The only way to completely prevent accidents in the backcountry is to never go outside. But that’s no way to live. The next best option is to pack emergency gear that will help you tackle nearly every situation you can think of.
Way back in the 1930s, The Mountaineers, a climbing and outdoor club in Seattle, put together an emergency gear checklist called The 10 Essentials. It’s been slightly modified since then to include 10 types of gear rather than individual items, but the idea is still the same: this stuff will keep you alive.
We’ve expanded on The 10 Essentials to outline backpacking checklist complete with product suggestions.
Map and Compass
GPS devices and phone apps are very accurate, but they have one major downside: they’re electronic. These gadgets can run out of juice or break if you drop them. A map and compass are the most reliable way to find your way to your destination — and home.
Good topographic maps can be found online, at the bookstore, and at your nearest outdoor shop. (Don’t know how to read a topo map? We’ve got you covered.)
The Suunto MC-2 is one of the best compasses you can get. A magnifying glass in the base plate will help you read small map markings and glow-in-the-dark features will be useful in low light. The lid flips up to reveal a mirror that will assist in using landmarks for bearings and signalling rescuers. If you need to save a bit of weight, go with the Silva Polaris, which has no mirror.
Sunglasses and Sunscreen
Sun can literally be a killer if you’re stuck outside. A good hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses keep the rays at bay and the adventure rolling.
The All Good Unscented Sunstick stays on top of your skin and doesn’t sink in, protecting your face, nose, and ears. Organic oils like jojoba, coconut and avocado help rejuvenate. For all-over protection, check out our lists of the best non-greasy and winter-ready sunscreens.
Never forget your sunglasses. A pair that blocks UVA and UVB is best. If you’re on the snow or water, polarized lens will cut out the glare.
Headlamp or Flashlight
If you can’t see where you’re going, it’s going to be tough getting home. You definitely need a source of light, whether it be a flashlight, headlamp, or portable lantern.
The Petzl Actik headlamp has easy, glove-friendly buttons and is super-bright. The rechargeable battery means you never have to worry about finding AAA batteries again.
Kit or Supplies
A bad injury might be the reason you’re stuck out after dark. Make a bad situation so much better with a portable first aid kit. The durable Surviveware Small First Aid Kit doesn’t take up much room in your pack. It’s full of basics for emergencies on the trail, but you can leave extras at home if you need it make it lighter.
Waterproof Matches or Lighter
Heat and light from a fire can make a world of difference — always have something to light a fire with. The Swedish FireSteel from Light My Fire creates enough sparks to get a blaze going even in extreme weather.
The UCO Gear Stormproof Torch gets a fire going even faster. They’ve even wrapped the torch with duct tape so you’ve got the most versatile problem-fixer.
You should pack more than you think you will eat. You’ll be happy to find those extra bars at the bottom of your pack. High-calorie, nutrient-dense food that lasts a long time will keep you going the longest. Regrained beer bars or Epic animal snacks make great options.
Bad situations get much worse if you don’t have any water. Humans can only go so long without it.
You can bring a ton of water with you with the Osprey 3L Hydraulics reservoir. Treatment drops or tablets will let you drink the water wherever you are. The Quartz Bottle can also treat water from lakes and streams on the fly with it’s built-in UV light purifier, while Lifestraw is a portable filter option.
Hypothermia is a serious concern if you’re stuck out overnight in the cold. Bring along extra layers to keep you warm. Cotton will make you colder if it gets wet; merino wool or synthetic materials are your best bet.
An Inversion 1/4 Zip from Ridge Merino is a perfect midlayer for cooler days. When the sun comes out, UPF keeps the sun off your skin. If you need something thicker, consider the synthetic Arcteryx Atom LT hoodie.
With a good multi-tool, you can pull porcupine quills, fix your ski bindings, cut up your dinner, or saw firewood.
The Leatherman Charge TTI has 18 different tools, including a large blade, pliers, scissors, and multiple screwdrivers. It’s also got a solid bottle opener for when you finally get home.
If you’re really stuck, you might be waiting for a rescue. The Space All-Weather blanket can keep you warm and dry in terrible weather. The SOL Emergency Bivvy is like a sleeping bag made out of space blanket material. It reflects your body heat back to you keeping you warmer than without.
For Your Consideration
A bonus item to this list is a good communication device. Cell phones work, but only go so far. A good satellite communication device can call help anywhere in the world.