As an American, I must confess a certain weakness for kitchen gadgets. I love ice cream makes, Foreman grills and fruit juicers, but as with most people, there comes a point when the gadgetry just starts to seem silly. For me that point has always been the garlic peeler. Maybe it’s just that I don’t peel enough garlic, but I’ve never found the few cloves I need required enough time and effort to justify a separate device. In all fairness there are more useless gadgets, since at least the garlic peeler works well. Its cousin, the garlic press, is far more evil in that not only is it unnecessary, but it actually makes your garlic taste worse.
But enough about garlic, the point is that in the United States, and to a lesser extent the rest of the developed world, we have special tools for everything: peeling garlic, ironing pants, trimming nose hair, etc. This has resulted in a shocking stifling of our creativity (unless you’re an inventor) as well as an even more shocking accumulation of junk. This makes backpacking or biking across significant distances seem downright heroic since a backpack’s capacity is far less than that of even one kitchen cupboard.
As much as I like thinking off my travels as heroic, the truth is far less grandiose. I don’t suffer from severe self-deprivation, rather I have learned to relish in the art of improvisation. Not only does this save me space, but it provides me with a great source of comfort as every day a get a little closer to being like Bear Grills, able to survive with only a knife and a piece of flint. As the US Army Survival Manual even says, “Our easy come, easy go, easy-to-replace culture makes it unnecessary for us to improvise. This inexperience in improvisation can be an enemy in a survival situation. Learn to improvise.”
Ok, sounds great, but rather than traveling for 10 years and figuring it out as you go I thought I’d share some of my own ideas in the hopes of saving you a few pounds on your next trip. The first and most important idea is to try and use everything you have for more than one purpose, especially things that seem extra useless. For example, the sack my sleeping bag comes in, it seems like it’s pretty much good for only holding my sleeping bag, but at night I stuff it with my jacket and scarf and it turns into a pretty mean pillow. Another great one, not thought of by me sadly, was to use my bike lock to hang my hammock. It’s stronger than a rope and I’d always regretted having to carry the extra weight. To hang the other end I ended up using a cloth belt I had, no rope required!
Here's the bike lock in action.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s great to have items that easily lend themselves to multiple purposes. Want a free, extremely useful item? Just grab a plastic bag. You can carry stuff in them yes, but they are also great for protection from water. I used a garbage bag to protect my guitar all the way across Spain. They also can be out to be used to tie things together, collect water in survival situations, and pick up after your dog. Other items that are amazing for multiple purpose use include: rope (handles, hanging things), duct tape (blister protection, bandage), knife (too many to list), olive oil (eating, dry skin treatment, chaffing prevention, massages, even bathing!). Ok I could go on all day, but I think the point is clear.
I can cook with nearly anything, but empty cans and foil are my favorites.
Finally, just to be clear, even if you’re not busy traveling around with just a backpack, improvisation can be handy in regular life too. I’ve used tooth paste to repair holes in the wall and shoe polish to repair a rental car, but enough about me. I want to hear your improvisation stories so be sure to post them to the comment section below.
The end result of my foil oven. The presentation could be better, but the taste was great.