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Household Items that Double as Backpacking Gear

Chlorox Bleach is an inexpensive way to purify backcountry water sources commonl used by long distance backpackers
Chlorox Bleach is an inexpensive way to purify backcountry water sources commonly used by long distance backpackers

If you want to save money on backpacking gear, there are a lot of everyday items lying around your house that you can use. The only limit is your imagination!

For example:

Trash Compactor Bags – Line the inside of your backpack with a trash compactor bag instead of using a backpack cover. These plastic bags are extremely durable and they will keep your gear DRY.

Soda Bottles – 1 liter sized soda bottles provide an ultralight alternative to heavier Nalgene bottles. Many long distance hikers swear by them and they’re easy to replace.

Reflectix Insulating Wrap – use this to make freezer bag and cook pot cozies.

Padded Mailing Envelopes – The kind lined with bubble wrap. These also make great freezer bag cooking cozies.

Household Bleach – makes a great water purifier for long distance hikers. The CDC and EPA even recommends it for water purification, but stay away from the scented kind.

Plastic Shopping Bags – these make great snow anchors in winter if you need to pitch a tent on snow. They’re also ultralight. Just make sure to pack them out when you’re done using them.

Nail Spikes as Tent Pegs – Go to the hardware store and pick up some 8″  or 10″ nails spikes to use as tent or tarp stakes. You don’t need to shell out big bucks for titanium tent stakes.

Tyvek House Wrap – Got some extra Tyvek? It makes a great ground cloth that’s lightweight and waterproof.

Safety Pins – These are a great addition to your gear repair kit. I’ve pinned a shoulder hardness back onto a backpack in the middle of nowhere so I could finish my planned trip. Locking safety pins are the best!

Oven Bags – Oven basting bags make great vapor barrier socks. Just put them over a sock liner and then cover with a second warmer sock and your feel will stay toasty warm all day. These are best used when temperatures are well below freezing. The ones sized for cooking turkeys are too big – go a size smaller.

Styrofoam Cups – Why buy a $50 Snowpeak titanium insulated mug when you can use two styrofoam cups together to keep water hot in cold weather? The styrofoam cups are also lighter weight!

Drier Lint – Makes a great fire starter.

Plumbers Tape – Wrap a little plumbers tape around the threads of your water reservoir or water bottle to prevent it from leaking.

Cat Food Can, Paint Cans, Peach Cans, etc. – You can turn these cans into alcohol or woods stoves very easily with a kid’s hole punch.

Plastic Spoons – You don’t need to pay $20 for a titanium spoon. Just use a plastic spoon that you pick up at a fast food restaurant.

Plastic Spice Bottles and Prescription Bottles – These are great for carrying small quantities of olive oil, DEET, liquid soap, or hand cleanser so you don’t have to carry more than you need. You can also use them to carry spices and pills.

Duct Tape – So many uses ranging from first aid and blister prevention to gear repair.

Vaseline Soaked Cotton Balls – Makes a long-lasting and inexpensive fire starter with a very long shelf life.

What household items have you adapted for backpacking?

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47 comments

  1. Well, a few rubber bands for wrapping around food bags making them smaller, easier to pack, once opened. A few loops around my 6 stakes holds them together and no rattling around in the pack.

    Along the same vein, heavy duty hair ties on guylines hold fairly firm, prevent wind hammer on the stakes, and supply just enough ventilation.

    A couple band aids for all sorts of smaller repairs, besides my finger.

    A dollar store cookie cooling rack makes a great trout grill. Only weighs about 4-5oz and burns clean easily.

    The Kmart grease pot. Remove the strainer, remove the lid and replace with a piece of a paper clip. 3.2oz for a 1 liter pot.

    How many of you carry ZipLock baggies? Bet’cha swiped them from the kitchen.

    A piece of scrubbie for cleaning pots, spoon. 1/3-1/2 works well enough.

    A tiny bottle of dish soap. A single drop of soap is enough to wash dishes and your hands.

    A small bottle of super glue. Works for cuts, and on/around blisters, too. (I get a blister on my hand from paddling.)

    Aluminum foil. In a pinch, you can make a pot top, windscreen, cup, battery adapter for 2016->2032, etc.

    3-4 twisties from bread wrappers. All sorts of uses… A piece of wire makes a good “S” hook for hanging your pot over a fire, provided you have a bail handle.

    A small piece of candle makes a good fire starter, a little light for midnight runs when the camp is nearly invisable.

    • Tea lights would be handier; small, compact, and in a lightweight aluminum container (to hold melted wax) rather than a small piece of candle. Cheap too, for 24 or a dozen.

  2. – Mesh bags in which your oranges come from the grocery store. I use these for my bowls and cups when my family is backpacking. They are cheap, tough and let the dishes dry. I just tie loose knots in them for closure. I also use them to keep my food sorted…by day or snacks vs, dinners, etc.

    – Laundry lingerie bags with zippers have also held up great for food and dish organizing.

    Back home, I hang up our disassembled water filter for drying and storage in one of these. Both of these are obviously for items that will not fall out of the mesh holes. They let you see the contents of the bags. When I have carried all of the food for my 3 young boys for 4 nights, I had to use these to keep things organized!

    – Our dollar store’s synthetic chamois can’t be beat for camp towels.

    – Also, our dollar store has these small inflatable cushions for relaxing in the bath tub. One side has a suction cup, the other side has a soft fabric coating. Carefully remove the suction cup, and these make inflatable pillows for sleeping. They are fragile, but they only cost a dollar.

    Scott

    • A couple of more that have been handy….

      – Trick birthday candles….the kind that re-light themselves after you blow them out. They can be helpful fire starters when the wood is damp and weather is gusty.

      – Just a few basic paper napkins in a Ziploc sandwich bag. Used sparingly, these are light weight and ideal for clean-up after oily meals or any mess. Then we just carefully burn them.

      Scott

  3. Oh gosh, back in the begining other than the Backpack and Sleeping bag, just about everything in my Pack came from my Mothers Kitchen! Cast Iron frying pan, which I still have and use, it has a 4 and half inch bottle with high sides. A 2 cup alumium Tea Pot with Tea strainer, Knife, Fork, Spoon, Candles, A small Alumium Sauce Pan (those that had a lid were highly treasured, you did not leave them out in the open in any campground for someone would steal it), Plastic Cup off the top of my Lunchbox Thermos bottle, (still have and use it) A couple of my Sisters rubberized Hair bands used to attached items to my Frame pack, they held two piece fishing poles together, used them to close plastic and canvas bags with (before zip locks) and then recycled bread bags, those metal and paper ties broke after a few uses. Comb, Hair brush with no handle, Safety razor with three blades stored in it, which you took out and left one before shaving. Toothbrush, of course with half the handle cut off. A Canvas Tarp cut to 4×6 with store bought gromments pounded into the corners with the edges sewn up and seamed by Mom on her trundle Singer Machine. Aluminum foil, 3 Cup Coffee Percolator, which I have refound again and am currently using, Small tube of Airplane Model Glue which also had emergency Stitch uses but was unreliable and would not flex with the skin. One quarter of a bar of Ivory Soap, 4 of the large 8 inch Knitting Needles I took from my Mom’s knitting basket instead of Nail Spikes, much lighter and some have holes in the top or you can drill a hole to thread a line through to anchor it. Bleach but before Nalgene safe bottles we used glass Laboratory tubes with corks stuffed in the tops wrapped in at least three bread bags in case of leak which would destroy everything in your pack including turning Alumium into a whiteish mass. Eight feet of Vietnam era issue Trip wire in green. Lots of uses for that from Animal Snares, Fish Hooks, Mending Framepacks, Pot Hanger for hanging a pot over the fire, holding Vibram soles together, In Northern Pike Terrritory as a fish leader, No duct tape then so we carried a Roll of 1 – 2 inch wide Johnson and Johnson adesive tape which we used on everything that today we use Duct tape on. Though spoken of in the past tense most of this stuff is still used today by inventive teenagers and Scouts and by myself. I still have all the gear I had when I was in the Boy Scouts and then during the Backpacking craze of the late 60’s. Gosh this is bringing back so many happy memories I cannot tell you….thanks.

  4. While soda bottles, styrofoam cups, and plastic spoons may be lighter weight and save some money, they’re really not worth the environmental cost – they need to be replaced frequently and they fill up landfills. Making an investment in a titanium mug or other gear that will last your entire life in the long run takes better care of the places we all love and enjoy. It’s my understanding that you shouldn’t reuse plastic soda or water bottles because the chemicals leech into what you’re drinking while a Nalgene bottle is BPA free and can be washed and resused safely. Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons crack and break. I think it’s worth the sacrifice in pack weight and money to use gear that lasts and has a smaller environmental impact.

    • “Making an investment in a titanium mug that will last your entire life will not save our planet.” he wrote laughing. Seriously?

      • Yes, I am serious. Looking at the big picture, not just on an individual level, the use of products that last even if it costs more money leads to less consumption of resources in the long run. Continuing to use items that are cheap (or free) and need to be replaced often because it’s convenient is irresponsible.

      • I’m not sure I agree. I reuse the same soda water bottle at home for 2 months at a time. Doesn’t that slow consumption since I refill it with tap water and don’t buy a new bottle or water every time I get thirsty. I think that’s responsible.

      • Sure, if you’re buying soda anyway, but plasticware and styrofoam cups could be replaced with something that’s not a throw away item.

      • I’m working on creating a “Noggin” which is made from one of those round extentsions you see on some trees like the Oak. The early Americans cut them off, dried them out or seasoned them, and then hollowed them out and used them for drinking cups. I also read that you could boil water in them as long as the flame stayed below half of the Noggin. Also if your really handy with a pocketknife you can whittle a Spoon and fork from downed wood. Oops This was supposed to be a reply to Sally’s comment..It takes a lot of energy, water, mining mess, etc. etc. to mine the ore and then manufacture a Titanium Mug or Pot..Huge waste of Resources just like Methanol gas from Corn which takes three gallons of water to make one gallon of the stuff..more phonie environmental stuff out there, including Solar Panels which uses a lot of resources to produce so little…

    • Sally,
      where does styrofoam come from? it is a processed chemical that was in the earth.

      • With that analogy, isn’t plastic just a processed chemical that was in the earth? So we should just throw plastic back into the landfills as well? Sally has a point. It’s one of the main reason’s I purchased a Klean Kanteen, aluminum spork, and other item’s that don’t need to be replaced and thrown away.

      • For me, it’s a balancing act between using things I’ve already got around the house (sandwich bags) and buying items that I can reuse and don’t have to throw away. This article is highlighting how you can use things that you’ve already got. If you don’t have shopping bags, bleach, or soda bottles around, there’s no need to go out and buy them JUST for backpacking. The Tyvek, the catfood stove, and (maybe? I’ve not tried this one or have camped with someone who was trying it) the alternative tent stakes are solid tips, though.

      • TwoYellowDogs.Terri

        agree… the ideas shared are ways to use what you already have. If new to backpacking, or outfitting a family, these are money saving and clever ideas to rethink spending big bucks until you know you really want to do this backpacking thing.

        I started backpacking over 25 yrs ago… but life got in the way and I have not gone in many many years. MUCH of my backpacking items are reused from thrift stores. I hunted for aluminum pots in several sizes and flat aluminum lids w/ d-ring lifters… I have a treasured collection so I can pick and choose what I’ll take depending upon what’s on the menu and how many people, how many nights, etc. I rarely see the awesome aluminum pots in thrift stores any more, but they are light, versatile and I just strap them to the outside of my vintage (and still usable) frame pack.

        I’m dusting off my gear and evaluating if or what items will be replaced. Like the ideas for UL backpacking, although I’m not into covering lots of miles, just getting back to the back country and enjoying it.

      • TwoYellowDogs.Terri

        Grandpa,
        your ideas are all fantastic. I too use boxed wine plastic bladders for water. I made nylon carry bags for them… and also sewed handles directly onto a mylar wine bladder. I’ve camped at sites where the water was quite far away, and with 2-adults, 2-kids having bulk water supply was mandatory. I would still take at least one wine bladder per person.

        I’ve always use trash bags as backpack rain covers.

        Plastic cards (that are like credit cards) as pot/plate scraper. minimizes debris in sponge/scrubbers. I cut full sized sponge/scrubbers into 1/4.

        From the dollar store, the very thin reusable towels that are actually disposable. I use them like paper towels, using them many times and wash them. They can last multiple trips. Basic hand/dish towel.

    • soda bottle plastic does not have BPA in it as it is made from PET. BPA is only used in making polycarbonate. Reusing plastic containers until they are not functional then recycling is a good idea and better for the environment.

  5. I use the bladders from boxed wine for bulk water storage. As far as I’m concerned, wine in the box beats Jack in the Box any time!

    I don’t drink soft drinks, however, I have family members that do and I repurpose some of their empties, therefore keeping them out of the waste stream for quite a while. When they are past usefulness, I recycle them. Maybe it’s the chemicals affecting my thinking, but I don’t worry too much about them leaching out considering how little exposure I get from reused bottles compared to everything else in my life. My favorite water bottles are the Ozarka water bottles with the flip up blue cap. They come in several sizes and the flip cap is fairly secure, allows one hand use, and keeps the dirt off.

    I will also take a small plastic drink bottle and put water with a few drops of soap in it and put it with my toiletries. I can use that for clean up when I need to find that lonely tree 200′ from the trail. For that purpose, I prefer the water bottles that have the pop up lid, since they make for one hand use and I don’t drop the cap. In cold weather, I’ll add some hot water to the bottle, when making my tea or coffee and then stick the bottle in an extra pair of wool socks to try to keep the water at a tolerable temperature for a while.

    Plastic tableware that comes from fast food suppliers breaks too easily, however, I found Lexan spoons, forks, and knives at Walmart for about four dollars a set, which is considerably cheaper than titanium sporks. Since the grandkids lost their color matched titanium sporks within a week of my investing ten bucks on each one, they get to use the Lexan while grandpa uses his Ti spork, which he has kept track of.

    I always have a fresh tube of super glue in my kit and have repaired many things with it. Several tubes can be had for about two dollars at a big box retailer. I put a new tube with my gear because I don’t want leaks and also don’t want to find it dried up when I need it the most.

    I have a few bread bags for keeping feet dry. They also make excellent trash sacks. Those rubber hair bands that my wife uses and loses (I wonder where they go?) work well for keeping bread bags on the legs. I also have a few pair of nitrile gloves in a snack ziplock to help keep hands drier and warmer under my outer gloves if I’m stuck in wet weather.

    Aluminum gutter nails make great tent stakes and are available at Home Depot.

  6. Can you please finish your sentence?
    “Reflectix Insulating Wrap – use this to make a …” (thing that is wrapped in insulating wrap?) :)

  7. Going off of all these wonderful ideas here are a few repurposed home items that I use backpacking.
    For a cheap plastic ground cloth I use cheap painters drop cloth. A roll of 1mm 10′ X 20′ costs something like 3 dollars and you can cut it up and get several different sized sheets.
    My primary cooking stove is an alcohol stove I made from a cut up soda can. I’ve made several designs in the past and the single can soda stove seems to work better than my previous “beta” tuna can stoves. For fuel I use a bottle of Heet. Windscreen is a folded up piece of aluminum foil. Can’t get much cheaper than that. If I remember the exact design I copied I’ll have to share it sometime. I suppose that is a conversation for another post.
    I use 30 or 40 gallon trash bag liners for a lot of things. Pack covers, or you can cut holes in it and use it as a poncho, or even in a survival situation they can be used as a crude shelter, should your tarp fail or get lost. I keep one rolled up in each of my packs.
    I also keep a small ziploc bag of dryer lint for fire starter. That stuff will take a spark easily.
    It seems that everyone likes to adopt similar tricks not just to save weight but also money.

  8. I used some scrap Tyvek (home wrap or a used envelope) to make a small pouch for my tent/tarp stakes. A fold-over top and packing tape along the sides makes simple yet strong storage for the stakes while keeping the dirt off other items.

  9. I also find the containers used for things like Pot noodles etc make very good breakfast bowls and even cups. The ones which need you to add boiling water to re-hydrate the noodles are best because they are food grade plastic. If anyone knows of anything lighter i would be impressed to hear.

    • I have some of those. They are very light and extremely tough. I also have something similar which had a strainer top for a one meal pasta dish. I made a cozy for it and use it to make mac ‘n cheese on the trail.

  10. The large nail spikes are often in the gardening section – they are called landscape spikes and are used to connect landscape timbers. In the hardware section the might be called 60-penny nails (or larger 70d 80d).

    The lightweight option is to look in the rain-gutter section. Look for something called gutter spikes. These are made out of a tempered aluminum – very light and very rigid. And the are often prepainted in white to match the rain-gutters – this makes a good primer to give them a quick spray with some hot pink paint – makes them easier to find when you drop one in the duff.

  11. When you’re starting out, almost anything can be household items. I’ve camped in the wool blankets off my bed, my smallest saucepan, and stainless silverware. It’s better than not getting out.

    We have a lot lighter kit these days.

  12. It is going a little far to say that the CDC recommends household bleach for backcountry water purification. They include it on their list, with iodine, and point out that is ineffective against cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium can survive for 12 hours in undiluted bleach. Not good.

    Here is their page on that. I really recommend the PDF version, it is much easier to understand.

    http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/travel/backcountry_water_treatment.html
    http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/pdf/drinking/Backcountry_Water_Treatment.pdf

    My experience with dryer lint as a fire starter has been iffy. Plus, the amount of synthetics in most lint can make for some nasty fumes. The cotton balls and vaseline approach is much better.

    The K-Mart grease pot is not made for cooking. If you read the label, it clearly says it should not be used for food. Plus, the inward-rolled lip makes it a bear to get clean.

    I carry a basin, a cut-off bottom of a gallon milk bottle. It is good for washing socks, dipping water out of creeks, and so on. We used several of them to put out a small wildfire (along with every pot we were carrying).

    I used a plate from a microwave meal as my camping plate for at least ten years. It finally broke.

    In Scouts, I used to freeze foil-wrapped meals, wrap them in newspaper to keep them insulated, then use the newspaper to start the campfire. We were in Louisiana, so the food was always thawed by dinnertime.

    • Walter, I believe you have some mis-information. The K-Mart(Stanco) grease pot is NOT rolled in. It has an out rolled lip. You can look this up on google. It doesn’t really matter if you cook in it or not. It’s just a metal pot no worse for you than any of the Wearever pots and pans that have been used for over 50 years. Cooking with aluminum is not harmful despite more than 50 years of looking for any tixicity. This myth started in Germany when a reseacher contaminated several tests using an aluminum instrument and published his results.

      • It looks like they changed the design. My Stanco grease pot has a rolled-in lip.

        I agree that aluminum toxicity is a myth, but still, this is not food-grade aluminum. The metal is chosen to work for metal stamping, not to be food-safe. Stanco does not make any cookware (http://stancometal.com/business-philosophy/products).

        It is also soft and dents easily.

        So, instead of using a $10 non-food pot, get an $11 cooking pot that works great:

        http://www.campmor.com/outdoor/gear/Product___82008

      • There are two reasons I don’t use the larger pot.

        The first is the size. Going solo most of the time, I don’t need a larger pot than 1qt. Except for winter snow/ice melting, 1qt covers all my needs. My tarp *just* fits into it, so a larger pot would wast a bit of pack volume. (I use a 35L/2200ci Mumur.)

        The second reason is the weight. The grease pot weighs 3.25oz, including the lid. With a little ligtening you can remove the lid handle and replace it with a small clip made from a paper clip. Then cut off the lip on the lid. This will give you a pot that weighs about 3.1oz.

        As far as being soft, I see this as an advantage. I anneal the bottom(making it softer) and add a series of radial rings around the bottom (5 works about the best, all around) that turns it into a high efficiency pot. It gets very high marks for efficiency at 15-20% better water boiling than a regular pot. Though not quite as good as a regular heat exchanger (around 20-25% increase) it adds no weight, and does not reduce the volume of the pot. I have used one for about 5 years, now. Yup, it is all dented. I don’t think the bears really care.

        The Open Country pot is OK. I use a 1.75qt version from their set when I go with a partner. It weighs about 5-1/2oz, including the lid. But it is a little thicker than the the Grease Pot, and, not really suitable to adding a heat exchanger to the bottom. It really needs to be done when they are making the pot.

      • Marco, could you post a picture of your “radial rings” and some more detail on how you make them. That sounds great. I thought about it in the past, but I did not think of a good way to do it on my own. Thanks.

    • cryptosporidium if i remember right is something you build up an immunity to. My town had a outbreak of it this summer and I never quit drinking the water only a few people ever were reportedly sick.

      • Dusty, yeah, very true. Some people have strong natural immunity to it, some do not. Houshold bleach seems to have little effect on the bug. One of the reasons I dropped this so many years ago. I used to jus bring extra fuel and boil most water used for drinking. I was pretty amazed at the ammount needed for actually drinking. It was usually around two quarts a day except if it was real warm or dry. The rest was in coffee, cocoa, oatmeal or soups. A few times I actually lacked for water, but this was rare. Anyway, even clorine dioxide is not real effective against crypto. It takes 2-4 hours depending on how bad the water was infected. Clorine bleach is really only good for l gardia, perhaps the most common of the bugs in US water.

      • Cryptosporidium is a parasite. I’ve never heard of immunity to a parasite, but I guess it is possible. It isn’t very dangerous to healthy people, but I’d rather not have diarrhea in the backcountry, regardless.

  13. I posted this somewhere else but should have posted it here…This is one of those items you always carry but over look until you reread a post or two as I did above…Some years ago I was taking a lot of Medication which came in three different sized plastic child proof cap bottles. These bottles as I understand it are food grade and do not react to other chemicals. One day I was repacking my bag and looking for ways to lighten it or to make it more compact and less full of loose items. My eyes looking about the house rested upon three of the Medication bottles that were sitting on my kitchen table. A few thoughts came to mind on what I might use them for. I first thought of using them for measuring cups for different dehydrated and freeze dried foods always listed water needs in half cups to full cups. So I emptied the bottles and found that the tallest one equaled one full cup, the next one a half a cup and the smaller one a quarter of cup..So I had Measuring cups and did not have to guess any more. So over the years I came up with a number of uses for these three size medication bottles, here is a partial list; Match Safe, First Aid Kit, Sewing Kit, Fishing tackle kit, Emergency Fire making material kit, Repair parts storage, Tea Candle Storage, Personal I.D. Permits, money, storage, Pre-mixed Condiment container, Hard Candy storage. The tall one I use for storing Paint Brushes after I cut off a half inch. Rolled up Art paper, Toothbrush&Paste Holder, Snowpeak Stove Container, Found item container (Rocks, Bugs, etc.) and the Child proof lids makes a good fish Scaler..and my current favorite use is for. Olive Oil and Apple Cider Vinegar storage. I put the Olive Oil and Vinegar in small nalgene grade bottles and then reinsert them into the Medication bottles, this prevents at lot of problems should the nalgene type bottle leak. If you make biscuits or pan bread on the trail the one short squat half cup bottle makes a perfect Bisucit cutter for pan bread. Wish I could post a picture of the bottles here but we can’t. You might check your parents or grand parents Medicne cabinets but ask permission first…Warning, they do not hold Liquids very well for traveling that is why I put the Olive Oil and Vinegar inside another bottle,,dry matter is the best. I routinely pick wild greens for a salad as I hike that is why I carry the Oil and Vinegar. So can you add to the list? And a sometime ago I posted about a way to secure your Tarp using Cord and a Stick instead of tying directly to the Tarp, anyone tried it yet?

  14. Small pocket pencil sharpener for making tent stakes and firer starter shavings

  15. I like to find the little miniature size plastic liquor bottles as I walk along. Pick them up, rinse them out. Dry and fill w/ skin lotion or Sunscreen. Just great. Perfect size.

  16. lol I find all my light weight titanium equipment on the trail where others loose it

  17. dieterweber964632478

    Great post, thank you! Alway a good idea to check the local store before shopping for expensive outdoor equipment.

    I like to fix a tote bag to my backpack harness for items that I like to have at hand, like map, some snacks, gloves, basket for mushrooms and fruits, etc. That way I don’t have to stop and take off my backpack.

    I use plastic shopping bags to organize my stuff. A bag for food, a bag for clean clothes, a bag for dirty clothes, a bag for hygiene, a bag for garbage, and so on. Keeps stuff dry, clean and organized. That way the shampoo has a harder time to soak my sleeping bag when it leaks…

    Your recommendation to reuse plastic bottles is great, I use them all the time.

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