There are few better ways to experience the outdoors than by hiking, bikepacking, or paddling deep into the backcountry. But big landscapes mean big challenges, big rewards, and bigger risks. The remoteness of these wilderness areas puts intrepid outdoorsmen far from help if something goes wrong, and those deep in it have to practice a far higher degree of self-reliance than day hikers. To properly prepare themselves for the many hazards of wilderness travel, seasoned outdoorsmen typically pack a dozen carefully chosen survival essentials, although these can differ from person to person and even from trip to trip.
Some survivalists insist that you need 200 feet of paracord, a 13-inch survival knife, and a week’s worth of emergency rations. The problem with these prepared-for-the-apocalypse kits is that you’d never want to pack one. And there’s not much point in a survival kit that gets left at home. To be worth carrying, a survival kit has to be compact and light (not more than a few hundred grams at the most), and it has to contain items that you might actually need. Do you need a knife? Yes. Do you need the 7-inch blade wielded by John Rambo? Probably not. Is it worth the weight? That’s a big ‘no’.
What is a trail-ready survival kit?
Most survival kits include items ranging from a compass to a first aid kit, but many of these items serve purposes other than pure survival. A headlamp, for example, would be useful in a survival scenario, but you’re just as likely to use it in a situation where you don’t feel the need to push the SOS button. In this article, I list these pieces of general purpose gear under the heading survival-related items. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be prepared, you’ll pack these even when you don't think you need a survival kit.
|tinder or firelighters
|first aid kit
|knife or multitool
|sewing kit, patches, glue
|replacement trekking pole tip
To me, a survival kit is a little zippered bag that contains all the items I might need on a longer wilderness trip but wouldn’t carry with me on a day trip. These include not only the items you need to get you out of a sticky situation but also the items you need to repair your gear. Besides a flint striker, signal mirror, and water purification tablets, this little do-it-all kit will contain everything you need to fix punctured sleeping pads, torn jackets, and broken trekking pole tips.
Many people combine their survival kit with their first aid kit, and that’s a good strategy if you want everything in the same bag. But there’s also an advantage to keeping them separate, as I’ve done in this list. If you’re like me, you carry a first aid kit a lot more often than you need a survival kit. I often pack my first aid kit for long day hikes and mountain bike rides, but usually only pack my survival kit on overnight adventures. If my first aid kit and survival kit were combined, my survival kit would have to accompany me on every trip I packed my first aid kit.
When do I carry a survival kit?
Backcountry adventures are the type of situation where a survival kit is most valuable, but survival preparedness shouldn’t be limited to overnight trips that take you into the back of beyond. Your day hike kit can also benefit from certain survival-related items. The most important of these are a compass, headlamp, and emergency bivvy – especially important if temps can drop below freezing. Every year there are at least a dozen hikers who set off on a day hike thinking “I’ll be back before dark” or “I won’t be far from help if I need it” and then find themselves in trouble when they’re lost and have just a few hours of daylight left. As the light fades, temps start to drop, and suddenly they’re unable to either navigate safely or fend off the cold.
Of course, you might not want to carry your whole survival kit on a casual day hike, but then you can at least pack a first aid kit along with a headlamp, compass, spare layer and even an emergency bivvy – all very useful if there’s even a slight chance that you’ll be out after dark.
Principles for choosing survival gear
When choosing gear and supplies to go into your survival kit, keep the following four principles in mind.
Can you survive without it? If you’re heading off into the wilderness on an uncertain bearing (trail blazing maybe), the chances of anyone finding you without coordinates is very low. In such circumstances, some kind of satellite-enabled communication device might be considered essential. On the other hand, if you’re closer to home, you probably just need a cell phone.
What’s considered essential can depend on your destination and the conditions there. An emergency bivvy probably isn’t very important if temps are never going to be anything other than warm. Rehydration salts are likely to be a much more useful addition in hot weather. Likewise, a fishing line and hooks would be a lot more useful on a float trip into the wilds of British Columbia than on a desert hike.
You don’t want to carry two things that fulfill the same purpose. Don’t carry a knife if you already have a multitool, and don’t pack spare shoe laces if you’ve already packed accessory cord. The exceptions to this rule are the elemental essentials of fire and water. You always want a backup method for starting a fire and for filtering or purifying water even if these aren’t in your survival kit.
Can it be used for more than one thing? Hand warmers can be used to thaw frost bitten toes, melt ice to make water, and dry out wet clothes. Spare laces, besides fulfilling their main purpose, can be used for lashing two boughs together when making a shelter. And a Smart pressure bandage can be used to strap a sprained ankle as well as treat a snake bite.
I suggest putting these items – the core of your survival kit – into a small zippered bag. You’ll likely only want to carry these on backcountry adventures that call for full preparedness. The emergency bivvy is the only exception in that it will probably be too big to fit in the zippered bag. Just as well because you’ll want to carry this on day missions where you could find yourself having to bivvy without a sleeping bag or quilt (it happens).
Matches can get wet, and a lighter can run out of gas, but there’s little that can go wrong with a flint striker. These reliable firestarters have two components: a metal striker and the magnesium firesteel. When struck with the striker, the firesteel releases a shower of sparks which can be used to light a fire or stove. The length and quality of the firesteel determine how many sparks are generated. Quality flint strikers like the Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel are good for 3000+ strikes.
Tinder & firelighters
Dried grass or wood shavings (another use for your knife) make for good tinder when dry, but you can’t always count on perfect conditions. To be properly prepared, you need to carry some tinder with you. Cotton wool by itself can work well, but if you smear it with petroleum jelly, it will burn for longer and become at least partially waterproof. I suggest dabbing a handful of cotton wool in vaseline and keeping this in a small ziplock bag.
Chemical hand warmers are little packets of oxidising iron, carbon, and salt that generate heat when exposed to air. Of, course, these are no substitute for fire, but they will help keep you warm and can fulfill many other functions, like drying out wet clothing, defrosting frozen toes, and even melting snow to make water. Single-use hand warmers (air activated) stay warm a lot longer than reusable (crystal-activated) hand warmers, and so are a better addition to a survival kit.
One of the main ways that day hikers get into trouble is by getting lost and having to spend a night out while being poorly prepared to survive a night in the cold. Some people carry an emergency space blanket, but these leak warmth very easily. An emergency bivvy, on the other hand, can only lose heat through the entrance and is a much better option. I carry one of these whenever there’s a chance I might be out after dark and I don’t have a sleeping bag or quilt to crawl into to escape the cold.
Batteries for headlamp
These could go in your survival kit or first aid kit. Because they're useful on both day trips (those that end with you returning in the dark) and overnight adventures, I keep four AAA batteries (wrapped in plastic) in my first aid kit. I won’t carry my whole survival kit with me on day trips, but I’ll always have my first aid kit with me. Do not underestimate the importance of extra batteries – a lack of light can make any emergency situation worse.
There are many things you might need to repair with a needle and tread: backpack, sleeping bag, tent, shoes, clothes.. and so on. In this little kit inside a kit, you should have a few needles in different sizes, some cotton thread, and some polyester thread (or something else that’s strong and waterproof). You can wind a few meters of each onto the same spool to save space. I put my sewing things, patches, and glue all in the same ziplock bag.
You will need patches to repair holes in your air paid, sleeping bag, or shelter. In some cases you can use general purpose self-adhesive PVC or nylon patches like those made by Gear Aid. But check manufacturer instructions. Thermarest recommends using their Instant Field Repair Kit for repairs on the trail. Also note that most self-adhesive patches won’t stick to silnylon. If you have a tent made of this fabric, it would be a good idea to carry a few silnylon patches (also made by Gear Aid) designed specifically for this purpose.
Besides any glue or sealant you might need to repair your tent and sleeping pad, you should also have glue for repairing your shoes (usually not the same stuff). Shoe Goo and Loctite Ultra Gel Control are both good choices here and can help you get many more miles out of your footwear. Note: all glue goes off and loses its adhesive properties with time. If a tube has been sitting in your pack for more than two years, it would be best to get a new one.
Spare laces or accessory cord
On long trips, you could pack a pair of spare laces, but a few meters of 4mm accessory cord (bought at any store that sells climbing gear), would be a lot more versatile. Besides serving as a stand-in for spare laces, accessory cord can also be used to replace a tarp guy line or suspend a food bag out of reach of rodents. And, if you wanted to go full Ray Mears, you could use it for making a bow-and-drill for starting a fire.
Rubber trekking pole tip protector or replacement tip
If you use trekking poles, you’ll want to carry a spare rubber tip or two. Press on tips can tear and fall off when they become worn. If this happened to you while hiking through an area where the use of non-marking rubber tips is mandatory, you’d have to pack your poles away unless you had another rubber tip. Black Diamond has thoughtfully created screw-on rubber tips (to avoid them falling off and littering the trail), but these too need to eventually be replaced.
Here’s another useful survival skill that is slowly (and unfortunately) being relegated to the pages of survivalist blogs. If you have ever flown over a craggy or forested wilderness area, you already know how hard it can be to spot a person from an aircraft – even one that is flying slow and low. To get a pilot’s attention, you can light a fire or create some kind of recognisable sign, but often the best way to get a pilot’s attention is to use a signal mirror.
Water purification tablets
A filter is generally a better way to take little nasties (bacteria at least) out of your drinking water, but it’s good to have a back up – one that’s easier than boiling your water. Traditionally, hikers used iodine drops or tablets when no other options were available. But iodine doesn’t kill Cryptosporidium, and it makes the water yellow and gives it a funky taste. Chlorine dioxide is better in that it eliminates Cryptosporidium and doesn’t leave any noticeable aftertaste. But it needs time to work and is not without its limitations. See my article on water purification for the details.
These items would be useful in a survival scenario, but you’ll probably use them more frequently in less serious situations and so are unlikely to keep them in your dedicated survival kit. Just remember to pack them whenever darkness, exposure, or navigation could be a challenge.
Water filter & backwash kit
Boiling water can be a hassle, and chemical purification can become costly. So, most people use some kind of filter for removing bacteria and protozoa from their drinking water (viruses are less of a concern in North American backcountries. Sip & squeeze filters are compact, easy to use, and low maintenance. Backwashing your filter once every five days or so is enough to keep it working properly. If you plan to be on the trail for longer than this, you should pack your filter’s backwash kit (in many cases just a syringe). Other water treatment options include UV purifiers or two-in-one filter-purifiers, but read my article on the pros and cons of different water treatment methods before making a decision.
First aid kit
The most important thing that you’ll need to repair is yourself. Many outdoorsmen combine their first aid kit and survival kit, but I keep mine separate since I often want to take just my first aid kit, reserving the survival kit for overnight backcountry adventures. Whatever you do, don’t venture into the wilderness with a store-bought first aid kit before inspecting its contents. Many off-the-shelf kits could do with rehydration salts and other first aid essentials. See my article on first aid kits for my full list.
On outings that keep you within range of cell signal, there’s possibly no kit more important than your cell phone. Besides allowing you to call for help, your phone can also be used to determine your GPS coordinates with the iPhone compass app or any one of these android apps(very useful if you need to be rescued). Save all emergency numbers under favourites or under the prefix AA in your contacts. This way your most important numbers will appear at the top of the list. Lastly, consider putting your phone in a neoprene pouch. Besides stopping it from getting scratched up, the insolation will help the battery last longer in colder temps.
When venturing beyond cell range, you’ll need some kind of satellite-enabled device if you want to keep communication lines open. Just several years ago this would’ve meant carrying around a heavy and expensive satellite phone. Today, we’re fortunate to be able to choose from several much smaller devices designed specifically to enable communication with emergency services.
These devices rely on the use of a satellite emergency response services like GEOS (for which the user pays a monthly subscription fee). When signed up, you can send an SOS alert with your location to an emergency response coordination center and send and receive text messages from saved contacts. At least those are the capabilities of the Garmin InReach Mini – currently the most popular device on the market.
Knife or multitool
If you’re not planning on doing any hunting and don’t need to skin big game, there’s not really any point in carrying a full-sized survival knife. A pocket knife or compact folding knife will weigh half as much and will do just as good a job at shaving tinder from a log or cutting notches in boughs for a primitive shelter. Multitools are just as heavy as full-sized survival knives, so I personally wouldn’t take one on a hiking trip. However, I see the usefulness in having a pair of pliers on a bikepacking trip (for mechanical repairs) and so might carry a multitool then.
It’s easy to think “I don’t need a headlamp. I’ll be back before dark.” But then again, nobody plans to get lost. Don’t put yourself in the unenviable position of having to navigate unknown territory in the dim and failing light of a mobile phone. You can easily avoid turning a minor adventure into a harrowing ordeal just by packing a headlamp every time you hit the trail. Also, carry three or four spare AAA batteries if your headlamp can take them (most rechargeables can). I put my spare headlamp batteries in my first aid kit since I’ll almost always have this with me.
Your phone is one of your most useful emergency tools, but it’s no good if it’s not charged. A 2,600 mAh power bank is all you need to charge a phone or satellite-enabled device in an emergency. However if you need to get multiple charges from a device, you’ll need something in the neighbourhood of 7800 mAh. And if you’re heading off into the wilderness for weeks, you might even want a solar panel to keep devices like headlamps, cameras, and GPS powered up. Don’t forget the charge cable. It’s best to keep one of these in the kit bag.
Why carry a compass when your phone already has one? Batteries and signal – a magnetic compass doesn’t need either of them. Of course, to find your latitude and longitude the old fashioned way, you will also need a map and some orienteering skills. In the age of handhand GPS, this is a rare and valuable skill set. If you haven’t learned how to use a compass yet, see my article on how to use a map and compass.
Note: most compasses are designed to work properly in specific geographic zones. A compass designed for the Northern Hemisphere is unlikely to work properly in the Southern Hemisphere. If you buy your compass online, make sure it’s designed for the appropriate zone, and if you work or play in different zones, consider investing in a global compass.
Compile your own kit
Of course, what goes into your survival kit will depend on your needs and what you’d normally have with you. If a compass is not something that you’d usually carry, this would make a good addition to your survival kit. But also think about how you might split items between your first aid kit and survival kit, if they’re separate. Anything that might be useful on a day trip (space blanket or spare batteries) is best kept in your first aid kit, if that’s what you’re more likely to have on you