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Stuff for hiking

I like hiking in Lapland, for extended periods (6 weeks), alone in the wilderness. The amount of stuff I can carry with me is quite limited, and I have reduced it to a practical minimum. Here is a list of the kind of stuff I carry with me in my backpack on a summer hike. I've never weighed my backpack (I don't really want to know), but it's just heavy enough at the beginning of the hike.

This list is not meant to be complete, and it must be adjusted according to where and when you are hiking, and under what conditions. But I do use this very list as a basic checklist when packing my own backpack for a hike.

I used to carry a full cutlery set—spoon, fork and knife—for civilized dining. But one time I found I had accidentally packed two forks and a knife, no spoon! Eating soup with a fork was annoying enough, and since then I've never packed anything but a single spoon. (And no, a spoon-fork-hybrid of various silly brand names does not appeal to me personally. Some people do like them, which is fine.)

The microfiber towel (a Sea to Summit "Pocket Towel") is some 40×50 cm in size and weighs absolutely nothing and takes up no space at all. It's next to useless for drying myself off after a swim, but gets the job done—eventually. What it's really good for is drying other stuff. It does not absorb all that much water, but whatever it has absorbed can be squeezed and wrung out of it, leaving it almost completely dry. So it is effective for drying my hair, although it takes a few iterations of drying and wringing. And it's also very good at drying the insides of gumboots that have accidentally slurped water from a river! Wipe the insides, wring the towel, repeat. Your woolen socks will also be wet after such a disaster, and they cannot be wrung without destroying their shape—so just wrap them up in the towel, squeeze for a bit, then wring the towel, and repeat! Insides of the tent damp from condensation after a cold night? Wipe them off with the towel, and wring it outside the tent flap. Repeat. Did the towel get all icky somehow? Wash it and wring it dry. Ready to use without any waiting.

A Leatherman Wave or similar multi-tool weighs approximately a quarter of a kilogram. Needless to say, I've never carried one into the wild. As a knife it's just not as good as a real sheath knife, and in the wilderness I've never found myself needing the multitude of tools it contains. Ditto for a do-it-all Swiss Army Knife. Keep one handy when bicycling around the neighborhood, when readying a hybrid rocket for launch, or when installing a new TV antenna at your cottage, but save weight when hiking—leave the Leatherman at home. It's an urban tool.

I do not carry a GPS-unit. A GPS would only tell me where I am. I need to know where to go, and a compass will point me there. Once I get there, then I'll know where I am. (Besides, a good lot of help the GPS will be once its batteries die.)

Pro tip: Copy or print your maps onto separate A4-size paper sheets. Store them in your backpack, and keep just two immediately relevant sheets handy. Place them back-to-back and seal them in a 2-liter Minigrip/Ziploc bag to protect them from the rain. The white label areas on the bags can be cleared up by wiping with acetone! I re-use my maps by writing a journal on the blank back side. Otherwise they could just as well be two-sided prints. I print my maps from pikakartta.fi. Yes, you can also get 1:50 000 maps from there.

An axe would sometimes be useful, but I've deemed it unnecessarily heavy. I've always managed to make a campfire even without an axe. Branches can be pulled off fallen dead trees, stumps are easy to kick and pull out of the ground, and dead birch breaks apart in your hands. And most huts, lean-tos and other serviced campfire sites usually have an axe provided as standard equipment.

I've tried Gore-Tex footwear, but it just doesn't cut it. Others will disagree, but in my experience, gumboots rule for walking. (Note to self: Size 46. I never can remember that.) A pair of neoprene sandals can be worn around camp, and used to wade across rivers too deep for boots. But Gore-Tex raingear (jacket and pants) does work for me just fine, and I would not trade those for anything.

The Mylar "space blanket" is a generously sized, aluminized sheet of incredibly thin and tough plastic material. These are generally sold to protect against hypothermia. I have never used one for that purpose, and probably never will (I hope). I carry one because it weighs absolutely nothing, and (at least while it's unused) it is completely waterproof. So it will fix a broken tent or a leaking lean-to, and maybe if I encounter a river too deep to wade across, I'll wrap my backpack in it, and float it while swimming across the river.

The cell phone remains switched off most of the time, as there's no way to charge it out there. (Nor could I charge a GPS when its batteries wore out.) I just check text messages once or twice a week. I used to lug a Canon EOS 5D or an EOS 3 with an L-series lens, but have since come to my senses and bought a used Canon PowerShot A720 IS specifically for hiking. (I've also tested a used SX120 IS—running on AA batteries is the critical requirement—but that doesn't hack wet weather nearly as well as the A720 IS. Pity. The SX120 IS is a very nice camera otherwise.) One of these days I might bring an amateur radio transceiver with me.

For two people, modify the above list slightly:

Yes, Hilleberg tents do cost an arm and a leg. In my opinion, their quality is well worth both. I have camped in all kind of maddening conditions with my Akto, and it has kept me warm and dry regardless of ridiculous wind, and of rain practically falling upwards. So when I was looking for a two-person tent, I didn't even consider anything but Hilleberg. And the Nallo I settled on has lived up to all my expectations. Do your own homework when choosing a tent, but in my opinion, with Hilleberg you do get what you pay for. For the Nallo, I have made some minor improvements and additions, e.g. a DIY groundsheet or "half-footprint" for the vestibule and some other additions. I haven't seen any need to modify either one of my tents by actually cutting and sewing. The preferred color for a tent is bright, fire-engine red! Too bad I learned that only after I had bought both my tents in classic forest green. (Yes, one evening I almost didn't find my way back to camp. That's why my backpack rain cover at least is now red!)

Food

I carry foodstuffs that I have dried myself. They can be dried overnight in an ordinary oven—spread the stuff in small quantities in a loose, thin layer over parchment on an oven tray, and dry at low heat (around 50–70°C) with the door left slightly open (leave some utensil between the door). You can dry two trays at once, one on the lowest level of the oven, pushed all the way back, the other on the highest level, all the way at the front, up against the slightly open door. This allows air to circulate sufficiently even in a conventional (non-circulating) oven—though a circulating oven can handle even a third tray at the same time!

I also have a dedicated dryer (a simple and cheap one by OBH Nordica) which blows hot air through a pile of stackable trays. Most foodstuffs will dry overnight. The dryer is very good for vegetables and especially potatoes, which tend to take on a dark tint and sweet taste when dried in the oven (not that it really matters much, though). Minced meat or flaked tuna, on the other hand, are better suited for oven drying, as they would fall through the perforated trays of the dryer.

With sufficient attention, the dryer and an oven, both working "in three shifts" i.e. three batches a day, can dry a month's food for one in just about a week.

Almost anything that's not too oily or fatty can be dried. Slice everything quite thin. Raw meats are cooked before drying. Some vegetables e.g. potatoes, carrots, cabbage or asparagus benefit from being shortly boiled (but not fully cooked) before drying. Once reconstituted and heated up, they seldom need further cooking. Here's some examples of what I routinely dry and take along:

Other foodstuffs that I carry: These will make chili con carne, spaghetti marinara, reindeer stew, various soups, meat and potato casserole, kangaroo perunarium, various pasta dishes, moussaka, omelettes with leftover scraps, etc. And, of course, pancakes. Pancakes are important. Remember to eat pancakes. If you store the pancake mix in a plastic bottle, you can use the bottle to carry water in an emergency! All other dried stuff is stored in 1–3 liter plastic freezer bags. Take a few extra ones, and don't throw the empties away—these are useful for a lot of things. If you like, you can combine your lunch ingredients in a bag, add a bit of water, and seal it inside your pakki in the morning. Then at lunch time, it's all reconstituted and ready to go, just heat it up and chow down.

Carrying all the food for six weeks would be tough, but four weeks is just possible. Having a store somewhere along the hike makes things a lot easier—you can carry dried stuff for all six weeks, and stock up on butter, cripsbread, porridge, macaroni, rum etc. halfway through. Many stores carry quite reasonable pancake batter mix as well. Of course, if you can rely on catching enough fish, you can cut down on the food you must carry. Mostly I don't rely on it, but fresh fish is major, major, major YUM in the midst of dried foods. In the autumn, the forest is also full of berries and mushrooms—but I really don't like the latter. And there's no substitute for pancakes. Mmmmmm, pancakes. Pancakes are gooooood. Remember to eat pancakes. Pick ripe cloudberries, add the tiniest bit of sugar, and eat over pancakes. Yum.

Here's the pancake mix, enough for a sturdy evening meal plus breakfast the following morning (for one hungry hiker). I guess you could utilize dried egg in there as well, but I've always just used extra powdered milk instead. Two of these servings will almost fit in a 1 liter bottle. Better to make generous servings, and what doesn't fit in the bottle can be sealed in a plastic freezer bag.
  • 4 dl wheat flour
  • 1 dl skim milk powder
  • 3/4 dl sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
Mix the ingredients well before the hike. To cook, mix into approximately 1/2 l of water (start with less, add as necessary). Let the batter sit for 30 minutes (and guard it with your life!), add more water if needed, and season with salt if necessary. Fry in butter over an open fire. Serve with jam or compote made from powdered mix such as Ekström. Or, better yet, pick ripe cloudberries from the nearest marshland. Yum. Remember to eat pancakes at least once a week during an extended hike.

Water

Water in Lapland is mostly ok to drink as is. If you happen to find a spring, that's the best water you can get, anywhere. Any small streams coming down from the fells should be absolutely clean rain water and perfect to drink. Bigger streams and rivers that they eventually form are, in theory, the exact same water. In lakes and ponds, where water stands still, all kinds of stuff can live, but they probably won't kill you. I generally scoop up a mug of water, look at it, and if there's no insect larvae or other aquatic life swimming about, I drink it. Rivers and streams flowing out of lakes and ponds are, in theory, the exact same water as in the lake, but any aquatic life will tend to live in still water—not at the very point where a river flows out. Therefore any flowing water will likely be better to drink than any stagnant water, but regardless, especially for larger rivers, I do look at the water before I drink it.
Sometimes the best you can get is a ditch or stream leading out of a swamp. Or perhaps even a natural or dug-out hole in a swamp, where water collects. A swamp can harbor various signs of life, but mostly they won't kill you either. I've drank out of swamp streams and survived. If it looks ok, doesn't smell bad, and doesn't taste bad, then the water is probably ok to drink. But if there's any concern, I've never taken the chance—boiling the water first (either make tea for drinking immediately, or boil the water and let it cool down for bottling) makes it safe to drink, period. There's also all kinds of chlorination tablets and purification filters on the market, but I've never bothered to look into those.

On occasion, there simply is no water available in the near vicinity. Quite often you can find some water regardless, but it may be too nasty to drink without boiling (which is a hassle) or even after boiling. Check your map to see what kind of streams or ponds your planned campsite has nearby. If there just is no water nearby, you will have to carry it from the closest available supply. I always have a 1 liter canteen with me (not always full, if I'm hiking where there's good water everywhere), but that's not enough for making dinner and breakfast when camping overnight. I have carried water in the pakki, by filling a plastic freezer bag with water (I always have extra freezer bags with me), tying it off and fitting it inside. That works also, but I recently realized that an extra plastic water bottle does not actually weigh much at all—it only takes up space. But space is at a premium in my backpack as well... However, if I store my pancake mix in the bottle, that space is not wasted. Now, if I ever need to carry more water with me in any kind of emergency, I can just transfer the pancake mix into a freezer bag and voila, I have an additional 1 liter bottle to carry water in!

Note that I cannot guarantee the safety of any water you choose to drink in the wilderness or elsewhere. The suitability of available water for drinking does depend on where and when you are hiking, and under what conditions (the same waterhole may be ok in early spring or late autumn, but in the warmest midsummer it may be infested with insect larvae). It can also depend on luck. There may be a dead moose rotting away just 50 meters upstream from where you stopped to quench your thirst. So drink at your own risk.


Antti J. Niskanen <uuki@iki.fi>