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Everyone has their favorite piece of equipment; the one item that they won’t leave home without. Sometimes that item invokes some nostalgia, other times it’s just because of how utilitarian it is, or maybe even just a tiny piece of creature comfort. Recently, I took a moment to chat with a number of professionals who make their living out-of-doors. Through years of experience, they all have come to certain conclusions about what they absolutely need. They shared with me their favorites, and the reasons why their particular item has been at their side every time they head out.
A talented outdoor photographer who has captured some stunning vistas, Brian Rhodes is perhaps best known for his shots of waterfowl in flight, and working retrievers. His works have graced the covers of national sporting magazines. He is outside twelve months a year, no matter the weather, in the pursuit of the next great shot. As much as he loves photographing birds, he loves being on the water even more. During the summers, you can find him at the helm of a custom Alumaweld 29' Offshore, guiding fishermen to barn-door-sized halibut in the Gulf of Alaska. When we spoke, he expressed a fondness for the 21st-Century version of duct tape.
“One thing I think you always need to have on a boat or in your vehicle is Rescue Tape. It's a self-fusing silicone tape and is oil and fuel resistant. Great for repairs: holes or cut lines. It's a must-have for any boater. I have even used it to cobble together broken tripods. The best part—it leaves no sticky residue.”
Silicone tape certainly is an update to the classic duct tape: it offers some major upgrades, like the ability to withstand extreme temperatures without melting, and extreme pressures without bursting. In motor-vehicle applications its uses are almost limitless. While you don’t have the space to store every possible hose your vehicle requires to keep running, you can certainly store a roll of tape in a glove box or trunk. In fact, it’s so small and lightweight, it will fit in a pack or pocket. In a pinch, it can be used for certain first-aid applications. A busted tent pole would be an easy fix for this wonder material. With so many varied uses, this is the sort of item you shouldn’t leave home without
When Michael R. Shea isn’t wearing out his keyboard penning stories for Field & Stream or Outdoor Life, odds are pretty good he’s afield somewhere. Born in Rhode Island, he has criss-crossed the country many times for both work and sport. He has spent much of his time in the rugged wilds of the American West, living out of a tent and spending the days gaining elevation with a pack strapped to his back. With such varied experiences, it makes sense that he would pick an item that would be great in a number of scenarios.
“I have an old Leatherman Wave my parents gave me for high-school graduation. That makes it 17 or 18 years old. It doesn't have the same locking mechanism as the current generation, so the blades are all loosey-goosey—like a flimsy old pocket knife. But I love the thing. It's been on adventures in the Arctic, China, Mexico, out West, and Manhattan. I don't leave home without it.”
It has been said, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” This can be true when it comes to tools, but you certainly can’t haul your toolbox with you up the trail, or on the train. Small and compact, these iconic multi-tools fit a lot of function into a small package. While you certainly can’t rebuild an engine or put up a cabin using just one of these, you can handle most chores at camp or around the house with the pliers and assortment of blades and tools. Multi-tools have come a long way since Shea’s parents bought him his Wave. There are even models with locking jaws, such as the Crunch, which makes an ideal potholder in camp, or can help wrestle with a rusty pipe.
Alex Robbins spends more time outdoors in a field season than most people spend in a year. She has worked in both North America and Europe, primarily inventorying seabirds and checking on nesting success of sensitive species. At any given moment she can be found piloting a small boat around in questionable seas, or scaling cliffs to count chicks in a nest. Currently, she is finishing up her PhD. at the University of Glasgow, the world’s preëminent seabird research center. As such, her answer was perhaps a bit predictable.
“One of my favorite and essential bits of outdoor kit is my [8x36] Nikon Monarch binoculars. As a seabird researcher, I always need a pair of binos handy. These ones are great as they’re lightweight, weather resistant, and durable, so perfect for using on a boat. The field of view is great for counting birds on cliffs and the magnification is still good enough for ID-ing different species. Plus, I got them as a grad student and found they’re great value for money! Love them!”
Even if you are not observing seabirds as part of your career, the urge to observe nature closely is in all of us. Binoculars let you feel closer to those animals, winged or otherwise, giving you a perspective you never could have had. Even if you aren’t all that into nature, the ability to see all the way to that next ridge can come in handy in a number of situations. Modern binoculars can be much lighter than their antiquated predecessors, only adding mere ounces to your pack with certain models. I recommend a pair with about eight power for handheld use; anything higher transfers too much hand shake to the view. While Robbins’s Monarchs are no longer available, Nikon has newer 8x42 versions, which perform as well, if not better.
Tom Cunningham has spent the better part of a decade working in Natural Resources. His tasks have run the gamut from wetland protection to dealing with Threatened and Endangered species. One of his favorite projects involved placing radio collars on coyotes and tracking their movements to help quantify their home range. Currently, he is employed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, where he helps understand waterfowl migrations by banding ducks. When I asked him what he felt he needed most out in the field, his answer was simple.
“A good fixed-blade knife. Something sturdy; with a nice thick blade and a solid tang. With that you can handle everyday chores and be prepared for most emergencies. You can even use it to fell small trees in a pinch. Cutting apples to making kindling, there isn’t much you can’t do. And there’s no moving parts to break or wear out.”
A fixed-blade knife is an excellent choice out in the field. As Tom alluded to, there are many things that can be accomplished with this humble blade. You can create tinder to start a fire or fell a tree to create a shelter. You can even filet a fish if the need arises. With some cordage, you can lash it to a stick to create a spear to defend yourself from animals, or try to obtain dinner in an emergency. When selecting a knife for survival situations, you want to look for a few things. A full tang, where the metal from the blade runs the full length inside the handle, is essential so you won’t snap it in half if you need to use it to pry. A thick back is useful if you have to pound on it with a stick or rock to cut through tough items like wood. Models like the Surviv-All fit the bill, or the LMF II, if you prefer a partially serrated blade.
Burnheart’s resume as a fly-fishing guide is impressive, to say the least. He was first registered as a New Hampshire guide in 1994. During the warmer months, from 1994 to 2003, he guided for the North Country Angler in North Conway, New Hampshire. In the winters he would head south, acting as the Head Guide for Futaleufu Lodge in Chile, fishing Northern Patagonia and throughout Argentina and Chile. Since 2003, he has been guiding for Lopstick Outfitters in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, where he is currently the Head Guide and has taken over as fly shop manager. When asked about his essential outdoor item, he offered the following.
“I've thought about it, overall a good pair of dry socks. Nice Merino wool hiking socks, that makes a big difference, and the fuzzies on the inside of the sock take a spark really well and can be used for fire tinder.“
If your feet aren’t happy, you won’t be happy. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are—if your feet hurt, you are going to be upset. Wet feet are also a severe mood killer, as well, not to mention a veritable Petri dish for bacteria and parasites that can lead to nasty and literally life-threatening infections. You should always have at least one extra pair of socks in your pack, even if you are going on a short hike. An unexpected stream crossing or sudden downpour can quickly soak the pair you have on. Another consideration is material: cotton is to be avoided at all costs. Once wet, it stays wet and does little to move moisture away from your feet, which can lead to blisters. When wet, it also loses its insulative properties, so in cold (or even just brisk) weather you run a fairly good chance of frostbite and even hypothermia. Burnheart mentioned Merino wool, which is an excellent choice, but not the only one. Choose a pair made from wool or one of the newer synthetics that breathe well, but be aware that the synthetics don’t take a spark well—or sometimes not at all.
As for my personal favorite, I would have to say a reliable folding knife. My career in Wildlife Management has taken me from the Alaskan Bush to the shadow of the Empire State building. And in all those scenarios, the one thing that has always been in my pocket or strapped to my float coat has been a folding knife. I like a blade in the three-inch neighborhood with a partially serrated blade, for its ability to slice through rope if I were to ever become entangled in an anchor line or other hazard. I find myself using it daily, from prying clams open for a seaside buffet to more mundane tasks, such as opening packages. Now that I’m commuting daily to New York City, blade length becomes a consideration. Luckily for me, their law says blades under four inches are fine, so my favorite folder is safe from confiscation by the NYPD.
Before your next backpacking excursion, whale-watching tour, whitewater rafting trip, or day hike, take a moment to evaluate your gear. What is your favorite item? What can you not live without? What is taking up space in your pack that you may not need? What has saved your skin before? And will you take advantage of our experts’ experience and outfit yourself with their must-haves? Share your favorite gear with us in the Comments section, below.