What’s in your backpack? Ten…Eleven Essential and No Machete

“There is no harm in hoping for the best as long as you are prepared for the worst.” Stephen King.

May 2021: Harpers Ferry Hike

It’s been a year since Arizona Eagle, our son, was in Ohio.  He flew back for a two-week break between semesters using a soon-to-expire Southwest Airline ticket (Southwest had allowed a one-year extension for the ticket due to COVID).  The winter season had brought another round of COVID infections that increased the number of hospitalizations and deaths.  When May finally came with its sunshine and flowers, it felt different to me. The world felt hopeful and we (universal we) would get through this.  Spring was a good reason to celebrate and we decided on a family vacation.  I suggested Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: the mecca for the Appalachian Trail, for history (Ohioan, Abolitionist John Brown’s raid of the Federal Armory), and for baked goods (Bolivar Bakery).  

Back in May 2021, we didn’t have an actual start date for our flip-flop.  Our flip-flop was a vague adventure to happen somewhere in the future.  I wanted to see the Appalachian Trail Conservatory Headquarters; watch AT thru hikers posing for their celebratory halfway photo; talk to volunteers at the conservatory, and place my hiking boots on the trail for this future dream.

The first day in Harpers Ferry, we planned a day hike in Virginia.  The three of us slung on our daypacks filled with “The 10 Essentials for Hiking” (The American Hiking Society and The Mountaineers recommend ten pieces of equipment for hikers.  These items have been identified as “lifesavers” in an emergency).  The three of us have used the “Essentials” as a foundation for building out our gear for either a day hike or an extended backpacking adventure.  That day we ate my go-to lunch menu: Curried Chicken Salad served on Triscuits, Girl Scout Cookies, and apples.    

Malchus Stafa, B. Yellow field. Harpers Ferry May 2021. Author’s private collection

It was a beautiful day to hike, though slightly muddy from the thunderstorm that moved through the previous night.  The rain perked up the sweet-herb fragrance of the showy, white and pink rhododendron flowers attracting my nose and a multitude of pollinators.  Looking down at the trail, my initial conclusion was that there have been a large number of hikers this morning.  There were many holes the size of trekking poles in the dirt.  But, this seemed odd because it was too early for the March northbound crowds from Springer to reach Harpers Ferry.  That morning we had only seen about five hikers.  Careful observation of the holes told another story.  Cicadas were emerging from the holes in the soil.  I picked up several off the trail and placed them onto a plant so it could dry out their wings and not be crushed under a hiker’s foot.  As the noontime temperatures increased the volume of the cicada mating calls grew louder sounding like lawn mowers descending into the forest.

Malchus Stafa, B. Cicada on the AT near Harpers Ferry, May 2021. Author’s private collection.

We stopped at a spot overlooking the valley for lunch.  It was one of those picturesque scenes, birds calling or maybe yelling over the cicadas, butterflies gathering nectar from violets and May Apples, the yellow fields and the trees painted different shades of green… the kind of scene that could inspire Copeland to compose Appalachian Spring… and we could hear a hiker approaching, loudly marching down the path towards us dressed in khakis, camo t-shirt, and a backpack.  His pace was steady like ones who are putting in major miles (21 to 30) versus our eight mile day hike.  We said a hiker “hi” to the man that included a wave.  He looked over at us, eyes squinted sizing us up: friend or foe?  He said nothing, but marched forward down the path.  As he passed, I realized there was a ten-inch knife attached to his belt and a machete attached to his backpack.  To me, he gave off a prickly feeling, and the knives he was carrying only reinforced this feeling.  We ate in silence until this hiker moved out of earshot.  

“So Mom, what kind of knife are you and dad bringing on the AT?” Arizona Eagle asked. 

“One that cuts fruits and vegetables.”  I held up my four-inch knife I was using to cut our apples.  

“Not a machete?”  

He was trying to yank my chain and I refused to submit.  “We will not need that kind of knife power.  We aren’t packing fresh cabbage heads or butternut squash on that trip.”

Mr. Rook said between bites of his chicken salad on a Trisket, “No one needs to bring a machete on the AT.  The trail is well maintained by volunteers.”

Arizona Eagle nodded before adding, “They don’t let you bring them to Philmont either.” (Philmont Boy Scout Camp, NM)

 “Maybe he got his trails confused,” I said, and handed both our son and Mr. Rook slices of apple.  “I read on a blog that on the Colorado Trail, hikers sometimes need a machete to get through parts.”  Since deciding on our future Appalachian Trail Adventure, I had gone down the rabbit hole and binged hours on Appalachian Trail vlogs and blogs becoming prepared for this AT journey.

Arizona Eagle then added, “Or maybe he is carrying it as his defense against a bear –” 

Mr. Rook interrupted, “My personal opinion, if you are that close to a bear, a machete will not help you.”    

“He succumbed to the spooky stories of murder and disappearance on the trail…or maybe he is preparing for the worst.”  I then retold my spooky AT story when I was eight months pregnant in the Fall of 1998.  Mr. Rook and I were hiking in the Smokies.  He summited a peak while I rested at the base.  A man came bounding down the trail.  The way he looked at me and his vibe put my instincts on alert.  I clutched my whistle, and thought about doing the moves I learned from women’s self-defense class – pregnant?  The man looked familiar, but I could place him.  In 2003, I was again reminded of that man I saw alone in the woods when Eric Robert Rudolph, accused serial bomber, was arrested in the Smokies.  However, my experience that day did not drive me to carry any type of weapon in the woods.  As a violence prevention expert, I knew weapons give a false security. Victims often experience violence from the weapon they are using to protect themselves.  

Perhaps we were quick to judge this hiker based on his prickly appearance, the way he looked at us, and his lack of a “hello” back.  No, we didn’t know his backstory. It was easy on our part to reduce him to “that guy with the machete,” because a machete isn’t on “The Hiker 10 Essential List,” the Appalachian Trail Conservatory’s backpacking list, or Trek’s AT thru-hiker list either.  

Our conversation then turned to what made people feel they need this type of knife protection on the AT. COVID times showed more people had their hackles up ready to hiss at you.  People seemed less likely to smile and looked at you with distrust if you smiled at them.  Yet, we knew most hikers seem to create a community of belonging and sharing compassion and caring on the trail.  We kept coming back to how does one connect with people who are different from you?  How do you keep curious? Listen? Understand? And Connect? Perhaps there is a missing essential from the ten point list: Kindness and Empathy — these are also needed during an emergency.

Million Dollar Question: How do you bring these belonging, sharing, and empathy elements back home off the trail to our home communities?  We didn’t have the answers.  


Malchus Stafa, B. Potomac River, Harper’s Ferry May 2021. Author’s personal collection

Count on Me

Lyrics and song by Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, and Ari Leving (2011)

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea

I’ll sail the world to find you

If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see

I’ll be the light to guide you

Read the entire lyrics Bruno Mars – Count on Me Lyrics | Genius Lyrics.   See the official video: https://youtu.be/6k8cpUkKK4c


Hikers Essential 10 List or maybe 11?  Foundation categories for what is in our backpacks

It has been our experience in hiking across the US that some of the parks provide an Essential Item List.  The lists are mostly the same with some variation: the Grand Canyon is different from Baxter State Park in Maine.  Before Mr. Rook and I step off onto the trail, we go to the trail website to review the trail map, and if they have a “10 Essential List” to compare it to our own.  As I stated before, the “10” or our edited 11 Essentials have been the foundational gear to build our backpacks based on the hike.  These are the cornerstone for what we will be bringing in our AT backpack.  

What we wear for summer hiking

Malchus Stafa, B. “Summer Hiking Wear” Very Nice. Feb 2023. Author’s private collection

Hat (SUN PROTECTION), quick dry t-shirt, sun button down shirt, shorts, hiking socks, trail runners, hiking sticks

What is in our backpack for an all day hike

Malchus Stafa, Beth. What’s in our backpack? 10…11 Essentials. Feb. 2023 Author’s personal collection.

  1. NAVIGATION: Compass, Map, Cell navigation app: Far Out, Garmin Mini 2
  2. SUN PROTECTION: Sun Screen
  3. INSULATION: Rain jacket, Rain pants
  4. ILLUMINATION: Headlamp
  5. FIRST AID KIT & Whistle and bug spray… yes ours is big.  Over the thirty years, I’ve had to help seven hikers with major injuries:  1 hiker fell from a 3 story high cliff, 1 hiker with a broken wrist, 1 hiker heat exhaustion (didn’t bring enough water in the Grand Canyon) and 3 hikers stepped on ground nesting bees. On all four occasions the Girl Scout, Dessert Queen, was the only hiker with a first aid kit.
  6. FIRE: Lighter and cotton balls soaked with petroleum
  7. REPAIR KIT: Swiss Knife, duct tape, cord
  8. NUTRITION: Nut bar or homemade nut and fruit mixture, lunch, fruit, 4 inch knife, long spoon
  9. HYDRATION:  Filled water bottles and Sawyer mini
  10. SHELTER: Emergency blanket – found in first aid kit
  11. KINDNESS AND EMPATHY – to quote Jamil Zaki: “Empathy is our ability to share and understand one another’s feelings—a psychological “superglue” that connects people and undergirds cooperation and kindness.” Mr. Rook and I believe this type of skill is needed in an emergency.  

We practice “leave no trace behind” and carry a poop bag.  A poop bag isn’t on the essential list either.

NOTE:  These items are what have worked for us over the last 30 years.  We are not hyper-lite hikers; we are vintage, but open to new ideas.  

Recipe: Curry Chicken Salad

  • Mix the following ingredients together in the Pouch of Chicken Salad: Curry to taste,  small box of dried cranberries, and handful of broken up pecans.
  • Serve on crackers or whole wheat tortilla


  • American Hiking Society. The 10 Essentials of Hiking: 10 things you should bring on every hike.  American.hiking.org.  2023. 
  • The Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  ATC Backpacking Course Gear List. https://thetrek.co/thru-hiker-resources/appalachian-trail-thru-hiker-gear-list/
  • Baxter State Park, Maine. Recommended Packing List: Ten essentials. Packing-Essentials-for-Website.pdf (baxterstatepark.org)
  • Copeland, Aaron. Appalachian Spring. Boosey & Hawkes. 1944.  See Copeland conduct Appalachian Spring with the National Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, 14 Nov. 1980.  https://youtu.be/Xxd1cmenki8 
  • Fetig, Jim (Sisu). Leave No Trace on the Appalachian Trail. https://thetrek.co/thru-hiker-resources/leave-no-trace-on-the-appalachian-trail/
  • Mars, Bruno, Lawrence, Philip, and Leving, Ari. “Count on Me.” Doo-Wops and Hooligans. Smeezington, 11, Nov. 2011.
  • Ramsay, Sara. The Day Hiker’s Ten Essentials. Mountaineers.org. 3 Mar., 2018.
  • Summit County Historical Society of Akron, Ohio. Abolitionist John Brown. https://www.summithistory.org/abolitionist-john-brown. 2020.
  • The Trek. Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Gear. https://thetrek.co/thru-hiker-resources/appalachian-trail-thru-hiker-gear-list/
  • Zaki, Jamil. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Crown, 2020.

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