FAQ - Sundry Materials

Send any comments to the maintainer Roger Caffin

You do need more than just a pack, a tent and a sleeping bag to be comfortable. Cynically, one might add that our commercial world believes you should buy lots more gadgets and goodies, but remember you have to both pay for them and carry them. The latter can be the more difficult of the two. So what do you need? We cover here a range of useful and not so useful items.



Keeping gear dry

Packs in general are not waterproof - not under extreme conditions anyhow. Wet gear and wet food are pretty awful. Under persistent rain the water may make your pack heavier, and can start to leak in. However, different materials and designs can have a significant effect on all this.


Pack Fabric and Seams

The traditional material for a pack was cotton canvas. These days this comes across as a poly-cotton blend, with the better versions using "core-spun" thread. This is a composite thread with polyester (usually) at the core and cotton fibres around the outside. The polyester gives far greater strength, while the cotton sheath helps make the material more waterproof. It does this in two ways: by absorbing a proofing compound so the fabric is more water-repellent, and by swelling up when the fibres get wet. This means the outside of your pack will get wet once the proofing has worn off, but not much water should get through since all the holes between the threads should have been blocked by the swelling. Most packs in Australia are made from canvas made by one company, although by the time the pack gets to you the original name of the canvas used will have disappeared.

Even poly-cotton has its limits for strength, so most packs have at least some synthetic reinforcing around the base. This is usually Cordura™: a proofed nylon fabric. It is also possible to make the whole pack from a synthetic material like Cordura. Some traditionalists claim that such packs leak more. This is debatable: old PVC-coated fabrics did leak very soon and then very badly, but modern PU proofing lasts a lot longer. With a little care a synthetic pack should last for many years.

Both materials can leak at the stitching, and often do. Since canvas is always rather heavy it is hard to do complex seams in it. In fact, anything more than a simple edge seam usually seems beyond most manufacturers. In some cases the seams get a bit of tape over them, but very often the seams are just ignored.

The pack design can also contribute greatly to any leaking. Large zippers are not waterproof, and a zip over the top is not a reliable feature. This design is usually found in Travel Packs. They may be good for Hostels and tourists, but they are susceptible to damage and leaking around the zip and are not really suitable for bushwalking. In addition, the zip over the top can snag on things and the zip can pull open. We have seen many half open packs of this design in the bush, with the owners blissfully unaware they may be leaving a trail of gear behind them. In fact, if you ever find a camera lens in an orange nylon bag somewhere below Hat Hill Canyon in the Blue Mountains in the thick jungle there, it's mine and I will never take that sort of pack into that sort of country again!


Pack Covers

To handle all the above problems with packs, many walkers carry a light bit of proofed nylon to serve as a pack cover during heavy rain. You can buy commercial versions with elastic or cord around the edge, although many of these are a bit heavy, or you can make one yourself. They keep the pack almost dry and hold very little water, so they stay light. They are a "Good Thing". Two warnings should be made about them. In high wind they can blow off: one of mine did on Mt Carruthers in the Snowy Mts. I have no idea where it came to ground: near the Barry Way most likely. And I found a very nice pack cover in thick scrub on the Alpine Walking Track. The moral is to tie the pack cover on securely. The drawcord is very useful for this:m tie the end to the central haul loop.


Ponchos & Capes

We noticed in the Pyrenees that walkers there all wore ponchos and capes in the rain. These cover both the walker and the pack. This was very effective there, and I have found it works just as well here in Australia in all but the worst scrub. But then, in really thick scrub you are going to get saturated anyhow, so why worry? At least, in really thick scrub there won't be any wind, which is the real killer.


Stuff Sacks and Liners

On the other hand, if you are going to throw your pack in the river you may be better off with some sort of liner inside the pack. You could use a proper canyon sack but they are extremely heavy. Provided you are careful a couple of green garbage bags may work, but you have to pack carefully to avoid making holes in the bags. Make sure hard things like tent pegs and fuel canisters aren't rubbing against the pack fabric for instance. Alternately you can make your own liner bag, but finding suitable waterproof nylon cloth and guaranteeing the finished product to be sufficiently waterproof can be difficult. Most readily available nylon cloths are not really waterproof, and seam sealing stitching without a complex machine is difficult. See the DIY section for more information about fabrics.

Of course, multiple lines of defence are smart. Experienced walkers carry almost all their gear stuffed into "stuff bags": bags made from light (semi-)waterproof nylon cloth and lined with plastic bags. Even if a little water gets inside the pack, the contents of the stuff sacks should stay dry. It helps if you orient the openings on the bags upwards and away from the walls of course, and always make the nylon bags slightly smaller than the plastic bags: the nylon fabric is much stronger. Things like dried foods, warm clothing and your sleeping bag should always be given this sort of protection. Walking shops do sell these bags if you can't make them, but they are dead easy to sew. Of course, the plastic bags wear out after a while, so it pays to check them for leaks.


Plastic Bags

What to use as plastic bags? Well, there are always the traditional bread bags and the fruit shop bags, but they are not very strong. Really, they were designed as single-use items. Some people try to use shopping bags, but they are too wide to seal up in most cases, and do fail abruptly. Genuine LDPE plastic bags are the best - a material similar to the tough garbage bags. The 200 mm x 300 mm size is very good for food, while ones double that size (305 mm x 405 mm) will handle all clothing. It turns out you can buy these in bulk at very reasonable prices, like $30-35 per thousand for the 200 mm x 300 mm ones, from companies like Venus Packaging in Melbourne and Better Packaging in Sydney (see under Brands for phone numbers). They come with various wall thicknesses: you want something about 40 microns for a reasonable life. The 30 microns ones tear too easily.


Torches and headlamps

Batteries are heavy, but a small torch seems to be a good investment. The classic torches used to be the two-AA Maglight torches and the Petzl headlamps, but these are heavy, expensive and hungry on batteries and bulbs. A recent arrival on the market is the "White LED" torch. While not quite as bright as a large torch, they are bright enough, and the batteries and LED lights last for (almost) ever. Well, two AA batteries should last about 40 hours, anyhow, while the LEDs last for about 50,000 hours. On the other hand, Maglight globes last for only a few hours. You will find LED torches in the electronics shops like Dick Smith and Jaycar, and now they are cascading into the bushwalking shops. Some of the ones in the electronics shops are just as good, significantly cheaper, but oft-times heavier.

You can make your own LED torch with batteries, LEDs and a resistor, but the light output varies as the batteries run down. Most commercial LED torches are like this. It is possible to put a miniature switch-mode power converter between the batteries and the LEDs, and to have stable regulated light until the batteries are really flat. Such units can be made, but are not yet on the market. (Check the DIY page to see if the instructions for my unit with a SMPS has got there yet.) The problem is that the electronics are not all that cheap; the benefit is that you get far better life out of the batteries.

LED torches have been criticised for not being as bright as Maglights and Petzls. This used to be true, but do you need a torch so bright you can't see anything else because your night vision has been totally ruined? We can walk around at night with one of these quite OK. Ours let's us cook dinner at night without any trouble at all, and to look at maps. It is even bright enough for dealing with clear contact lenses - and they are hard to see. More recently, even the brightness problem is being overcome with a new generation of high-power LEDs, verging on the Maglite brightness. Of course, they will draw a bit more current.

Candles may be used in a tent, with some caution. The hot updraught from the flame can damage a tent roof, and spilt candle wax is always a risk. There is a very cute candle holder on the market, but it's very expensive. One is tempted to suggest it is finally obsolete, except for nostalgia.

You can also get a little gas-light attachment for a gas cartridge. However, they are horribly bright and hot, fragile and completely unnecessary.


Batteries in the Bush and Snow

Batteries are an unfortunate intrusion of technology into our otherwise pure bushwalking. Translation: they do seem to go flat at the wrong moment, especially in GPS units and mobile phones. For reasons of packaging, the smaller the battery the less efficient it is at delivering power, all other things being equal. This means we should all use D-cells, but they weigh a ton. In most cases we end up using AA or AAA cells. Neither of these has enormous capacity, but they are getting better. Newer chemistries in particular are worth looking at. Of course, there is always a price/performance trade-off. Pending some good contributions on the subject we have the following:


Trekking poles

Some regard these as another fad like Leatherman tools, but other walkers claim that using one or two poles has helped them overcome serious knee pain which has been stopping them from walking. Both views are probably right. They are very popular in Europe and the USA. If you have serious knee pain, often worst on a steep downhill, one or two poles can make a world of difference. The extra stability takes a huge load off the stabilising ligaments around the knee, making it possible to walk again. A good reference to pole use in the hills is found at Pete's Pole Pages. The author is in the UK.

But if you don't need poles for your knees, why bother with the weight? And trying to carry poles, let alone use them, in thick scrub is a nightmare. Research in The Sports Journal (a publication of the United States Sports Academy) has shown that on level ground they do not take any load off your feet or knees at all. In essence, most of the time they do nothing. My thanks to Scott Hamilton for this fascinating reference.

You will find that many people carry one or two walking pole in the European Alps as a substitute for a light ice axe. The idea is that you now have at least three points of contact for stability. This can be very useful on old snow and ice, at least at gentle angles. However, I have yet to see how you use a walking pole to do a self-arrest on a steep snow slope. Bluntly, trekking poles are no substitue for an ice axe (and maybe crampons) on serious snow.

One evening we saw (and heard) a group of walkers going up an asphalt road in the Pyrenees, each using two poles. There was a rythmic "click clack" as they walked and poled up the asphalt road. We thought they looked ridiculous. Unfortunately, it seems that skilled marketing is more than a match for the average person's critical thinking.

Despite all the above, the author has carried a walking stick on a couple of trips. The Colo river and some of its tributaries are notorious for quicksand, and if you go walking down these rivers (in the water), it may help for one member of the party to have a stick. You can reach it out to the unfortunate victim for a pull, but it is usually of more use if you give it to the victim to place on the sand as somthing to lean on. It does seem to work. But find a simple wooden stick for this, not some hi-tech fragile aluminium pole with sliding joints!

The author has also used XC ski poles and carbon fibre trekking poles when snow shoeing in our Alps in winter. The verdict was mixed here: a lot of the time, especially on the gentler angles, I just stuck the poles on my pack as they were no use. In more difficult terrain I used them, but I would not have missed them too much if I hadn't been carrying them. What I did find was that the fixed-length ski poles werre a bit of a nuisance when it came to accrying the poles on my pack. Variable-length or collapsable poles are far more convenient. The carbon fibre poles turned out to be much lighter than the aluminium ones, and extremely strong too. Mine are from www.titaniumgoat.com in America.


Leather Gloves

Some regard these as woose territory; others have tangled with too many raspberry and lawyer vines to care what others think. If you are into that sort of territory, gloves are useful. There are several sorts of gloves available, and most are not suitable. There are the cotton-backed gardening gloves: they shred very quickly. Good for keeping dirt off your fingers when pulling a small weed out maybe. There are the split-leather gardening or welding gloves: better, but they are heavy and they wear out quickly. Then there are the (usually yellow) "Riggers Gloves" available in some select hardware shops and from both Safety Supplies and rigging companies. They are a little dearer than the cotton gloves, but they work very well. I think they are made of thick pigskin: very tough animals those porkers. After a while they can get a bit hard and dry: rub SnoSeal in regularly and they will last for ages.

The same Riggers Gloves are excellent for abseiling - they are Riggers Gloves after all. They can also be used in canyons, but the continuous water doesn't do them much good. We rarely use gloves when the rope is wet in a canyon anyhow: it's both unnecessary and sometimes even a bit risky.


Water bottles and liquid containers

We have already mentioned how crucial water is to survival. Most walkers carry some clean drinking water during the day and have some available in the tent at night. What to carry it in?

The original water bottle might have been a leather wine skin, but let's start with the steel army water bottles. Forget it: they are ridiculously heavy. Far lighter are the aluminium water bottles made by Sigg® and Laken® and available in walking shops. These come in a range of gorgeous colours and are also used for fuel. But they are expensive and can be damaged. By the way: if you do use Sigg/Laken bottles for both fuel and water, make damn sure you use different colours and/or sizes. Putting water into your stove is going to have very negative effect on your next dinner, but taking a swig of petrol or kero in the middle of the night may be far worse. I speak with some feeling on this, having seen someone (else!) put Shellite into the water tank of an an acetylene lamp through such a mix-up. The result was unfortunate, to say the least. I spent half a day repairing the burnt holes in my sleeping bag and pack.

The Nalge® company makes light plastic laboratory "Nalgene" containers with seals which are guaranteed to not leak. Some of these will take quite a lot of abuse. The toughness depends on the plastic: they use several sorts. But there is an amusing story here. Many years ago when I was working as a research scientist in a CSIRO research lab I found them just right for my bushwalking, and I told the local Nalge rep so several times. He was amused, but noted what I was doing. A year or two later the Nalge company decided to get into the global outdoors market in a serious manner. I do not know whether this was entirely due to my talking to the local rep or whether some walkers in America had also tried the idea. However, the nalgene-outdoor.com web site does say "But there were rumors floating around ... stories about scientists taking the smaller, more convenient bottles out of the lab and using them on hikes and excursions." Well, well.

It's not just the larger Nalgene bottles which are useful. There is a range of very useful smaller Nalgene containers to be found in bushwalking shops today. These are more in the 'small jar' category, and they are excellent for things like butter, jam and honey - and they have a very reliable seal! You can find a good review of them at the BackpackGearTest web site (OK, I wrote it).

But the lightest and cheapest water bottles today are the PET (rocket base) bottles which soft drinks come in. These bottles are extremely tough - they have to be to pass the health, legal and shipping requirements. They last a surprising length of time and can be replaced for nothing. The seals on the caps seem to be as good as the Nalgene bottle seals, at least in practicce. They are so light (1.25 litres: 46 g) you can afford to carry one or two empties just in case you need to carry a lot of water one day. The only penalty is that you may have to drink the sugar-water contents first (unless you go for the fizzy mineral water versions). These PET bottles have been reviewed (by the author) at BackpackGearTest (BGT) under Reviews, Hydration Systems, etc - follow your nose. Included is a listing of some drop tests done with a full and half-full bottle, onto dirt and rock. The (free) PET bottle survived the lot. Four of them survived eight weeks walking in the Pyrenees, as our only form of water storage.

You may occasionally see or hear about a report that reusing these bottles is serious health hazard. One version has the PET plastic leaching out a plasticiser into the water, Strange: there is no claim that this happens with the original fizzy contents, just when you refill the bottle with plain water. Even stranger is that the plasticiser claimed to be involved is not found in PET plastic anyhow. I have checked up on these reports: they are yet another lovely and well-known urban myth. You can find them debunked at the Snopes Urban Myths web site.


"Hydration systems"

There is only one lighter form of bulk water carrier available, and that is a wine cask liner. Large (10 L) versions are also available in supermarkets with spring water in them. You can carefully empty a chosen one of its original contents (ahem), or even buy an unused one in some walking shops. You may be able to persuade a winery to give you one or two if you live nearby (empty, one assumes!). A 6 litre wine skin made of multi-layer plastic weighs 'nothing' and will hold all the water two people need for the evening meal plus water for the next day. They are quite strong enough: ours has lasted for nearly ten years (so far). A light nylon bag to protect the wineskin is recommended, as shown to the left. The use of wine skins is reviewed (again by the author) on BackpackGearTest. You can also get commercial heavy-duty versions of these - at significant expense and extra weight to carry. Being dearer, "of course they are far better", aren't they? Actually, some of the other hydrations systems reviewed at BGT had leaks everywhere. See below under "Hydration systems" for more details. People in the BGT test complained about the hoses dribbling down the side of their packs and wetting their trousers...

However, the original rubber seal on a wine skin is a pain. It is cheap to make, and will seal the oxygen out, but try refilling the wine skin through it! I took it off and replaced it with a plastic plug with an O-ring seal. O-ring seals are extremely cheap and available over the counter at suitable engineering shops like Bearing Service Centre. The result is as shown to the right. Filling is now easy: plug out, water in, plug back. Then I attached a silicone rubber hose to the plug, with a chemistry lab clip (Nalgene part number 6165-0002, in a pack of 12) at the end. To use it I hold the bag up in the air above the pot and squeeze the clamp open. You could probably use a clothes peg instead. Instant tap water, so to speak. When filling the bag with a water filter pump, I just connect the hose from the bag to the pump and away we go. One has to avoid over-inflating the wine skin when doing this of course: the pump is usually quite powerful. The only trouble we have had was when I left the bag in the tent vestibule one night in the Snowies, and an antechinus chewed on the tube in the night for exercise. There were holes the whole length of the tube - expensive silicone rubber tubing too. Given the total lack of nourishment to be derived, one wonders why?

Another reader (another Roger!) wrote recently that he had found that "a 3/4 inch poly pipe riser with a screw-end will fit into the opening". You will need to visit a hardware store or a shop specialising in micro-irrigation equipment for one of these. You can also get caps with spigots for a hose - they were originally meant for in-line filters to be used with drip systems. To make the conversion you only need a small saw and a file. The idea is shown in the pictures to the right: you cut off a bit of the screw thread end of the riser and jam it in the bladder opening. Then you can screw the hose fitting to it. You can unscrew the hose fitting when you want to fill the bag of course. The miracle is that the poly pipe fitting was a tight fit in the bladder opening.


An alternative water system sold in some places are the "Hydration systems". These things are just like a wine skin with a hose, but with enhancements: the bag goes in your pack and the tube dangles over your shoulder so you can 'drink on the run'. These things are mainly a marketing gimmick: you just do not need to 'drink on the run' while bushwalking. (Racing may be different, but I doubt it.) In fact, continuously adding water to your stomach while working hard can create medical and performance problems: your insides start sloshing around. And surely stopping to get a water bottle out has the distinct advantage of also conferring a brief rest?

If you take the drinking (water) bit too far you can suffer from over-hydration: getting too full of water. Technically this is known as 'hyponatraemia', and has been highlighted in New Scientist1 as a result of an editorial in the British Medical Journal2 by Dr Noakes, who is a bit of an expert in this area. The ensuing medical discussion in the BMJ was rather entertaining.

A secondary hazard of these Hydration systems, if used for drinking while you are walking, is that you are left not knowing how much water you have left. There are times when knowing the state of your water supply can influence other navigation decisions.

One could use one of these "hydration systems" instead of a wine-skin, but most of them are much heavier. They do have the advantage of sustaining some manufacturers and shops out of your wallet, but I don't know of any other advantages. Once or twice I have simply stuck my wineskin inside the top of my pack and left the hose accessible under the lid. A weak knot in the silicone hose will guarantee the water won't leak.

  1. New Scientist, 26 July 2003, p22
  2. British Medical Journal, vol 327, p113


Sit Mats

They may seem like silly things, but there are times when they are extremely useful. We were walking in the UK for a couple of months, and the ground was always wet - and cold. Eventually we bought some small squares (25cm * 30 cm) of light closed-cell foam (about EVA30) to sit on, and the results were remarkable. The pleasures of a warm (and I mean warm) bum during morning tea and lunch when all around you is cold and wet have to be experienced to be believed. These days we also take them ski touring, for the same reason, and even on day walks. They weigh almost nothing. You could make these out of an old foam sleeping mat, or go up-market and buy real ones at a Clarke Rubber store.

If you make them yourself out of EVA foam, try covering one side with cheap nylon cloth. You can stick it to the foam with a spray adhesive. The nylon stops the rough ground from damaging the foam, and makes it last a whole lot longer. I used some mats like this along the Spanish Pyrenees for eight weeks, and the foam was almost like new at the end.


Repair/Emergency Kit

You can get all sorts of wonderful kits for repairs and emergencies - but the cost and the weight are usually out of sight. Some of the contents are a bit off the planet too. You have to be fairly ruthless in assessing what you really need, as opposed to what you could use if WW III breaks out. We carry the following - but doubtless your needs will be different:

The whole lot is wrapped up in a couple of plastic bags and weighs about 150 gm. It is probably slightly excessive: not all items have been used, and it does tend to evelove over time. For eight weeks in the Pyrenees, when we could not rely on any support, I added a little more in the way of fabrics and a small tube of superglue - great stuff, the latter. This took the weight up to about 250 g. On the other hand, we have yet to meet a real situation which could not be handled by this kit. Most of it was very cheap, and yes, it did get used a bit in the Pyrenees.

Swiss Army Knives & Leatherman tools, Rescue knives, etc

The full-blown Swiss Army Knife (SAK) has to be seen to be believed. Think of a tool and you can get it on an SAK (power tools excepted). I am not sure how you use the knife and fork at the same time, but never mind. Some proud owners of maxi-SAKs swear they could not live in the bush without them. The rest of us do, quite happily. More weight, and lots more expense. Good profit to the vendor, the distributor, the importer and the manufacturer. Let me confess: I do sometimes carry a very small pen-knife: I use it to clean my finger nails. The knife in my camp cutlery set (Richards, Sheffield, I think) is just as sharp.

The Leatherman Tools (LT) are very cute things: the grown-up boy's follow-on to a full-blown Swiss Army Knife (SAK) so to speak. Everything which could be said about the SAK can be said about an LT. Obviously they sell well: there are a horde of brands of varying quailty, and varying sizes too.

It remains to add that while the originals of both tools are very expensive, the Asian copies are a fraction of the price, but do vary considerably in quality. If you want a good knife, YGWYPF applies.

Another absolute "must-have" in the bush is one of those strangely shaped "rescue" knives: serrated curved blades at extremely 'attractive' prices. Attractive to the vendors, that is. Exactly what you are meant to be doing with them remains a mystery: cutting abseil ropes and car seat belts seems to be the recommended use. How could we live without them?

Knots of all sorts

Wonderful things, knots, but how do you tie all those strange ones you hear about? I forget the source, but I found this list of URLs to sites which help explain these things. Some of them contain lists of more URLs for knots, some have static instructions - several pictures showing the stages for one knot, while at least one of them has a simple video of a knot being tied (animated gif file, I suspect). Some of the names are different from the ones I know, but it doesn't matter.

Velcro Gear Straps

Jason Tan suggests using lengths of velcro as adjustable straps to tie up rolls of gear like mats, sleeping bags etc. Infinitely adjustable and completely reusable. Velcro can also be used to hold up your trousers, as long as there is a long overlap! Don't rely on it holding gear onto the outside of your pack though.


Other Goodies

We need contributions here, but remember that everything you add to your gear adds weight to your pack. Do you really need it? Humerous contributions welcome too.


© Roger Caffin 1/3/2002