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Multipurpose Gear: Rethink Your Backpacking Basics

Being able to find multiple purposes for single pieces of gear can be a helpful skill to have in the backcountry. And many of the things you already bring on your trips can probably be used for a couple of different things.

When it comes to backpacking, the weight of your pack can make a big difference. If you pack a lot of stuff, you’ll probably be more comfortable at camp, but hiking will be slower and less comfortable. If you pack less, you’ll miss out on some luxuries, but you’ll be able to hike faster and more comfortably. 

In other words, being able to find multiple purposes for single pieces of gear can be a helpful skill to have in the backcountry. And many of the things you already bring on your trips can probably be used for a couple of different things, not just their "intended" use. Here are some ideas to get you started thinking about how to make the most of your gear.

Bear Canisters

A bear canister can make a great stool, especially if you’re around a campfire. If you need back support, find a good tree or boulder you can set your canister next to. You can sit on the canister either upright or with it on its side. (If you sit on the canister upright, and it has a screw on lid, close the lid entirely first, so you don't damage the threads.) A bear canister, set upright, can also be a small table for a game of cards at camp.

Hiker sitting on a sideways bear canister in the North Cascades. Photo by Tiffany Chou.Sitting on a bear canister can be more comfortable than just sitting on the ground, especially after a long hike. Photo by Tiffany Chou.

Foam sleeping pads

Another alternative to sitting directly on the ground is to sit on your foam (not inflatable) sleeping pad, which can be especially great when the ground is rocky or rough since your foam pad won't pop. Many hikers pack their foam sleeping pads on the outside of their packs, so they're often easy to grab out without unpacking everything during a break. Lay half of it against a tree and you've got a nature chair with a back.

Waxed floss

Need to fix something? Waxed floss works great as a waterproof, sturdy thread for sewing up clothing or tent material that needs to be repaired on the trail. As a bonus, waxed floss is usually easier to thread into a needle than regular thread. 

resealable snack bags

Instead of tossing resealable bags that are used to hold packaged snacks, save them, especially nontransparent ones. They’re generally pretty durable, and nontransparent ones are great as garbage bags on your current or future backpacking trip, especially as garbage bags specifically to pack out your used toilet paper

Hiking Poles

If you're using poles on your trip and you encounter rain, heavy mist or condensation on your hike, they can be helpful in drying things when the sun finally appears. Prop your poles into the ground to hold your rain fly, tent, rain coat, rain pants or anything else that needs to be dried out up above the ground and allow airflow underneath to speed up the process.

A rain fly drying on a pair of hiking poles, with a tent being dried after being set up under the sun. Photo by Tiffany Chou.One way to dry out your tent is to set it up (right), but you can also dry parts of it, like the rain fly specifically, by propping up your hiking poles (left). Photo by Tiffany Chou.

Rain gear

Raincoats and rain pants can protect you from more than just rain. Rain gear is impervious to mosquitoes and biting flies, and can protect you from stinging nettle or poison ivy/oak. Although rain gear will keep you hot  and if this becomes an issue, then take measures to cool yourself down  it might be worth it to avoid getting attacked by bugs or suffering through rashes from plants.

Keep in mind that if you do use rain gear to prevent directly touching irritating plants, they can leave oils on your clothes that continue to irritate your skin afterward. 

Dry bag/stuff sack

Your gear can even be repurposed while sleeping. A dry bag or stuff sack (your sleeping bag's stuff sack is a great option) filled with clothing you aren’t wearing makes for a great pillow.


If you like your feet elevated while sleeping after a long hike, use your backpack, filled with all your unused gear, under your feet. This also allows you to keep your backpack in your tent if it isn’t large enough to place your pack next to you.