Some of these items may be used regularly on each adventure, while others may be needed only rarely or in an emergency. But when they are needed, they are invaluable.
In no particular order, here are the essential categories for items that should be carried in the wilderness:
- Light Source
- Medical Kit
- Sun Protection
- Repair Items
- Fire Starting Items
Wait, there’s more than 10 listed here, why is that? Base Medical has added Communication as the 11th item (or category) to the list as it is crucial for emergency situations and is important in everyday life. But before we dive into that, let’s go over each component of the list.
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A light source can be a lantern, a flashlight, a headlamp, a candle, etc. Even if you will just be out for the day, it’s always good to have a light source. If things do not go as planned, darkness can make things whole lot worse. A simple hike out can prove to be nearly impossible in the dark and increase the odds of injury or getting lost.
We prefer a headlamp as opposed to the other light source options. Headlamps are lightweight and much more compact with more illumination power. Plus, they are hands free, which is very useful if you have to navigate difficult terrain or carry other things.
2. Medical Kit
A first aid kit is helpful for minor but common issues experienced in the wilderness. This may include small cuts, poison ivy contact, headaches, or rolled ankles. It’s also useful in more serious situations like heavy bleeding, hypothermia, or broken bones. Help is often farther away than you think. Even locations near the trailhead or close to the city can be difficult to access by rescue teams.
Unfortunately, many who carry a first aid kit do not know how to fully use it or are using it improperly. Furthermore, many premade, store bought first aid kits could be better tailored to be more suitable for wilderness adventures. We always recommend customizing your first aid kit to meet the needs of each adventure. Learn more about doing that here: 3 Things to Consider When Customizing a Wilderness First Aid Kit
And to learn more about what you should have in your wilderness first aid kit and their uses, see this post: Top 10 Items to Have in a Wilderness First Aid Kit
Not only should you always have at least 1 liter of water, but you should also have the capability to carry more water or treat water to make it drinkable. This is very true for longer outings, like a multi-day backpacking trip.
In addition to a 1 liter hard plastic water bottle, we love flexible, foldable water bottles. When not in use, these bottles no take up very little space and weigh next to nothing. They are handy when you need to fill up with more water if your next water source is far away or uncertain. They are also great while at camp to store extra water that you have already boiled or melted. Or they can be filled with warm water, and tucked into the foot of your sleeping bag on cold winter nights. And if you lose your other water bottle, at least you have a back up. Of course, a water bladder system is also in option. It all depends on the activity.
On longer trips, be sure to have a way of making water drinkable. This could be a stove, sterilight, filtration system, tablets, etc.
Speaking of hydration...should you drink your own pee to survive? Gross but...we answer that here.
In addition to the food you plan to eat, have extra nonperishable, easy to prepare calories with you. Preferably a half day or a day’s worth. This can be as simple as packing an extra freeze dried meal, energy bars, or trail mix. Dried potato soup, couscous, ramen noodles, and oatmeal are all possible nonperishable options that can be easily carried as an extra meal and do not absolutely require hot water for cooking.
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Weather and temperature can quickly change in the backcountry. Always carry warm, insulating clothes. Depending on the environment, this may include a jacket, gloves, and a warm hat. A large amount of heat is lost through the head, a minimalist windproof skull cap can really make a big difference.
Down or synthetic jackets are a fantastically warm, lightweight, and compact option. “My Patagonia down sweater packs down to the size of an apple. I never adventure without it. Even on a recent climbing trip in the Moroccan desert, I was happy to have it when the sun dipped below the horizon”, explains Teal Brooks, a Base Medical wilderness paramedic and instructor.
To learn more about how the body loses heat in the wilderness and how to prevent it, see this article: 4 Ways The Body Loses Heat in the Wilderness
A topographic map of the area you are travelling in and a compass are basic old school components of a backcountry navigation system. But in today’s world of GPS technology that can fit in our pocket or on our wrist, is the old school map and compass a thing of the past? It most certainly is not. Technology can fail. On trips longer than a day, it’s a good idea to carry at least a topo map. It’s as simple as pressing print in a lot of cases.
This category probably gets overlooked the most. Think about it. How much of your outdoor comfort and maybe even survival depends on functional gear and equipment? You will not get a good night’s rest on a deflated sleeping pad or in leaky tent. Or how will you manage when your ski binding needs to be adjusted while backcountry skiing? Repair tools and items are there to get you out of such binds (no pun intended). This may include repair tape (our favorite), duct tape, a multi-tool, a knife, a spare velcro strap, paracord, sewing kit, and the list goes on.
8. Sun Protection
This may include sunglasses, sunscreen, or protective sun clothing. Sunglasses are invaluable, especially in environments with high sun glare like from snow, ice, sand, or water. Lens with 100% UV protection are ideal. It’s always worthwhile to carry an extra pair. Shoot, you can even buy foldable sunglasses for under 10 bucks to have in your pack as a backup. This is highly recommended for trips where not having eye protection can be crippling.
Sunscreen and sun protective clothing is another necessity. Sunscreen seems to be an easy thing to forget or leave in the car at the trail head. We recommend always carrying a small amount with you. Sunscreen packets are a great lightweight option and take up no space.
At the very least, carry waterproof matches in a waterproof container or bag. Lighters are fine but they can fail. Flint and other sparking fire starters are fine as well, however they may weigh more. Matches are good to have as a backup.
In addition to matches, have some sort of firestarter with you to help you make a fire. This could be old laundry lint and candle wax, dry tinder, or fire priming paste. A reliable firestarter is very useful in wet conditions where dry tinder materials are hard to find.
But...Fire Starting Items are not just for making a camp fire. Think about that jet boil with the not-so-durable sparker and any other backcountry stove. It is always good to have a back up to get those burners going. Or maybe it's to light a candle in a backcountry hut.
If you are on a multi-day trip, then chances, are you have a shelter of some kind, like a tent or a bivy sack. If when you do not have these things, you should still have an emergency shelter.
An emergency shelter is something that is meant to be carried on a day trip or when away from camp, like when a mountaineering team makes a push for the summit from base camp. As stated earlier, conditions can change quickly in the backcountry. An emergency shelter can offer protection from wet conditions (because staying dry in critical) and can provide warmth by trapping in heat and reducing wind chill and evaporation. An emergency shelter can be a bivvy, a tarp, a space blanket, or even a large trash bag. Unfortunately, ultralight traps can be expensive, so we cut open two large trash bags and then sewed them together. Great alternative!
A quick word about space blankets… these are great in that they are small and weigh only a few ounces but...if you plan to use it as an emergency shelter, please be sure it is durable enough and large enough. Some are very flimsy and tear easily or are just too small to be functional. Stay tuned for a future blog post from us comparing the different space blankets available on the market.
Learn how to treat hypothermia, how to splint broken bones, stop heavy bleeding, and so much more here.
Base Medical has added one more item to the list, a communication device. This may be a cell phone, radio, signalling mirror, or personal locator beacon. In the most minimal form, it could be a whistle. If you experience an emergency, the chances are that you will need outside help because it will be beyond your capability. Having a means of communication can mean the difference between life and death, but it should also not be heavily relied upon, creating a false sense of security.
This list should not be translated into thoughts of “bulk” or added weight. The 11 essential items can be tailored down to a lightweight system and is necessary for responsible outdoor recreation. Most of these items are already in your pack anyway, like a water bottle, sunglasses, a jacket, or your cell phone. You may just need to add a few things to complete your list.
But please remember, having these 11 essential items does not mean you will be able to avoid or fully handle an emergency in the wilderness setting. These items can only do so much, it ultimately comes down to your knowledge and skills. A first aid kit, a map and compass, and repair kits are useless if you do not know how to use them. They would just be extra, unnecessary weight.
We are not saying that if you do not know how to use a first aid kit or compass then just leave it at home. No, that is irresponsible. Instead, learn how to use them. Prepare yourself. Take an orientation course or a wilderness first aid course. Or sign up for our Online Outdoor Safety course. Knowledge is the foundation of safety.