Scouts, messengers, pioneers exploring the frontiers of civilization - images of these sorts of characters paints an ancient archetype, one that I think could be useful to understand in present times. There may even be similar characters today. I'm hard pressed to find good information about these types of characters who scout out terrain, more specifically: what did their equipment and habits look like in their adventures?

To clarify my search: I'm trying to figure out the general pattern of equipment and habits (ways of life) among the characters I listed above. Who are those characters specifically: could be American frontier explorers (e.g. James Beckwourth or Hugh Glass) or mountain men, a per-Columbian Mesoamerican scout, perhaps even a messenger of civilizations past (I am especially interested in those traveling in uncharted terrain, so the messenger archetype may be less relevant given the use of roads, maps, and potentially backup and support en route). Military examples which focus on more than just an individual or small group aren't relevant to this question in that they apply much less to civilian interactions with the Great Outdoors.

I realize this varies by place & time, and that this may be better fit for history. To clear that up: I am interested in overall patterns, so specifics of a certain time/place are helpful but specifics from multiple times/places and comparisons thereof are even better. Since I am trying to extrapolate this to the present, to learn lessons about how I can prepare for and interact with the Great Outdoors today and in the future, I see this as relevant to TGO.SE. A comparison of past examples of gear/practices to modern equivalents is very welcome. There may be modern examples that could help answer my question too (e.g. if we look into the lives of relatively modern vagabonds or wilderness backpackers).

In case this is too broad, as if a book could be written about it: answers of books or resources already written about this are much help! So far, a lot of looking yields only small tidbits of info here and there, so I could use a well-marked trail to clarity by someone who has tried to answer this before.

To reiterate: what equipments and habits are common through times and places among scouts and people exploring frontiers, journeying through the Great Outdoors?

  • 1
    did/do looks oddly familiar...
    – OddDeer
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 19:42

3 Answers 3


Modern Day Adventurers

Answers to What are essential items in an emergency kit? identify patterns/guidelines about what equipment and skills to have in backcountry. This is relevant as it covers the most basic necessities for survival and rescue in case of emergency. However, I imagine those intentionally venturing and living out in the wild with purpose would prepare a little differently (time and place differences aside). The overall pattern of these basic survival necessities is phrased more or less by survival instructor Dave Canterbury as "5 Cs of Survivability: a cutting tool, a combustion device, cover, a container, and cordage."

Another example may be found in Long Range Recon Patrols which appears to be an extensive modern take/application related to this question. It is military in context but can apply to individuals or small groups, and civilian activities of scouting and recon of the Great Outdoors. For one look at it: This Survival Outpost web page outlines some military history & civilian context, mindset, and gear for this sort of thing, along with a story of testing it out. Boiled down: the context is gathering info on an environment while leaving minimal trace; the mindset is patient and focused tuning into the environment; and the equipment covers the categories of survival (fire, water, shelter, food), self-protection, observation kit, and health (sanitation kit, medical kit, and trauma kit), with more specific gear included in the lengthy article.

Lastly, general backpacking and trekking information may offer a lot of insight to answer this question in a modern context. Will have to sum some of that up later but there is lots of info on it. The difference with this might be that treks and backpacking trips tend to be a brief, occasional adventure rather than a regular occupation such as it might have been for a pre-Columbian scout going out weeks at a time.

American Frontiersmen of 1600-1800s

The Wikipedia article on Mountain Men Mode of Living is very relevant, generalizing gear and lifestyle of early-mid 19th century explorers of the American frontier:

Most trappers traveled and worked in companies. Their typical dress combined woolen hats and cloaks with serviceable Native American-style leather breeches and shirts. Mountain men often wore moccasins, but generally carried a pair of heavy boots for rough terrain. Each mountain man also carried basic gear,[7] which could include arms, powder horns and a shot pouch, knives and hatchets, canteens, cooking utensils, and supplies of tobacco, coffee, salt, and pemmican. Items (other than shooting supplies) that needed to be "at hand" were carried in a "possibles" bag. Horses or mules were essential, in sufficient number for a riding horse for each man and at least one for carrying supplies and furs.

The reference in that passage is to the following book which may be worth checking out, I'm not familiar with it yet: Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men: A Guide to the Equipment of the Trappers and Fur Traders Who Opened the Old West. Skyhorse Publishing. 2010. p. 480. ISBN 1602399697.

A similar account is given of life as a "woods runner": skilled rugged outdoorsmen, "competent in a range of activities including fishing, snowshoeing and hunting." "To one Jesuit, venturing into the wilderness suited "the sort of person who thought nothing of covering five to six hundred leagues by canoe, paddle in hand, or of living off corn and bear fat for twelve to eighteen months, or of sleeping in bark or branch cabins." In terms of gear, the article only mentions trade goods, not necessarily personal equipment. A potentially useful (also personally unfamiliar) reference from that article: Volo, James M.; Volo, Dorothy Denneen (2002). Daily Life on the Old Colonial Frontier. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 176–177. Retrieved October 5, 2015.

Not finding a lot of info on pre-Columbian or primitive examples, which would be a good thing to compare to as a foundation for our modern context.


In terms of self sufficiency in the wild there are two main approaches, the first is to take everything you need with you in as lightweight as form as possible the second is to avoid carrying consumables (food fuel etc) and focus more on the tools and knowledge required to obtain what you need from your environment.

Clearly there is some crossover between these approaches and much will depend on the environment and your attitude to risk.

Similarly there is a big difference between putting up with a degree of hardship to achieve a goal and long term comfortable and sustainable living.

So we can perhaps break the problem into 3 stages

1) Basic survival for a few days or weeks 2) Living and working in an area for a season 3) Long term settling in an area.

As you look more towards a long term view the emphasis shifts more towards tools and durable equipment rather than ultralight and minimal gear.

Compared to lightweight hiking you might also find that you are relying much more one fire rather than tents or clothing for your basic shelter needs.

An excellent book on this subject is 'The Survival Handbook' by Ray Mears which is a really in depth manual covering the absolute fundamentals like tanning hides and bow making, not to be confused with his more commercial later works.

In terms of basic equipment there are a few key things :

  • knife: a small handy cutting tool which is easy to keep sharp and use for domestic tasks such as dressing game, making tools, wood carving etc etc
  • hatchet: or billhook, kukri, machete depending on the local environment and personal preference, used for cutting and splitting timber for firewood, building shelters and jointing large game.
  • tinderbox: permanent means of making sparks plus constantly replenished supply of dry tinder
  • 'possibles pouch' sundry useful items such as needle and thread. fish hooks,
  • medical supplies
  • cooking equipment: in the long term this is more likely to be a fairly substantial cooking pot for boiling water and stewing than a stove, for solo trips this might just be a metal mug or billy can to use over an open fire.

Also at the longer term end of the spectrum you may also be looking at carrying more specialist hand tools which you wouldn't remotely consider for hiking for more advanced woodworking, food preparation, digging etc.

There is also the consideration that specialist skills and local knowledge allowing you to exploit local plants and animals for food, shelter etc can have a huge bearing.

Clothing would emphasize durability rather than light weight and if you are using an open fire natural fibres are less melty. Similarly wool and cotton work better in the long term than synthetics.

  • Nice high-level answer, can serve as a framework for understanding how/why various pioneers, scouts, explorers, etc. generally go about their business
    – cr0
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 22:36
  • I hope to add more detail through edits as I have more chance to think it through, it's certainly a very interesting question. There is a lot to say about it, it's just a question of organising it into a concise answer :) Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 22:38
  • Ya that's why I started to tackle it based on time & place - modern, American frontier, pre-Columbian era are the main sets of examples that come to mind which I'm interested in to answer this. Starting with generalizations on top and zooming in on specific examples can be good to. Looking forward to see where this trail/question goes.
    – cr0
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 22:41

This focuses more on attributes (habits) rather than equipment, since much of my study of history suggests that the possession (or lack) of equipment and/or supplies does not always determine success or failure on an expedition (so many explorers experienced equipment failure/loss). Instead, it is one's attributes and knowledge that contribute most to success - and this probably hasn't changed over the centuries.

In Outdoor Survival Skills, author and survivor/explorer Larry Dean Olsen lists some of the attributes that survivors possess:

  • Determination...
  • A positive degree of stubbornness...
  • Well-defined values...
  • Self-direction...
  • A belief in the goodness of humankind...
  • Cooperative...
  • A utopian attitude...
  • A survivor accepts the situation as it is and improves it from that standpoint.

I think this is a very good list to start with, before even considering equipment, which can vary tremendously. Equipment is unimportant when compared to your own personal attributes and knowledge. If one does not possess most of the above attributes, then he/she should keep his outdoor travel somewhat close to civilization (physically or via communication) in case of emergency. This person would also need to rely heavily on modern equipment.

Mr. Olsen tells a true story of Zeke Sanchez who was dropped off “from a small boat onto a bleak stretch of the shore of Lake Powell in southern Utah.” Zeke set off with no gear or supplies (so he could travel fast), to catch up with an outdoor survival group that was 3 days ahead of him,

“in some of the most beautiful but forbidding desert land in North America. He was dressed in jeans, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt, and on his head was tied a large bandana… Three days later, Zeke caught up to his… group, well watered and sassy from eating pack rats, cicadas, mahonia berries, biscuit-roots, Chenopodium, and cactus fruits. He sported two new ratskin possibles pouches, a woven rice grass sleeping mat, a greasewood digging stick, two dozen Paiute deadfall triggers, firesticks, twenty feet of cliffrose rope, a jasper knife, a bone weaving awl, an unfinished serviceberry bow stave, and a whole bundle of reed grass arrowshafts.”

Notice the list of items that Zeke carried after three days. Obviously, these are what he considered to be an essential equipment list. But he didn't start with them! He had the knowledge to make them from what nature offered.

Mr. Olsen and Mr. Sanchez are modern survivalists who thrive in the outdoors. Other survivalists that immediately spring to mind are Hugh Glass, whom you already mentioned, and John Colter.

Hugh Glass (The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and Mountain Man by John Myers Myers) was forced into service on a pirate ship, escaped off the coast of Texas around 1820, was captured by Indians, escaped after two years (he learned a lot from them), then hired on with a fur trapping outfit heading for the Rocky Mountains. En route, Glass was mauled by a grizzly and left for dead. (The company was in a hurry and two trappers were left behind to help Glass recover or bury him when he died. He wouldn’t recover or die, so the two trappers finally left him for dead. They took everything but his blanket.) He somehow survived, recovered on his own, and traveled hundreds of miles, alone, without supplies, driven by vengeance to find those who had left him for dead. He eventually explored all over the American west for about 20 years, almost always alone, before finally being killed by Indians. Hugh Glass had the attributes of a survivor in addition to knowledge of how to survive.

Another explorer of considerable note is John Colter who first went west with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. (This expedition was well documented with at least three members keeping journal records throughout. Lots of mistakes, equipment failures, disasters, and lessons learned. Try The Way to the Western Sea by David Lavender.) He was an invaluable aid to the expedition, often hunting and exploring on his own. After spending two and a half years exploring the Missouri and Columbian Rivers, the expedition floated down the Missouri River, back to civilization, without Colter. He remained in the wilderness for four more years, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups. His two most well-known expeditions include (see John Colter: His Years in the Rockies by Burton Harris):

  1. While working at a fort, built by Manuel Lisa’s fur trading company, John Colter agreed to notify neighboring Indian villages of the new trading post. He then traveled, on foot, throughout the region of what is now known as Yellowstone National Park, discovering geysers, enormously rugged mountains, and high snow-covered mountain passes.

    “The trail he made through approximately five hundred miles of mountainous terrain would not be easy for the hiker of today to follow with the assistance of modern maps and roads. The magnitude of Colter’s performance can only be appreciated by bearing in mind that most of the journey was made in the severe winter months, and that in some manner he made his way through jumbled mountain ranges that frequently baffle those who have lived in them all their lives.”

    The author states that it is known that Colter carried 30 pounds of equipment and supplies and, in addition, he carried an essential selection of trade goods that would have made his pack considerably heavier. Unfortunately, he does not specifically list the contents of Colter’s equipment and supplies.

  2. On an expedition in present-day Montana, John Colter was surprised and captured by over 800 Blackfeet Indians. After being captured and his partner killed, John Colter’s captors decided to make sport of him, stripping him naked and telling him to run over a plain pocked with prickly pear cactus. They gave him a short lead, then pursued. Colter outran the Indians and managed to completely evade them that night.

    “…having escaped from the Indians, his situation was still dreadful: he was completely naked, under a burning sun; the soles of his feet were entirely filled with the thorns of the prickly pear; he was hungry, and had no means of killing game, although he saw abundance around him, and was at least seven days journey from Lisa’s Fort…. He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on a root….”

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