“What are you doing, Mrs. Beaver?” exclaimed Susan.
Ah, the quest—a staple of fantasy literature both classic and modern. Rugged journeys through wild lands, relying on wit and luck and the kindness of strangers. Quests and survivalism remain some of my favorite tropes to both read and write.
However, I have to admit, when I read a quest where there’s no mention of packs or bags—or more blatantly, when there’s a movie adaptation and no depiction of characters carrying gear—the ranger in me convulses a little. You, human, hiking through the wilderness—where’s your water bottle? Your map? Your fire kit? Your blanket?
I get it—bulky packs look silly (which is why Samwise carries one for comic relief), and too much time spent on travel minutiae can bog down a story’s pacing. But in fantasy worldbuilding, it’s often the mundane details juxtaposed with fantastic elements that create a complex, lived-in world. Seeing Hermione trying to stew mushrooms in a billy can in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows shows us how dire things can get, even for wizards. And seeing Mrs. Beaver determined to pack a few necessities despite the complaints of the others show that while strange and wonderful, Narnia is still a dangerous place for the unprepared.
This is one of two segments I’m planning to write on the topic of quest practicality—in this post I’ll focus on the most basic gear a typical human might need to survive in the wilderness, while the second installment will be on improvising the rest from the surrounding environment, like first aid, shelter, and clean water. This is all written for like-minded authors collecting ideas to flesh out their world- and character-building, not for adventurers looking to pull a Christopher McCandless and strike out into the wild. We can have that conversation another time, when I’m wearing my ranger hat.
Read more after the jump!
So! Your protagonist is roughing it. Maybe they’re on the run. Maybe they’re hunting for a magical artifact. Maybe they have to destroy an ancient weapon and the giant eagles are all binge-watching NOVA or whatever. At any rate, your characters are trekking across the wilderness. If they have basic human needs, some of the gear they may need to survive are…
Everybody needs it. Okay, Legolas, maybe not you, but we’re focusing on humans, thanks. If there is only one necessity your character carries with them, make it be something they can carry water in. A skin, a canteen, a bottle, a magical dipper that never runs dry, a human skull (choose this one only for aesthetic; skulls are leaky)—whatever makes sense for your story. Water is the primary driver of human survival and will absolutely have an impact on how, when, and where your characters travel.
How much water you need depends on your environment. In Woodwalker, Mae and the others are in the Silverwood, a damp, forested mountain range with ample flowing streams and seeps. They can probably get away with a single canteen each, taking care to refill when the opportunity arises without much purposeful travel. But in the deserts of Alcoro, Gemma would need to be much more intentional about where she’s moving and when, traveling strategically from water source to water source, or following a rivercourse.
Of course, there’s a big difference between water and clean water. I have a friend who once had to hike without gear down a mountain in a thick, subtropical rainforest, following a flowing river—but because the water was so brackish, he couldn’t drink it, and by the time he reached a road, he was dangerously dehydrated. I won’t touch much on cleaning water in this post, but it is important to note whether a water source has been fouled by animals, is dangerously sterile with minerals or glacial till, or is infiltrated with salt water. That is, of course, unless you want a great bonding moment between your characters brought on by giardia and projectile vomiting! Most of these tips can be ignored if you are purposefully trying to up the stakes.
Consider packing: A water bottle, canteen, skin, cup, or other container
Plot nuggets: Planning travel around the availability of water, grumbling about the weight of carrying water (it’s the heaviest thing in your pack) only to get worried as the weight begins to lighten, straining leaves out of a canteen as you fill up.
It’s been a while since I read The Hunger Games, but one thing I remember is the backpack Katniss grabs right out of the gate in the first book. One of the items inside is a sleeping bag. High five, Suzanne Collins! Katniss probably couldn’t have survived her injuries without it!
Because we’re so insulated from the outside world, we tend to forget that nights get cold. Even in warm, humid climates, come dawn, your character’s body has cooled down, and they would be uncomfortable at the least. More risky are dry climates, which lose the heat of the day almost immediately upon the sun setting. If your characters are damp with sweat, or wet, or without a fire, a night outside with no protection can quickly devolve into hypothermia.
Just as important as a cover is protection from the ground below. We lose a lot of heat to lying on soil or rock. Plus, the ground is generally an extremely uncomfortable place to sleep. The best variation of sleeping gear would be big enough to wrap around the body. Don’t want to carry a bedroll? Do your characters wear cloaks? Awesome, use those. Cloaks are an amazing garment that in my opinion should have been forcibly revived by now.
Consider packing: A blanket big enough to roll up in, a bedroll or sleeping bag, a heavy cloak, a woven mat
Plot nuggets: Stiff necks and backs upon waking up, sleeping with a warm hat on, being wet with dew in the morning, begrudgingly snuggling together to share warmth.
Emily, you say. Isn’t this going a bit overkill? Just have your characters travel during the day.
Oh, proverbial reader, scoff if you want, but tell me, have you ever had an experience where something went wrong during a travel itinerary? Maybe your plane was delayed, or your Uber driver gave you a squicky feeling, or your GPS led you to Bob’s Country Bunker. Despite our most carefully-laid plans, things will often go awry while traveling. It’s no different on a foot quest.
Here, let me tell you a story:
Dateline July 2008, rural New Mexico. A group of three young, dingo-headed backcountry staff decide at approximately 5 PM that they are going to take the long way back to base camp, hiking off-trail down a rivercourse. The afternoon has been hot and dusty, and for a while hiking in the river is a welcome relief.
Until it gets dark.
Surprise! These three Sir Edmund Hillaries don’t have flashlights in their packs because they hadn’t considered how much longer the hike off-trail would be compared to on-trail. Darkness falls quickly and profoundly, slowing down their progress even more. By 9 PM, they’re finally out of the river, bruised, shivering, hungry, and still two miles from camp. After a long stumble across sagebrush flats, they roll into Tent City around 10 PM, tear into a couple of MREs like a pack of wolverines, and make a pact never to forget to pack a flashlight again.
(Spoiler: Exactly ten days later, they find themselves accidentally hiking at night again, this time twenty miles from base camp with a lost car key to boot, but at least this time, they have a flashlight.)
Don’t be my campmates and me. It makes for a great story afterward, but hiking blind at night is not only slow, it’s dangerous. A full moon might suffice in an open environment, but in forest or cloud cover, darkness can be almost absolute, and travel through anything rougher than flat ground nearly impossible. If your characters are traveling at night for stealth or to minimize the heat of the day, consider giving them a light source.
Consider packing: A lantern, a torch, a flashlight, a magical light source (Lumos!). Bonus: red- or blue-colored glass in a lantern will help preserve night vision.
Plot nuggets: Hiking at night can be terrifying. Every snap and sigh sounds like a bear. Even with a light, a hiker can develop tunnel vision from only seeing that one illuminated spot. It’s easy to lose your head in the dark, which can lead to great bonding moments between characters as they try to coach the other through the ordeal.
Okay, I almost left this one out, but the ranger in me wouldn’t allow it. I’ve seen too many people set out into the Grand Canyon wearing flip flops, and I’ve read too many characters who run off in bare feet or heeled dress shoes. Mae does it in Woodwalker after her boots rip apart. But she also gets blisters as a result.
If your character sets out in subpar footwear, they’re going to feel it before too long. This is something of a plot point in Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road--a sturdy set of boots is what facilitates Tess’ transformative journey in the first place.
Even a good set of shoes will chafe or blister given enough time, and blisters can be surprisingly debilitating. Footwear is particularly important if your characters are traveling in snow—blisters suck, but frostbite is worse.
Consider packing: Boots, sturdy shoes with good soles, sandals that don’t flap
Plot nuggets: A rookie traveler purchasing a brand-new pair of boots only for them to blister horribly the first day (boots should preferably be broken in before walking long distances). Cooling aching feet in a stream, identifying a “hot spot” before it turns into a blister, blisters where you least expect them (the knuckles of your toes, the pad of your foot, in between your toes).
I mean, obviously your characters need food (sit down, Legolas, nobody cares). The reason I left it for last is because this one is often the most easily come by, unless you’re drifting in a boat in the middle of the South Pacific for ninety days and you don’t want to eat Chris Hemsworth (“we’ve been stove by a whale!”). A character with a sense of the landscape can perhaps forage or hunt or barter with passersby. But depending on the land can be unreliable, or impossible in the wrong season, and there’s a very real chance of accidental poisoning. So if your characters can’t find food around them, they’re going to need to carry it with them. A lot of it.
Food is the biggest user of space in a typical pack. People need a lot of calories during rugged travel. I know someone who spent the last third of his Appalachian Trail through-hike basically shotgunning packets of peanut butter, because it was the lightest and most efficient food product he could carry. Trail food needs to be hearty and hard-wearing, able to store without spoiling, preferably not too heavy, and able to be packed down to take up as little room as possible.
Just as important as the type of food is how it’s being carried—it has to be contained in something that will keep it from getting wet or infested, or from spilling in the rest of the pack. Waxed paper, oilcloth, plastic (if your technology allows), tin cans, glass jars, corked bottles, or boxes are all options.
Consider packing: Hardy food in durable packaging. The options for this are endless, and will depend on your story’s technology, food culture, and length of journey.
Plot nuggets: Getting sick of the same food, or, alternatively, developing a surprising taste for tough fare. Badly-packaged food spilling or crumbling in a pack, prioritizing food that doesn’t have to be cooked, eating things you would never dream of eating on a typical day (after a grueling all-day trek, I once shared a pot with my campmates that contained all of the following: instant mashed potatoes, freeze-dried peas, chicken, buttermilk pretzels, and dehydrated spiced apples, all reconstituted with weak Gatorade. We ate it cold with tent stakes because we had no cutlery and were too tired to light our stove—and nothing could have tasted better. This was with the same two campmates mentioned previously.)
Obviously there are a lot more items that will make a character’s journey safer and more pleasant—some form of shelter, wayfinding materials (like a map), changes of clothes, a first aid kit, firelighting tools, and rain gear, to name a few. And of course many of these things can be improvised from the environment, rather than carried, which I’ll get into in part 2. But doing that requires a working knowledge beyond just basic hiking. If your character doesn’t have in-depth survival skills and is pressed for time, the essentials above could be the difference between life and death, or life and a supremely unpleasant journey. Give them water, food, dependable shoes, some kind of blanket or outwear, and preferably a light source.
And then take it all away and watch them panic!
April Art Roundup
A whole bunch of Queen's Thief fan art for a week-long Tumblr fanfest, and... that's about it.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator