Ultra-light Backcountry Camping Gear: The Small Stuff

In this final of four gear posts, I’ll discuss all the small stuff. Although the list is long, we bring small quantities and so all these things don’t take up much space.

Camping EssentialsExtra Supplies (weight w/ First Aid Kit)
map in waterproof container108 grope (thin spectra or dyneema)
compass/GPS/phone/camera 179 gtape (Duct tape, Tyvek, Kinesio)
battery pack 194 gsafety pins, needle and thread
water bottles/bags 106 gSuper Glue in mini tube
water purification 34 g
light (photon freedom) 13 gPersonal Items (not required)
whistle 10 gtoothbrush 13 g
knife 21 gtoothpaste 24 g
dental floss 7 g
First Aid Kit 92 gchapstick 6 g
Band-Aidssunscreen 40 g
medsdeodorant 9 g
ACE wrapbodyglide 8 g
alcohol padsbug spray/head net 21 g
extra fire starterstoilet paper 50 g
Sterile pins (for blisters)soap 15 g
back-up water purification pillssunglasses 38 g
ear plugs 1 g
camp towel 19 g
Pee Rag 12 gpillow 48 g
feminine hygiene 16 g

Map in waterproof case

It probably goes without saying, but it’s always a good idea to have a paper map. In addition, this serves as lightweight entertainment as we plan our next trip in the area. Typically we use a heavy duty plastic bag as our waterproof case. It’s lightweight and usually gets the job done, especially if the map is already “waterproof.” The exact weight of the map and waterproof case depends on the map. Often we bring a “waterproof” National Geographic Trail Map inside a large plastic bag (weight noted above).

Phone/Compass/GPS/Camera

Since we got Smartphones in 2015, we’ve brought a Smartphone for all the above to save weight, space, and number of items. The phone is often useless in the backcountry but every once in a while we either have service or go into a town area. While there is a compass app on our phone, we rely heavily on the GAIA GPS app. Although the cameras on our phones don’t take awesome photos, it’s obviously more lightweight to just bring a phone. Between Erik and I, we usually bring one phone unless we’ll often have service.

Battery Charger

While in the backcountry, we leave our phone on airplane mode which helps save battery. Usually we turn it off at night. Doing this, we can get 4-6 days before we need to recharge our battery, depending on how often we use GPS. Assuming that base maps have been downloaded, the GAIA GPS app will function in airplane mode. Erik bought the ifrogz charger for our shorter trips and the ANKER PowerCore 10,000 mAh Power Bank charger for our longer trips (Alaska).

Water Storage

Back when we used Aquamira for backpacking, Erik found us some 1 liter pop bottles with extra wide tops that had been discarded along the side of the road (score, not only free, but picking up litter at the same time!). These are significantly lighter than Nalgene bottles which is why Erik started using them. He now makes fun of anyone carrying a heavy Nalgene. We still use Aquamira from time to time, such as in Alaska when the rivers were silty and we were concerned our water filter would get clogged, or on our canoe trips when we use bike water bottles in cages attached to our canoe.

The wide-mouth 1 L pop bottle Erik found on the side of the road weighs only 45 g compared to 178 for a Nalgene! The Katadyn BeFree 1 L bottle only weighs 28 g!

Times when we’ve needed more water (Superstitions, Mt. Whitney summit day, canoe trips on rivers that go through farmland), we’ve used a water bladder. Some of the lightest water bladders available are found in Franzia boxed wine-(44 g) just buy cheap wine, drink, clean, and fill with water.

The 3 L Franzia water bladder filled with water ready for a trip.

Now that we’ve switched to the Katydyn water filter (see below), we’re pretty much locked into using the compatible water bags. We’ve been using the Seeker 2L water storage by Hydrapak. While these are slightly heavy at 2.7 oz, they are quite durable. Sometimes they seem to leak a bit at the cap so be aware.

Note that weight above is the 2 L Hydrapak bottle plus the 1 L Katadyn BeFree bottle- a typical combo that we carry.

One of our two Hydrapaks.

Water Purification

For years our go-to was Aquamira. Twice we had these bottles explode on us when we went to high elevation and I hadn’t screwed the cap on tight enough. It also takes 30 minutes until the water is ready to drink so requires some planning ahead. It says on the bottle that it doesn’t kill giardia. Erik and I have never had this problem- but we had some friends who did.

Briefly we trialed the Sawyer Mini Filter. We were not impressed. This thing clogged quickly and then on another trip we lost the O-ring. We’ve heard the Sawyer Squeeze Filter is better.

More recently (like for our Beartooths trip in 2017) we’ve switched to the Katydyn BeFree Water Filtration System 1.0L. This filter screws on to fold-able plastic water pouches. You can just buy the filter as well. So far this filter has been exceptional. It hasn’t leaked, the bags pack down to almost nothing, it’s easy to use (brought an empty bag and the filter on a run in Germany), and as long as water is abundant, it minimizes how much water we have to carry. No waiting 30 minutes for water to be ready like with Aquamira. Note that weight above is the Katydyn BeFree Water Filter.

Light

We’ve been using the Photon Freedom Micro LED keychain flashlight with the hands-free clip since 2012. Erik has the black version and I have the pink color, of course. They are lightweight but still fairly bright and they clip onto things (inside the tent, a hat, our clothes) so they don’t get lost and we don’t have to hold them.

Whistle

We go back and forth on bringing a whistle. I think it’s debatable how useful this could be. It would depend on how far away others are and the wind direction/speed etc.

Utility knife

This almost is a joke. Erik bought the hot pink Victorinox Classic SD knife for on the John Muir Trail in 2012 and we’ve been using it ever since and have never wanted a bigger knife.

My mini knife which includes scissors (good for hang nails), tweezers (and toothpick on the other side), a file, and a knife.

First Aid Kit

Our first-aid kit in a durable plastic bag. We also put the Zpacks sewing repair kit in here and you can make out some pink rope, a pink lighter, and an ibuprofen pill.

We bring a small assortment of band-aids, some meds (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, diphenhydramine; lopermide, triple antibiotic ointment), ACE wrap, alcohol pads, extra fire starters (partially because this is a protected dry place), and sterile pins for popping blisters. In many years of backcountry trips, we’ve used a few bandaids. The alcohol pads can be helpful to clean dirty skin (usually dirt on my heels before I apply a bandaid).

Pee Rag

This is another staple for us ladies. I think it stems from women using toilet paper when we wipe but not men (at least my husband says men never use toilet paper after peeing). Inevitably, as my friend Emily will chant: “no matter how you wiggle or how you dance, the last drop always falls in your underpants.” This results in stinky underwear and perineum. Erik, who reads way more backpacking blogs than I, suggested I try a pee rag. This idea sounded kind of gross to me, but on our first night out in Glacier National Park, we stumbled upon a camp towel that Erik suggested I use as a pee rag. So I did and I was hooked.

More recently, Erik upgraded me to the Kula cloth. So far this has been good and I wouldn’t go without a pee rag on my multi-night adventures anymore.

Hiking in the Bighorns June 2020 with the Kula cloth hanging from the side of my pack (I know, you can barely see it, which is the point)

Extra Supplies: rope, tape, safety pins, needle and thread, glue

A small tube of glue, a Cuben fiber patch, and extra rope

These go with the First Aid Kit in terms of emergency supplies. We bring small quantities and amounts of each. Extra rope is helpful for tying up the tent, a clothesline, or tying things to your pack. Tape can be used to repair Dri Ducks rain gear, backpacks, other clothes, shoes, etc. Make sure to bring some Duct Tape, the handy-man’s secret weapon for anyone who remembers the Red Green show. Sometimes we use safety pins to dry clothes on our packs. Erik likes this Sewing Repair Kit from Zpacks for packs or clothes (or skin!) Glue can be used on shoes, wounds (haven’t actually tried this), or anything else you can think of.

Safety pins, a round piece of black fabric tape, and a rectangular role of Tyvek tape.

Toothbrush and Toothpaste

Yes, we bring a toothbrush and toothpaste. These are both travel size but occasionally we have brought the Colgate Wisps as these are much lighter. When we use the wisps, we use them for several days (on the John Muir Trail we put a new packet in each food drop) but bring extra toothpaste.

Dental Floss

We also bring dental floss although half the time Erik takes it out of the plastic container so we only have the spool and then we cut it with the mini knife. It’s not super hygienic but I hate having cavities so it’s worth it to me.

Chapstick

I’m admittedly addicted to chap stick. Erik allows only chapstick with sunscreen and prefers these very small tubes.

Sunscreen

I don’t like to use sunscreen in the backcountry because it makes me feel dirty and I don’t have access to a shower for several days; however, I know sun damage can lead to skin cancer so I use a bit on my hands and face. Usually I wear a long sleeve shirt to help with sun protection. We bring a small 1 oz container of sunscreen on our trips.

Deodorant

This is another thing I refuse to go without. Erik thinks it’s superfluous but is willing to acquiesce to have a camping partner. To save weight, we fill our deodorant into an empty chapstick container.

Body Glide

From top to bottom: mini chapstick, soap container, body glide, deodorant, and mini knife.

This anti-chaffing balm can help prevent blisters and perhaps could belong in the first-aid section. I’ve used it as chapstick when I lost mine in Gates of the Arctic National Park and we also used it as lotion on our Paddling the Great Northeast Minnesota Canoe Loop when our hands were incredibly chapped. Erik also puts this into an empty chapstick container.

Bug Spray/head net

Sometimes we bring these items and sometimes we don’t. Often the bugs aren’t bad in the mountains in late August, when we typically go backpacking, and so we forego both. Similar to sunscreen, using bug spray makes me feel dirty so I tend to avoid it. I’m also not convinced it actually works. The head nets we have are clunky and so if we expect mosquitoes, we simply bring our Elite Edition Bug Shirts as our adventure shirts.

Toilet Paper

Yes, we bring toilet paper. But often we take out the inner cardboard tube to save on just a bit of weight. And we try to bring only what we need, in at least secondary containment.

Soap

I’m a nurse and I pretty much insist on using soap after a bowel movement. That’s just about the only time. Otherwise, sometimes Erik will use soap on the dinner pot if we’ve had a particularly greasy meal. Our soap container is small and doesn’t leak.

Sunglasses

I don’t think this requires an explanation. We just bring out usual sunglasses and a container for them for when we aren’t wearing them.

Ear plugs

Erik likes to bring these for sleeping to drown out whatever noise may be around. If we are in a more urban area, this can be from cars or other vehicles or people. If we’re in the wild, this might be rushing water, rain, coyotes crying, or the wind. I don’t think I’ve ever slept with ear plugs in my life and prefer to be aware of my surroundings- especially on the off-chance I might hear some wolves howling!

Sham towel

Erik most often uses this for drying out the tent faster. In particular, he will use this in the morning after a rain or heavy dew (we usually camp under trees when available to avoid getting a heavy dew). We use the Lightload Towel from Zpacks.

Pillow

Erik got inspired a few years ago to get me the Exped Air Pillow UL M. Previous to this, I used our extra clothes bag as my pillow. That was lumpy and never quite the same size based on what we were sleeping in. Overall I’ve been satisfied with this pillow. As a side sleeper, I like to let out just a bit of air. Otherwise it’s too firm for my ears. It’s also made from a plastic-like fabric which isn’t terribly soft for sleeping so often I put my hat on the pillow and then sleep on top of my hat.

A couple years ago my brother got Erik the Klymit Pillow X Large (104 g) which is quite large, even for Erik’s massive head. Erik has decided he’s gotten soft in his old age and so has been using this pillow as opposed to sleeping on our down jackets (also doesn’t work when we sleep in our down jackets). He says that he likes that this pillow is a little squishy.

Erik sleeping on his pillow w/ mine in the foreground.

Feminine Hygiene

If you’re a guy or one of those tidy women who have never woke up in a pool of menstrual blood, you can probably skip this rant. For everyone else (including those just curious or if you’re a guy trying to get a girl camping), read on.

My general strategy for feminine hygiene products in the backcountry is to mitigate their use. This can be done by not going in the backcountry when you have your period (assuming you have regular periods either naturally or are on combined contraceptives such as “the pill”) or choose a method of contraception where you just don’t get your period, period.

Here’s my story. Keep in mind that I’m an Internal Medicine Nurse Practitioner and contraceptive counseling is part of my job. I try not be be biased at work, but in this post I’m going to be biased. At least for those of us who have hated our periods from day one. Again, if you don’t hate your period and have found ways to make it work in the backountry, like with the Diva cup, you can stop reading. But if it’s keeping you from going in the backcountry, keep reading.

I was one of those girls with heavy erratic periods. I eventually ended up on combined oral contraceptives after I became anemic from heavy periods. A few years later I was switched to a low estrogen brand. Suddenly my periods only lasted four days and I only needed 2 tampons per day. This was the only way I’d ever go into the backcountry with my period. And I did twice, in 2012, when I knew exactly how often I needed to change my tampon and how many pads/tampons I needed to bring.

Zoom ahead a few years and I got the Mirena IUD. This is a progesterone-only IUD which prevents the uterine lining from building up. It’s quite common that women on the Mirena have only light spotting or no periods at all. That’s what happened to me a year into the Mirena (note, frequent spotting can be more common in the first 6 months so don’t get a Mirena in February before you start hiking the AT/PCT/CDT and expect to not use any pads/tampons). Now I don’t need to plan trips to the backcountry around my period, nor do I have to deal with my period, or bring with feminine hygiene other than an emergency supply in the the rare case I start spotting. = total freedom. #worthit. If only someone had told me about this when I was twelve…except I’m so old my menarche predated the Mirena by four years!

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