Trash to treasure: Five pieces of extremely-affordable backpacking gear

Illustration by Emmaline Hawley, Catalyst Newspaper

Some people seek riches, others fame. But for thru-hikers on America’s long trails, pride comes by earning the title — “hiker trash.” As miles stride by and filth ferments, comfort comes to those who embrace their dirty pots, scraggly scruff and hole-ridden shoes. One of the lessons we can learn from hardy thru-hikers is the value of trash.  

In certain cases, ordinary and affordable items make better backpacking gear than flashy look-a-likes. Here are five dirt-cheap, household items you may consider adding to your backpacking kit.  

Dental floss  

No, I’m not a dentist, and, frankly, I don’t care about your gingivitis. Nonetheless, floss is an excellent tool to have in your gear repair kit. With the help of a large needle, it’s possible to sew tents, a torn rain-fly and clothes. 

floss is an affordable way to repair your backpacking gear

Surprisingly, floss is far stronger than thread since it is often made of nylon or Teflon fibers. While duct tape or gear repair tape can go a long way, a needle and floss can help to mend difficult to reach spots or larger rips.  

Compactor trash bag  

Sure you can buy a pack cover, but a heavy-duty compactor trash bag (think the kind you’d use to bag leaves) makes for a great waterproof barrier. Stick the bag inside your backpack before packing your gear. If it starts to pour, there’ll be  no need to stop and put on your pack cover.  

Cat food container 

With a cat food container and a few tools, you can easily make your own backpacking stove. DIY alcohol stoves, made from a soda can or pet food container, check nearly all the boxes for quality gear. They’re cheap to make and operate, nearly impossible to break, run efficiently, and weigh less than your shoelaces.  

How to make and alcohol stove

To make an alcohol stove, find a friend who owns a cat, or if you’re really embracing your inner-dirtbag, chow on a tin of Fancy Feast yourself. Remove the lid and flatten any sharp edges that remain inside the can with a butter knife. Using a hole punch or nail, add holes around the top rim of the can to create airflow and allow the flames to escape.  

Alcohol stoves run on denatured alcohol, (available at Walmart or hardware and paint stores) HEET, (available at auto stores and some gas stations) or Everclear. To use your stove, pour an ounce of fuel into the bottom of the cat food container, light and set your pot directly on the stove.  

A variety of tutorials exist for how to make and use an alcohol stove. Be aware that in certain areas, or during fire bans, alcohol stoves may be prohibited. While stoves like Whisperlite or JetBoil have some more robust safety standards behind them – your cat food can, does not. Be careful where you place your stove and use caution when operating it.  


Unless you’re looking to lose ten pounds and love endless diarrhea, treat your water. Plain unscented household bleach can work well as a way to chemically purify water from lakes and streams. Purchase a small plastic dropper bottle. Add two drops per liter or eight drops per gallon, shake your container and wait 30 minutes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, bleach works to reduce the risk of pathogens in your drinking water, but like any water treatment method, won’t completely eliminate the risk of getting Giardia. Bleach is most effective at killing viruses.  

 If you don’t mind the taste, or are simply looking for a back-up treatment method, go drink some bleach!  

Talenti Gelato pint  

Talenti Gelato is well known for their tasty ice cream. My personal favorite is their black raspberry chocolate chip. The real prize, however, is the plastic container it comes in. These containers are highly reusable and perfect for backpacking. While I cannot comment on the prevalence of BPA or other harmful chemicals, I can recommend their utility on the trail. It’s certainly possible to use a peanut butter jar, or other similarly sized vessel, but the task of cleaning a peanut butter jar is too daunting for most.  

Whether you’re cold soaking ramen or simply need a water-tight container that fits well in a backpack, Talenti has your back.