On the Trail: Gear for the Period Trekker
by Todd D. Glover
What is Period Trekking?
This is a term which may be unfamiliar to many. It may be described as primitive camping, wilderness survival, historical backpacking etc. Essentially period trekking means go on a trip or journey by foot, on horseback or perhaps in canoes, dressed in historical attire and using only pre-1840 gears and accouterments. It means getting out on the trail away from the rendezvous camp scene and actually using your gear as it was used by the original "Mountain Men." This is where historical re-enactment is at its finest! There are few crutches here. You're on your own with no chance to run back to the car, or dig out a drink from the cooler. This is where a real sense of satisfaction can be found in having equipped yourself with quality handmade gear and them proving its ability and usefulness. This is where you may feel an even stronger kinship with the old-timers than even that experienced at large events. You must try it to understand.
Period trekking need not be intimidating to the beginner. You needn't wait until you're fully equipped with proper gear to begin. Take what you have now and get started. Watch those who have been at it for a while. Ask questions and read accounts both historical and modern of others trekking experiences. Then begin to replace your modern gear with period items and eventually you'll look and act like you just stepped back in time and you'll love it!
Period Trekking is another dimension those who limit themselves to only attending rendezvous' and pow wows will never know.
Didn't most Mountain Men ride horses?
The answer is an unequivocal yes! The majority did and would anytime horses were available, just like their earlier counterparts, the Longhunter, of the Eastern woodlands. In many cases, to be afoot in the West meant certain slow death. The distances are so vast as to make walking very impractical. However, walking was done surprisingly often. Consider the number of men with Lewis and Clark; many walked. How about John Colters epic trek to locate the Crow tribe and inform them that Manuel Lisa had set up a Trading Post; many hundreds of miles on foot. Sublette and Harris walked from Bear Lake to St. Louis in the middle of the winter to arrange supplies for the next season, not once but twice!! So, being on foot wasn't altogether uncommon but, they were always seeking horses.
What do I need to get started?
So, if you are going to be walking then you will be limited in what you can carry along. If you have the luxury of horses or a canoe, then you can throw in some extras.
Remember when you're assembling your trekking gear, that less is preferable and go light. The first few times out you will probably take to much food and gadgets. Take note of how much you carry back home and what you didn't use much. Next time tighten up some. There is a trade off between comfort in camp with lots of extra food and neat "stuff", and comfort on the trail with a light pack. Which do you prefer, laboring under a large load making the trail miserable so when you get to camp you can live the high life? Or packing lightly, enjoying the trail, arriving with energy left, then living a little frugally in camp? The choice is yours. Don't expect much sympathy from others either way you choose.
Obviously the Mountain Men carried their firearms and shooting bags and horns wherever they went. Also a knife or two and perhaps a belt axe or tomahawk were kept close at hand. With this in mind, let's look and what else might be carried.
This term refers to a bag like container In which the mountaineer may have carried all those sundry items needed for an existence in the mountains. The actual term "possibles bag" does not appear often and generally only among secondary sources. Haversack and rucksack are more proper terms.
One could construct a rucksack of haversack out of any stout canvas cloth, bearing in Mind that linen or hemp canvas was more common than cotton. One made of leather would also be quite proper. The cloth should be waterproofed to protect the bags future contents. When on the trail a bag is often left out in a storm.
A good rule of thumb is to keep the size of the bag on the small side. The bigger your bag, the more prone you will be to pack to much. There are several choices for patterns available, though a common rectangular shaped bag will work just fine. Refer to the sources listed in the bibliography for pattern suggestions.
You will need numerous different containers to help keep things organized with in our rucksack. Start by making a number of cloth bags in various sizes to hold foodstuffs, tinder, toiletries etc. Also you may want to make some bags of leather to hold heavier items or ones that require more protection. Its relaxing to sit around and sew bags in the evening.
Various sized tin containers are useful to hold things such as shoe grease, fishing kit, eyeglasses etc. Keep your eyes open for tin containers or order some custom made.
Small horns are good to carry salt and other spices as well as gun powder.
Small bottles are also very handy. Avoid any with screw on tops.
Apparently very little Cookware was used by the average free trapper. Brigades of company trappers probably had more items available to them, i.e. kettles, cast iron pots, cooking skewers etc. Most trappers roasted their meat over an open fire. Now days we must deal with more restrictions which force a choice in Cookware. Simple and light are the key words here. A small tin boiler is very useful. Consider a tin plate or wooden bowl, a small tin cup and perhaps a small steel or forged iron skillet for frying. If your chosen fare doesn't require frying, leave the heavy skillet home. Also a period fork and spoon are nice to have. A long handled wood spoon works best in the boiler to avoid scraping the tin off the insides of the boiler.
Wool blankets are the obvious choice here for modern reenactment. Buffalo robes and wool blankets made up the bedding of the original mountaineers. If you are not mounted however, you're highly unlikely to carry a buffalo robe.
Having decided that wool blankets are the way to go , the choice becomes how many to carry? A popular line of thought advocates getting by with only one blanket. This is possible under certain circumstances, especially when augmented by a capote or great coat and when the weather is not to extreme. I have more often carried two blankets unless it was July or August.
Hand woven blankets are much in vogue among reenactors. They are of high quality and are purported to be warmer. Keep in mind however that the overwhelming majority of the blankets used during the western fur trade were factory made imports.
You may want to consider an oil cloth for your bedroll. This is made from a section of waterproofed canvas. The cloth needs to be large enough to fold in half with blankets inside and still provide ample room for self and rifle and hunting pouch and any other items you wish to protect from the weather. I use a cloth that measure 5' by 7' when folded. A oil cloth will add considerable weight to your bedroll, so you must make a choice of whether it's worth carrying of not. If the weather is nice, I leave it home. But, we all know how quick the weather changes in the mountains.
If you wish to make you own oil cloth, check out Mark Baker's video series. In it he shows you step by step how its done. You can also purchase oilcloths from some of the vendors listed at the end of this packet.
There are numerous other articles which may be carried in the Rucksack. Below I've included a list the things celebrated author, reenactor and period trekker Mark Baker finds useful:
* Tin pot containing a sack of white cornmeal, a chunk of brown sugar and two small horns filled with salt and cayenne pepper.
* Oil-tanned leather pouch holding a sewing kit, which consists of a horn bobbin of linen thread, scissors. dried deer or elk sinew. beeswax, an antler "fish" hollowed out to hold an assortment of needles and a few patches of linen and leather,
* Horn comb and a horn, boar-bristle toothbrush contained in a linen pouch.
* Folding skillet with a cloth sack containing slab bacon wedged inside the dish of the pan.
* Chunks of chocolate and muscavado sugar within a brain-tanned deerskin pouch.
* Wool pouch holding a few pieces of castile soap.
* Dried corn within a linen pouch. (Two pounds of fresh whole corn dries to 1/4-pound.)
* Cloth sack of dried meat, commonly called "jerk" in the 18th century.
* Oil-tanned leather pouch containing a fishing kit, which includes: a small, brain-tanned deerskin pouch holding several fishing hooks-and a handful of split sinkers made from.32 caliber balls-two "H"-shaped horn bobbins filled with silk fishing line (surgical silk suture thread); a couple of small sticks wrapped in linen fishing line-, a deer sinew leader tied to a hook-, and a leather thong tied to a two-inch willow branch used as a stringer.
* Oil-tanned pouch filled with tow for cleaning one's rifle, starting fires in a pinch, scrubbing a frying pan or plugging a bad wound.
* Well-worn silver spoon.
* Fire-starting kit in a greased goatskin pouch. The kit includes: flint and steel, a "bird's nest" of dried cottonwood bark, a tin of charred cloth, two short beeswax candles, a bundle of candle wick that has been dipped in hot beeswax, and a few pieces of pitch pine.
* Tin of lard, grease, beeswax or any combination of the three for greasing moccasins, rubbing the stock of one's rifle and dressing the lock. 9 Two flat creek stones for sharpening knives and one's belt axe.
* Antler whistle on a leather thong.
* New Testament.
* Coil of leather thongs for spare strapping and a bundle of elk skin for moccasin patching.