Day hikes don’t always go as planned and it pays to equip yourself with extra survival and emergency gear whenever you take a hike in a National Park, State Park, or National Forest. Help can take a surprisingly long time to arrive the minute you leave a trailhead or paved road. There are no 7-minute ambulance response times when you set off down a hiking trail. On average, it takes 1 hour for help to arrive, for every quarter mile of hiking you do from a trailhead. If you get into trouble, you really need to know how to fend for yourself, with the knowledge and gear to stay safe until help can arrive.
What can go wrong?
- Your hike may take much longer than you expect and the sun may set while you’re still out.
- You can get lost or disoriented.
- You can run out of water and become dehydrated.
- The weather can change unexpectedly. You can get wet and chilled or too hot and dehydrated, both of which can lead to health complications like hypothermia or heat stroke.
- You or a member of your party can have a health emergency.
- Your car can break down on the way to a trailhead or after a hike on the way home.
- You can injure yourself or 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 advances in satellite communications now make it possible to signal for help when you’re out of cell phone range, it’s bad form to call out a Search and Rescue Team (many who are unpaid volunteers) for a rescue that could have been avoided if you’d been more self-sufficient. 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 a checklist of survival gear to help you decide what to bring with you on hikes, annotated with suggestions about their purpose and utility. I carry many of these myself because you never know what’s going to happen.
Emergency Communication Devices
Cell Phone: Dialing or texting 911 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.
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 Explorer+, Garmin inReach mini, SPOT Gen3. 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 can only signal for help and not engage in two-way communications. 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.
Tools and Protection
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, Light My Fire – Fire Steel.
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
Extra Batteries: Match batteries to all of the vital electronic devices you carry or carry a multi-purpose power pack with different recharging adapters. Ravpower 10,000,mAh Power Pack, 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
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.
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 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.
Shelter and Extra 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, Space All-Weather 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.
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.Editor's note: If you’re thinking about buying gear that we’ve reviewed or recommend on SectionHiker, you can help support us in the process. Just click on any of the seller links above, and if you make a purchase, we may (but not always) receive a small percentage of the transaction. The cost of the product is the same to you but this helps us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides. Thanks and we appreciate your support!