6 Odd Things to Bring to the Backcountry

By Molly Herber

Jun 11, 2015

When you’re in the outdoors, whether it’s for a walk with your dog or an expedition in the Andes, your equipment matters. It’s the difference between having a rain jacket that seals out liquid and feeling cold water seep down your back. No one likes that.

At NOLS we spend a lot of time obsessing over the equipment we advise students to pack, rent, or buy. Most of our students are going to be outside for at least 30 days—that means we need to be ready for pretty much any weather and any situation. Some items, like a sturdy backpack and a good rain jacket, are absolute necessities (I bring my rain jacket even on bluebird days). Other conditions and activities call for specialized gear (no one goes kayaking without a paddle).

In the list below, I’ve pulled out some of the gems from the NOLS equipment lists. These are the items that made me chuckle—and sometimes stop and stare. Who knows, maybe after reading you’ll be inspired to incorporate a new item into your pack essentials.


Sarong tying class and runway walk off on the beach at San Basilio anchorage. Alyssa Taylor, Rita Slanina, Alisha Bube Sarong tying class and runway walk off on the beach on a course in Baja, Mexico. Photo by Alisha Bube.


1. Sarong

This item, basically fabric that you wear wrapped around your waist, at first seemed to me better suited for beach resorts than a trip in the backcountry. But students on the Semester in Baja recommended it for paddling sections, and the equipment list affirms that they’re “Great for airing out, as a towel and as a changing room ... can be used for bug protection.” Worn on your lap, they can also protect you from the sun. They’re pretty stylish, too.

2. Umbrella

Huh? You know it’s an oddball when the equipment list for the Semester in Patagonia says, “We know, you think it's a joke, but some people won't go kayaking without one.” The equipment list doesn’t specify, but my guess is that it’s good to keep the rain off while paddling. I’m also envisioning rigging an umbrella to your backpack for long walks in the rain. Maybe they’re on to something...

3. Tropical fungus kit

Yep, this is real. I had to read it a couple times when I first saw it, too. Apparently a fungus kit an essential for tropical environments, such as those encountered on semester courses in Australia. Given the general steaminess of the tropics, having lots of personal care supplies makes sense, and it makes sure that there are enough supplies for the entire group for a long expedition.

Here’s what to in include in your very own tropical fungus kit:

  • Antifungal cream or antifungal powder.
  • Neosporin and Lotrimin, for foot fungus. Tinactin antifungal powder is also good.
  • 1 antiseptic lotion/post insect bite lotion. Neosporin triple antibiotic is fine.
  • 2 travel size bottles of talcum powder
  • Drops for Swimmer’s Ear (if you have a history of ear aches, even as a child)


mate-hot-drink-patagonia-alex-chang-cornell Whether your hot drink of choice is mate, coffee, or tea, when you need it, you need it. Photo courtesy of Alex Chang


4. Coffee

Listed as “optional” on all equipment lists, when we all know that hot drinks and caffeine are absolute necessities for keeping morale high in the backcountry.

5. Bug Shirt

A bug shirt is a combination of cotton and mesh fabric that keeps your upper body, head, and face protected from mosquitoes. To students on courses in the Yukon, “it is a most favored piece of clothing!” It’s also a great way to protect yourself from bugs without the bug spray smell (not my favorite), plus you never run out of it. Unless it rips. Then you have some troubleshooting to do. I hope you packed your repair kit.

6. Puffy Jacket

This isn’t an equipment list oddity, though it is one of the most common items found and valued on NOLS courses. I’m including it here because I love my puffy, and any clothing item that keeps you warm and cozy is worth giving a shout-out.

What are your packing quirks? How about the essential items you carry in your pack or boat that don’t fit in with the typical packing list? Share your thoughts with us and your fellow outdoor enthusiasts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Cover photo by Brooks Eaton.





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Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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