I recently returned from a trek across Australia’s Simpson Desert. As I unloaded my gear, I realized that I have a place for everything—camera and video gear, sleeping bag and tent. This stuff pretty much stays in my travel bag. Why? Because I grab the same bag for every trip, and know all of it is going with me. We all have a tendency to over-pack stuff we want to bring with us, so it’s important to make sure we reserve enough space for the stuff we know we’ll need. While the following is not a complete list, here’s a list of some things I always keep in my travel bag. If you’ve got a special piece of gear that you think our readers should know about, send me a note.
Camp Stove: While there are some really expensive camp stoves available, units that will boil a gallon of water in two seconds flat and don’t waver at 20,000 feet, my two-burner Coleman unit works great and has lasted for years—no, decades. If you’ve been out on the trail with me, you’ve probably laughed at the ten layers of duct tape keeping the 27-year old box together. The cost: about fifty bucks, and ten for the duct tape. Kudos also go to the 3-burner Primus stove.
$10 Sunglasses: OK, so this is where you can call me cheap. $10 sunnies seem to work as well as the expensive shades I’ve purchased, but when I sit on them, or they fall off my head and into the lake, or get scratched, I’m only out ten bucks.
Magnesium Flint Striker: I always have a lighter in my pocket when in the backcountry (you should burn your TP to keep animals from digging it up). But when soaking wet, lighters don’t work so well. A magnesium bar and flint will burn in almost any condition. Shave a few bits of magnesium into a small pile of tender (toilet paper works well), strike the flint to get a spark, and you’ll be right.
Leatherman Tool and Jackknife: My Swiss Army knife went into retirement when I purchased my first Leatherman tool in 1998. It doesn’t have tweezers, but I guarantee that it can remove a Jeep hood and reroute the fuel lines in the middle of the Andean Mountains. The basic locking-blade jackknife is also a must-have. My favorite (I’ve had a bunch) is the E-Z Out Skeleton model from Gerber Knives. Both of these are about fifty bucks apiece.
LED Lamps: I have two, a Coleman and an Energizer. Both units were less than twenty-five bucks and both take AAA batteries. Yes, there are pricier and more powerful headlamps ($40 to $500), but until I find the need, my cheapo units work fine for my uses. I keep one in my camera bag, and it is always next to my pillow when traveling.
Whiskey Compass: When I trained for my pilot’s license in the early ’90s, my flight instructor would not allow the use of the up-and-coming GPS units. He said, “Navigate first, then check the GPS to see if ‘it’ is accurate.” While I do have a GPS on this list, I’m a firm believer in paper maps, a compass, dead reckoning, and maintaining a cognitive awareness of where you are.
GPS (aka The Babysitter) technology is amazing. I’ve used GPS units during hundreds of treks on five continents. There are numerous downloadable overlays available such as Hema’s Outback Explorer maps of Australia and Tracks 4 Africa (for Africa). The key is to not become too dependent on technology and forget where you are (on the map)—it’s not a babysitter.
The Spot Personal Messenger is a modern day marvel. It can track your progress on ten minute intervals using the Adventure Trak service. And you can manually initiate three signals; “all is OK,” “we have a problem but it is not an emergency,” or “911, send the helicopter.” And it works all over the world, save a few regions in Southern Africa and southern South America.
SteriPEN: Today’s ultraviolet technology is a big step in avoiding waterborne perils. Rather than filtering, the SteriPEN uses UV light to kill living microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidium. I drank nothing but SteriPEN-purified water during a stint in Botswana, and it worked like a charm. (Yes, the little buggers are still in your drink, but they are dead and harmless.)
Small Mirror and Magnifying Glass: In 20 years of packing this little buddy around, I’ve only had to use it once—to signal a barge three kilometers away on a flooded Venezuelan river. Typically, though, a true signal mirror will have a small hole in the middle so you can more accurately direct the reflected sunbeam on your target.
Spork: A what? This half-ounce strip of plastic is a combination fork, spoon, and knife, and it is all you need for digging into your favorite camp grub, save your jackknife. I got my Swiss-made Spork free from Poly Performance. They are manufactured by Light My Fire and available at most outdoor stores for less than the cost of a gallon of milk.
Stuff Bag/Pillow Combo: Face it, everyone hides the fact that they bring (or need) a pillow. No more! I found a flannel-lined stuff bag at a local sporting goods shop. I stuff my socks, underwear, and T-shirts in it while traveling. At night I pull everything out, turn the bag inside-out, and stuff it all back in for use as a pillow.
DC Power Inverter: I’m always in need of charging something: cell phone, batteries, iPod, GPS, etc. The no-name unit I own is compact, lightweight, rated at 300 watts (enough to run a laptop), and inexpensive. Having a 12-volt cigarette lighter-style or hardwired inverter is a must for extended overland treks.
About Chris Collard
A southern California native, photojournalist Chris Collard has been wheeling in the dirt since age five (dirt bike). A certified SCUBA instructor who also holds a private pilot’s license, he has trekked across more than 40 countries on five continents, and his work has been published in National Geographic Adventure, Car & Driver, Cigar Aficionado and numerous other publications. When not hacking his way through equatorial rain forests, he makes his home near Sacramento, California.