8 MacGyverable Items You Already Have in Your Backpack

After an urgent, gut wrenching fumble for my Swiss army knife, cleverly placed into a side stash pocket of my backpack, I wobbled towards an empty 2-liter bottle on the floor of my hostel room, did a circular cut around the top, sat down on my bed, and emptied the contents of my stomach into the bottle.

Over the next several hours, there on Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, I would come to praise that invented emesis basin and cheer myself for my ingenuity. I did not fall down the stairs and pass out, nor did I create cleaning chaos for the ladies that sweep out the room every day. It was vile to hold a thin polyethylene bottle in my hands and feel the warmth of my own vomit, but it was tidy, oh so tidy!

I felt like a poor-man’s version of MacGyver, that gadgetry wizard of late 80’s TV fame. And it got me to thinking of what other MacGyverable items are found among the average backpacker’s gear.

What follows is a list, with suggestions for how to make each one of these frequently-found backpacker items worth their weight in your pack.

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Multi-tool

Swiss Army Knife

The classic multi-tool like a Swiss-army knife or Leatherman has morphed into what looks like a million and one new versions, with flashlights, fish scalers, can openers, screw drivers, and even pretty patterns on the outside. They’re a classic backpacker accessory, and hopefully you won’t overlook their usefulness while you’re out and about.

In addition to creating wide-mouth receptacles (see above), cutting food, and opening corked bottles of wine (as boxes usually come with a handy screw-top), the side of the (metal) knife can be used as a hammer. In a pinch, it can also be bartered for something amazing like that ultrathick alpaca blanket that you’re dying to have but you just haven’t got the cash for.

You can buy a cheap imitation on the street for a few dollars, but these are largely disposable, and may work for sandwich cutting, but probably won’t get you very far after that.

Scissors

Scissors

A small pair of scissors (maybe not as small as the ones on your Swiss-Army knife, something with a blade about two inches long) can provide hours of entertainment making decorations for your tent or dorm room, and also serve some more practical purposes. They’re great for picking a (hopefully your own) lock. Just stick one scissor blade into the key slot and turn, many cheap locks will pop open.

Scissors are also handy for those aseptic (tetra pak) milk containers, and assorted packets of things like mustard and sour cream. They are a possible stand-in for getting a local haircut, though this depends heavily on the skill of your travel mates as well as the amount of trust you put in them and/or yourself.

Scissors will also help you transform your wardrobe, and are great for t-shirt or other (clothing-related) surgery you may need to perform.

Reusable water bottle

One Good / Two Bad

All around the world, foreigners are mucking up the environment with throwaway plastic bottles and their cheap, peeling labels. When possible, say no to bottled water, and use your reusable (hopefully washable) plastic, or better yet, metal bottle to cart your precious elixir with you.

Use a reusable bottle to minimize your waste footprint on the road where potable water is available. True caffeine addicts can also pop some emergency cold coffee or tea into the bottle for while you’re out camping, as suggested in the strategies for getting caffeine on the road.

You can think of your bottle as a controlled temperature delivery service. Filled with cold water, it can make an emergency cold compress, and filled with hot water, you can tuck it into your sleeping bag like a hot-water bottle.

And true caffeine addicts get bonus points for putting a teabag inside and drinking the tea while still in “bed” the next morning.

Water bottles also make a good doorstop, counterweight, or storage solution, depending on your needs.

Plastic bags

Plastic bags

Plastic bags are the bane of every traveler. As soon as we figure out how to avoid getting them in one country, we’re off to another, where the smiling woman at the market assures us, “it’s free,” as though we didn’t want a bag because you were afraid we’d get charged for it.

On the road (and at home), we try to avoid plastic bags as much as possible, but still they accumulate in our backpacks and under the kitchen sink. Reusing them is easy; balled up, they make a perfect drain stop, twisted, they can be used to replace broken bag straps as a stopgap technique. You can even use them as an “alarm system” for when there’s no locker, surely that darn crinkling will wake you up if anyone thinks of taking your possessions.

Crafty travelers who’ve brought their own giant crochet hook (which can also be multi-purposed for poking suspicious objects or fishing possessions out of mystery puddles) can even wow the locals with your bag made of bags, like the one pictured here.

Zip-Lock bags

Zip locks

Plastic Zip-Locks are perhaps a traveler’s best friend, as they can be used for a wide variety of reasons. If you are around water, you can put your valuables in them to keep them dry. If you have some leftover food, keep it fresh in a Zip-Lock. Separating your clean and dirty laundry is always important on the road, and plastic baggies can keep the dirt and stench away from your clean clothes.

You can use them as organizational tools. Put your socks in one. Underwear in another. Shirts in another. Use them to separate gadgets and keep chargers safe. Put your toiletries in them. Use them to keep anything that might spill or otherwise create a mess in your pack safe. Some use zip-locks in place of packing cubes as they essentially do the same things for a fraction of the price.

If you’re really in a bind, you can even use a combination of zip-locks and newspaper in place of socks to keep you feet warm and dry like the guy in the picture above.

Rope

Rope

One simple accoutrement that the real MacGyver would never be without is some decent rope. Sure, he’d probably use it to save a burning village or single-handedly prevent a boat from being swept out to sea, but a good length of rope can be helpful even for those of us who don’t have closeted superhero tendencies.

A few meters of small-bore nylon-core rope can serve travelers as a laundry line, delighting the locals with our amazing aplomb at hanging our unmentionables out to dry just any old place. It also works to hang up your newly-purchased hammock (trees purchased separately).

Rope can be used for emergency bag repair, or as a weak theft-prevention measure. Many a traveler has had to create a new zipper pull, tent stake line or even (sadly) a belt out of a length of rope. The truly creative may find that that same rope is a great broken bootlace solution when no real laces can be found. Melt the ends with a flame to prevent them from unravelling.

Tape

Duct tape

Ah tape. Masking, scotch, adhesive, surgical, electrical, teflon, and probably the most popular traveler tape – duct. There are so many varieties of tape, and any one of them can be used to tape your falling-apart guidebook back together. Tape can be a lifesaver on the hiking trail, wrapped around your feet where blisters are likely to form (for this, surgical tape is your best bet, though improvisations have been successfully made).

You use tape to fix your glasses, hold your watch on your wrist, support a weak ankle, hold on a tearing fingernail, to hold gauze to a wound, patch leaky plastic bottles, hold stuff together, close holes in a screen window, hold a bus or room curtain shut, seal an envelope, or label your food in the hostel fridge. You can get really creative with tape and even make an iPod case out of it.

Scarf/pareo/sarong

Sarong

The broad piece of fabric that you barter for on a beach somewhere, thinking of how nice it would be to have something to sit on at the beach that wasn’t your one towel, has purposes beyond purposes to serve for the backpacker. Sure, there are all the great beach uses, such as: a place to sit, a portable changing hut, a skirt/dress, a way to cover your shoulders from the sun, a cleverly tied hat.

But the sarong doesn’t stop on the beach. It’s a particle mask on a dusty road with wide-open windows, a curtain in a room that comes without, emergency clothing for when everything else is dirty, a place to rest your weary head when pillows are absent or of dubious cleanliness. A sarong can replace a bedsheet, or establish your personal space at an outdoor concert. Should injuries occur, you can use a sarong as a brace, wrap or sling. Unexpected baby in the mix? People the world over have been strapping babies to their backs with nothing more than a length of cloth for centuries.

If you buy more at the market than you know what to do with, gather the ends and make yourself an impromptu bag (stick optional). And when you get home, your (well-washed) sarong can make a great gift, if you find yourself able to part with it.

So readers: What’s the most MacGyverable thing in your backpack, and how did you end up using it?

Read more about travel gear:

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Read more about author Eileen Smith and check out her other BootsnAll articles

Photo credits: Swiss knife by Leon Fishman, Scissors by Cormac Heron, Plastic bottle by cogdogblog, Plastic bags by Aine D, Zip-Locks by eurleif, Rope by bearshapedsphere on Flickr, Tape by indigotimbre, Sarong by swimparallel

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Leave a Comment

Older comments on 8 MacGyverable Items You Already Have in Your Backpack

Cristina Dima-772
10 September 2009

I use my cell for : watch, checking emails, weather information, camera, GPS, light :)

Chris Heidrich
10 September 2009

What about dental floss? A million uses on the road.

Ian Rose
10 September 2009

I grew up as a Swiss Army knife kid, thanks to my dad’s love of them. But these days, give me a Leatherman any day – that’s a tool that has gotten me out of some jams.

Bystander
10 September 2009

Paper clips in various sizes. They hold the two toggles of a zip closure together to annoy pickpockets, keep two sections of a curtain together to keep out that beam of light, act as emergency hooks and make pretty chains to cure boredom. If you have a tatoo they can also be fashioned into impromptu jewelry.

Ryukyu Mike
11 September 2009

Baby Wipes; not just for babies, make great emergency waterless showers, too.
I carry the real deal: Plastic coated clothesline. It’s lighter than nylon, cheaper and strong.
Great article. Looking forward to seeing more.

crazyspingirl
11 September 2009

Great article and I agree with Chris about the dental floss. How about toothpicks?

Zach Mayes
12 September 2009

Its a bit cliché, but a frisbee. Great way to pass idle time, plus its a handy plate/shallow bowl.

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17 September 2009

Good one.

Kiwitravelwriter
17 September 2009

I’ve used many of these too .. silk sleeping bag liner .. not as tool but as a scarf in a snowy New York, and a wrap around skirt in Asia

VagabondQuest
03 March 2010

You already mentioned my favourite things:
A sarung and a scarf for beach skirts, sleeping wear, to sit on, to wrap body against cold.
Shoe strings for tying up needs here and there and clothes line (very light and compact)
Card-knife pocket – even more compact than regular army knife pocket. It fits in my wallet.

ZeutstarZ
09 March 2010

SAFETY PINS– stronger than paper clips, with added cutting/engraving/clothes-salvaging/stuff-connecting/poking/defensive attributes too!

Dodie Price
03 December 2010

On the inside of my pack/suitcase whatever I always attach a large safety pin. On it are several smaller safety pins and a few rubber bands.
I take a small tube of Bengay. Heavenly on the feet at the end of the day, good for aches and pains, and if necessary, put on chest if you have a cold.