with it, but I run across it in many videos online. Folks talk about this rule when discussing their “Bug Out Bag” or their “Get Home Bags,” as well as “Bushcraft” and “survivalist” videos and in some backpacking segments. I did not make up this next rule. I’ve learned this over the many years I have been camping and backpacking as well as during my journey to becoming a Gram Weenie, and I thought it would be something to include here. This is more for your protection and safety should you find yourself in a “Survival Situation.”
This rule also applies for those hikers on quick little day hikes. The rule should be honored in every pack out on the trail just due to the nature of each item. If you do not have these items in your small day pack, when you venture out on a hike where “nothing could possibly go wrong,” you may find yourself in a world of hurt.
Read the statistic below before reading the rule.
A report from the online journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine has some interesting statistics involving search-and-rescue operations in national parks:
“From 1992 to 2007 there were 78,488 people involved in 65,439 Search And Rescue incidents. These included 2,659 fatalities, 24,288 injured or sick people, and 13,212 ‘saves,’ or saved lives.”
Keep in mind that the statistics above are just for the national parks.
In just this short fifteen-year span, 2,659 folks lost their lives in our national parks. I don’t have all the specifics on each incident, but if they were part of a “search and rescue” event, more than likely a large part of those folks got lost or came up missing, which is why they were being searched for and someone was trying to rescue them.
Now you might be saying, “Duh. That’s fairly obvious,” and you would be right. It is obvious to some. However, the one thing I have noticed during my years camping and backpacking is that some things are not obvious to us until we learn them—usually the hard way.
I would be willing to bet that in the more than 65,000 cases above, each person learned something during their experience. “I wish I had a knife … I wish I wasn’t so cold … I wish … I wish …” and so on. This may have been due to not knowing, not researching, or simply biting off more than they could chew. It may have been that they had gear with them that they did not test prior to the trip, or they may not have had any gear at all.
Bottom line is to be prepared and do your homework. Knowing the rules is a pretty good start.
The next rule is known as the “Five Cs.” You need to have all five of these items in your backpack, Bug Out Bag (BOB for short), or in any day pack because you never really know what might happen out there in the wilderness while hiking.
The Rule of the Five Cs
✵ Container for water
✵ Cutting tool
✵ Combustion device
The above numbers might have been reduced if those folks would have had the items mentioned in the Five Cs with them. The five items listed above need to be in your pack anytime you venture outdoors for a camping or backpacking trip or should you find yourself broken down on the side of the road and having to walk home with your get-home bag.
Not only should you have these items, you also need to know how to use each of them. These items need to be tested prior to going out on a trip. You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, would you? You take it for a drive to test the way it handles, the brakes, the radio, the sunroof, or the four-wheel-drive. Same goes with any gear you take with you on a trip—whether it be a day hike or a longer overnight trek.
Think of the 5 Cs as individual pieces of a puzzle, and once you have all the pieces together, and they are in working order, the resulting picture will be you surviving the night should you get lost.
Let’s look at each of the items listed in the 5 Cs rule.
Extra clothes, rain jacket, a big thick contractor trash bag, or an actual raincoat or wind breaker will do. Basically you need a backup to the clothes on your back should the weather change. It might start raining even though the weather channel said it would be clear all day.
If you are on a day trip up a mountain trail, like the approach trail leading up to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the weather for Dahlonega, Georgia, (which we use when planning a trip in that area) may not apply to the top of the mountain. Weather changes are quick and unpredictable in the mountains, in the valleys, in the desert, and other places we may want to hike.
I don’t want to take a day hike in downtown Atlanta; I want to get away from the city folk, the cars, and other noise. I want to get away, and usually away means to the mountains or some other place not near a town. So having an extra layer will help keep you protected from the elements in case the weather changes unexpectedly.
Container for Water
This is a good one. You need at least one container that you can put over a fire to boil the water within the container, and it should not be made of plastic. However, you can use a plastic container or bag to carry extra water back to camp.
Let’s say you are on a day hike, and you get separated from your group or partner because they hike ahead of you. My hope is that you have already discussed this scenario and set the rule that if your group does split up, the hikers ahead will wait at the next intersection, or an obvious stopping point, for the hikers who are a bit slower.
On the other hand, let’s say you are out there alone and get lost. You are out of water. You see a stream. You’re thirsty. Sure, you can stop to drink, but what about an hour later? Do you have a container to take water with you as you continue to look for a way out?
You will need some sort of container to carry extra water around with you until you can get rescued or find your way back to civilization. Nevertheless, it is usually a safe bet that if you do get lost, you will need to eventually accept the fact that you are lost and stay put.
You may already have a container full of water that you brought to keep you hydrated on your “little day hike,” but do you have a spare? It might be a good idea to have an empty container with you in your pack. For your spare, it can be a water bag or some sort of aluminum can or bottle. Have at least one container that is made of some sort of metallic material in which you can boil water.
It can be steel, aluminum, or titanium. If you take an aluminum bottle, make sure it is not a double-walled bottle. Only single-walled containers need to go on the fire.
One school of thought is when you go on a hike, you let people know when and where you will be going and what time you will be coming back. If people know you are on a hike, and you do not check in at the right time, calls will be made, and a rescue will eventually get put into motion. You will be found, so stay put. You will be okay because you do have your 5 Cs with you, right?
I carry a knife with me everywhere I go. It is a three-and-a-half-inch long locking blade Winchester that stays in my pocket. For as long as I can remember, I have carried some sort of pocketknife with me. Back in the seventies, I carried a folding Buck knife in a sheath on my belt during camping trips with my family, or a small dual-blade folding knife I used to eat an apple. I have gathered many knives over the years, both folding and fixed blade.
My fixed-blade backpacking knife has changed over the years, but I always have a fixed blade knife with a full tang with me on my trips. The term “full tang” refers to the fact that the metal of the blade extends through the full length of the handle. A knife with a full tang is more stable than a knife that has the tang only extending a few inches into the handle. You need the stability and the durability of a full tang when using the knife to process wood. You may need to “Baton” some wood to make it smaller for the fire. If you take a knife with a full tang and place it at the top of a large diameter stick, you can use another heavy stick and force the blade of your knife down the center of the stick to split the stick into smaller pieces, making it easier to work with and burn.
Why should you carry a knife in your pack? Protection from people or critters? A little pocket knife may not be the best object of defense against a critter or a bad guy because there are usually large sticks on the ground that might work better as a weapon. With a long stick, you can keep some distance between you and the aggressor. Your walking stick would work better if you hike with a trekking pole of some kind.
Nope, the knife is not in your pack for your protection. The knife is there for you to use to build your shelter. Shelter is another one of the Rule of Three, remember? You need to protect yourself from the elements now that you have found yourself lost and in a survival situation.
The knife can help you sharpen the end of a long stick for self-protection should you get attacked. A knife can also allow you to cut vines from trees to help with the lashing of sticks and branches together so you can build a little debris shelter. A shelter will help keep the wind off of you and trap what little heat you are putting off to keep you warm for the night.
You also might need a good fire. Your knife will help you in the processing of the wood needed to build a sustainable fire. You need a knife of some sort to shave bark, cut larger sticks into smaller sticks, and split much larger branches into smaller sticks. A knife can help you dig, or at least shape a flat stick into a trowel-shaped piece of wood that can help you dig.
Hopefully you won’t be lost for long, but should you find that you are out there for several days, a knife can help you skin out an animal that you caught with your snares, if your snares are functioning. You need fire to cook the animal and boil water to make it safe to drink. Do you see how it’s all starting to tie in together? We’re not done yet.
Cordage, in the form of a 550 paracord, is in every kit I have. I have it in my get-home bag that I keep in my truck, as well as in my backpacking gear. I also use 550 paracord as shoelaces on my hiking boots and regular boots. Cordage of some kind is very important to have in any pack.
You can use the cordage (here again, I am using 550 paracord as my visual) in many ways if you find yourself in a bad situation on the trail. Paracord 550 is constructed of seven individual strands of continuous cordage.
Each of those seven strands is made of two strands, and each of those are made up of very thin strands. All of this is wrapped in a hollow core casing.
By design, 550 paracord is rated to carry 550 pounds of weight before breaking. I doubt if I would trust this to keep me suspended in a tree at night, but the 550 paracord’s many uses will help you survive a bad situation.
You can use paracord as a makeshift sling for an injured arm. You can also use it to lash sticks together to make a sled for an injured person, for a shelter, or to lash gear together to make it easier to carry.
If you separate the strands, you can make a fishing net to trap fish or small snares that can be used to trap small game for food. But you will need a knife to skin out the little critter, sharpen a stick into a skewer, and make fire to cook it.
You can use paracord to repair gear, make a fire bow to build a fire, and in many other ways to help keep you alive while you wait to get rescued should you find yourself lost.
And last but not least, in my opinion, the most important of the 5 Cs: you need some way to make FIRE.
Having a combustion device of some kind can save your life, if you know how to take advantage of its full potential. This device can be a disposable lighter or a Ferro rod also known as a fire steel. This little item can really save you in the cold weather that usually comes when the sun drops below the horizon. It will allow you to make fire, which serves several purposes. You may want to also carry along with you some kind of tinder. This can be some dryer lint, or some wax-coated cotton balls, shown in the picture below. If you end up lost in a wet environment, some dry tinder will be nice to have to help get a fire going.
A fire can really boost your mental well-being when lost, and it is a huge morale booster even if you are not lost and safe in a group. A fire has really boosted our morale on many trips. When we were all cold, hungry, and down because of the wind and the freezing temperatures, all our troubles seemed to go away once we got a good roaring fire going. Keep in mind that we were all safe and in a group. Imagine how much having a fire will help if you are alone and lost. We had each other to keep us company and to keep the morale up, but even in a group, without fire, the morale of the entire group can go down in a hurry.
With fire you have the ability to boil water to make it safe to drink, cook food, provide warmth, and protect yourself from critters. You may not see them, but I will bet that they are there just waiting for you to go to sleep so they can rummage through your stuff looking for food.
Now, let’s put all five of these items to good use in a possible scenario.
At eleven o’clock one morning John says to his wife, “Honey, I’m going on a day hike up the trail and will call you when I get back to the truck, probably around six or so. I don’t want to be out there too late because it is supposed to drop down to about forty tonight.”
“Okay sweetie, which way are you going?”
“I will be going north, up the trail.”
“Okay, make sure you call me when you get there and as soon as you get back to the truck,” she says with genuine concern. “Not a mile down the road once you are warm in the truck, but as soon as you get off the trail and into your truck. Before you even crank it up.”
“Okay, I will. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Aww, isn’t that sweet? They really love each other. They kiss goodbye, and he is looking forward to the solitude that only the trail can provide him.
John reaches the parking area, calls to check in with the boss, uh, I mean his wife, and starts walking north, just like he said he would.
After about a mile, he finds that the trail has been washed away and covered with large debris. He is there for a simple day hike and does not want to put out the kind of effort it would take to navigate around or over the debris, so he turns around and heads the other direction. He goes south, down the trail, even though he told his wife he would go north. He reaches the truck and continues south but forgets to call his wife and inform her of the change because he is simply just enjoying the walk too much to think about it.
John is not familiar with this trail, so he doesn’t know the trail’s features or where the water supply is. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter because his plan is to be there for only a few hours.
John hikes and hikes and soon realizes he doesn’t see the trail markings on the trees anymore. He doubles back to find his way to the truck but cannot seem to find it where he thought it might be. It is getting late, and he loses sight of the sun, so he then doesn’t know which direction he is heading.
It’s official: he is lost. He wanders around more but can’t seem to find his way and eventually realizes he is heading farther away from the truck than he thought. Or is he? Yeah, he is definitely lost.
It can happen that fast.
The temperature is dropping, so he finally decides to stay put and make the best of it. He looks for his phone to call his wife but remembers leaving it on the seat of his truck. Now he is more afraid of getting into trouble with his wife than of being lost. John feels confident that he would make it through the night because he had his 5 Cs and knows how to use the items. He sits down a while to calm his nerves and starts to evaluate his surroundings, his supplies, and his physical condition.
He hears water running and manages to locate a stream.
Rule of three: Three days without water …
He retrieves a container from his pack. He has one that he had been drinking from and one spare, which is made of aluminum, so he can boil the water to make it safe to drink. He fills up both containers and heads away from the water source but stays close enough to get more water later if he needs it.
He uses his knife to cut down limbs and branches and makes a shelter using his cordage to tie it all together. Out of more cordage, he fashions three snares and uses some snacks he has in his day pack for bait, and sets them about a hundred yards from camp with hopes of catching a small animal for food. Once he is happy with the snares, he starts collecting wood for the fire and works his way back to camp. Although he gathers plenty of wood, he looks to ensure he does not run out during the night.
He has a tarp as his cover item from the 5 Cs, so he uses that as the floor of his shelter and, using his disposable lighter, starts a fire.
Rule of three: Three hours without protection from the elements …
He uses his Cover, Container, Cutting tool, Cordage, and Combustion device. He is warm, has water, and is able to sleep somewhat comfortably. He is still cold enough to be miserable, but not so cold that he slips into hypothermia. He feeds the fire all night to help keep him warm so he is able to survive the night.
In the morning, he stokes the fire a bit and heads out to find that his snares failed to capture any animals, so no food for breakfast. His bait is gone, so he plans on making the necessary adjustments later. He does, however, still have shelter and water.
He continues to feed the fire that morning, and, since it is daylight, he gathers leaves and brush to burn so someone could see the smoke if they are close enough. He is sure that his wife would have called somebody since he did not return home the night before, so he is preparing a signal to alert anyone that might be near.
Just before lunch, while he is gathering more wood and checking his snares, he hears someone calling his name. He throws the green shrubs and leaves onto the fire to make as much smoke as he can and whistles as loud as he can with three short blasts (the universal signal for help). Someone walks around some trees near his camp. John sees him and calls out, and he’s seen by the rescuers. He is very happy to see these guys and asks the man approaching him, “How did you guys find me?”
“We smelled and saw the smoke from your fire. Then we heard your whistling and followed the smoke.” Now this was a quick little story, but you can see how having just a few items and knowing a few other skills can keep you safe until rescued. Just having the equipment, however, is not good enough. Like any equipment in your pack, you need to know how to use it. In the scenario above, John knew how to make a fire, how to lash some sticks together to make a shelter, and how to set snares—even though they failed to catch any critters.
Test your new compass, the new stove, a knife, or your fire-steel. Test from home, folks. I preach this as well as practice it as much as I can. If you have not tested your new gear at home, don’t take it with you or depend on it for your survival. I will go over testing from home in Chapter Nine.
But my guess is that you didn’t buy this book to learn a bunch of rules. You wanted to learn about how a Gram Weenie thinks. Well, this is how I think when it comes to trying to go light.
Before we get too far down this trail of thinking like a Gram Weenie, understand that the concepts I put forth in this book might sound a bit odd. I’ve been called crazy, been laughed at and mocked. However, at the end of the trip, I am not nearly as exhausted as I used to be.
Once you learn how a Gram Weenie thinks, you will understand how and why we think the way we do. It is all about shaving weight from your pack a few ounces at a time. Or since we are called GRAM Weenies, it’s all about shaving weight from your pack a few grams at a time. And the ounces or grams do add up.
Here are some figures for you to chew on while you read:
There are 16 ounces (453.592 grams) in a pound. My Soto Micro-regulator stove weighs 2.5 ounces, which is 71 grams.
Or, if you like, think about it like this—if you can shave 4 ounces from four separate items, you have shaved 16 ounces of weight from your pack, which is 1 pound. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
If you can shave 100 grams in five areas, that is 500 grams, which is 1.10231 pounds. See how it all adds up? No? Don’t worry, you will. You will be switching to the lighter side before you know it.
If you are planning on becoming a Gram Weenie, or at least trying to get a lighter pack, you are going to have to start looking at your pack, as well as the gear inside, a bit differently. You will find other areas where you can shave weight. The tips I offer here are a few ideas. Each backpacker is different, and the gear carried is different, from male to female, state to state, and coast to coast.
I live and primarily backpack on the East Coast, but the philosophy is the same. Look at your gear and try to make it lighter.
Now, let’s see who a Gram Weenie is.