8 Tips for Desert Backpacking Essentials

Ultralight Face Cleaner
Keeping your face clean when the trail is hot and dusty is no easy task. But no need to spend a lot money on some fancy cleaning system. Buy a package of 50 to 100 stacked cotton rounds for a buck from a dollar store or local drugstore. Buy a bottle of Clean & Clear Deep Cleansing Astringent or something similar (look for an cleaning astringent with 2% salicylic acid for the best cleaning and no residue). Put 40 or so stacked pads in a jar, add astringent to saturate (but not too much). Press down so the pads absorb the cleanser. Figure you will need two of these per day. and place in a plastic storage bag.

Mummy Liner
At average scant 4.7 ounces, silk sleeping bag liners add little weight but longevity and a clean factor to your bag by helping keep your bag’s lining and its insulation free of sweat and body oils, and the trail dust you drag in. Silk liners do add 5 to 10 degrees to the bag’s warmth rating, but you can also just sleep in the liner on top of your bag if you get too hot. Silk offers the lightest weight but you can also step up to Egyptian cotton for a few ounces more if you want an even more absorbent liner. $25 to $60.

Vargo Titanium Water Bottle
OK. This is the ultimate splurge for a hiking or backpacking trip, but if you’re wisely weight conscious it’s worth it, especially if you’re not keen on drinking all of your water from a tube, or need a bottle for filling a gravity filter bag or your hydration bladder. The 22-oz bottle’s all-titanium construction, in both container and lid provides boulder-proof strength and durability. The titanium lid, has a sturdy, foldaway carry loop so you can attach it to your pack with a carabineer. Precise threading combined with a silicon O-ring provide easy lid removal or secure closure. Titanium construction also ensures completely biocompatibility with any kind of liquid, and no leaching chemicals. Cleaning is also a snap. But the best reason to carry this over a heavier plastic bottle is the weight: a mere 3.9 ounces (111 grams). $85.

Shower in a Spray Bottle
Mix this at home before you hit the trail, then just spray and wipe off with a PackTowel™ or some wipes, as needed. Combine 8 ounces of witch hazel, ¼ teaspoon each of tea tree, peppermint and basil essential oils, 2 vitamin E gel caps (pierced and squeezed in bottle), ½ tsp. of grapefruit seed in a bottle. Shake well, and then add half of it to a 4-ounce bottle with a sprayer cap (buy in the travel section of your local outdoor, grocer or department store). You can also use it to clean your hands before cooking or eating, or as an underarm or foot deodorant. It doesn’t just mask odors but actually kills the bacteria that cause them. Once you wipe away the spray, the fragrance dissipates along with any residue.

Sawyer Mini Water Filter
Small and ultralight, the Sawyer MINI Water Filter fits in your palm and weighs only 2 ounces. Unlike other filtering systems, there’s no battery or expensive filter replacement to stress over. Rated to 0.1 micron absolute, the Sawyer Mini filters up to an astounding 100,000 gallons and is 30 times more effective than similar systems at removing bacteria (99.99999% of all bacteria, including salmonella, cholera and E.coli), and all protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidium (99.9999%). Just attach it inline to your hydration pack or to the included 16-ounce collapsible drinking pouch to create a gravity filter. You can also use the included drinking straw to drink directly from a water source.

And unlike similar systems, backwashing restores up to 98.5% of the filter’s flow rate. That minute 1.5 percent loss in flow rate was, by the way, negligible, if not even noticeable during our testing efforts. The pouch isn’t the easiest thing to fill, and like most of these types of systems, requires a level of patience while the water filters, but its versatility (ability to use the straw or as a gravity filter, for backcountry or overseas travel) moves it to the head of the class.

Ultralight Tooth Cleaning
Forget your regular toothbrush and toothpaste. Bring some floss—removed from its plastic dispenser, then precut lengths and place in a plastic bag. Buy a pack of ultralight Colgate Wisp Mini-Brushes. They’re pre-treated with toothpaste. Or if you’re sensitive to fluoride or sodium lauryl sulfate in toothpaste, rinse each brush thoroughly. Add an ounce or two of Eco-Dent toothpowder to a small plastic bag. Or consider using Miradent Xylitol Green Tea Chewing Gum and floss as your main dental care for your desert backcountry trip. Besides being an ultra light way to go, this system is environmentally friendly, eliminating toothpaste chemicals from, being spit out on the ground.

When Nature Calls
Forget the metal or plastic cat hole spade for digging waste depositories in the rocky desert. A lightweight metal soupspoon will do the job for half the weight. Use baby wipes stored in small plastic bags that can later be used for carryout disposal of the wipes).

Undies and Socks
Pack along several thin Kotex or Always pantiliners to save yourself the weight of extra underwear. For socks, bring a couple pairs of extremely lightweight liner socks so you don’t have to carry a bunch of extra hiker-weight socks. Wear one pair of hiker crews with a liner for a day, then switch out the liners. Rinse the liner pair you were wearing and hang on your pack to dry for the next cycle. Doing this, you can get away with two pairs of wool crew hikers and two pairs of superlight polypro liner socks on a 5-day trip.


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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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