How The 10 Essentials Of Backcountry Hiking Can Save Your Life + A Modern Addition To The List
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Getting into the wild is an amazing experience but when you are unprepared it can quickly go from fun to danger. Many rescues could be prevented if you only were well equipped and knew what to do.
Weather, terrain, injury and just getting lost can all take a wilderness trip and turn it into a survival situation. Most people don't think about this and therefore aren't adequately prepared when things go wrong. I've talked to a number of people who have had to be rescued because they didn't think of the risks ahead of time and prepare for them. The common theme among them was they just didn't know.
Common Causes Of Survival Situations
When you head away from civilization one of the most common things that get people in trouble is getting lost. Learning how to use your navigation tools and plan trips can help keep this from happening but if it does it's important to be able to find where you are.
A few tips for if you get lost:
Look around as you hike including stopping occasionally to look behind you so you know what the terrain looks like. Don't just look at your feet or blindly follow the person in front of you. Keep notes of your turns and direction of travel as well as any landmarks. Mark it in a notebook or on your map. As soon as you are not sure where you are, double back to find your last know location.
If you are lost to the point that you can't find your way back to your last known location stop moving and set up a base camp near an open area. Save your energy and make a fire for warmth and signalling.
Start sending the distress signal with your whistle. Three sharp blasts repeated every minute. If you in a group then you can take turns.
Try to contact someone. If you have your phone a Facebook message or post might get through when a phone call or text won't so try making a post with your location. If you have a satellite communicator now is the time to use it.
File a plan with a check-in buddy. Where you are going, what your route is, and when you will check back with them. Give them contact information for the first responders in the area so they know who to contact if you don't check-in when you are supposed to.
It doesn't take being very far from a trailhead for an injury to turn serious. Carry a first aid kit and get first aid training. Wilderness first aid courses are available that go more in-depth for times when help won't be on the way quickly.
A few tips for avoiding and dealing with injury:
Practice first aid scenarios based on common injuries. It is important to get first aid training but it is just as important to keep those skills sharp. If you took a course a few years ago and haven't used the skills you don't want to find out if you remember when under stress.
Get in better shape. Between outdoor trips, it is important to do both strength and conditioning work as this will help you avoid injuries. When you are fatigued you are much more likely to get hurt. If you are hiking in challenging terrain it is much more demanding quickly leading to exhaustion if you haven't adequately trained for it.
Hike with poles, wear proper footwear and manage hotspots before they become blisters. The poles and footwear will help with stability and stumbles which will help with avoiding twisted ankles and falls. Before you get a blister you often feel a hot spot developing. Put duct tape or moleskin over the spot to keep it from developing into a blister.
Remember the rules of three: Three minutes without air, three hours of exposure to the elements, three days without water and three weeks without food. Use this to organize your priorities.
If you or someone in your party gets injured after the initial first aid, take the time to develop a plan on how you are going to proceed. Stay calm and figure out the best way to get out or get help.
While there tend to be fairly consistent weather in most temperate areas there are no guarantees so even if the day calls for nice weather a sudden rainstorm or higher than expected winds can make a situation dangerous.
A few tips for dealing with the weather:
Recognize the signs of hyper and hypothermia. If you experience a high heart rate, dark urine, dry mouth, lightheadedness, and/or weakness you may be experiencing dehydration or overheating. Stop movement, get in the shade and start rehydrating ideally with water with added electrolytes.
If you are cold and/or wet, hypothermia is a risk. Your body wants to be at a very narrow temperature range and if it drops too much you can start to shut down. If you experience shivering, loss of coordination, slurred speech, drowsiness and/or confusion then it is a sign that it has gotten dangerous. Let others in your group know so they can help you out. Get into dry clothing, start a fire for warmth, sip a hot beverage, get shelter from the elements and eat some high-calorie foods so your body has the energy to create heat.
Building a Survival Kit
The 10 Essentials are something that everyone should carry whether on a multiday backpacking trip or just a day hike. I also add a bonus category which you will see at the end of the list.
This should always start with a map and compass as they don't require batteries to work. If you want to use a cell phone-based app or a handheld GPS than feel free to add these as well. I use map and compass with my Garmin Inreach as a backup device
and I will usually have PDF versions of the map on my phone so I have double redundancy. For any electronics make sure to bring extra batteries or a power bank to recharge your devices.
2. First Aid
Even on short day hikes, a compact first aid kit is a must as things go wrong when we least expect them to. From twisted ankles and blisters to cuts and bug bites, you should have the medical gear to deal with these occurrences.
Check and replenish your first aid kit every six months or after every time you use it so you aren't caught with missing or expired items.
I keep my first aid kit in a small waterproof pouch.
Basic First Aid Kit
Moleskin or duct tape for blisters
Antiseptic Cream (Polysporin)
Tweezers and scissors ( In my Swiss Army Knife)
Water purification tablets ( Chlorine Dioxide)
Electrolyte tablets (For rehydration)
Mini Bic Lighter
Wetfire fire starting cubes
Freezer zip lock bag (For any medical waste)
A headlamp with spare batteries can be a lifesaver if you are stuck out after dark. I suggest this over a flashlight as you can operate hands-free and you have light where ever you look. The light on your phone can act as a backup. If we were ranking the items this would be near the top as many rescues happen because people got caught out after dark. If they had a headlamp it would have just been a late return to the car rather than a situation that required rangers to head out and bring them home.
I'm a fan of Black Diamond headlamps for their balance of features, reliability, and brightness. The Black Diamond Revolt is my favourite as it is bright, rechargeable and will run on regular alkaline batteries as well.
4. Sun Protection
When you are out all day the sun can definitely burn you and prolonged exposure over time can increase the risk of skin cancer so sun protection is a must. A wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen will all help minimize the risk of too much sun exposure. Additionally, the heat of the sun in hot temperatures can increase the risk of hyperthermia so by using protective clothing you reduce that risk as well.
5. Weather Protection
Even in nice weather, you should have warm clothing packed in case the weather turns cold. A rain shell or poncho is a must-have as getting wet can lead to hypothermia even in moderate temperatures. A puffy jacket or vest packs small but adds a lot of warmth to the core. Bring a spare pair of Merino wool socks, thermal gloves, and a beanie hat to keep the extremities warm.
If you are backpacking then you will already have a shelter in the form of a tent or tarp but when on day hikes you should have still carry something to make a shelter with. If you are unexpectedly stuck out overnight you need protection from rain and wind. It can be as simple as a 5'X7' tarp with some cord, a poncho, or a couple of extra-large garbage bags. Bring along a sheet of Tyvek or garbage bag to use as a groundsheet.
Hydrate or die. You need up to 4-6 liters per day when you are exerting yourself. When you are out in the wild you need a way to carry water and a way to purify water. Water bottles or hydration bladders are both viable options for transporting water. Depending on the potential water sources you can need between 1-4 liter capacity to make it from one source to the next. Water purification tablets and/or micro-filter will allow you to process safe drinking water from wild sources.
Being able to make a fire in the wild offers multiple benefits. It creates warmth and light plus allows you to cook and boil water. It can also help keep wild animals away and create a better mental situation.
It's advised to carry a couple of ignition sources such as lighter, waterproof matches, or ferrocerium rod plus a tinder source like cotton balls with vaseline or commercial firestarters.
As first aid, fire-starting is a skill you need to practice. Don't wait for an emergency situation to try to figure out how to make a fire in the rain. Practice the skill regularly under varying conditions so you
9. Tools and Repair Gear
A knife or multi-tool like a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman can be needed for fire-starting, first aid, shelter building, and other tasks. On longer trips, I carry a fixed blade knife and a folding saw. This allows me to process larger pieces of wood for fires or shelter building. Practice with your tools and learn safe procedures as I've seen people make situations worse by hurting themselves. You don't want to be hypothermic and bleeding.
Additionally, duct tape is a useful item for repairing gear, protecting blisters, and works as a tinder source for starting fires. Cordage such as paracord is handy for building shelter, for first aid, and back-up shoelaces.
Bring some calorically dense snacks like trail mix and bars. While we can survive for up to three weeks without food it doesn't mean you will be functioning optimally. Whether for energy to stay warm or just the mental boost you get from having a snack it will help you perform better and think clearly.
Some of my favorite trail foods are trail mix, dried meats like jerky, nuts, and freeze-dried meals like Mountain House. With freeze-dried food you can rehydrate it with cold water is you don't want to make a fire or have a stove. It will take longer (usually double what the package says with boiling water) but will still make it fine to eat.
The Modern Addition To The Classic 10 Essentials
Always carry a whistle. Three sharp blows repeated every minute is the standard outdoor signal for distress. The whistle will carry much further than your voice will and won't give out.
With the advent of affordable satellite communicators such as the Spot X or integrated devices like the Garmin Inreach Explorer (Mapping GPS, emergency locator beacon, and two-way satellite communicator) there is no reason that you should be cut off from the civilized world.
With one of these devices, you can signal for help if you find yourself in a situation you can't deal with yourself. They increase both your safety and that of the search and rescue personnel as they will know you are in trouble and exactly where to come to find you.
Aside from being fun, getting into the outdoors is great for physical and mental health but things can go wrong. With the right skills and gear, those problems can be a nuisance rather than life-threatening. Work on your outdoor skills and get in the habit of carrying your survival kit whenever you go into the woods.
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