Here are some guidelines for creating a backpack care kit that can be really helpful to those who are roughing it or just down on their luck. This project is in Santa Fe, New Mexico so we have both cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers.
I design my kits for people who probably don’t have a permanent home which means they are not able to prepare food regularly, don’t sleep in the same place for very long, don’t have any safe place to store things and are possibly living and sleeping outside. I take into account that they may have to carry all or most of their belongings on their back and may not have ways to get back to anything they have stored once they move on. These conditions define the types of things which are useful to them and things which generally are not.
Large, bulky items like sleeping bags, bulky winter clothing, boots, heavy amounts of canned foods, heavy blankets, etc., are probably not good items for these backpacks. This is not to say that some people could not use them but I have decided my backpack project’s place is to supply clean, quality and portable items which cannot always be had at second-hand stores and can be universally useful (see backpack item sourcing list). Also, the packs should cater to those who must be mobile. Since we can’t be everything to everyone, I want to load my backpacks with specific items which are compact and useful. There are other projects which take on the task of dressing and feeding people and giving shelter.
The thing that drew me to this project other than its desperate need in the community was the fact that I could create my first backpack with almost no investment. I thought of the story of the monkey and the typewriter. It goes: If you sit a monkey in front of a typewriter it will eventually write the works of Shakespeare. The unspoken element here is time. The same with the backpacks. Once I had made up my contents list, I started buying things one at a time, as I could afford them. If I had $5 left over from a paycheck, that was enough to buy a few items on the list and I slowly accumulated a full pack and was off. There is no pressure here to produce so you can work at a rate which is comfortable for you. If your friends feel to chip in, so much the better.
The original YouTube video that inspired me was made by a couple in Tacoma, Washington [watch it HERE]. They said their goal was to build their packs for around $20 apiece. In the beginning, I also shot for this goal but now I have expanded the contents and the quality of the items so my packs actually cost around $30 apiece. I am all right with this as I feel good quality items means they will last longer, be more helpful and also raise the spirits of the recipients which means a lot. I have had feedback to this affect which has been very gratifying.
Backpacks: The backpacks themselves are one of the most valued items in our gift to our fellow travelers. They really become homes for people who are constantly on the move and I always try to find the best and sturdiest ones for the project. I’ve had many people thank me for the packs themselves. I find used packs in second-hand shops and particularly at garage/estate sales in my area. Also, simply asking friends has been very fruitful. It’s amazing how many backpacks languish in people’s garages just waiting for us.
Occasionally I have been gifted with new packs by supporters which is always wonderful. I am still looking for sources of new packs which are affordable.
A few things to know: We’re looking for medium sized packs, what are usually known as day-packs. These are bigger than children’s book bags and smaller than large backpacker’s packs. Frame packs are no good – I tried it – no one wants something that bulky. Also, the packs should be well-made, subdued colors, no prints, flowers or large advertising logos (small brand names are OK). The reason for this is that they should not attract attention or be embarrassing to the user. Things that attract attention are often stolen in their world or can instigate altercations, the last thing we want.
The packs should be nondescript but of the best quality possible. Since they will be heavily used, check them carefully for rips, open seams, broken zippers or damaged Velcro closures and repair these if necessary. If they are not really clean, I throw them in the washing machine which sometimes reveals flaws that need to be fixed. They have to be sturdy and clean with all the handles and straps intact. Cost-wise, I budget around $5 apiece for used backpacks with the actual range being $3-8 or so. I’ve found that if I tell people at garage sales about the project and show them some of the literature I carry in my car, they frequently will donate items in their sale which is a great help.
I have the contents of my packs divided into 4 rough categories. If you like, you can see a more detailed sourcing list HERE.
- - Clothing
- - Survival
- - Hygiene
- - Food
Clothing: As I said above, there are many sources for clothing, used and free, for people in need so I don’t consider clothing distribution to be my primary mission. Firstly, clothing is bulky and doesn’t fit into these medium sized backpacks. Also, clothing is sized and personal so would have to be distributed on a one-to-one basis. That is another worthwhile project and I want to stay focused on our backpacks.
That being said, I do include a few practical clothing items:
- Watch cap – again, subdued colors, black, gray, brown, one size fits all. Think “sleeping outside” for warmth.
- Warm scarf – I now cut these out of fleece I buy at the local fabric store. I get 4 scarves out of a yard of cloth, very warm and soft and does not require any hemming or stitching. I only distribute these in the winter.
- Gloves – medium weight gloves are actually hard to find. I buy light work gloves and am always happy to be given or find more substantial gloves. These are not only good for keeping people warm in winter but act as work gloves to protect their hands. I am looking for a good source for affordable, medium weight gloves.
- Socks – one of the most requested items. An attorney friend who works with homeless people told me he was told by a client that they were embarrassed to come see him because their feet smelled so bad. Fresh sox are a must. The size must be a men’s large to fit everyone. I get black or gray when I can find them at a good price but usually I am only able to find white sox in bulk. Try to get a thicker variety so they have some warmth.
Survival: These are general items valuable to anyone camping or innovating a shelter.
- Emergency (space) blanket – One of these once saved my life in a mountain blizzard and is one of the most important items in the packs. These NASA designed, foil-type blankets are designed to be wrapped as close to the body as possible and will hold in 90% of body heat. This can mean the difference of life or death on a freezing night. Get a double size if you can. They can be bought in bulk online at a reasonable price.
- Hand warmer packets – particularly in the winter they are nice. Also available in bulk online. In the summer I leave them out.
- Duct tape – I’ve found a dollar-store source for small rolls for $1 apiece. This is very versatile and can be used for everything from building a shelter to patching up a pack or even a wound.
- Paper, pen, Magic Marker – The Magic Marker is for signs, the pad is for notes to help bring some order into their lives.
- Sundries – Safety pins to hold clothing together, ear plugs to get some sleep in noisy environments, playing cards for fun and to forget how hard things can be. Also, they are a way of interaction which can be hard for some people to initiate.
Hygiene: This is the single most requested category of items. It is hard for people without homes to keep clean which they absolutely want to do. ALL the items in hygiene must be NEW. Opened or used items are unsanitary and are frankly, an insult. Take the time to source these items new. They are not that expensive.
- Microfiber washcloth – these serve as washcloths and towels and dry quickly. A dollar store item.
- Tooth brush, tooth paste – these must be new, of course, and in their original packaging. Check Wal-Mart or other discount stores, pharmacies.
- Deodorant – small, traveling size. Also discount pharmacies
- Disposable razors - Pharmacies in bulk
- Tampax - 1 each of three different sizes
- Hand sanitizer packets - Purchase in bulk online.
- A small roll of toilet paper - A small roll is enough and will fit in the pack.
- Hair brush – I find these to be more useful than combs. Dollar store items.
- Soap – many people give me small soap bars and bottles they have collected while traveling. Since these are individually packaged, they are great. I usually include 3-4 in every pack or can find them cheaply if I have to buy them.
- Shampoo, conditioner, lotion – the traveling tubes are great, the shampoo being the most important. They should be new and unopened. Check discount pharmacies.
- Laundry soap – Worst case scenario is I buy single load boxes at the laundromat for 75 cents apiece. Recently I found small bottles of a name brand product containing soap for 6 loads each for $1 apiece – a steal at the local dollar store. I have also now found single load packages in bulk online. Look around. This is an important item.
Food: So, this is a flexible category. I don’t feel perishables to be the most valuable part of this project as they are covered by many food banks, soup kitchens, etc., but they are a nice treat and always a help. Everything should be able to be eaten directly from the can, container without having to be heated or cooked. It may not be ideal but it’s better than being hungry. I shop around the local supermarkets for deals. After a while you’ll find where the best prices tend to be. Depending on the size of the packs, I try to include some of the following, the more the better:
Always include these:
- Can opener – This allows you to include cans which are not pop-tops (cheaper) and are good for them to have in their kit for the future.
- Eating utensils – plastic spoon, knife, fork
- Bottled water
- A large jar of peanut butter – one of the best and most popular proteins around
- Crackers – for substance
Include what you can of these:
- Canned beans or pork and beans – pop-top cans are good but I always include a can opener
- Canned tuna, chicken, Vienna sausages, sardines – some or all of these
- Apple sauce or fruit cocktail
- Granola or some type of power candy bars – 2 or 3 of these
- Juice boxes
A note: I always include a note of appreciation in each pack and reassurance that there are no strings attached to this gift.
My note reads: “This backpack and the stuff in it is FREE, a gift for you. I hope your day is good.”
That’s it. Once you have your first backpack, put it in your car and offer it to whomever you think can use it.
See our notes on how to distribute backpacks.