5 Unexpected Things That You’ll Always Find in a Mountain Guide’s Backpack

What does mountain guide Charlotte Austin keep in her pack? Baling wire, some important information, and a home remedy for nausea.

Photo: Christopher Burns

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We’ve all heard of the ten essentials, but in more than a decade of working as a mountain guide, I’ve learned that the things that save a trip aren’t always what you’d expect. From conveniences to mission-essential repair kits, there are a few unexpected things stashed alongside our compasses and emergency bivies. Here are five of my favorites.

Repair Kit. This is hugely important, particularly on multi-day trips: if your gear quits, you’re in big trouble. I start with a core set of supplies, including a needle and thread, duct tape, a small tube of zipper lubricant (although lip balm can be used in a pinch), Tenacious Tape and other fabric patches, zip ties, parachute cord, replacement pieces for plastic waist belt buckles, safety pins, and a small multitool. If I’m in the alpine, I’ll add ski straps, tools to repair crampons and ski bindings–including baling wire, replacements for any small parts that might break, and a more robust multi-tool. For longer trips, I’ll beef up the kit and add replacement stove parts, more parachute cord, and fishing line. The whole kit goes into a ziplock bag, then is stored in a stuff sack to protect against wear and tear. It’s usually under a pound, and has saved my bacon more times than I can count. 

A laminated card with important information. When I’m guiding, I keep a laminated index card with me, so I can easily access important information like phone numbers, emergency contacts, radio channels, and any other special information that might be relevant for the trip, like how to get in touch with local authorities or how to call a doctor. It’s easy to make and get laminated, and so, so useful to have in the most accessible pocket of your backpack. 

Ginger. Nausea is surprisingly common on backcountry trips. This is especially true at altitude, where many people experience an upset stomach as a side effect of acute mountain sickness, but motion sickness on winding back roads, funky or unfamiliar food or water, exertion in the heat, and even the smell of an unmaintained outhouse can make people queasy too. To ease the symptoms, I carry ginger chews to suck on and a powdered ginger drink mix that can be made with hot or cold water. It’s incredible how useful they can be.

Disposable plastic pill pouches. I’m doing everything I can to move away from single-use plastics, but this is one of the few hold-outs that I find really, really useful. These tiny little ziplock bags are cheap ($7 for 100 on Amazon), and I use them for pills of all kinds — ibuprofen, altitude meds, Dramamine, Benadryl, et cetera. On longer expeditions, especially in places where I might not have access to fresh food, I’ll also pre-make myself a pack of vitamins to take every day, including a multivitamin, fish oil, a probiotic, and spirulina. Before I left for Everest, I made 75 vitamin pouches, and enjoyed watching my stash slowly dwindle. 

Whole food. Protein bars, powdered drink mixes, and energy gels all have their place — but the more time I’ve spent in the field, the more I realize how much better my body performs when I eat whole, unprocessed foods. They don’t need to be fancy, and often they’re not much heavier than the high-tech stuff. I carry cold pizza, tortilla wraps with cheese and hummus, string cheese, even cold pasta in an airtight container. When I’m on a multi-day expedition, I’ll bring one of those salad-in-a-bag kits from the grocery store to eat for the first night’s dinner — if you pop the bag to let out the extra air, you can save on space, too.