Every hiker should carry some survival gear so they can stay alive long enough for search and rescue teams to arrive. If you can signal for help, you’ll be rescued eventually, but the wait can kill you. At a bare minimum, you want a headlamp, warm clothing, protection from the wind and rain, insulation to protect you from the cold ground if you need to lie down, a first aid kit, a way to make a fire, extra food and water, a way to navigate, and a means of communication.
Here are 10 pieces of survival gear that every hiker should have in their backpack or share within a group when they go hiking or backpacking.
1. Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Messenger
The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a pocket-sized satellite messenger that can send an SOS message to Search and Rescue in an emergency when you’re out of cell phone range. It can also send email messages and text messages to friends and family, whenever you want to update them or share your GPS coordinates. It has an easy-to-use push-button interface but can also pair with a smartphone via Bluetooth to display GPS maps and navigational information. Weighing just 3.5 oz, it’s small enough to tuck into your pants pocket.
The SOL Escape Lite Bivy only weighs 5.5 oz and is durable enough that you can use it multiple times (unlike most space blankets) as a sleeping bag cover in addition to emergency use by itself. Lined with foil, it is waterproof and windproof. It reflects 90% of your body heat and is best coupled with a foam sleeping bag like the Switchback, above, to provide insulation from the ground.
The NEMO Switchback is a folding closed-cell foam pad that you can sit or lay on while you’re waiting for help to arrive. It has a high enough R-value to prevent the cold ground from robbing your body of warmth and causing hypothermia, even in summer. Most hikers strap them to the outside of their backpacks, especially in cold weather, because it’s considered a wilderness first aid essential to insulate a patient from the cold ground.
Most of the ultralight first aid kits that many hikers buy are a complete ripoff, but we like the ones in Adventure Medical Kit’s Mountain Series because they contain a rich set of tools and supplies that are sufficient to stabilize both minor and major injuries until help arrives. When gifting a kit like this we also recommend gifting a wilderness first aid course (see below) so the recipient understands how to use it in the field. Accidents do happen and gaining the knowledge to help is priceless.
Give someone you love a Wilderness First Aid Class. The most important gear you carry in the backcountry is between your ears. While it helps to have a good first aid kit, there are a lot of hiking injuries that are too severe or life-threatening for you to treat. Wilderness First Aid teaches you how to stabilize a patient until medically trained search and rescue personnel can arrive to transport them to advanced care. This training is very useful if you hike by yourself, with family or friends. It’s primarily scenario-based, so you get to practice the skills you learn in life-like simulations which make the lessons hard to forget.
Water Purification Tablets, and specifically these Chlorine Dioxide Tablets are a fast and easy way to kill all the bad things in natural water sources if you run out of water or your water filter doesn’t work. The size of an aspirin, they come individually wrapped and take 15 minutes to kill most of the organisms that hikers encounter in natural water sources or 4 hours in more heavily contaminated water, particularly internationally. I always carry some as a backup in case my water filter craps out. They’re also the best way to purify and sterilize water for wound irrigation in a medical emergency. More effective than iodine, the purified water is clear and only has a slight chlorine taste.
If you get lost, it’s very useful to have a simple but high-quality compass to point you in the right direction and prevent you from walking in circles when you can’t summon help in a survival situation and need to hike out to survive. Unlike a phone, a compass doesn’t need a power source to operate and a simple, small one like the Suunto Clipper is easy to clip to your backpack so you always have it when needed. It’s also handy to make sure you’re hiking down the trail in the right direction after leaving a water hole or shelter!
The Nitecore NU 33 is a very bright 700-lumen rechargeable headlamp with a larger-than-average 6.6Whr (2000 mAh) lithium-ion battery for long-lasting power. It has four brightness levels, a primary CREE spotlight, and auxiliary LEDs for flood, closeup, and red lighting modes with a tilt adjustment making it ideal for night hiking, trail running, cycling, and camping. The NU 33 has a built-in power indicator and lock to prevent accidental activation, it is water-resistant to 2 meters and includes a USB-C cable for recharging.
If you carry a USB-rechargeable device on a hike, it’s quite helpful to be able to recharge it if the battery runs out of juice. Most smartphones, GPS satellite messengers, headlamps, and even cameras can all be recharged with a battery like this. I carry this Anker Powercore Slim 10000 battery pack because it’s one of the smallest and lightest weight 10000 mAh batteries available, it has a quick charge capability to charge devices fast, and it recharges itself quickly when you get access to a power source.
There are a lot of different ways to start a fire in an emergency, but there’s nothing simpler and more universal than carrying a Bic Lighter. They’re easy to replace when they run out of fuel and they’re brightly colored so you can find them if you drop one on the ground. They’re also popular for starting backpacking stoves for non-survival use. We prefer larger-size Bic Lighters to Mini Bic Lighters because they have more fuel when you’re trying to start a fire with the fuel at hand. These lighters also make a good stocking stuffer when combined with a package of Coughlan’s Tinder, which has a burn time of 5-7 minutes which is long enough to get a small fire going.
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