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Making Your Gear Count

by Zaring Robertson

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"Here’s my chance, I say. A backpacking website is looking for a writer who will work cheap - real cheap. The dilemma of any would-be author, however, is choosing the right subject. So many topics related to backpacking have been well-covered, if not buried. Who needs another essay on “beginner’s tips,” “pack it out” or “cotton sucks”? Instead, because it’s my favorite thing, I want to write about gear choices. Yes, it has been done before, but maybe I have a different angle. See, for me, gear choice is not just questions of weight, size and price. My principal criterion is versatility.

Thus, my top-rated item of backpacking gear is the nylon poncho; a simple sheet of fabric with a hole in the middle. It’s much more than clothing for rainy weather. Spread out, a poncho can be a ground cloth or blanket. With a few corners staked down, and the others suspended, it is a minimalist shelter. A depression in the ground can be lined with a poncho, filled with water, and used as a dog bowl. Water can also be dipped out of a creek or lake with a poncho. Folded thickly, a poncho makes a fairly comfortable seat - even on wet ground. It works nicely as a pillow, too. I have been known to don my poncho in good weather, temporarily, while deftly changing clothes underneath, out of public view.

My next favorite piece of backpacking gear is a Rocky (tm) Cup. [I have no idea if these are still on the market, but perhaps someone will read this tribute and make some more.] It is not made of space-age, microwavable polymers, nor does it resemble a please-spill-me Sierra cup. The Rocky Cup instead includes the best features of both, and then some. It is a 16-ounce, metal, container. (I carry no microwave in my pack, and plastic melts over an open flame.) It is large and deep enough to cook in, but has slightly sloped sides for drinking. The side has measurement markings and the wire handle folds. The Rocky Cup has a hinged/removable lid, for faster boiling and longer heat retention.

The third and final backpacking item for this article is... did somebody say “Swiss Army”? Wrong! It is my walking stick. Mine was the low cost result of storm damage, but the telescoping, shock-absorbing aluminum jobs sound even better. Sticks aren’t’t just for walking. Most everyone has heard about probing creeks with one before crossing. Here in the Southeast, though, I often wave my scepter in front of me to fend off spider webs. It is also a back scratcher, fruit picker, pry bar and shelter pole. If necessary, my wooden version might be handy tinder to coax emergency fire from wet logs. Although I’ve never had real or imagined need to, a stick could also be used defensively.

So there you have it; three small pieces of backpacking gear which together fill nearly twenty potential needs. Now if only I could find a pack that doubles as a beast of burden for the rest of my stuff.

About the Author

Zaring Robertson (zaring@lex.infi.net) is a full-time lawyer/bureaucrat in Kentucky state government, and part-time hiker/naturalist throughout the Southeast,


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