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Hiking and Backpacking Survival Gear

Hiking and Backpacking Survival Gear

Day hikes and backpacking trips don’t always go as planned and it pays to equip yourself with extra survival and emergency gear if you get lost or injured when hiking in a more remote area like a national park, national forest, or state park. On average, it takes 1 hour for search and rescue to arrive, for every quarter mile you travel from a trailhead. That means you may need to fend for yourself for quite a long time before help can arrive. The best defense is to carry a few extras for emergencies and leave a detailed plan of your route with a trusted friend who can call 911 to go look for you if you’re overdue.

What can go wrong on a hike?

  • Your hike may take much longer than you expect and the sun may go down.
  • You can get lost.
  • You can run out of water.
  • The weather can change unexpectedly for the worse in a life-threatening way.
  • You or a member of your party can have a health emergency like a heart attack or a sprained ankle and be unable to walk out on your own power.
  • You might come across someone else who needs help.
  • Your car breaks down going or returning from a hike in the middle of nowhere.

While advances in satellite communications now make it possible to signal for help when you’re out of cell phone range, it’s considered bad form to call out a Search and Rescue Team, many of who are unpaid volunteers, for a rescue that could have been avoided if you’d been better prepared. Many states now charge people for rescue services if they’re not equipped with basic gear and the fines can be very costly, totaling thousands of dollars.

Here’s an annotated list of frequently carried survival gear items to help you understand what the most important items to carry are, along with explanations about their purpose and utility. I carry many of these myself because you never know what’s going to happen when you step off the beaten path.

For instance, I’ve conducted CPR on hikers who’ve collapsed on trails, rehydrated hikers who were dehydrated, patched countless cuts, scrapes, bruises, and blisters, jump-started cars, changed flat tires, been overtaken by violent thunderstorms and had water filters break days from civilization. Stuff happens, but you can prevent it from ruining a hike or a backpacking trip with a little preparation.

Emergency Communication Devices

Garmin inReach Mini 2
Garmin inReach Mini 2

Cell Phone

Texting or dialing 911 on a cell phone is the most effective way to summon search and rescue assistance in locations that have cell tower access. This should be tried before contacting search and rescue services with a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon. Most states have well-defined protocols for summoning search and rescue assets that start with a call to the 911 dispatcher. Texting uses less cell phone battery power than a voice call and can often get through with weak cellphone access when a phone call can’t. If you are lost, the dispatcher can also ping your phone to get a GPS fix on your location and give that to search and rescue personnel so they can find you fast.

Satellite Messenger

Satellite messengers 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 monthly subscription fee, like a cell phone. When you push the SOS button on one of these devices, the dispatchers will contact search and rescue on your behalf, even if you are outside the United States, to render assistance. The best satellite messengers including the Garmin inReach Mini 2, provide two-way communications, which is very much like texting someone on a smartphone. Satellite messengers have become very popular in recent years and can also be used for non-emergency communication with friends or loved ones.

Personal Locator Beacon

A personal locator beacon will send an SOS message via satellite over a public network and can operate internationally, including on the ocean. They are less expensive than satellite messengers because they run on free public satellite links, but they are only one-way communication devices that can only signal for help. People carry a satellite messenger or a personal locator beacon like the Arc ResQLink+GPS PLB but not both.

Loud Whistle

If you need to get someone’s attention, you can blow a loud whistle for longer than you can yell without losing your voice. They’re also very handy to use when you lose sight of a hiking partner but know they’re nearby. I recommend using a Fox 40 Classic Safety Whistle. It’s much louder than the toy whistles that backpack manufacturers put on sternum straps,

Signal Mirror

In certain locales, a signal mirror like the UST Starflash Mirror or the Coghlan’s Featherweight Mirror. is useful for signaling search and rescue aircraft so they can pinpoint your location when flying overhead. For example, if you’re being chased by a lion, a signal mirror can facilitate an immediate rescue and is much faster than sending a GPS location to rescuers who still have to search for you on the ground.

Emergency Shelters

A tarp is a lightweight piece of survival gear.
A tarp is a lightweight piece of survival gear that can double as an ultralight shelter.

Emergency Blanket/Bivy Sack

A reflective mylar emergency blanket or bivy sack is good for staying warm if you get caught after dark, the weather turns for the worse, or you’re wet and start to get cold. They only weigh a few ounces but can be a lifesaver if you need one or you come across someone who is injured and needs to stay warm until help can arrive. An emergency bivy, which is shaped like a sleeping bag, is better than an emergency blanket because it stops more wind from chilling you although you shouldn’t line on the ground with it unless you’re on a foam or other insulated pad. Some good options include the  SOL Escape Light Bivy and the SOL Emergency Bivy.

Bivy Sack

A bivy sack is a minimalist emergency shelter for when you need to unexpectedly spend the night out. It is a significant step up from a mylar emergency bivy sack in terms of durability, but usually lacks heat-reflective capabilities and is more like a tent in that respect. It’s best used with a sleeping bag and a foam pad to prevent heat loss through the ground.

Tarp w/Cord

A tarp with cord guylines can provide a minimalist shelter at night or give you a place to shelter under during the day in heavy rain. It doesn’t have to be large, just big enough to stretch between trees. Try the REI Quarter Dome SL Tarp or the Paria Sanctuary Siltarp.

Tools and Protection

A compass doesn’t require batteries to point the way.
A compass doesn’t require batteries to point the way.

Magnetic Compass and Physical Map

Powered by the earth’s magnetism, a compass does not require a power source to use and is a good way to preserve your other battery-powered gear. Baseplate compasses like the Suunto A10 or the Silva 1-2-3 are inexpensive, reliable, and break-resistant. Be sure to carry a physical version of a map as well, and a waterproof one if it’s available.

Headlamp or Flashlight

A headlamp or flashlight is 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 and won’t last long. Try the Black Diamond Spot Headlamp or the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp. In winter, it’s useful to carry two headlamps since it gets dark so early and the nights are so long.

Bic Lighter and Tinder

A lighter and tinder provide an easy method of starting a fire so you can get warm or signal rescuers if you get lost or in an emergency. Practice it so you know how to collect dry wood and build up a fire. Carry a Bic Mini Lighter and SOL TinderQuik, or a homemade tinder such as egg carton cells filled with wax and wood chips or vaseline-dipped cotton balls.

Backup Water Purification Method

Bring a second water filter or purification method in case your primary method breaks or fails. I carry chlorine dioxide tablets, as a backup for my water filter. One tablet makes 1 liter of water safe to drink in 15 minutes.

Extra Batteries

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

Multi-Tool/Pocket Knife

It’s handy to carry a small multi-tool for basic gear repair or for applying first aid. In winter, it’s also good for repairing damaged skis, snowshoes, or microspikes. Scissors can also be helpful for applying first aid. The Leatherman Micra, Leatherman Squirt, and Swiss Army Classic all come with scissors, which is the tool I use the most often on hikes and backpacking trips.

Bear Spray

Spray a cloud at the head of a charging bear as a deterrent. Try Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray. This is only required in big bear habitats.

Extra First Aid Kit Items

Commercial first aid kits are a rip-off. You’re much better off assembling your own.
Commercial first aid kits are a rip-off. You’re much better off assembling your own.

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, but there’s usually no need to bring the entire package.

Anti-Diarrhea Medication: Helps prevent runny stools and dehydration and increases 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. Bayer Aspirin. 

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 that is 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 between trips. Plastic syringe.

Medical Exam Gloves: Protects caregiver against potentially infectious body fluids of a patient. Nitrile Gloves. If you’ve never taken a Wilderness First Aid Class, it’s a skill that will prove useful multiple times in your hiking career, both for self-care and care for others.

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  1. New iPhone 14 with iOS 16 have a new emergency satellite service built in. just needs setting up. First two years are free.

    I suspect Star link and its forthcoming iPhone alternative/ competitor will provide sat comm capabilities, including emergency alerts.

    FYI, I took a amateur radio handi-talkie (ht) on my recent section hike of the GA A.T.. Had great comms with local hams who tracked my trip and offered assistance if needed. The Suches GA repeater is the only frequency needed for GA. My daughter was also able to track me using amateur radios APRS system.

    The FCC has approved some additional privileges to the common bubble pack FRS/GMRS radios. There’s talk among users of creating an APRS like system for that class of radio.

  2. I can’t wait to try out my new signal mirror the next time I am being chased by a lion.

  3. The most important pieces of “equipment” any hiker can bring backpacking are to develop skills and be realistic in your assessment of risk. Unfortunately, some of these tools (satellite communicators, cell phones) are being used to supplant proper experience by providing the inexperienced the belief that they can be “saved” by SAR. Many of the items listed in the article are essential equipment, i.e., compass, physical map, first aid kit. BUT, you have to possess the knowledge to navigate with a map and compass. You need to know how to use these items in an emergency.

    I have participated on NPS SAR calls and, unfortunately, accidents are to often the result of inexperience or carelessness. Rescuers are put at risk. Educate yourself. Take a wilderness medicine course, enroll in a navigation class, and practice your skills and develop experience. Pushing yourself is fine, but be realistic. Calling in SAR should be the last resort and only done if you are lost, there are life threatening medical issues, or if you need for an evacuation due to an injured hiker who cannot conduct walk-out evacuation.

  4. As a former Nordic and alpine ski patroller/EMT I’m very aware of both the skills and basic gear needed for various lengths of outdoor adventures from weeks-long Canadian wilderness canoe trips to day hikes & day XC skiing outings.
    SKILLS: 1.) If you have the time and $$$ get a Wilderness First Responder course. otherwise take a basic First Aid course.
    2.) For mountain winter travel you MUST have at least an AVALANCHE 1 course – and “avy” gear like probes, shovels, snow study kit, Avalung, rescue beacon, etc.
    3.) Some “bush camping” skills, especially knots, helps in emergency situations where you don’t have all the nice backpacking gear at hand. Caught in a cold rain? It’s nice to know how to make a “leaf pile shelter”,snow cave or piled up snow Quinzhee, build a reflector fire, find dry tinder, use a safety pin and patient’s shirt sleeve to make a quick “sling”, etc.

  5. Dave and Eric – I don’t disagree with you, but telling people to take the time to get educated hasn’t worked yet and I doubt it ever will.

  6. New Samsung S23 coming out early next year is rumored to be able to hook up with Iridium network for emergency Sat. service. I’ll still bring Inreach mini.

  7. I am going to come at this from a different angle. I see the items listed as the 10 essentials. Those are the items you are to carry with you all the time, normally in your pack. You will probably use some of those items while on your hiking or backpacking trip. Survival items are in addition to those 10 essentials. These items should only be used for survival and should be carried on your person or layered. Some items will be the same.

    My training and thought are at some point you left a mode of transportation or left a plan. That point is the start of the search. Signaling is probably the most important thing to do. I have signaling devices for both day and night. Next, I have a small navigation device. Followed by fire devices. I find it important to have one device that one needs one hand to use. The only device I know for that is the Spark-Lite. Those items such as a space blanket or cordage are part of my signal kit but can be used as shelter. Away to collect water and purify it is also carried.

    In my case, first aid and a knife are not part of my survival kit. It is part of my 10 essentials. I carried my survival kit with me for 10 1/2 months and never used an item. I used my 10 essentials on normal bases during that time. My total kit size is 6″L x 3″H x 1 1/2″W

    Again, just a different way to look at it.

  8. One problem with relying on a cell phone’s satellite connection is battery life. This may not be an issue for you on a day hike or overnighter, but it can be with a weeklong trip. i’ve had the battery on my InReach last for weeks with judicious use.

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