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3 Unusual Items and How They Got Me Out of a Jam

We go out into the great outdoors to escape the stress of our everyday live, so what do we do when the great outdoors becomes our most frustrating problem? Think outside the box and find a way to get home!

Every time we step out into the great outdoors we expect a relaxing and beautiful place to enjoy during our free time. Whether camping in the dirt, sweating on a long hike, or driving for hours, the ability to escape our regular lives of stress and problems is priceless. So what do you do when our great outdoors turns into our biggest, most stressful problem? Well, the only thing to do is to enjoy it, and embrace it. They don't call it "roughing it" because it's easy. We continue to go back because we enjoy the challenges the environment throws at us. If you plan on spending a substantial amount of time in the wild, then you will eventually run into problems. During a few memorable trips, I've been stranded in the desert, fished for dinner with a broken fishing pole and had my backpack rip open at 12,000 feet. Sometimes the normal, "by the book" answer doesn't always fit the equation, but with a little luck and ingenuity, you can always find a way to fix your problem. I'm sharing 3 memorable stories, which hopefully help you think outside the box next time your fun weekend escape becomes your most frustrating problem. Here are my stories of 3 Unusual Items and How They Got Me Out of a Jam.

1. A Safety Pin

Years ago when I first started hiking with my father and uncle in northern New Mexico, I remember a small life changing moment. One summer afternoon we hiked into the Carson National Forrest for a weekend backpacking trip. As we unpacked for camp, my uncles pack tipped over and a couple safety pins fell out. Like a young arrogant, know it all kid, I laughed and said something stupid like, "do you plan on doing some sewing while you're out here?" Then following that with,"what good is a safety pin while you are camping anyway?" I didn't even know what the hell a safety pin was really used for, I was just being a smart ass for no reason at all. 

To my surprise both my father and uncle just laughed right back at me. They explained that a couple of safety pins are perfect for fixing a backpack when the zipper breaks, stitching a cut, or just about anything I could imagine. They are lightweight and don't take up any room in your pack. The explanation hit me like a lighting bolt and I felt like a real jackass. I was so impressed by that little safety pin that I couldn't stop thinking about how many items while camping could be fixed by such a simple item. It's a good thing that simple little safety pin humbled me all those years ago, because since that trip, I've always had a couple safety pins in my pack. 

I have used them to fix a hole in the seam of my tent after some high winds in western Texas. I've used them to fix a jacket pocket after walking through thick brush that snagged my jacket and ripped it open. And I've used them on my pack multiple times to fix a broken zipper. The most recent save by a safety pin was this past February while hiking Mt. Whitney. It's funny how something so small can make such a huge difference. That's how a safety pin has gotten me out of multiple jams.

2. Burt's Bees Chap stick and an Elastic Workout Band

This story starts with my buddy and I moving his kayak from my garage to his garage. His kayak had been in my garage for over six months, and there was really no reason for us to move it on that particular day, but for some reason we decided that was the day it had to be move. His house is only a couple blocks away from mine, so it was going to be quick and easy. Unfortunately I left my ratchet straps in my jeep, so we didn't have a way to strap the kayak down. I searched for some in my garage but couldn't find any. I figured the kayak doesn't need to be strapped down too tightly to make it around the block. I just needed to find something to hold it in place for a few minutes. 

After searching through some old boxes in my garage, I found an old elastic workout band. Where it came from or how it got there I couldn't tell you, but I thought it would work perfectly to hold down the kayak. We girth hitched it to my truck bed, wrapped it around the kayak and off we went. That weekend I was headed out into the Mojave Desert to camp and drive a section of the Mojave Desert Trail. I packed up all my gear and headed out into the desert for a 4 day trip. The first three days went off without a hitch. I camped at Hole In The Wall Campground, hiked the desert trails, drove the Mojave Desert Trail and took plenty of cool pictures. 

On the final day as I drove towards camp on the Mojave Desert Trail, I was about 12 miles from the nearest paved road, about 19 miles from camp and about 45 miles from the nearest major highway. That's when my truck started to flash a red warning signal and over heated in just a few seconds. I quickly shut off the truck and went to check under the hood. I've had old vehicles all my life and a car overheating didn't worry me very much. I figured what the hell, I'll let it cool down, pour some water in the radiator and I'll be off. It was about 5 pm and the sun was just starting to set. I figured I could still make it back to camp before it was dark. 

I sat there reading the map trying to plan my next adventure without a worry in the world. A vehicle came up the trail and the driver asked if I needed any assistance. I said thanks but declined their offer, and told the driver that it was just overheating and I was gonna give it a few minutes before I got on my way. Well if I knew this would turn into an all night affair, I would have asked that good samaritan for a tow. I didn't know that would be the last person I saw for about 8 hours. After about 15 minutes I opened up the cap on my radiator and poured in a whole gallon of water. Naturally I thought, well of course my truck overheated, it didn't have any coolant and I've been driving in the desert all day. I jumped in the truck with a successful smile on my face as if I had just saved the day. My truck started right up and the temperature gauge was cool. 

I put down my shades, enjoyed the beautiful sunset behind me, turned up the radio and got on my way. Well that blissful feeling came to an abrupt end. I didn't make it 100 yards before the red warning light was flashing and steam was pouring out of my hood. My initial reaction was "oh shit" as I thought to myself, how is this possible? I did everything right, I let my truck cool down and added coolant, how could it be overheating? Well I convinced myself I must not have added enough coolant. I got my second gallon of water out and slowly poured it into my radiator. The truck took the whole gallon and that's when it hit me, I must have a leak. 

Well I'm no mechanic by any means, but I feel pretty confident in being able to duck tape a hose, fix a broken belt, or finagle something to get myself back to civilization. I searched and searched and finally there it was, the plastic firewall connection for the heater had completely broken off. I thought this isn't too bad, all I need to do is reattach it or reroute it somehow. I figured if I tried to reroute the hose I could possibly cause more problems, so i decided to reattach it. Well it turned out that this 16 year plastic piece decide that right here and right now in the middle of the desert was the perfect time to break off. The piece would be easy to fix if I had an extra, but who in their right mind has an extra piece to every item under their hood. I knew the only way to get to the campsite, where someone could potentially give me a tow, was to get this hose reconnected. 

So with my headlamp, a leatherman and my trusty knife I got to work trying to reconnect the hose. My first attempt was with a lot of duct tape. That attempt got me about another hundred yards. My second attempt was to jam a hollow pen in the hose and tie it to the connection with para-cord. That attempt got me about a mile down the road. I knew the hollow pen was working but i needed it to have a tighter fit and I needed something to act as an O-Ring to prevent the water from leaking. About 4 hours passed during these attempts, because after every attempt I had to wait for the truck to cool down, and then try to come up with another crazy idea to make it work. 

I decided to chill out for a little bit and just think of some ideas. I sat on the back of my tailgate, cracked open a cold beer, lit up a cowboy killer (Marlboro Red) and starred at the beautiful night sky. I wasn't in any danger, but I just knew it was gonna cost me an arm and leg to get my truck towed from here, and I still had to drive 400 miles back to San Diego for work on Monday morning. With zero phone service I weighed my options. I could one, wait for someone to hopefully pass by the next morning and give me a ride. Two, I could start hiking out and hopefully make it to camp in a couple hours where a Ranger could help me out, or three, I could fix the hose and limp this truck back to camp.  

I had about 18 miles to go before I got to camp. I stood up put out my cigarette and walked back to look under the hood. As I casually sipped my beer, I slide my other hand in my pocket and that is when it hit me. I felt the Burt's Bees Chapstick that I always have in my pocket. The Chapstick felt like it matched the exact size of the hose. I knew if I could jam the gutted Burt's Bees tube into the hose, I might just be able to keep the temperature down enough to make it back to camp. I quickly connected the Burt's Bees to the hose and it fit perfectly, but when I ran the truck there was still a substantial leak. 

I dug through the back of my truck looking for anything that could act as an O-Ring. Like it was meant to be there, still girth hitched to my truck bed from moving my buddies kayak days earlier, was the elastic workout band. I quickly cut some small pieces off, put a small slice in the middle to create an O-Ring, and jammed the elastic workout band onto both ends of the Burt's Bees tube. When I jammed the band into the hose it had a very snug fit. I was down to just a couple Nalgenes of water at this point, so this was going to have to be my last attempt before I started walking. I fired up my truck and there was no leak. I jumped in and slowly made my way down the trail. I was nervous going over every bump that the hose would come lose at any minute. 

It was the longest 18 mile drive of my life but I finally pulled into camp. I asked the Ranger if he had any tools or a mechanic that could lend a hand. It was nearly 1 am by now and he said he didn't have anyone that could help until Monday morning. I figured as long as the old truck was running I might as well see how far I can make it. I filled up every container I had with water and got back on the road. 40 miles later I made it to interstate 40 where I figured I would call AAA. I refilled the radiator, jumped in the truck and decided to try and make it to the nearest gas station, and when the Burt's Bees was still holding, I decided to try and make to L.A.

I figured if I could make it to L.A. I could camp in a parking lot of an auto parts store, I would be able to fix the piece in the morning and I'd be back in S.D. for lunch. When the Burt's Bees continued to hold on the interstate through L.A. going 70, I figured lets see if I can make it all the way home. To my surprise almost 12 hours after my ordeal started, I rolled into my driveway in San Diego. The Burt's Bees, nor the elastic band had  melted or shifted and I only added coolant twice in the 400 mile drive out of The Mojave Desert. That is how Burt's Bees Chapstick and an elastic workout band got me out of a jam.

3. Mole Skin 

You are probably thinking that we all have mole skin or duck tape in our packs to prevent hot spots or blisters, so why would mole skin be an unusual item right? Well the jam it got me out of in The Sierras on the John Muir Trail, wasn't because I had a blister on my foot. Lets rewind to the night before we got on trail. It was a beautiful Thursday night in San Diego. Just as I had done plenty of times, my buddy and I packed our camping gear and fishing poles into the back of my old truck. Since I'm an avid fisherman I have multiple poles in my truck for different weighted tackle and fish. Since many of my lightweight rods break down into two pieces in order to make them easier to travel with, I wanted to make sure I didn't mix and match the wrong pieces. I have a couple of poles which are very similar in size, but when you go to connect them, they just barely don't fit together. I set aside the pole I wanted to strap to my pack the next day.  

 After planning this epic hiking and trout fishing trip, I didn't want to have it end, before it even started. Well you may have guessed what happened already. After driving 7 hours to Mammoth Lakes, of course, somehow when I grabbed the pole that was broken down into two pieces, I grabbed two different sizes. After 9 miles of hiking and 3,000 feet later, we were at Shadow Lake just outside of Mammoth Lakes, CA. As we hiked along the bank of the lake, we could see a ton of fish swimming in the crystal clear water. We immediately threw down our packs and started getting our fishing gear ready. 

This is when the trip almost came to an abrupt end for me. Sure enough, I soon noticed that I had two different pieces from two different fishing poles. I'm sure you can guess that I let out every four letter word that I knew. My buddy immediately started laughing and said it's only a nine mile hike back to the truck, and I'll catch your fish for you. Only a true friend would laugh at you and give you a hard time at a moment like this. Of course I didn't think it was funny at the time and wanted to snap that rod over my knee. I had a couple of options. I could grab some water and hike the 18 mile round trip to the truck and back, which seemed terrible. Two, I could just take photos all weekend and lie around while my buddy caught all our fish. Or three, I could somehow make this fishing rod work for me.

Well there was no way in hell that the competitive side of me was going to let my buddy catch all the fish, and hiking 18 miles just seemed like a last resort, so I went to work on my rod. I had a very small roll of duct tape that I always have in my pack. I put the two pieces of pole together and used all my duct tape to mend them together. My buddy who has already landed one trout by now, just looked over, and sarcastically said, "I think that will work," then just laughed at his own joke. I'm sure you can imagine I wanted to beat him over the head with it, but I know I would have said the same thing. I hooked up my line, baited my hook and started casting. It worked fairly well for a few minutes, and I thought to myself, this is actually going to work. 

Well on about my tenth cast, the top piece of my rod went flying off into the water, and all my line became one large entangled knot. And of course, only a short distance away on the shore line was my buddy laughing his ass off, as he landed his second trout. I sat down on the shore line and began the painful process of untangling my line to salvage whatever line I could. It was one thing if I didn't have a rod, but if I didn't have enough line to cast, then I really couldn't fish. I needed the bottom half of my rod to be a little thicker in order to fit snugly into the top half. If I could find something that could be wrapped over the first half and provided enough friction for the second half to stay on when I cast, the rod should be strong enough to land these small lake trout. I searched through my pack and then I saw it, moleskin!!

I thought, if I wrap the bottom half of the rod with my mole skin, I would be able to connect the two pieces together. I wrapped the bottom piece with almost all of my mole skin, reconnected the little bit of line I had left and re-hooked my bait. It worked perfectly! Within only a couple casts I landed my first fish of the day. I gave my buddy the screw you look as I proudly held up my fish! Once again he just laughed and said at least you don't have to rely on me for dinner tonight. I finally laughed at his stupid jokes. That Frankenstein rod lasted me the next three days and we caught plenty of fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And that's how mole skin got me out of a huge jam on the John Muir Trail.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Alex EExplorer

I try to spend every free moment skiing, backpacking, fishing or finding an adrenaline rush!