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The Ditty Bag: Not Just for Sailors Anymore

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A backpacker’s skill is not judged by what they know to pack; rather, it’s what they know to not pack that sets them apart. I’ve known Appalachian Trail hikers who did the whole thing with 25 pound packs. Then there’s the apocryphal (I would think) stories of hard core backpackers cutting out their clothing labels. But there are certain amenities – whether you’re in the wilderness or just out for the day – that are worth the weight.

The top of my pack contains a permanent fixture full of these amenities, and weighs in at just 16 ounces: my ditty bag. The term ditty bag comes from a sailor’s pouch with needles and thread as well as other personal items of handymandom. I figure whatever a sailor can do with a needle and thread, I can do with parachute cord and duct tape.

I’ve unpacked my ditty bag for all the world to see, and here are its contents:

  • Swiss army knife
  • pencil with duct tape wrapped around it
  • piece of paper
  • Sting Stop (for wasp and bee stings)
  • epinephrine shot for allergic reactions
  • headlamp
  • ibuprofen and vitamin C
  • sunscreen
  • lighter
  • lip balm
  • compass
  • antibiotic
  • band-aids
  • toilet paper
  • parachute cord
  • Dr. Bronner’s soap
  • The Keeper menstrual cup (or tampons)

There are a number of items I bring when backpacking, but don’t usually go into the ditty bag. They include a toothbrush and toothpaste, utensils and so on. There are a few items that are ditty bag worthy, but I tend to keep them – or their equivalent, and often larger, item – elsewhere in the pack. They include:

  • whistle
  • emergency poncho
  • other firestarter source
  • iodine pills for purifying water
  • powdered Gatorade

A starter list like this one will get you going until years of experience help you determine what’s worth the weight to you.

Next issue: How to be the life of the campfire.