Make Your Gear Have Multiple Purposes

By Molly Herber

Sep 14, 2017

Preparing for a trip
Photo by Scott Ruhland.

Being intentional about the gear you pack for trips is one of the sneaky ways going to the outdoors teaches us about leadership. You don’t have a lot of room for “just in case” or “what if” when you’re carrying everything on your back or in the small hull of a boat.

Packing enough to be prepared without going overboard and letting worry hijack your decision making takes practice. It’s only when you spend each morning packing a jacket you never wear, or wish each night that you had brought a repair kit for your inflatable sleeping pad, that you learn what you really need.

One way you can bring more intention to your packing list is choosing gear items that serve multiple purposes.

Here are a few things some NOLSies bring on courses that you can use several different ways.

Silk Scarf

For senior instructor Peter Blessing, a silk scarf “Was the most important item I loaned my daughter for her NOLS course this summer.”

A common item to find at thrift stores or cheaply online, you can stuff your clothes in it to make a pillowcase, dry off with it, and wrap it around your neck for sun protection or warmth. Plus, it’s lightweight and easy to pack.

Foam Sitting Pad

A small foam pad comes in handy for adding comfort while you’re cooking dinner, sitting on during breaks, and adding extra insulation to your sleeping system (you can combine it with a smaller sleeping pad or add it to your pillow setup).

In an emergency, you can even use it to add rigidity and structure to a splint (learning to improvise with your gear during an emergency is an important part of wilderness medicine). Plus, unlike an inflatable pad, it doesn’t pop.


Umbrellas work well for rain or shade—you can carry them while backpacking or attach them to the back of a kayak. If you bring a tall golf-style umbrella, you can even use it as a walking stick.

Besides providing shelter for yourself, as instructor Logan Maclean notes, when providing medical care “I really like it for holding over patients, especially when they are laying down on their back.”

If you’re traveling with a group, a tarp or rain fly is a useful alternative for creating rain shelters or shade for the group.


Mini spatulas are nifty because you can use them both to cook and eat (be sure to wash the spatula if you’re using it to cook for a group). You can use it as a knife to cut plenty of food items like sausage and cheese, too.

Trekking Poles

One of my personal favorites, trekking poles add a lot of comfort while hiking, especially in steep terrain. Beyond that, you can use them as a tent pole, eliminating a single-use item from your pack. Trekking poles are another favorite for making backcountry splints as well.

Trekking Poles
Photo by Jimmy Thomas

Experience is the best teacher. Get yours on a NOLS Expedition.

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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