Over several decades of wandering the backcountry I’ve developed a kit of “possibles”–items that can save my bacon, or just ensure comfort, wherever I roam. The term “possibles” comes from the intrepid Mountain Men of the Rocky Mountain West, who gathered a collection of essentials into a “pouch” of sorts with the same intent, and made sure it was always close at hand. Wherever they were. Mine goes with me everywhere too: the office, on hunts, on hikes, on drives, on Super Cubs in Alaska, or on jetliners enroute to Rome. Over the years I’ve pruned my Possibles ingredients down to only the stuff that gets used, or whose absence would be seriously missed if ever it were seriously needed–whether it gets used a lot or not. New items have gone into the pouch countless times. If they don’t get used over a few dozen outings they come back out. Most don’t make the keeper list. What is currently “in” the pouch is listed below. Let’s take a look.
1) Container (The “pouch” itself)
Mine is a 1993 prototype of our current Pull Out bags, but in rip-stop nylon. The extra large size (about 600 cubic inches). I get attached to things that serve me well and this is one of them. Current ultralight versions of our Pull Outs in extra large weigh one ounce. These pouches function a lot better than a simple stuff sack in that they don’t spill any contents when upside down. The point, by the way, of a specific container for your “possibles” is that they are all located in a specific, transferable-from-pack-to-pack, place. Or to any sort of carry bag.
2) Firestarter Kit:
These ingredients reside in one of our small Pull Outs, inside the main pouch, above. I use several of these smaller pouches for organizing inside the main pouch. Kit components are:
—Trioxane: you can find this all-purpose firestarter at any Army Surplus Store. It’s a purplish cake-like bar, about 1 1/2 X 3 inches, encased in an olive drab foil wrapper. The average “bar” weighs a little less than an ounce. I carry at least two of the things at all times, replacing used-up bars religiously.
—See-Thru Butane Lighter: The see-thruness lets you gauge when to replace.
—Small Metal Match: I mean the old-timey SMALL ones . The “flint” part is only 3/16 X 2 inches. Try to find one like this–the newer ones can be much bigger and heavier. My match, combined with its little metal striker, weighs 1/2 ounce.
Depending on the dryness of your kindling, only a fraction of each Trioxane bar is needed to start a fire. (BTW, all fire-starting discussion here is applicable to getting a fire going in a tipi stove.) A lima bean size chunk will do the job most times, given good kindling. Put the chunk down where you want the fire to be (I often place it on a piece of bark or a flat piece of splintered stick) and then erect a tipi of kindling above it. Leave some room to insert the lighter and fire off the Trioxane. If it’s too cold for the lighter to ignite, hold it in your bare hands for a minute in order to warm the butane. Lighter kaput? Get the metal match. (When it comes to getting a fire going one must have redundancy.)
Scrape some “dust” from the main Trioxane bar onto the top of the starter chunk. The metal match will not ignite a cohesive piece of Trioxane, but it WILL ignite this “dust”. A small pellet of Trioxane will burn a couple of minutes–usually enough to ignite reasonable tinder. The more effort you put into finding or creating good tinder the less Trioxane you’ll use. I’m going to assume readers know about “squaw wood” (lower, small, dry, dead branches) and about splitting wet wood to get at dry centers, which can be broken or sliced into thin strips for tinder. Getting a fire going in any conditions is the most critical element in cold weather survival. If you DON’T have build-anywhere fire making skills I recommend you practice. Next to air, an external heat source is the most important factor in cold environment emergencies.
It is next to impossible to carry enough clothing to hole up overnight in safety without a warming fire. I am constantly astonished by the never-ending cases here in Colorado of skiers, hunters, and snowmobilers who die or suffer frostbite and hypothermia from an unexpected overnight in the backcountry wherein they had no way or didn’t know how to get a fire going. My motto for the truly prepared outdoorsman is “be able to get a fire going underwater if you have to”!
Next to warmth in importance is hydration, in the hierarchy of survival “needs”. If you get lost or stuck when water sources are open, which is to say not in winter, try to hole up near water. It is difficult to carry enough water on a day trip to last overnight, should the need arise, and most folks just don’t do it. But staying hydrated is important for overall well being and especially alertness. In winter all the water is transformed into snow. Eating snow is not a great idea–you don’t get much real liquid and it chills your innards.
So every fall I insert into the Possibles pouch a small metal can to melt snow in next to my fire should I get stuck and have to bivouac. It’s a little Calumet Baking Powder can. Weighs 1 1/2 ounces with a plastic snap-on lid. And it’s just the right size for stuffing my one-ounce synthetic balaclava hat inside. Snap the lid back on and I have a tidy little tea-making pot that serves double duty as a container for my huddling-by-the-fire emergency headgear. When I say tea making pot I’m talking about tossing in some pine or spruce needles to flavor the snow-melt. Pretty good. Go ahead and make the brew piping hot. Warming your innards is better than chilling them, as in munching snow. In a way, when snow covers the landscape it’s easier to set up camp anywhere you like–“water” is literally underfoot; all that’s needed is a fire, and a pot full of snow snuggled up beside it.
Discussion: Obviously, this “pot” doesn’t have to ride in your Possibles kit in non-winter. Nor does it need to ride along in your Possibles if you’re backpacking a whole camp and have a regular pot system. Unless you’re hunting out of camp in day-hunt fashion. Then it’s still a good idea; or tote a regular camp pot on your day-jaunts. The lowly old Sierra Cup works fine. Or any smallish, lightweight metal container. Sipping a hot cup of pine needle tea injects homey charm into what could otherwise be a dreary situation.
4) Let there be light:
Being able to see what you’re doing in the dark is…well, pretty important. That’s why it’s #4 on our list. Many good lights are available. In fact, with the advent of LED technology, the choices are better than ever. Here’s what I have settled on, at least for now, as this technology is advancing rapidly: The Petzl Tikka headlamp (3 ounces), plus the Princeton Tech Blast (1 1/2 ounces). Both weights include batteries. Total weight: 4 1/2 ounces.
Discussion: “Ed” Tyanich (message board regular from Montana) and I have had countless discussions about backcountry lights. Ed writes for Ultra Runner Magazine and has done much research on such matters. So have I. My selection of the above pair of lights centers around distinct functions and weight. The Petzl is a very good all-around headlamp, except that it doesn’t cast its illumination further than about seventeen or eighteen yards. Not enough to avoid getting what I’ll call “cliffed out”. That’s a catch-all term for avoiding bad stuff from a bit further away than right-on-top-of-it. If you’ve ever descended from big-time mountains in the pitch dark you know what I mean. And this is where the little handheld Blast incandescent light comes in–it’ll cast a superb shaft of light to fully fifty yards. It is not an LED like the Tikka, but I only use it in short…well, “blasts”, to check out what’s ahead if I get that “feeling” that I should perhaps be taking another route. Total burn time on a set of two AAA’s for the Blast is only fifty minutes, but used the way I suggest that’s plenty of time. Since both the Tikka and the Blast use AAA batteries (the Tikka three) it’s easy and light to tote five extra batteries in the Possibles pouch and be completely covered for a very long time in the dark. There are now combo LED/long range incandescent headlamps available from several makers. They are pretty good too. The lightest weighs over ten ounces. And that is why I’ve selected the above system for myself. The choice is yours; the main thing I’m stressing here is that your light system should always be with you. Remember, we’re talking about these devices being in that ol’ Possibles pouch. And always have spare batteries, as well as a spare bulb for any incandescent light (LED bulbs last virtually forever).
5) First Aid Kit:
Perhaps this should be #4 instead of lights. But I’ve patched myself up too many times with paper towel or toilet paper strips and duct tape or rubber band (and survived quite well, thank you) to be enthralled by the sacred “First Aid kit” concept. Especially the commercial variety. Heck, when I was a kid I would just hold a cut against my jeans and roll on. The bleeding would eventually quit. Matter of fact, I still do that. People managed to survive thousands of years before the invention of Band-Aids and Neosporin. Our bodies have marvelous natural healing powers, and I sometimes am convinced we pamper our immune systems overmuch–they need “exercise” else we become too vulnerable. Aside from the always-with-you toilet paper (at least I hope so) and duct tape (see below) and your bandana (see below) in case of BIG-time contusion, the rest of my medical supplies fit into another small Pull Out. These consist of:
–Finger Nail Clipper: the kind with a little nail file folded up inside.
–Band-Aids: A few, especially one or two of the knuckle and finger tip kind.
–Bug Repellant: Summer only
–Caladryl: In half-ounce Nalgene bottle. For bug bites. Summer only.
–Silvadene: In half-ounce Nalgene bottle. Good burn treatment.
–Bug Head Net: Summer in Alaska
–Bonine: A great motion sickness preventative, in case you’re bush plane flying.
–Blister Kit: Or substitute Band-Aids or duct tape, and wear broken-in boots that fit.
–Any items necessary for your own well being
–Zithromax: A five dose antibiotic system.
–Percocet: Powerful pain killer.
Discussion: The last two items above are prescription dispensed. My Doctor, who knows I’m alone in the middle of nowhere much of the time, re-prescribes them to me as they pass their dating limits. Talk to your doctor. If you’re not a junkie you should be able to get Percocet for emergencies. I’ve had to use it; it’s a wonder at getting you out of otherwise brutal situations. BTW, I consider a nail clipper as medical necessity, not as a “toiletry” item. A mangled nail or cutical in the backcountry is bad news, especially if it involves your trigger finger.
- Collapsable lightweight toothbrush
- Baking soda: In a film can or one ounce Nalgene bottle. Lighter than toothpaste and won’t freeze.
- Toilet paper: I actually use paper towels, about a dozen folded into a baggie.
- Handi-Wipes: Keep these in a ziploc baggie too, to avoid them drying out. Best devices ever invented when it’s a long spell between showers, and good for field dressing when there’s no water or snow around.
- Dental Floss: There is nothing so maddening as stuck meat when none of this stuff is around! And the wonderful toothpick on my Swiss Army Knife doesn’t quite do the job sometimes.
7) GPS and/or Compass (And extra batteries if you’re toting a GPS):
Discussion: I love my GPS. I back it up with a wristwatch-band-mounted compass. Sometimes my 35-year-old Silva Polaris compass (very compact and light) if I’m going to be afield so long I suspect the GPS might run out of juice. If you are a compass man a map of the area is a good idea. While a map is nice, and sometimes needed in the field with a GPS (depending on whether you did the map work before the trip or are doing it on the trip), a GPS will allow you to wander an area cold turkey–and always get back to your starting point–without a map. They are amazing devices.
8) Cheap Drugstore Eyeglasses:
I’m profoundly farsighted. The distant vision is quite sharp, I just can’t see anything up close–like my GPS–without “Grandpa” glasses. So I always carry an extra set in a little padded case inside the Possibles, just in case I lose or break the main set. Speaking of breakage, see Duct Tape and Glue below.
9) Meat Baggie:
(From this point, dear readers, I’m just pulling stuff out of the Possibles pouch, in no particular hierarchy of importance). Our one-ounce Meat Baggie (rolled up tightly and with a rubber band around it) is in the Possibles pouch for a variety of reasons: a) it’s so light it can be; b) I can drop anything from bunnies to grouse to a boned-out mule deer in there; c) I can carry firewood in it; d) I can expand the capacity of my pack by lashing it onto the back; e) I’m in the process of evaluating all its possibilities; f) I forgot it was in there.
10) Moss Tent Repair Kit: 1/3 ounce.
These stick-on patches are useful for repairing tents, sleeping bags, jackets, Thermarest pads…you get the idea. (we use Tenacious tape now 11/2020)
11) Two, gallon-size Ziploc Baggies: rolled and rubber-banded together.
5/8 ounce. Useful for camp-meat small game (especially bug-dope-sprayed–for fleas–bunnies), leftover grub, maps, etc., etc.
12) Space Blanket:
The silver, ultralite kind. 2 1/2 ounces. For creating a shelter half. Use smooth pebbles or tufts of grass or small pine cones to create bulges, or nubbins in the material near the edges and tie cordage (see below) onto these for pitching the Space Blanket like a tarp. Front and sides will be open. Build a fire just under the front edge. You can build a longish fire and stretch out for some snatches of sleep, between being awakened by cold and having to build up the fire again. Remember, you don’t have a sleeping bag. The setup is much better than nothing, though you’ll have to re-pitch if the wind changes.
Discussion: I carry this in case of forced bivouac. Actually, the new ParaTarp is a considerable improvement, as it is enclosed on three sides and a fire under the front eave will heat it pretty well, and it’s quite wind and weatherproof. But the lighter weight of the Space Blanket makes it a natural for day-tripping out of a backpack camp, wherin it’s lighter to carry on the hike in than the eleven ounce ParaTarp. (See “In-The-Daypack”, below.)
13) Manzella Gloves and Turtle Fur Hat: Both are compact, lightweight and absolutely priceless.
14) Cordage: About fifteen yards.
I use the ultralight variety, and it has streaks of light-reflective material woven into it so I can see it by firelight or headlamp. I won’t even try to list all the uses for this stuff. Suffice to say that you’ll never get a Space Blanket shelter pitched without it, or be able to hang a Meat Baggie of boned out elk to drain up out of coyote reach. Etc.
15) Ancient Megamid Stuff Sack: 1/2 ounce.
This is my pillow. All I have to do is stuff my jacket inside. I’ve slept quite comfortably thousands of nights with this setup beneath my noggin. I’ve patched or re-sewn it a dozen times. Wind killed the tent it used to contain long ago, but this old friend will be with me ’til it dissolves. If only it could talk!
16) Accusite: one ounce.
This little gadget allows me to check my scope zero without shooting the rifle. Pretty slick. Accuturn@kiwash.net
17) Signal Mirror:
At 3/4 ounce this is NOT one of the heavy glass versions. It’s plastic, has the aiming site and works. I’ve had it so long I can barely make out the maker…something like US Ultimate Survival. 2 X 3 inches.
18) Power Bar: Peanut Butter flavor. Yum.
19) Fog Cloth:
1/2 ounce. Indispensible during hunting season if you want to reliably see through your scope, eyeglasses or binoculars.
20) Biodegradeable Soap:
In a half ounce Nalgene bottle. Concentrated.
21) Duct Tape:
About a foot or so, wrapped around a Popsicle stick. 1/3 ounce.
22) Rubber Bands:
Three of them, 1/4″ X 3″ size. I use ’em all the time. <1/4 ounce.
23) Orange Flagging Tape:
A wad, held by a rubber band ( there’s a use!). Flag kills, camp, etc., and routes between–especially if you don’t have a GPS.
24) Foam Earplugs:
I use them whenever I shoot. Excellent antidote for snoring companions too–last time I did this was in an apartment in Tokyo! Small apartment.
25) Sewing Kit: 1/4 ounce.
Made from three inches of hollow aluminum arrow shaft with tape over ends. Various sizes of needles inside, #69 bonded nylon thread wrapped around outside. I’ve used many times (never on my backpacks, mind you!).
26) Safety Pins and Paper Clips:
About ten of various sizes. Used for all sorts of things. The paper clips can be folded out to make wire.
27) Pocket Crock Stick Knife Sharpener: 2/3 ounce.
Works well enough to get the job done and is lightweight.
28) Super Glue:
2/3 ounce. Especially good for “stitching” serious cuts, as well as fixing inanimate stuff.
29) Heat Pack: 1 1/2 ounce.
30) Wire Saw: one ounce.
OK, that’s what’s in my official Possibles Pouch. BUT it’s not all that I always have with me. Here’s the rest of the story:
On My Person:
—In my left pants pocket: a) Swiss Army Knife. The venerable Tinker model. The one with just enough, but not too much in the way of useful doo-dads. Highly recommended. b) Chap Stick. Both these are items I use frequently, hence they’re in my pocket rather than the Possibles pouch.
—In my shirt pocket: a) My pocket notebook. I’ve been using them for twenty years. All designs start in these notebooks. They are also my journal. I have about a hundred of used-up ones stored away–never can tell when I may need to research some brilliant idea from the past! Never go anywhere without the “current” one. If I buy a T-shirt it has to have a pocket on it or no deal. b) Mechanical pencil. ( Doesn’t freeze, as an ink pen will.) I use this note-taking system so often I learned long ago to just keep it real handy.
—In my rear pants pocket: a) Large bandana; b) Pentax lens cleaning cloth. ( The bandana is often the only absorbent cotton in my possession, as I use synthetic clothing in the outback. “Wiping” a cold runny nose on a synthetic sleeve is more like “smearing”, eh? In addition, the bandana can serve as a medical compression pad. The lens cleaning cloth is fabulous at cleaning my eyeglasses, scope, binoculars and range finder–like nothing I’ve ever used, and does the job when it’s far too cold for liquids of any kind).
In My Day Pack: Besides the Possibles Pouch, these items are always in my old Spike Camp: a) Hand Warmer Pouch; b) Jacket; c) Supplex baseball style cap; d) Kifaru belt pouch (somewhat confusingly called our possibles pouch–but in this case intended for use on the outside of the pack. Never can tell what is going to come along later when we “name” an item. I put this pouch on my left waistbelt on almost all jaunts in the field, taking it off and stuffing it back in the pack when I’m in town); e) ParaTarp; f) 1/2-liter water bottle; g) one of our GPS Pouches on the left shoulder strap–cell phone rides here in town; GPS in the field.
Discussion: My Spike Camp, carrying my Possibles Pouch inside as well as the items just listed, is always with me–hence the joking on our message board of this being my “purse” ( ever known a woman who didn’t always have her purse?). By the way, my Spike Camp is also my briefcase. Not pretty, but it works fine. There is always enough room to stuff some files inside.
With the above ingredients I’m pretty confident of “making do” just about anywhere, anytime. At the risk of being redundant ad naseum, this gear is ALWAYS with me. Maybe it’s not quite the “right stuff” for the Boardroom, but then if I happen to be in such an environment with a bunch of “suits” and the building blows over I’ll be able to set up camp out in the parking lot while those guys are trying to burn their Palm Pilots to stay warm. Anyhow, I’m not likely to be in a Boardroom. BUT, if any of you movers and shakers invite me to one sometime, expect me to show up with the ol’ Spike Camp slung on my shoulder, and all my “possibles” inside. Taking-care-of-business stuff included. Whatever the business.