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Backpacking Survival Gear Checklist

Backpacking Survival Gear Checklist

Backpacking trips and day hikes don’t always go as planned. The weather can change unexpectedly. You can injure yourself and you might come across someone who needs help. Different times of the year can also necessitate carrying different types of survival tools or supplies. While you can technically view all of the gear that you bring on backpacking trips or day hikes (including food, layered clothing, etc) as survival gear, many people leave out items that you’d want in a true emergency, when your trip plan goes off the rails. It happens, even to people with a lot of experience.

Here’s a checklist of survival gear to help you decide what to bring, annotated with suggestions about their purpose and utility.

Emergency Communication Devices

Cell Phone: Texting 911 or a trusted friend on a cell phone is the most effective way to summon search and rescue assistance in locations that have cell tower access. It should be tried before contacting search and rescue services with a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon. Texting is preferred over voice contact because it uses less energy and preserves your smartphone battery longer.

Satellite Messenger: These devices include the Garmin inReach and inReach Mini, the Spot Gen 3, and Spot X. They provide two-way text messaging or email communication via a satellite communications link in areas where a cell phone or landlines are unavailable. They operate over private networks and require a subscription fee, like a cell phone. They can also summon public Search and Rescue services in an emergency: Garmin inReach mini 2, or the SPOT Gen4. Note: The SPOT X is a terrible product and we strongly recommend you avoid it (click for review).

Personal Locator Beacon: These devices will send an SOS message via satellite over a public network, They are less expensive than Satellite Messengers because they run on public satellite links, but also more limited in their functionality. People carry a satellite messenger or a personal locator beacon, but not both. Arc ResQLink+GPS PLB.

Loud Whistle: If you need to get someone’s attention, you can blow a loud whistle for longer than you can yell. They’re very handy to use when you lose sight of a hiking partner but know they’re nearby. Fox 40 Classic Safety Whistle, Windstorm Safety Whistle.

Signal Mirror: Used for signaling search and rescue aircraft to help them locate your position when flying overhead. Coghlan’s Featherweight Mirror.

Emergency Shelter and Insulation

Emergency Blanket/Bivy Bag: Reflects your body heat to help keep you warm. Also good for warming a hypothermic person. An emergency bivy sack is warmer because it provides better wind protection. Space Emergency Blanket, SOL Emergency Bivy Bag

Sleeping Pad: Provides insulation from the ground in case you unexpectedly need to spend the night out. Also good to prevent hypothermia induced by cold ground contact by an injured person. Foams pads are the most durable and lightest weight. Therm-a-Rest Zlite Sol, Blue Foam Pad

Bivy Sack: Minimalist emergency shelter in case you unexpectedly need to spend the night out. A significant step up from a mylar Emergency Bivy in terms of durability. Outdoor Research StarGazer Bivy Sack, Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy.

Tarp: A tarp can provide a minimalist shelter at night or give you a place to shelter under during the day in heavy rain. REI Quarter Dome SL Tarp, All Purpose Blue Tarp.

Tent: On long day hikes, it can be prudent to bring a tent if there’s a significant chance you’ll have to spend the night out. Carrying the rain fly of a double-wall tent may be sufficient by itself because you can wrap yourself up in it together with your insulation like a bivy sack.

Tools and Protection

Folding Saw: Good for cutting firewood or fashioning a splint. Silky Folding Saw, Sven Folding Saw.

Magnetic Compass: Reliable form of direction-finding. Baseplate compasses like the Suunto A10 or the Silva 1-2-3 are inexpensive, reliable, and break-resistant.

Paper Map: For local area.

Emergency Matches, Lighter or Sparker: Provides a method for generating sparks to start a fire. Learn how to start a fire with tinder if you don’t know-how. UCO Stormproof Matches, Bic Mini Lighter.

Fire Starter/Tinder: Vaseline dipped cotton balls, drier lint, or commercial fire starters like Lightning Nuggets, Wetfire Tinder.

Headlamp or Flashlight: One of the 10 essentials. In addition to being a psychological comfort, a headlamp or flashlight allows you to safely move around outdoors at night without falling. A cell phone makes a pretty poor flashlight. Petzl e+Lite, Fenix Headlamp

Backup Water Purification Method: A second water filter or purification method in case your primary method breaks or fails. Chlorine Dioxide Tablets, Lifestraw.

Extra Batteries: Match batteries to all of the vital electronic devices you carry or carry a multi-purpose power pack with different recharging adapters. Anker 10,000 mAh Power Bank.

Multi-Tool: Includes folding knife and basic tools. Good for gear repair, particularly in winter for repairing damaged skis or traction. Scissors can also be helpful for applying first aid. Leatherman Micra, Leatherman Squirt, Swiss Army Classic

Survival Knife: Sturdy knife that can be used to cut material, feather-stick, and split firewood. Mora Companion Knife, Gerber StrongArm Tactical Knife.

Bear Spray: Spray a cloud at the head of a charging bear as a deterrent. Counter Assault.

Extra First Aid Kit Items

These items are often left out of consumer first-aid kits or are not provided in sufficient quantities to be applied more than once. In a true emergency, you’d want multiple doses.

Anti-Diarrhea Medication:  Helps prevent runny stools and dehydration and increase personal comfort if you contract a stomach disorder or have eaten something that disagrees with you. Imodium tablets

Anti-Allergy Medication: Reduce allergic reactions to insect stings and other substances. Can also be used as a sleep aid. Benedryl tablets.

Anti-Inflammatory Medication: Helps reduce pain and swelling.  Ibuprofen, Allieve.

Aspirin: Specifically as a blood thinner to prevent a heart attack.

Quick Clotting Agent: Trauma aid used to stop massive bleeding. Quick Clot

Sam Splint: Lightweight split that can be bent to splint many common injuries. Sam Splint.

Blister bandages: Padded and slippery to increase comfort, accelerate healing, and prevent additional irritation after blisters have occurred. Band-Aid Hydro-Seal Bandages, Compeed.

Blister Prevention Tape: Protective tape applied to the skin and over hot spots to help reduce foot friction and prevent blisters before they occur. Leukotape Sports Tape, Moleskin

Irrigation Syringe: Plastic syringe useful for irrigating cuts and wounds to clean out debris and prevent infection. Best used with clean and purified water. Also useful to backflush water filters. Plastic syringe.

Medical Exam Gloves: Protects caregiver against potentially infectious body fluids of a patient. Nitrile Gloves.

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  1. You forgot training. Probably the most important item someone can bring is some training. A NOLS Wilderness First said course is a good place to start.

    • Wilderness First Aid is really just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to true survival.

    • SectionHiker often points out that knowledge, research and planning are more important than gear, and that what you carry between your ears weighs nothing, but this may be a good place to repeat the point. This may also be a good place to underline SectionHiker’s longstanding advice on always leaving a copy of your plans with someone who knows how and when to call the authorities in case you’re overdue. Preparation is not principally about gear.

  2. A ranger told me to aim bear spray at the ground in front of a charging bear, not at the bear itself. In the moment, though, I’m pretty sure bear spray would be flying in every direction.

  3. Philip I keep the aqua mira drops in my kit as a back up does it go bad after a while.

  4. One of the hardest things for me in transitioning from traditional backpacking to a lighter approach was choosing what first aid and survival items to leave at home, such as SAM splints, CPR mask, fixed-blade knife, etc. When day hiking (and not carrying shelter and sleeping bag) I always carry an extra large garbage bag. It’s intended as an emergency bivvy, though I’ve never needed to use it for that. I have used it to sit or lie on to keep dry from wet or snowy ground. I’ve also used it as part of improvising a litter to carry an injured patient (in training, not in a real emergency.) I’ve even used it to carry out trash left behind by others. Duct tape is also incredibly versatile, for repairing gear, covering bandages, improvising splits and braces, etc. Leukotape is better on the body and Tenacious Tape is better on gear, but duct tape does it all in a pinch. I also carry extra toilet paper, not just for the same reason as carrying Imodium, but also to go over a sterile bandage (not against the wound.)

    • A CPR mask is no longer recommended for CPR. They just want you to do chest compressions.

      • Yeah, true. I haven’t re-certified in first aid and CPR about 5 years, so I need to do that. A lot changes.

      • If your in the middle of a survival situation and you give two shits about the person you’re trying to revive believe me, you don’t worry about swapping a little spit.

      • “A CPR mask is not recommended” is a bit misleading, according to what I was taught as part of WFR. While they are no longer teaching rescue breathing in Community CPR, it is still part of CPR for Professional Rescuers. The point being that the most important part is compressions and people should do that even without rescue breathing. Rescue breathing is still valuable and recommended.

        Otherwise, this is an excellent list.

      • Mask depends on level of training. If you were trained in breathing, bringing one is a good idea. You will quite likely swap a lot more than spit.

        There is also a device called NuMask which is inserted in the mouth behind the lips. Much easier to seal than a traditional mask, it is very compact, and it stays in place while you do compressions.

  5. A short comment about radios, FRS/GMRS walkie talkies are great for keeping in touch around camp and for short separations on the trail, but the 30-35 mile range manufacturers print on packages is unrealistic for most terrain. On my local flat wooded trails, they max out at only a half mile. That’s not enough range to really count on for emergency equipment.

    In areas with GMRS repeaters, or even amateur radio repeaters, these ranges can be greatly extended, out to a few tens of miles. But that’s another level of complexity, requiring FCC licensing and more sophisticated walkie talkies.

  6. Tip from ER physician and hiking enthusiast, giving a course on first aid at the local outdoors shop:
    If you have extra medical gloves but not an irrigation syringe, you can nick a glove fingertip with pin or knife (flame the tip of the sharp implement if dirty) and then partially fill with clean water and squirt at wound.

    Also, self-clinging bandages are a great option for holding in place splints or absorbant pads covering a wound. They don’t weigh much, and are easier to work with than non-cling bandages. Women’s sanitary napkins are cheap large clean absorbant pads for covering wounds.

    Garbage bags, large and small, are good for all sorts of uses, including picking up after other more careless hikers.

  7. I noticed that bear spray was recommended for brown and grizzly bears not black bears. I wonder why. I have read where weaker sprays like Halt or Dog Shield are sufficient for black bears, but that the more powerful sprays work too. For me the range of the powerful sprays seems kinda handy!

    • Because Black Bear don’t attack and eat people. They’re wimps and run away.

      • Phillip,
        Like hell black bears are wimps and run away. In the past 5 years two people in independent situations were killed by black bears in West Milford, NJ, my location.

        I would like to add chemical heaters and rope to your list. If one fails to be able to generate a fire for warmth to ward off hypothermia, chemical heaters are a great survival asset. Rope plays a big part in survival. There are so many ways it can support you. Normally, 50 ft. of paracord is recommended. I use a stronger rope that I can use for a safe repel or climb if necessary.

        Previously, I had mentioned bee pollen as a stimulant. Did you have the opportunity to try it?

  8. I agree with the commenter who stated “duct tape” is incredibly versatile for a multiplicity of uses on the trail.

    Under “Tools & Protection” is listed a “Paper Map.” Ideally, one has a waterproof topographical map, but if one only has a “paper” map then please have that paper map inside a zip-lock freezer bag for protection from rain and other moisture since paper will wither away in your hands if it become wet, and especially water soaked.

    As an individual who backpack solo in Northwest Canada and Alaska where there are browns, I have trepidation carrying only “bear spray” on my person. If one is being charged by a bear while hiking up-wind then that bear spray’s fine mist is going to blow back into your eyes and throat for inhalation. You will be spraying yourself. I always carry in addition to bear spray on my person a large air-horn canister that when blasted, the sound is as loud as the horns on a tractor-trailer truck. Print on the side of the canister say the sound carries up to one mile away. I am ready to deploy the air horn if I am hiking up-wind or if I am uncomfortable and feel threatened as I come to a roaring creek area enmeshed in tall, thick brush.

    Phillip, I must disagree respectfully with your statement that black bears will not attack and eat people; that they are wimps and run away. Many instances are recorded down under in the contiguous 48 states where black bears have attacked individuals, mauling them and killing them. In Utah, a black bear came into camp one night and grab an adolescent in his tent dragging him away and killing the kid. Additionally, above the lower 48 I have deep respect for black bears, especially if I come across some cubs on the trail.

    • Oh goody. Bear hysteria.
      For the most part black bears are harmless except when you come across one while running or mountain biking and surprise it, you cook in your tent, lather grape jelly hair gel in your hair, get between a mother and cub, your dog attacks one or won’t stop barking at it in a threatening way, or its been habituated to human food by thru-hikers.
      I have a deep respect for black bears too. I make lots of noise when I’m in their territory. But I don’t live in fear of them and don’t carry bear spray or a gun along the east coast because I’m afraid of them. Carry bear spray if its a concern.

      • I don’t know if you read these comments on articles that are this old, but I thought I might mention in case you can pass it along: I learned the hard way that CounterAssault Bear Spray only has about half the range they advertise on the can. Fortunately the bear scampered anyway, perhaps spooked by the big orange cloud coming towards it.

    • Do you know of any studies that state that air horns are useful? I have one and think it is worth using before a bear gets close enough for spray or when you are in your tent. I did read one account where the air horn angered the bear.

  9. Bothy bag is in my winter day trip lists. For 3-season day hikes, my new Six Moon Designs floorless Deschutes Plus tarp tent will be going along.

  10. I added a nasalpharyngeal airway to my first aid kit and prefer the softer one, it goes in easier and the harder plastic ones, I have noticed, tend to cause bleeding in the nasal cavity. If you get one, please learn how to use it first. I like to carry the tactical IFAK they have most everything that is needed, I use them in the military and on the civilian side I add things like bandaids.

  11. You mention a saw as a splint. Trekking poles can work and there are methods for making traction splints out of them. Sleeping pads wrapped around a fracture can be effective as well. Pack stays could be used in some cases.

    Also, when woking on a patient, as much as possible use their stuff for warmth, bandages, splints, etc. It’s really easy to forget they may have a pack full of stuff as well.

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