Sharpie Permanent Markers: An Unexpected Backpacking Essential
I view "doing without" as an essential skillset in pursuit of the ultralight/minimalist backpacking ideal. While, at times, I have defined my approach in terms of what I was not carrying, I have, nonetheless, found a few items I frequently carry, which not everyone does. First and foremost is a Sharpie. And, being the "Super Adventure Dork" that I am (yes, it's S.A.D.), I've distilled my reasons for doing so down to a list of five categories that all rhyme.
On occasion during a thru-hike, my wife, Kathy "OBAL Unbranded" Vaughan, and I have been unable to get the correct fuel for our Soto Micro Windmaster stove. In such cases, my go-to Plan B is making a soda can stove. This stove can be fueled with Heet, which is often available to be bought or bummed when fuel canisters aren't. A sharpie makes it substantially quicker, easier, and more precise drawing out cuts on the cans when compared to doing it with an improvised implement, such as a rock or found nail. Whether you are crafting a cooking can, cutting a patch for a piece of gear, or carving a spoon to replace the one you lost, being able to draw out the pattern on your limited materials can help make your repairs and improvisations more accurate, more efficient, and more likely to succeed.
Southbound on the Washington PCT, and not carrying a tent or sleeping bag, I found myself slogging through a torrential downpour along the Kendal Catwalk. Finally reaching Snoqualmie Pass after midnight, I barricaded myself in one of the Forest Service privies to get a reprieve from the pelting precipitation. Realizing I had with me a Sharpie, a piece of paper, and some duct tape, I was tempted to make an "Out Of Order" sign to tape to the outside of the privy door. Instead, I waited out the storm alert for the need to vacate my shelter should anyone have need of using it for its intended purpose. But the point is, I could have made a sign.
In a life-threatening emergency, a permanent marker could convey information that you are unable to communicate personally. If injured or ill, you could write a list of your symptoms or a description of the accident that injured you on a piece of clothing or body part to inform first responders in the case that you are unconscious when they arrive. If lost or disoriented, you could write messages on trees or rocks to tell searchers of your direction or to alert yourself to the fact that you have passed that way before and are wandering in circles.
With a Sharpie, you can communicate across both time and distance, if need be, and I'm far from the first or only person to think so. I've seen Sharpie signs other hikers have made and posted out along the trail. In numerous places along the PCT, outdated, inaccurate, or damaged trail signs have been corrected, amended, or replaced with some quick Sharpie work by well-meaning backpackers. While hitchhiking up to the Kracker Barrel on White Pass from a fire closure reroute, I used Sharpie on a piece of birch bark to make a sign stating our intended destination.
Motivation and Decoration
In the Nardcore punk rock scene of my youth, bands usually didn't have printed t-shirts available. If you wanted an Ill Repute shirt, you would just put pen to fabric and draw your own. Perhaps it's that DIY ethic that I still find deeply resonant, or perhaps it's just my lowbrow dystopian artistic sensibilities, but I have a penchant for decorating my gear with scribbly designs, especially when it reminds me of an ideal or goal.
When Kathy and I attempted to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail in 2017 (detailed in our book 98 Days Of Wind: The Greatest Fail Of Our Life), I drew the word "Yo" on the top of each of my shoes, so that our goal was right there staring me in the face all day, every day. It was the rare occasion on which I looked down at my shoes and didn't literally "lol."
During our UP North Loop this year, our goal was to link together parts of the Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and Idaho Centennial Trail. So, on the top of my Mariposa 60, I wrote ODT, PCT, PNT, and ICT, and crossed each one out as we completed it. Arguably, personalizing one's shoes, pack, etc., might not be of the highest priority. But, to me, the psychological boost I get from it is more than worth the minimal weight investment of carrying a single permanent marker.
Keeping track of resources that look identical can help keep you from being stuck in the dark with dead batteries in your headlamp, or rendering freshly filtered water contaminated by using the wrong water bladder. Again, it's possible to improvise alternative methods, but a Sharpie is the quickest and slickest way.
On routes with long water hauls, I generally carry two 2-liter bladders to rig as a gravity filter. I always mark one water bag with a Sharpie for use as the "dirty" (unfiltered) bag. It's the mere presence of the ink on the bag that conveys its designation as dirty; the words themselves can say anything. Once I used a quote from the Simpsons' Reverend Lovejoy: "Good dog. Do your dirty sinful business." Sometimes, it's just a list of synonyms for filth, or an inside joke only I get to enjoy. But, I always choose something to give myself a little smile or laugh when I go to filter water, and to make sure I don't foul our potable water by filtering it into a contaminated bladder.
Whenever I remove spent batteries from a GPS or headlamp, I mark them to be sure they don't get confused with the fresh battery supply. Whether it's the dark or the desert, I don't want to get stuck there because I mismanaged my battery supply. Keeping track of the dead batteries is key to that.
On occasion, it's important to make a note of critical information, and it may not be quick, easy, or even possible to access your phone to do so. Plus, a simple text note or photo may not do the job. While on the UP North Loop, I used a Sharpie to track a developing skin issue. A few patches of irritation weren't clearing up on their own. Relying on just my memory, I was having trouble telling if they were spreading or growing, so I circled them in permanent ink. Watching over the next few days, as the ink gradually wore off, I was able to determine that they were neither multiplying nor expanding, which put my mind at ease. A small tube of fungicide purchased at the next resupply eventually confirmed a Google diagnosis of ringworm, and cleared up the malady.
In 2013, during a sextuple crossing of the Grand Canyon, I used a Sharpie to write down my time on my calf sleeve each time I hit one of the rims. On the UP North Loop, while talking on the phone at a picnic table in Metalline Falls on the PNT section, I Sharpied things up by writing someone's number on my leg, where I would neither lose it, nor forget it, as it was being dictated to me over the phone. Similarly, a month later while on the phone at a picnic table outside Sandpoint on the ICT, I wrote the address to which we were rerouting a resupply box on the lid of a styrofoam takeout container. I could go on and on.
A permanent marker might not be the first thing you think of as a backpacking essential, but, at only nine grams in weight, I've found it well worth carrying.