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In a review of search and rescue mission data from Yosemite National Park, 128 of 128 missing people were found within 40 hours of going missing with a median time of 14.2 hours and an average of 9 hours.
Forty hours isn’t very long to be stranded all things considered, and although this represents a small sample and geographic area, this data matched the ISRID global Search and Rescue database showing that missing people are most often found much more quickly than we often assume.
So what should we make of this? First of all, this article focuses on wilderness survival for the purpose of getting back home safely, not for recreational purposes. We won’t be discussing how to build a log cabin and catch a wild moose with a bush knife. For that kind of survival, go watch Alone.
Perhaps the best way to discuss what we need to pack in our wilderness survival kits is with a likely wilderness survival scenario.
So you can see that having the right gear can be crucial to surviving small things like a slip in the mud.
You don’t need to go crazy though. The scenario above only required basic gear, the essential gear to keep you alive for about 40 hours or so before SAR can find you or you can extract yourself.
Yes, there are rare scenarios where you may be stranded for days and weeks, but it’s unlikely and in those cases, your ingenuity and will to survive will be more important than what you pack.
Here’s a list of basic functions you’ll need from your wilderness survival kit:
- First aid supplies
- Shelter building supplies
- Fire starting supplies
- Water filtration supplies
- Signaling tools
- Other tools
Here’s a picture of the contents of my current EDC survival kit:
Keep reading to learn about the items in each category in detail along with the specific items I’ve purchased, field-tested, and carry with me in my wilderness survival kit.
As I described in the survival scenario above, one of the quickest ways to end up needing your wilderness survival kit is to get injured in the backcountry. A simple slip, trip, or rip and you’re stuck. I’m pretty stable over rough terrain, but I know a twisted ankle or a torn ligament could make it pretty tough for me to get back to the car, especially since sometimes I end up way far into the wild on some of my adventures.
In any medical emergency in the wilderness, having the right gear can save lives. The top medical emergencies faced in the wilderness based on research done at the University of Portland Northwest Outward Bound School are listed in order of frequency :
|Urinary Tract Infection||6||4%|
|Upper Respiratory Infection||5||3%|
|Head Injury, no loss of consciousness||4||3%|
|Insect Bite or Sting||3||2%|
Even just a bad headache, blisters, or sunburn can make traveling miserable and slow. A small wilderness first aid kit with emergency gear for the most common injuries can help you get out even with extenuating medical issues. Here’s what I pack in my base wilderness first aid kit.
Zippered storage bag – This is what I use to store my first aid gear.
Waterproof bag – I keep everything in this inside the zippered bag to keep it dry.
Emergency blanket – Useful for many situations including, hypothermia, emergency bivouac, sling, signaling, or just staying a bit warmer.
Scalpel – I don’t use this for anything but surgical cuts like cutting the roof off a blister or cutting open an infected cyst or the like. This thing is sharp and clean. Pack a disposable one and replace it after each use.
Non-adhesive gauze – This is a gauze coated in vaseline for use on burns or other sensitive abrasions where normal gauze can be painful to remove.
Assorted adhesive bandages – I bring a mix of bandaids including butterfly closures and fingertip closures.
Rescue breather – This is a protective cover to use for contactless rescue breathing during CPR.
Alcohol prep pads – Used for disinfecting.
Moleskin – Used for blister prevention or to prevent other rubbing hotspots from packs, belts, or shoes.
Nitrile gloves – Used as personal protective equipment when treating someone else.
Benzalkonium chloride wipes – Used for disinfecting skin.
Chapstick – This is for chapped lips or other parts. Get some with sun protection.
Assorted gauze pads – Used to cover cuts or abrasions to stop bleeding and keep things clean.
Tourniquet – This is a simple rubber strap. It’s light and small, but better alternatives exist.
Bacitracin ointment – This is a small sachet of antibacterial ointment to keep wounds sterile before bandaging someone up.
Aspirin – Aspirin is a blood thinner and can make a huge difference in cases of stroke, pulmonary embolism, or heart attack, but the main use is as a pain reducer.
Sting wipes – These help in cases of insect or poisonous plant stings.
Sunscreen – Sunscreen can be a lifesaver if you run out or forget to bring any.
Antidiarrheal – Used to stave off dehydration from diarrhea.
Excedrin – This works wonders for me when I get a bad headache.
Ibuprofen – Anti-inflammatory and antipyretic.
Acetaminophen – Antipyretic and pain relief.
Thermometer – Single-use thermometers can help diagnose serious conditions associated with fevers.
Water purification tablets – these are in case I’m in need of clean water and can’t find it elsewhere.
Laceration Closures – These are great for when stitches are needed and can’t be applied in the field.
Duct Tape – This is an all-purpose tool for any first aid needs from wrapping splints to covering hot spots. Orange allows for easy visibility if you need to use it as a marker for SAR.
All of this takes up very little space but with the right skill, can be used to fix most issues at least enough to get to the hospital.
I’ve practiced using each item and have taken wilderness first aid courses so I know how to use these to fix issues. If you don’t know how to use any of these, they won’t do much good in your pack.
Also note, this is my list. You may need to add things like an inhaler, medications, or epi-pen if you or your group deal with those issues.
After any medical issues are resolved, taking shelter from the elements is critical. Hot sun, cold wind, wet rain or snow, or even just wet feet can bring about hyper- or hypothermia in a hurry.
Shelter doesn’t mean you need to build yourself a log cabin, it just means you need to protect yourself from the elements. This could be as simple as seeking out a shady alcove on a sunny day or it could mean digging a snow cave and building a fire to keep from freezing.
You can stay in your shelter as long or as short as you need to while you’re preparing to face the elements again or while you plan your next move.
Your shelter requirements will vary depending on the climate and terrain you’ll be traveling in. In cold weather areas, you need to stay warm and dry. This means you should have insulating layers and rain/windproof layers. I pack extra insulating layers in my pack in winter as well as an oversized emergency mylar space blanket and some cordage to build an impromptu shelter if I need to bivy for the night.
Here’s a video of my quick shelter for cold or cool climates.
When I adventure in hot climates, I pack the same emergency space blanket to use as a sunshade if needed, but usually, I can find a shady spot behind a rock or tree to take shelter.
So to sum it up, here’s what I pack for shelter
- Proper clothing for the climate and forecast plus an extra jacket if I get stuck overnight
- Emergency space blanket (oversized)
- A bit of paracord or heavy fishing line for cordage
As an extension of shelter, fire can be crucial to staying warm and drying out wet clothing in cold weather situations. Fire isn’t always essential, but when it is, you better have the tools and skills to start a fire in a hurry. Even in warm weather, a fall into cold water can lead to hypothermia in short order if you can’t dry off and warm up.
Fire also has immense psychological benefits in survival situations. It warms you up, helps you feel safe, and gives you light. It can also be used to signal for help. During clear conditions, smoke from a single fire can be seen from miles away.
So here’s what I pack for fire starting:
A single Bic lighter. This is fast and easy, but not the most reliable. The butane can run out, they can get wet and stop working or they can fail to light at high altitude.
A Spark-Lite fire starter. This is my backup. It sparks and comes with quick-light tinder wads that can start a fire even if damp.
A small piece of aluminum foil. This is to place my tinder and kindling on in snow so it burns longer and doesn’t melt into the snow before I can get a blaze going.
Of course, these tools won’t do much good if you don’t know how to use them, so practice building fires when the stakes are low so you can do it quickly when your life is on the line and you’re near hypothermic.
After you’re able to stay safe from the elements, the next priority is ensuring you have enough clean water to drink to stave of dehydration.
Water can be really easy or really hard depending on your location. If you’re anywhere near running or standing water, all you need is a means to treat it (or if it’s a spring, you can drink it straight from the source). If you can’t find any water, you’ll need skills and knowledge beyond what you can pack in your wilderness survival kit, but that’s not what this article is about.
I like to pack a simple quart-size ziplock bag and water purification tablets. They’re light, simple, and reliable. I sometimes pack a water filter when I know I’ll need to resupply during an adventure, but that’s not my emergency go-to.
If you intend to use the tablets, you’ve also got to have a container to store the water in. I like The Ziplock bag option, because it’s versatile, lightweight, and easy to replace after each use. You can also use oven bags and boil water in them if you can get a bed of coals going to hang them over.
I don’t like to pack a metal bottle like many people recommend because it’s bulky and hard to carry when trail running, biking, or some of the other activities I enjoy. If speed and agility aren’t a concern for you, a metal bottle is a good option and you can even store all your emergency gear in it to keep it safe and dry.
If you want to avoid using your wilderness survival kit and skills altogether, make a trip plan and leave it with someone. Tell them where you’ll be, what route you intend to take, and an expected timeline of your travels.
If you plan to get to the summit by 2 pm, make a note. If you plan to be home by dark, note that too. This way, if something goes wrong, someone else is on the other end of the search right away and has instructions to give to SAR.
If you don’t have someone you want to leave a plan with, you can also write your trip details down in the book found at many trailheads. This gives the authorities a way to account for any vehicles in the parking lot beyond their planned time and some basic info on where to find you.
Okay, so beyond what you can do before your trip, what can you bring for signaling?
The obvious choice is a cell phone, but you can never be certain you’ll have good enough reception for this. Even in well-traveled areas close to civilization, cell signals can be obscured by just a small ridge or canyon wall. Don’t rely on this as your only method of signaling for help.
You can also plan to pack a personal locator beacon. These can be literal lifesavers when you get deep into the backcountry and need rescue although they come at a bit of a price. Good insurance if you spend a lot of time deep in the wilderness.
Beyond a cell phone or satellite signaling device, a few small and simple items can help alert SAR to your location.
The first one we’ve already included in the shelter section. It’s your emergency space blanket. You can actively signal aircraft overhead or you can passively signal ground crews by hanging your blanket in a visible position or tying strips of it around your location. You could even mark out SOS in an open area with it.
Duct tape in bright colors like blaze orange can also be used as a trail marker to indicate your direction of travel if you decide to move places.
A big smoky fire can also work as a signal. Just throw a bunch of green leaves or pine needles on and be careful not to burn down the forest in the process.
If you don’t have anything bright and shiny, you can mark your location with sticks or rocks to ensure anyone looking for you knows where you’re headed.
Last of all, pack a whistle for active signaling in close range. Good whistles can carry much further than yelling and won’t wear out your lungs and vocal chords in the process. Using a whistle makes you much easier to find by ground crews who may be passing by your area, but aren’t in visual range.
I pack duct tape, Mylar blankets, and a lighter to start fires as well as a whistle for close range signaling.
If you get stuck in the dark, you’ll also need a light, both to accomplish basic tasks and to travel safely through the dark. A light can also be set to strobe mode as a passive signal at night.
Below is the light I like. It’s small, reliable, and bright and it can be clipped to the bill of my hat to use hands-free.
I’ve never found myself in need of a huge bush knife, but I do pack a small multitool with pliers, a blade, scissors, and some other tools. This can be useful for many things from first aid to shelter building to repairing broken gear.
I do pack some emergency calories. No, I won’t die of starvation in 40 hours, but making decisions in a calorie-deprived state can be lethal. I pack about 400 calories worth of food which should be enough to keep me mentally sharp while I’m stuck. If I need more, I’ll forage and find calories in my environment, but I don’t plan on that as a necessity.
I do always pack a compass and map of my general area. I have a compass on my watch but also pack a small compass as a backup. I also save maps of the area I’ll be in to my phone and watch and print a copy to put in my wilderness survival kit in addition to any I’ll be using for regular navigation.
What I don’t pack in my wilderness survival kit
Perhaps as helpful as listing what I do pack is listing what I choose not to pack and why.
I choose not to pack certain things because the weight and bulk penalty outweigh the usefulness in my perspective.
I don’t pack fishing, hunting, or trapping gear. I could live for at least a few weeks without food and while that would be pretty miserable, I take the risk that I could find something to eat if I needed to without packing extra gear for it. I have good wild edible knowledge and can almost always find enough bugs, lichen, or leafy greens to keep me alive long enough to get rescued.
I don’t pack a personal locator beacon in most places. If I’m going deep into the backcountry in remote places where the risks are high and help is far away, this may be something I’d bring, but not routinely.
I don’t pack a water bottle or steel container. These can be very useful if you’re not worried about the bulk, but for my purposes, I’m packing light and fast for things like trail running or mountain biking.
This is a debatable subject so everything I say here will entirely depend on the situation you’re in. The first rule taught to most beginner adventurers is “stay put if you’re lost”. That’s sound advice and I’m not going to challenge it for most situations where you don’t know where you are.
However, some additional skills can help you improve your chances of bieng found or getting to safety on your own.
We won’t go in-depth in those skills here since this post is about what to pack in your wilderness survival kit and not about wilderness survival skills.
However, knowing the basics may help you know what to pack for these situations.
The first skill is navigation. If you know how to use a map and compass, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and stay lost.
Always pack a map and compass when you plan to head into the wilderness. You can count on your phone GPS or other electronic devices to begin with, but an old fashioned map and compass have no substitute for reliability.
Learn more about navigation here:
Navigation skills such as handrails, breadcrumbs, or triangulation can help you get back on track and to the trailhead without issue, but what if you’re not lost but injured?
Remember that sprains and strains make up the majority of wilderness injuries. A sprained ankle or other injury is not fun to walk on and if you’re deep in the backcountry, it could take you days to hobble out. In cases of severe injury, you likely won’t be going anywhere on your own.
As long as your injury won’t be made worse by hiking, even if you’re moving slowly, it’s a good idea to move toward the trailhead on the route you came from. Searchers will be headed your way and if you can get closer to them, all will be easier and faster.
If you’re not lost or injured, but you’re stuck in some other way, it may not be wise to move. I’ve seen several rescues where hikers or skiers were descending from a peak and ended up right on a cliff where they couldn’t go back up. Getting cliffed out is a good example of a time when calling SAR and hunkering down under your emergency Mylar blanket is about all you can do unless you’ve got the skills and tools to ascend safely.
A final word
The list above is my list. It’s a good list, but it may not be your list. Pack what you’ll use and what you’ve practiced using. Don’t pack junk you won’t use or don’t even know how to use. Pack smart and always replace what you use. Be sure to pack critical items in redundancy so you only rely on your emergency survival kit for true emergencies and not your main resource. For example, if you know you’ll be out in the dark, pack a regular headlamp. Only use the light in your emergency kit as a backup to the main one if something goes wrong.
Above all, be smart and stay out of bad situations so you never have to use your survival kit for actual emergencies.