Unconventional Gear

I love unconventional gear. Things you take on a backpacking trip or thru-hike that never make a gear list or line the shelves of your local outdoor store.

The piece I’m bringing on all upcoming backpacking trips is my pagna (think pawn-ya) from Burkina Faso. Twenty years ago I lived in a small village in the northern reaches of the West African country…drinking from the firehose of a Peace Corps experience… I was a recent college grad blundering my way through learning two new languages, working with local health staff to evaluate and address the pressing health needs of 15 small villages, and soaking in the culture of a place I never imagined I’d find myself.

In Africa, or at least West Africa, richly patterned and colored bolts of cloth were the foundation of the African wardrobe. Six-foot lengths of cotton, or pagnas, would be taken to the village tailor and sewn into shirts, dresses, brightly colored business suits, and any fashion we peace corps volunteers wanted (well kind of). We would tear out pages from a catalog, buy pagnas of flowers, intricate designs, or even historical figures (there were so many pagnas featuring Thomas Sankara…Burkina’s legendary leader from the 1980s…what a story there!), and take it to the tailor who would measure us for the fashion we desired, and two weeks later we turned up to get our new duds…sometimes a far cry from the beautiful dress we coveted in the catalog page.

These pagnas were also used to transport crops to market… giant bundles of mangos or onions would be tied up in the cloth and balanced on one’s head for the three-mile walk to the market. Babies would be tied to mother’s backs, and they could often be seen dozing as the moms worked the earth in the plots next to their mud and thatch huts….their little baby feet hanging out of the cloth, flopping around as they snoozed through the backbreaking work of subsistence farming.

Pagnas are a blanket when you need it, a towel after a swim, a skirt, dress, a way to keep the sun off your shoulders….and now, backpacking, it’s my luxury item.

Lately I’ve been using it to keep the most vicious mosquitoes away from my head, and drop it over me when it’s too hot to put on another layer. It’s a sheet when the hot nights make me dread my down sleeping bag. It’s a towel and wrap after a dip in a trail-side lake. It’s what I wear while doing laundry in a trail town. It’s a cape when I’m channeling my inner superhero. 


I’m down to my last Burkina Faso pagna. Its been squirreled away for the last 20 years, and now I need this touchstone to the experience that jumped my life off the tracks of a typical Midwestern upbringing. I’m grateful I had the chance to live in the sub-Saharan desert village and see that life had infinite possibilities (especially with all my privileges)…and it was up to me to imagine the unimaginable. 


Today it’s walking all day, every day through the world and trying to see it for what it is….

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