What figure looms larger in the prepper imagination that the rugged mountain man? Let’s examine the contents of their packs and saddle bags for our own purposes and to inspire all of us to get back to basics. In the romanticized image, the mountain man is the ultimate minimalist, with nothing but his rifle and tomahawk, but this isn’t entirely correct, as mountain men would have had quite a bit more in their kit, especially at the base camps they operated from. We’ll find that their kits remains relevant today, even with technological advances.
The Mountain Man’s EveryDay Carry
Rifle and pistol – What could be more iconic than the mountain man grasping his Hawken muzzzleloading rifle? Of course the rifle was the mountain man’s most treasured possession, as it fed him, defended him, and earned him money. In addition to his rifle and a pistol, he would have carried lead, a cast for bullets, powder, and other necessities for shooting. Romance aside, this is one part of the mountain man’s kit that isn’t directly relevant to the modern mountain man. While a .30-06 with black plastic furniture will never be as beautiful as a Hawken with walnut furniture and brass hardware, I’d prefer the former for getting meat.
Tomahawk – I just picked up a tomahawk very similar to what a mountain man might have used. I can tell it will be accompanying me on hunts in the future. Not only is it a great tool for making a fire or cutting poles for a shelter, the head is friction mounted on the tapered haft, so it can be slipped off and used as a sort of ulu for skinning, or easily re-hung on a field expedient handle if the haft breaks. The mountain man might have had extra trade tomahawks provided by the company to use for barter with Indians for furs. Of course, this item doubled as a weapon.
Flint and steel – This would have been used for fire making. Today we have cheap matches and lighters, but I still believe the flint and steel is an important back up. Matches can get wet, and are disposable. Lighters don’t always function well in the cold, and also run out of fuel eventually. But a flint and steel can be used for a long time in many weather conditions.
Tobacco and pipe – This would have provided a simple pleasure to men living rough, and also used as a barter good. I can’t say anyone should use tobacco, but it would be a heck of a trade item if one feels it is ethical to sell it.
Comb – For basic grooming and keeping lice out. The modern mountain man should carry a toothbrush as well, or he can use a stick of hardwood as a toothpick.
Traps and Trapping Supplies – These were the tools of the mountain man’s trade, the reason they were in the mountains in the first place. I think some snare wire and other appropriate supplies for trap construction should be part of any bug out bag. Manufactured traps should also be kept among your equipment, although not necessarily carried.
Knives – A mountain man would have carried several knives. He would have had a larger knife for crude work and as a weapon, such as a bowie style knife, with smaller knifes that would have to be kept very sharp for skinning and cutting meat, as well as scraping hides. I’d recommend following this strategy as well; using one knife for everything is less than ideal. A stone would also be carried for sharpening edges.
Possibles Bag – A leather shoulder bag to hold everything.
Back At Camp
Those are the basic things that no mountain man would have stepped out of camp without having in his possession, but back in camp he would have a larger array of items.
Horses, mules and tack – Everything needed to care for and use stock OR boats and canoes. Snowshoes were also a must for travelling in deep winter snow.
Wool blankets or furs for sleeping under – Yes, it’s true that there are tricks for surviving the night without insulation, but surviving the night isn’t the same as sleeping comfortably. Mountain men had wool blankets, and although I think modern sleeping bags are handy, you just can’t beat the durability and versatility of a wool blanket. Keep some around, because they aren’t easily compromised by a rip or some wayward sparks from a fire.
Cookware – Cast iron dutch ovens, skillets, and pots, such as accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition. These are not something you want to carry on your back very far, however cast iron is an indispensable part of the prepper kit, and get extras for barter. The advantage of cast iron is that it can be used for cooking over coals, and baking as well. Other, lighter materials don’t stand up to the heat as well, and they also can have heat retention problems.
Pails, cups, spoons – Utensils and cups would have made one feel like he still had a tiny connection to civilization. Pails would have been convenient for carrying and storing water. I see the value of metal cups and spoons for longer durations, as again, they aren’t easily melted as plastics might be.
Salt – Used for flavoring meat, preserving skins, and salt licks for hunting. Mountain men would have had plenty, and you should too. Pack away lots of this item!
Needles and thread – needles would be a very important item for men who were repairing or making their own clothes. They would have had some store bought thread but also would have used sinews. Needles make another great trade item.
Mirrors, beads, trinkets, alcohol and other trade items – I suspect that for us items that are more necessities might outrank geegaws as trade items, but the lesson is the same. Have things people want so you can trade.
Food-the original mountain men would mountain men would have been hunting most of their dinner. But I wouldn’t recommend this; they were exploring a virgin wilderness teaming with game. Even in remote areas you may have difficulty finding enough meat nowadays. I highly recommend you check out this link about the Yukon Gold Rush for a list of what one year’s supplies for a man looks like.
Footwear – Mountain men generally wore moccasins but had heavier boots for rougher terrain. Modern preppers can follow this example; if you have a good pair of boots or shoes, I’d recommend saving them as much as possible and wearing improvised or cheaper shoes.
Clothing -There was a mixture of manufactured cloth clothes and skins/furs. The cloth clothes would have come in handy during the hotter months, with skins and furs better for cooler weather. The key here was durability. Thick wool clothes from Europeans military surplus can be had cheaply, and I’d highly recommend having a suit of it for each family member around. It isn’t always the most comfortable but it keeps you warm when wet, and is very tough..
Coffee – Another simple pleasure while living rough. There is rightful criticism of glamour prepping out there; you don’t need a generator to run the flat screen while the zombies rage outside, but like the mountain man, I do believe every prepper should have at least a few preps that are just for pleasure. Books, tea, coffee, candies, and the like can be small indulgences that would feel like incredible luxuries when TSHTF. [Quick side note about books: make sure your pleasure reading for survival will improve your mood, not dampen it. I read a funny true story about an Alaskan miner stuck in his cabin for the winter with little but pancakes to eat, and no books to read but a 5 star recipe book.]
Cards and dice – For passing time and gambling. The advantage of these over board games is that they are quite compact.
Tent – Mountain men used tents and sometimes indian style dwellings, such as teepees. The tents they used would have been constructed of heavy canvas material.
Ropes, axes, shovels – For camp work
Some of this gear is heavy, and you’d need pack animals or vehicles to carry it very far. What about light, modern alternatives? With the newest technology, available at considerable expense, we could get all of the equivalents of this stuff into a pack as light as 35 lbs. That’s great, and I own my share of light weight gear myself, such as synthetic clothing, lightweight pots, and a sleeping bag that weighs just over two pounds. The difference between the old gear and the new is that while lightweight modern equipment is suitable for fast trips of 2-3 weeks where we have the option of returning to civilization if something breaks, much of it would be worthless if there was the smallest accident. What I like about the “mountain man” kit is how durable and how friendly all of it is to being repaired in the field. It can live with you indefinitely.
The other valuable lesson from examining the mountain man’s kit is seeing the barest bones of survival equipment. These are the things you need to survive, assuming you have a food stockpile. There are many more items that would make life vastly more comfortable and convenient, and items that are excellent force multipliers, but this kit shows the basics. Take this as a chance to review your equipment. Is it tough enough to live in the woods with you for a year? Is it fire resistant? Likely to be torn easily? Will it be easily fixed with a little bit of whittling or stitching?
The most important thing in the mountain man’s kit, besides his skills, was the land itself. It provided him with wood for fuel, camps, and repairs, animals that gave meat, clothes, and cash, and plenty of water. Know what resources are realistically available to you in your local area.
Thanks for reading, Pilgrim.
Believe it or not, I actually carry two folding knives at my hip for the very reasons mentioned in the article. One larger main knife with a keen blade for cutting (which I use nearly every day), and another smaller one for loaning to a buddy who needs a quick “borrow”, picking gravel out of my shoe treads, prying something small, etc. Its blade is decent, but not honed super sharp like my larger one.
And then there’s the mini Leatherman in my pocket. Less than half the size of a standard Leatherman, and with fewer options, but still has a blade, pick, (mini) pliers, flat head screwdriver, etc. Barely even feel it in my pocket, but it has come in handy several times for unexpected situations.
Of course, you can’t see any of them because they’re all usually concealed under my shirt hem. Despite CA’s absurd gun laws, we can still carry just about any knife we choose, openly or concealed, as long as any blade longer than 4″ is closed or sheathed when not in use. You can literally stuff a folding tree saw down your pants and legally walk around with it.
In California, the presence or absence of a sheath is NOT the issue, with some categories of knives. The key issue is whether or not it is concealed. Using a sheath WILL NOT keep you from getting arrested and convicted if you carry a “dirk or dagger” (double-edge knife, ice pick, etc.) CONCEALED. For some clarification on the law, written by attorneys, see: https://www.shouselaw.com/california-knife-laws.html
Knife law reform is long overdue in most states. It is educational (and depressing) to read up on state knife laws. Most states have stunningly draconian prohibitions even in the mountain west and redoubt where knives have long been a part of everyday life.
Dont forget the knowledge to use these supplies and equipment
for long term gear dont overlook high quality backpacking gear that survives through hiking the Appalachain trail/ Continental divide/ Pacific crest trail. coleman peak 1 stoves,
SVEA 123 stove, Wiggys bag, North face or Eureka tents, swiss champ knife, gerber tools, Buck knife fixed blades, high quality backpacks. most of my gear i’ve had 25 plus years and maintain it meticulously, and i use it for any outdoor excursion i can. most others are jealous of my comfort and ease of use. you get what you pay for, and practice makes perfect.
Totally agree with ‘wingfootjr’, do not discount the modern man long distance hiker and his gear. Not only did I camp & hike as a youth, old school style, did the wool thing and the Korean War down sleeping bags, but spent 15 years with the Boy Scouts (before they went far left), with my sons and our troop was run by military vets, we camped and hiked every month, rain or snow, no matter what the weather was. I learned about modern gear, what worked, what did not, how to repair it. We hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, so I can appreciate what those long-distance hikers use and go through. A couple of good backpacking books are “The Backpackers Handbook” by Chris Townsend, “The Complete Walker IV” by Colin Fletcher & Chip Rawlins, and “Beyond Backpacking- A guide to Lightweight Hiking” by Ray Jardine. I recommend Western Mountaineering sleeping bags, pricey, but worth it, they hold up and will keep you warm.
I enjoyed the article, S.J. Brought back memories of some good friends back East when I was a member of a Muzzleloading Rifle group.
For anyone new to the idea of surviving and if you want some practical experience in small doses, check out a local Muzzleloading or Rendezvous group. Now that the weather is breaking, they will start having weekend events which are usually open to the public during the daytime on Saturday and Sunday, for a very minimal entrance fee. The participants enjoy introducing “mundanes” or “moderns” to the educational side of it, and often the encampments host school field trips on Fridays, if they are there for a long weekend.
You won’t see too much in the way of modern equipment in plain sight. What you will find is a bunch of very friendly folks who enjoy learning and teaching the history of the early days of America. The actual fur trapping era only lasted about a quarter of a century, as I recall, but many of the re-enactment groups will include everything from the French & Indian War (1754-1763), through the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, up to the Civil War, and some groups even include the Blues & Greys, just because they don’t want to leave out their friends. If you are interested in learning even more, start going to a few meetings and see about joining them for an event or two. You can even start by using modern tents and rv’s off-site or in the parking lot, as long as you make an attempt at dressing the part while you are inside the boundaries of the encampment. I will warn you, though, that pretty soon, you might find yourself getting outfitted with a tent, fire tools and cast iron cooking pots. We even had some Amish families who would join us for events because they felt “at home” with other people doing primitive camping and they would bring along home canned goods to sell to the guys. I figured out how to make pies from scratch, baked in a cast iron Dutch oven in the coals of my campfire. As a single woman, I experienced more examples of chivalry at the Rendezvous than I ever saw at the Medieval events. The guys taught me so many skills that will be necessary if/when TSHTF.
The point is that the folks there will do their best to teach you how to start a fire with flint & steel, how to shoot a muzzleloader, how to throw a hawk and knife, cook over an open fire, forge black iron, make primitive furniture, brain-tan a hide. You name it, if it was a skill needed in the early years of settling this continent, somebody in the group has researched it and figured out how to do it. It is a great – and super fun – way to prepare for TEOTWAWeKI. It is knowledge we should all endeavor to gain and the best way is by doing it.
If you want to go even lower-tech, check out some of the Medieval reenactment groups. They don’t do any firearms but it is a great way to get experience with primitive archery, not just shooting but also how to make all the equipment necessary – bows, strings, arrows, quivers, all the leather working needed to make arm guards and gloves. If we get to the point where gun powder and primers become unavailable, archery might be the ultimate fall back for hunting and self defense.
To find more info, do a web search for NMLRA (National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association) and for the Medieval group, SCA.org (Society for Creative Anachronism).
Keep your powder dry…