Equipment Essentials of a Backcountry Professional: Lessons Learned from 25 Years

By Chris Cagle, MTI Contributor

Perfection is achieved,” according to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

The Lesson of “Light and Fast”

On October 16th, 2004, while I chatted aimlessly with a local firefighter in my Yosemite National Park employee housing, a man with a propane torch and a revolver was threatening hikers and starting fires in Tiltill Valley. The park’s Special Response and Tactics team was called up to the Hetch Hetchy area to be deployed to the backcountry trails around the arsonist. I and three other rangers were inserted by helicopter above Tiltill Valley. We were to hike down to one of the trails leading out of the valley, and set up a trail block to make sure the suspect did not escape.

In my new backpack, just for these types of missions, I had packed, well, everything. Sleeping bag, pad, tent, stove, fuel, water, food for two days, and excess clothes “just in case.” Hiking in was easy enough downhill. Once we found the trail and a good location for a trail block, I realized I carried all this for nothing. The fire now filled the valley and if it took a hard fast run at us we were going to need to run for it. No time for tents and sleeping bags and all that nonsense. We all stayed up through the night watching the fire and waiting for the suspect.

Fortunately, down canyon winds kept the fire in the valley. The arsonist was identified as the lead suspect of the murder in southern California of his wife, daughter, and step-daughter. We learned later the next day that he had taken his own life sometime that night.

At sunrise we started our hike out to the helicopter pick up. Overburdened as I was, the hike up was slow going. As I was holding up our progress, others offered to carry stuff for me — how embarrassing. Lesson here is mission first and comfort is relative; light and fast is the way to go.

There is Such a Thing as “Too” Light

Aristotle said “virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” We’ve just discussed my lesson of excess; let’s look at my vice of deficiency.

In the fall of 2006, still in Yosemite, but this time on the south end near Wawona, I was conducting a boundary patrol with another law enforcement ranger. As was common practice then we were wearing green BDU pants, grey tee-shirts, and green ball caps with a gold badge emblazoned on the front. Fearing nothing but poison oak on the cross-country bushwhack we left behind our cumbersome full duty belts and ballistic vests, opting instead for day packs and holstered side arms.

An hour and a half in and over four miles from any roadway, we found ourselves literally up to our eyeballs in the first clandestine outdoor marijuana cultivation site in Yosemite’s history. A few minutes later, though our cover-move tactic was sound, we inevitably found ourselves chasing armed felons through the plantation with nothing but air and opportunity between us and a bullet. Fortunately for us they disappeared into a steep drainage. We found three different calibers of pistol ammunition, two calibers of rifle ammunition, and 12-gauge shotgun shells in their camp.

From that day on I never patrolled the backcountry without a ballistic vest and duty belt with enough gear affect an arrest — handcuffs, and one or two modes of less-than-lethal use of force.

I have two amendments to this principle: (1) if I’m carrying a firearm, I’m also carrying a gunshot wound trauma kit, and (2) train to operate in the backcountry with the extra weight of the vest and belt.

Be Prepared and Active

November of 2016, now working for the US Forest Service, I was short-hauled into yet another illegal cultivation site as part of a team of eight. I was paired up with a grizzled sergeant from the local county Sheriff’s office. He’s a bit surly but an outstanding tracker and woodsman. On the edge of the site, he got onto a track that he estimated was “fresh” — probably used by two suspects fleeing the helicopter recon just three hours ago. Odd enough it was not headed towards the closest roadway as is usual for “escape routes.” We decided to follow the track.

Several hours later we crept quietly into another plot that had not been discovered or reconned by air. It was mostly processed, not occupied, and had a small abandoned camp kitchen. When we radioed in our location and findings, back came the bad news, “no short-haul out; the helicopter starter went bad and needed replacing.” We were stuck.

Given the option of hiking out in the dark over unknown terrain with the possibility of armed suspects hiding nearby, we decided to spend the night. “Sergeant Surly” made up a fire. I rigged a reflective lean-to from an oversized space blanket. We both put on our “snivel gear” (see kit lists), and then shared an MRE I had brought and a can of Spam Sergeant Surly had found in the camp.

The rest of the night we took turns stoking the fire and dozing. Come sunrise we drank instant coffee, split a Cliff bar and started back to the main cultivation site. We were short-hauled out before noon, both tired but grateful to have prepared ahead for an unplanned bivy.

Every Day Carry (EDC)

Every Day Carry. These items are always in my pockets or on my person: 

    • pocket knife (old school Case, three blades)
    • space pen (brass)
    • flashlight (Olight i3T EOS, brass)
    • Zippo lighter (also brass, it was my grandfather’s).
    • Handkerchief
    • Money clip with cards and driver’s license
    • Watch (Garmin 6X Pro)
    • Keys (to gates and such on my district, I have a truck lock fob hidden in my vest so I lock all the extra keys in the vehicle when I walk off into the woods)
    • Mobile phone with base maps of my area of operations downloaded (this is my camera, rooms in some areas, GPS, and evidence notes collection point)
Personal Protection & Duty Gear

In the back country I am using rifle plates in a carrier made by US Palm. The back plate carrier is actually a day pack on shoulder straps. This set up allows me to pack essentials (water and food, weapon cleaning kit, and for HAZMAT: googles, mask, and gloves) in the back carrier and I am able to take it off if needed, like when driving the patrol truck. Here too is a military poncho. There is also a “beaver tail” type flap that allows me to stash a coat if needed or my helmet when not needed. The back carrier is low volume so I can’t over-pack it with stuff I don’t need for a day mission and if needed I can carry a larger ruck on top of it.

The front carrier has spare rifle and pistol magazines, a drag strap, gunshot wound trauma kit, radio comms, some admin items (pen, pencil, small notebook, maps, compass), flashlight, 

My duty belt is an Endom “CM” belt with suspenders to help with the weight. Besides the obvious — gun (on a lanyard), and spare magazines, this is where I mount a big knife, a dump pouch, and a Leather MUT multi-tool. The “big knife” is a “Warrior Spirit” by Chase Axin in a custom sheath by Sagewood Gear. There is a magnesium ferro rod and a metal tin of tinder-quick integrated into the sheath.

Possibles Kit

I stole this great idea from Patrick Smith whose essay I first read back in the 90s. As Patrick described in his essay, the idea is to have ready at hand everything needed to operate efficiently and safely in austere environments. The mountain men of the early 1800s  American west called this a “possibles pouch.” This kit is the basic set of tools I may need on the trail plus a minimal survival kit. As Patrick wrote, it is a kit of “items that save my bacon, or just ensure comfort, wherever I roam.”

The container is an Endom “Recon Waist Pack.” Yes, it is a fanny pack. But this thing is great. It attaches to plate carries with MOLLE or PALS webbing, inside larger packs with siamese silk clips, or directly on your waist with the extra-long removable waist belt.

What’s inside:

    • Fire kit — A small ferro rod and striker, UCO stormproof matches in an EXOTAC Matchcap XL case, homemade tinder-quick, and a Bic lighter in an EXOTAC “fire SLEEVE”
    • Water — heavy duty zip close bags (to collect and carry) and “PortableAqua” iodine and taste neutralizer tablets; in the winter I add a metal cup; tea bags, instant coffee and “Nuun” tabs are a welcome edition
    • Light — A Petzl “e+LITE” with a continuous red or white strobe feature (there’s even a whistle built into the head strap), and spare batteries for that, the light on my vest and the light in my pocket
    • First Aid & Meds — large bandana in bright orange or yellow (doubles as a signal flag), finger nail clippers, superglue, Leatherman Micra (scissors & tweezers), assorted Bandaids and butterfly closures, toilet paper in a zip close bag, dental floss, needles (sew a wound or clothes with the dental floss, pick out splinters, drain a blister), small roll of surgical tape, duct tape, sample packs of Benadryl, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and packages of “BC Powder”
    • Other Stuff — clip on the nose reading glasses, button compass, rubber bands (big thick ones like those used to bind broccoli), 3mm cordage (strong enough for building or repair, less bulk than P-cord), P-cord measured as back up boot laces, “SOL Emergency Blanket XL” (orange on one side, reflective silver on the other), snivel gear (gloves, beanie, in the Fall to Spring I add synthetic long top and bottoms and a Patagonia “Puff Ball” jacket with hood), small signal mirror, orange flagging tape, safety pins, paperclips, light weight knife sharpener (“Workshop EDC Pivot PLUS”), and a plastic spork

That’s it. Everything I carry on every operation. Sustainment gear for longer operations — muti-day excursions into the backcountry — require all the usual gear from tents and sleeping systems, to cookstoves and bear canisters. As these days there is more to choose from than ever and technology is ever advancing, that’s a discussion for another article.

A few parting caveats. This list has been built over a 20-year career. Most of that career has been in the Sierra Mountains of California. I have also worked Denali in Alaska, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, and Everglades in Florida, so I can say by experience this list would need modification depending on your area of operations. I have added and subtracted things over the years when I either had it and constantly didn’t need it or needed it and well, didn’t have it, and I suggest you do the same. Remember, travel light and fast, be prepared and active, mission first.

Chris lives in the central valley of California and has more than 20 years of experience as a law enforcement officer with the National Park Service and the US Forest Service.


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