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Gear talk: backpacking mirrors

“Good grief!” I hear you exclaim, “he is on about bloody mirrors now”. Yep, I cannot fathom why backpackers venture out on trail without at least the smallest of mirrors. For the cost of little more than just a handful of grams a perfectly repectable mirror can be carried that will do double duty. Though I hope neither signaling nor First Aid is ever required. This is simply a glance at another of those little items many of us drag along while backpacking but don’t give much thought to.

Contents of First Aid Kit
My First Aid Kit includes my small and lightweight Victorinox mirror (top left)


It is many years since Three Points of the Compass ever felt the need to attempt to signal someone with a mirror. In fact, it is probably back in the eighties, on some bald Bavarian hills, where our little group of squaddies would signal, heliograph style, to companions a couple of kilometres away. It worked fine, though admittedly we had to remember morse, how to signal, had bright sunny weather with the sun in the correct aspect and had mirrors. All such old school, but, there may yet come the day. I doubt it though.

A very good blogpost that looks at mirrors specifically with signalling in mind can be found here. The author, John D. McCann, draws our attention to a preference for those mirrors that include a Retro-Reflective grid. Two such mirrors are shown below, a small square one and larger rectangular one. My problem with both of these is that the large central star flash sighting window detracts from what is the most useful purpose of a mirror.

I will not go into signalling with mirrors here, there are very good tutorials on YouTube, watch a couple and go and experiment. It isn’t a difficult thing to do. If you do choose to search out a small mirror with signalling in mind, be aware that cheap knock-offs have flooded the market over the years that closely mimic good well-made products yet are woefully poor in use. This page gives a little information on how to spot the fakes.

First Aid and hygiene

Which brings us to what Three Points of the Compass feels is the primary purpose of my mirror, and that is to see myself. Simple isn’t it?

OK, I could use a phone. But I don’t find that particularly easy when checking my eyes for dust and debris, cleaning muck from my face, clearing a deep scratch from my forehead, ears etc from close encounters with brambles or even when simply shaving. Give me a tiny mirror though and I’m set.

Peruse eBay and a few outdoor gear suppliers listings and there are any number of ‘survival’ mirrors available. The one below is just such an example. It is not well made. The reflective grid is poor, the sighting hole obscure, the compass fixed to the rear is pathetic, yet, as a mirror, it is functional. But isn’t it heavy? The larger acrylic miror shown at the end of this blog would be a far more useful and lighter option.

Acrylic signal mirror with mini compass
Acrylic signal mirror with useless mini compass on back. 76mm x 50mm. 33.6g
Acrylic signal mirror is a useful size
Acrylic signal mirror is a useful size

The small square acrylic mirror from BCB (NSN 6350-99-613-9818) has a retro reflective grid in the centre and is about as small as you can get as a useable mirror while still incorporating a ‘proper’ central signalling grid. I find the 16mm diameter central hole too much of a detraction from what is, to me, a mirror’s primary function- to see myself. The mirror comes with both corner lanyard hold and small thin lanyard. Remove it, it is not required.

UST make a Starflash Micro, so small (51mm x 38mm) that I’ve lost it. That also includes the large but good reflective grid. As with the BCB offering, the central hole lessens usefulness as an actual mirror.

That said, I’m not one to waste my money and the little BCB mirror sits in my simpler minimal First Aid Kit carried on day hikes.

Small signaling mirror from BCB has a good central sighting grid, which impacts on its usefulness as an actual mirror
Small signalling mirror from BCB has a good central sighting grid, which also impacts on its usefulness as an actual mirror
Small square acrylic signal mirror
Small square acrylic signal mirror from BCB. 49mm x 49mm. 10.1g
Central area of small signal mirror is taken up with sighting hole for signalling
Central area of small signal mirror is taken up with sighting hole for signalling

You may have come across the little polished metal ‘dog tag’ style signal mirrors. OK, these could, in an absolute emergency, be used to do something. There are many problems with these however. While double-sided, having a mirror surface on both faces, they scratch easily so really need to be kept in a small protective baggie, which removes any perceived usefulness in wearing it around the neck where it would be always to hand. Also, for such a tiny mirror, it weighs a lot- almost 14g for something only 53mm x 29mm. Again, there are better options.

Small polished metal 'dog tag' mirror
Double-sided polished metal ‘dog tag’ mirror. 53mm x 29mm. 13.8g
Metal 'dog tag' mirror with superfluous rubber surround ring removed
Metal ‘dog tag’ mirror with superfluous rubber surround ring removed

It can be seen that some backpacking mirror options can be surprisingly heavy, even small mirrors. Any glass mirror like those below is going to tip the scales way over a plastic alternative. Both glass mirrors below are unacceptable to my mind due to their excessive weights, never mind their greater susceptibilty to breakage. Particularly as the Victorinox option shown on this page weighs just 3.1g.

Small double faced glass mirror in plastic clamshell case
Small double faced glass mirror in plastic clamshell case. Each mirror face 59mm x 40mm. 39.4g
Large single face glass mirror in plastic clam shell case
Large single face glass mirror in plastic clam shell case. Mirror- 89mm x 89mm. 61.2g

Some hikers may feel the need to pack along a larger or cheaper mirror. That may be for shaving or brushing long hair, whatever, if that is what you want, then fine. A large acrylic mirror from Coghlans is shown below left, and at 11.8g it doesn’t weigh that much. Alternatively, the small plastic clamshell mirror and brush shown is a cheap option of a type readily available in just about any supermarket or large pharmacy however at 38.6g it is a heavy option.

Large acrylic mirror
Large acrylic mirror. 100mm x 70mm. 11.8g
Clamshell hairbrush with small glass mirror
Clamshell hairbrush with small glass mirror. Mirror oval is 58mm x 48mm. 38.6g

Some hikers may already be carrying a mirror. Full size Sighting compasses have a decent sized mirror as part of their construction, used while navigating. Even one of the smallest, the Silva Ranger SL (previously called the Type 27), has a perfectly adequate if much smaller mirror that will do double duty for anything else you require of it on trail.

The Ranger SL is small indeed, measuring just 58mm x 40mm x 13mm when closed. The 22g compass has a mirror measuring 33mm x 27mm.

Three Points of the Compass wrote recently on my First Aid Kit taken on multi-day hikes. This has a small mirror included in it so that it is immediately to hand for any first aid duty. I favour the thin flexible plastic mirror produced by Victorinox. It has a small sighting hole in the centre so could, at a push, be used for signalling. Which, as said above, is what I feel is very much a secondary purpose.

Silva Ranger SL is a small sighting compass, complete with small mirror
22g Silva Ranger SL is a small sighting compass, complete with small mirror measuring 33mm x 27mm

The mirror is mostly on duty for looking at myself. And it is used regularly for that. Unlike scruffier hikers, Three Points of the Compass shaves on trail, if only every 5-7 days, more important than that however is the nightly tick check. Tent contortion is all well and good, but for properly checking various crevices and the back, a mirror is just about essential. Should you actually find one of the little beasties embedded and have to remove it with either tick tweezers or a tick twister, then you will be thankful to have such a mirror. As before, this little thin (1mm) mirror has an easily scratched surface so I keep it in a small baggie. I have had this mirror for many years and have used it hundreds of times across thousands of miles of trails. I have blinked into it while removing dust from my eyes, have inspected cracked teeth, shaved, used it while performing tent acrobatics on nightly tick checks, sighted behind myself when applying tape to hipbelt rubbed sores… the list goes on.

Lightweight acrylic mirror with small sighting hole
Lightweight acrylic mirror with small sighting hole. 79mm x 40mm. 3.1g

1 reply »

  1. Interesting, I didn’t know these mirrors helped if they had a seeing eye hole in the middle. And, I recall learning that a mirror also ranks high on lost at sea, scenario. USA Coast guard ranks a mirror number 1, above rations, maps, water, radio, rope, fishing kit. I haven’t used mirrors much, but I didn’t know there were acrylic mirrors, or that, that’s what they are called. I’m also wondering if you will have a section on head wrappings or how to wrap a scarf around the head and temples, or what not. Do you often reuse a sweater or hoodie around your head? and oddly, having something soft to cover the ear tips, for some reason is helpful, maybe it has to do with adrenaline, or fear, or something. For me, it’s essential, as I’m wiry, when hiking, or hiking slopes or rocky areas. I guess overall section on safety, aye, mirrors, thanks. And does morse code sometimes really get associated with mirror signaling?


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