OK. Maybe that was a little mean - slapping up a rather sensationalist title like that - but on the other hand - - -
What this post is really about is what I carry with me on day-hikes, and to make the title somewhat relevant, much of what I carry is all about making sure I make it back again if something goes wrong along the way.
And yes, I already wrote a post on this same subject back in the spring of 2014, but, despite being old and set in my ways, I continue to learn and evolve and have made some changes - hopefully upgrades - to my day-hiking toolkit since then.
I'll tell you up front that to many this list is going to seem a little excessive, possibly obsessive, and I'll admit that I tend towards overkill, but it seems like the more I prepare for unexpected eventualities the less they actually happen and that is certainly fine by me!
I don't know how it works, maybe karma, maybe something else, but I'd rather spend 5 minutes every single month (132 of them so far) crawling under The Van to check the air-pressure in the spare tire that I have never had to use, (so far) than end up stranded just once on the side of a dark and wet highway with a flat tire and flat spare because I couldn't be bothered to check on it..
Creek Stewart is a wilderness survival expert and on many editions of his various survival shows (on the Weather Channel) he introduces people as 'experienced' hikers. Well apparently experienced and smart are sometimes two different things and a common theme for those experienced hikers that end up on this show is that they started down the trail with what I consider not nearly enough gear.
To be fair: Time and time again I see people setting out on the trail clearly under-equipped. Time and time again I shake my head (in an admittedly supercilious way) at their folly, imagining all sorts of trouble they might get themselves into. And time and time again the majority make it back on their own just fine - but not all of them.
When I set out on a hike, or any other activity that I freely choose to pursue, I believe it's my moral obligation, my responsibility, to do my best to prepare for dealing with the risks and unexpected events that may bite me in the ass, and because of that preparedness, eventually be able to self-rescue.
And honestly, I don't think it takes that much to be safe and reasonably self-sufficient, on the trail or anywhere else.
So, with that rather long pre-amble, I think it's time to finally get started on the list of equipment that I day-hike with.
(Man, I thought that guy would never stop talking!)
I'll start with what I carry in my pockets, which, other than the usual ID, key to The Van, and a pen in case I need to leave notes, isn't much, but it is critical to safe hiking.
In one thigh pocket (Why would anyone wear anything other than cargo pants?) I carry a paper map(s) of the area.
In the other thigh pocket I carry my phone, fully charged, no apps running, and in airplane mode since most places I hike have no cell service anyway and searching for service really sucks the juice out of a battery. (A few weeks ago I was doing some impromptu hiking in Michigan. I'm not used to hiking with a cell signal and what with local family calling and texting I eventually turned airplane mode on just to shut the dang thing up. Ring-tones just don't belong out in the woods!)
This phone is the backup for both my GPS, which of course has a map of its own on it, and my paper maps.
If my GPS packs it in during the hike I can switch over to using the Guia app on my phone for both a map and to track my location. (Since the location service operates off satellites, even when there's no cell service the phone's location service still works.) The Guia app also has a remarkably accurate and responsive compass built into it to back up the more traditional lensatic compass that I also carry.
I also have a folder on my phone full of PDF maps I've collected, and add to during the planning of a trip. That way if my paper map(s) blows away in the wind I still have access to the maps I need for safe hiking.
And in case you were wondering, Yep, I'm big on redundancy!
Oh - and at any given time I also have anywhere from 10 to 20 books downloaded into my phone's Kindle app as well for off-line trail-side reference (area and/or trail guides) or entertainment.
The final 'pocket items' I carry are these.
When closed up the black thing is about the size of a partially-smoked cigar. (Partially-smoked cigar?! OK, so I might have watched one too many Columbo reruns lately - - -)
The piece in the middle is a length of ferro-rod with handle, the other big piece to the upper left is a ferro-rod striker with handle, attached to the lanyard there at the top-right, is a tiny whistle, much more effective for emergency signalling that the voice, and tucked into the cap that goes into the end of the fero-rod handle is a petroleum-jelly soaked cotton-ball which makes an easy to light and long burning fire-starter.
And of course there's my knife. Yep, that tiny little thing there next to the quarter (I don't carry the quarter, it's just there in the photo for size comparison!) is my version of a he-man ax. It weighs all of an ounce, is 100% stainless steel, and has a 2" blade which I keep nice and sharp on a strop. This little knife does very well at its primary job of cutting cordage, and with some poles and a little bit of cordage just about anything needed around a camp can be built - other than maybe a rescue helicopter or a juicy hamburger. It also does a great job of making feather-sticks, putting points on wooden stakes and striping bark off food-skewers. So laugh all you want. It works for me.
I keep these last two items tucked into the bottom of my pant's 'map-pocket', which has a flap to make sure nothing falls out as I tumble down a cliff. They are my a last resort option just in case I get separated from my pack. Which, by the way, is a big No-No! A cardinal, if not mortal, hiking sin! But, as I've been told once in a while - OK, maybe more than once in a while - I'm no angel, so it could happen - - -
But moving on from my pockets:
I've sometimes heard slightly different numbers being used, but as a young scout I was taught the mantra of three's. It goes like this, you can survive; three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
OK, first off, that is survival times, so you should cut those numbers in half if you're thinking in terms of being able to function and not just lay there and breath your last. And functionality could be kinda handy if you're going to self-rescue.
And secondly, the actual numbers will vary depending on circumstances and climatic conditions.
But the point is, survival priorities should be ranked in the order of shelter, water, and then food.
It's not often thought of this way, but shelter starts with clothing. And for proper protection from pokey things, weather, and that nasty UV, I always hike in light-colored, loose-fitting, long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a wide-brimmed hat, even on the hottest of hikes. (You never see Bedouins wandering around bare-headed under the desert sun in wife-beaters and cutoffs!) I also carry an extra layer of clothing with me, the details of which depend on the season, For instance in summer it may be just an extra shirt I can throw on over top of what I'm already wearing if I'm caught out when the sun goes down, while in colder weather it might be more of a complete extra layer.
In addition to clothing there are an amazing variety of actual shelters that can be made with the few tools I carry in my pack and/or the natural resources laying around wherever I am. It just takes a little bit of pre-planning to ensure I have the know-how and means to build one.
Many packs have a tall side-pocket for tent-poles, including my Kestrel. And that's what I use that pocket for. But even when I'm not carrying a tent and its poles I keep a bag containing a few tent-stakes, several lengths of para-cord, and about a half-dozen pre-made para-cord loops in the bottom of that pocket. I also keep a full 50 foot skein of para-cord and a pocket chain-saw in this compartment as well.
I already went over how most of this stuff can be used for making an emergency shelter in this post, but I haven't talked about the saw before - at least not that I remember.
Thoughts of wilderness conjure up grizzled he-man images of an ax-wielding woodsman, or at least one with a great-honking-knife. Well I never have carried an ax when hiking and I used to, but no longer, carry that great-honking-knife either. (though never one even half as big as that!)
With a little bit of cordage, poles cut from the trees around me can be transformed into all sorts of shelters and 'camp furniture'.
But you know what's really inefficient at cutting poles? Axes and great-honking-knives! So I carry that pocket chain-saw instead because it is superbly efficient at cutting anything from a 10' long ridge-pole for building a shelter to a 12" long bit of dry wood for my fire. (I can make 6 cuts with the saw in the time it take to cut through once with a large knife and be a whole lot safer in the process!) And it produces a coarse sawdust which makes a great addition to the tinder-bundle! Though green wood is actually easier to cut than dead, so save the dead stuff, and its saw-dust, for the fire and look to green stuff to build - well , stuff with.
As I work my way around my pack I'll come across a few more things that could be considered shelter-building tools, for instance fire is an important component of many good shelters and I have several ways to start one of those, but for now, sticking with the priorities of the survival triad, I'm going to switch from shelter to water.
My primary source of water when hiking is from a bladder.
Some prefer water-bottles but I find I stay hydrated better when all I have to do is put the bite-valve in my mouth and sip rather than stop, contort my body in order to reach back and blindly feel around for the bottle with my fingertips, yank it from the side-pouch, gulp half of it down to make up for waiting too long to drink, then end up having to take my pack off anyway to wrestle the bottle back into the side pouch.
But the down side of using water bladders is that they are hidden away so have a tendency to run dry without warning.
To get around this I carry two bladders, only one of which is shown here. One is hooked to my drinking tube and the other is on standby in my pack. If and when the primary runs dry I switch it out for the other and immediately start calculating the shortest route to a spigot.
But having a spare bladder only gives me one layer of redundancy and as we've already seen back there with my maps, I like extra redundancy, especially for critical things like water. Therefor I also carry a Sawyer purifier kit.
The kit I have includes two collapsible water containers that screw into the input side of the purifier, (Having two of these 30 oz bags reduces the number of trips I have to make down to the water-source, which we all know we shouldn't be camping any closer to than two or three hundred feet so we don't disturb the animals who's home this is and who rely on that water-source daily.) the purifier cartridge, and a mesh bag to put it all into.
This is a nice compact system but has a couple of shortcomings so I have also added an Evernew 30 oz collapsible bottle , a couple of adapter rings, and a recycled 16 oz plastic water bottle.
The Evernew is for collecting the clean water from the purifier and the adapter rings are for connecting the Evernew directly to the purifier cartridge. True, I only need one of those adapters but they are inexpensive so I have an extra just in case, because they are also tiny and easy to misplace.
As for the small plastic water bottle; the blue collapsible containers that come with the Sawyer fill just fine from a tap, hose, or modest waterfall, but are nearly impossible to fill from a stream, pond, or puddle so that's what this water bottle is for.
I carry it crushed down nice and compact to fit into the mesh bag with everything else and when I blow it back into shape it's ready to be dipped into a puddle and collect water that I then pour into the larger collapsible containers.
At this point the purifier can be screwed onto one of the full dirty-water containers, the smart-bottle cap on the output side of the purifier opened, and the dirty-water container squeezed while you drink straight from the purifier.
But I prefer to remove the smart-bottle cap from the purifier, install one of the blue adapter rings and then screw the Evernew to the other end of the adapter. Using the mesh carry-bag, I suspend the system from any handy point and let gravity run water through the purifier into the Evernew, which will unfurl itself under the weight of the incoming water, while I'm off doing something else.
Normally this is all tucked into the mesh bag and lives, pretty much ignored, in one of the side water-bottle pockets on my pack.
I just have to remember to either blow residual water out of the purifier or keep it tucked into my shirt during cold weather because if the costly purifier cartridge freezes with water in it it's toast.
And if that's not enough redundancy for you I also know how to string up my poncho to collect rainwater or build a solar still out of a hole in the ground, a cup, a plastic bag, and a large pebble, so I think I'm doing about as well as I reasonably can at covering the very important water issue.
So moving on:
The easily accessible hip-belt pockets of my pack are loaded with a variety of very useful stuff. Some of it just makes the hike more enjoyable, some is critical survival gear, a lot of it is a little bit of both.
Starting at the GPS - which technically rides on my shoulder strap and not the hip-belt - and spiraling around counter-clockwise:
Two extra sets of batteries for the GPS and one extra battery for the camera - I always start out with fresh batteries in the GPS but the camera battery lasts so long I don't replace it with fresh for every hike, I just let the one in it run out then switch to the spare.
Two repurposed squeezable plastic craft-paint containers. One is filled with my favorite sun-block and the other with hand-sanitizer - which can also be used as an accelerant to help get the fire started
One small spritzer bottle - the blue one - loaded with bug-repellent
One lensatic compass
A small headlamp with one spare set of batteries
A small lighter with the kid-guard removed (Just takes a little prying with a small screwdriver) so if it runs out of gas I can still drop a lot of sparks into my tinder-bundle by spinning the wheel against something like the surface of a flat rock or a bit of bark. (When I was young and dumb - OK, dummer - I tried using just my palm but that hurts!)
Two water-proof containers, one loaded with a mix of kitchen and windproof matches along with the necessary strikers, (Because all matches sold in this country are now safety matches, gone are the manly days of flicking a match to life with your thumbnail) and the other loaded with cotton-balls dredged through petroleum jelly which, when teased out fluffy again make a fantastic tinder that burns long enough to get a fire started even in the damp.
And finally, a backup knife identical to the one in my pants-pocket just in case. It's light and so small it sometimes gets lost in the bottom of the pocket so why not?
Flipping my pack over, tucked into the external front pocket (you'd think this is the back of the pack but somewhere along the way pack nomenclature got turned over and the back is the front, the front is the back, the left is the ri - - - well, you get the idea.) is my poncho and inflatable seat cushion.
I've talked about both of these before so that's enough for here.
With the exception of extra clothes, which go into the main compartment, everything else I carry for day-hiking is up there in that compartment at the top of the pack, the brain as it's sometimes called.
If I unhook the brain and look underneath it (finally top is top and bottom is bottom!) there's a mesh compartment under there.
Here I keep a sort of random collection of things.
I have the ExoSpikes I can pull on over my hiking-boots like those old-fashioned goulashes when things get slippery up on a cliff or down in a creek-bottom.
The yellow microfiber towel that I can wash dishes and my face with then turn around and wring out nearly dry so I can use it as a towel to dry my feet after wading through that creek.
The mesh bug-net that I can pull on over my hat and close up down around my neck to keep from breathing and swallowing bugs when they get bad. (Remember, I have long sleeves and long pants to protect most the rest of me.) By The Way! This also works great for carrying found fire-starter material, such as a downed bird's nest, that must breath if it is going to remain usable. (This is one thing zip-locks are terrible for!) Put your fire-starter, or even wet socks inside, use the draw-string to attach to the outside of your pack, and go.
The hunter's-orange bandanna that can be waved around as a signal, or when draped over the top of my hat and tucked into the hat-band keeps me from getting shot, strung up and gutted by clueless hunters.
And finally something that is fairly new to my pack. This is a bag containing about 150 feet of hunter's-orange surveyor's tape that weights a couple ounces and compresses down nearly flat.
But why the hell would I carry that around?
Well, this works exceedingly well for quick, eco-friendly, (if I remove them on my way back out) and very effective blazes in case I find I've been misplaced and need to do a little controlled exploring in order to find myself again.
Even with all that stuff crammed into the mesh pocket, the top pocket of the brain is surprisingly roomy and also easy to get into during a hike without having to unhook anything, making it a great place to stick more crap, including the stuff I'll likely use during any normal hike. Like lunch!
Starting at the top center in the photo above you see my typical lunch. A foil packet (the new version of the tin can with all the same long-term food-protection properties but lighter and easier to store and open) of tuna and a small sleeve of Ritz Crackers. The crackers deliver a solid 220 calorie jolt with 12 grams of warmth-producing fat. Pair that up with 70 calories and 14 grams of protein from the tuna and that's just about perfect for the active hiker. I keep all this as well as a paper towel tucked into a zip-lock. (I reuse the zip-locks until they won't seal anymore, then they still have one more life holding the nasty trash I've picked up along the trail until I can get to a proper disposal container.) This 'lunch' bag is something I add to the pack just before setting off on a hike.
Just to the right of my lunch is another zip-locked package, but this time with two 'meals' in it. It too has packets of tuna and a paper towel, as well as two packages of foil-packed 'crackers-coma-vegetable'. The difference being that this package of food, like most everything else that makes up my day-hiking kit, stays in my pack all the time and I don't plan on eating it under normal circumstances.
So what's this extra food all about?
Well in addition to prioritizing the shelter-water-food trio there's another set of survival assets that will determine how well you perform under duress. These are your mind, your body, and your skill-set.
We all know that during stressful times children that are provided some sort of normalcy, even if it's just holding onto a favorite toy or eating a bowl of SpagettiOs, function better both during and immediately after a disruptive event than those that aren't offered that normalcy. Well studies have shown that if you provide the adult mind with even the illusion of normalcy it also functions better. (Ya-gota love those university psych departments and the people that volunteer for their studies!)
True, food is last on the trio of survival priorities but under stuck-in-the-wilderness conditions it may be the easiest way to inject a moment of 'normal' into the situation and refocus the mind, so I carry this package of 'emergency mind food'.
After that long, cold night unexpected spent out on the trail somewhere a quick meal, though technically not nutritionally critical at this point, is a great way to kick-start your mind so you can better get on with the business of extracting yourself from this situation.
When I was a scout we once took a week-long canoe trip down Michigan's Rifle River (significantly wilder and more remote than it is today) and the boxed meals we took with us included something called Bolton Biscuits which were dense, almost indestructible cracker-like things. It might have been the circumstances, but they were a particularly satisfying trail-food that we looked forward to smearing with the little packets of jelly each evening. Those "crackers-coma-vegetable" in my emergency-meal-packet are the closest thing I can find to Bolton Biscuits these days. Though they are expensive, as is everything in the MRE line of foods that they come from, these crackers, unlike the sleeves of much less expensive Ritz crackers which will get stale in a couple months and turn to dust if knocked around in the pack too long, are pretty much indestructible and survive being in the pack hike after hike just fine.
And if you open the foil packet these crackers are packed in carefully it can double as a cup or even a tiny cook-pot once you burn the tan outer layer off it.
Anyway, continuing around the photo, clockwise this time, the next item is a zip-lock with yet another paper towel (staying clean-ish- is another one of those mind-game things that helps us function better.) wrapped around my nested set of fork, spoon, and knife. Surprisingly, eating implements are in the top 5 list of things backpackers consistently forget to take with them, so why not just keep them in the pack all the time?
In yet another zip-lock, (actually out of the zip-lock for this photo) there at the bottom-right, is my poop-kit. A small trowel (that I can also use to dig a hole for my solar water still!) a wad of toilet paper, a couple moist-wipe towelettes, and a few more zip-locks for packing out the used paper and wipes. (I know! So many zip-locks! But they are light, do a great job of keeping things organized, and have many potential uses, such as a container for collecting berries, a dry-bag for my phone, and are useful even beyond just being a bag - did you know that if you put an ounce or so of water into a bit of plastic and carefully twist it tight around the water, you create a sphere that can be used to focus the Sun's rays and start a fire? Admittedly this takes some practice and patience and works better with thin, cheap bags and really well with cling-wrap, but still - - -)
Starting back up the other side is my field water-color set consisting of a tiny pallet and a couple self-contained water-brushes in the black bag and some pre-cut paper protected by the brown cardboard. Although, to be honest I'm currently rethinking carrying this with me since I very rarely seem to use it, preferring instead to take photos and do my painting back at my bench.
At the top-left is my first-aid kit which I'll come back to in a few minutes, but first, there in the middle looking something like a couple small sponges, is a final bit of emergency ration that is aimed more at the body part of the asset trio rather than the mind.
Even though we can go for days without eating and suffer few consequences, the body runs on calories, especially when it comes to generating warmth, and since there is a relatively easy way to supply those in an almost palatable, very calorie-dense form, why not?
These emergency ration bars cost less than a dollar an ounce and have a reasonable shelf life. (For comparison, for the the most basic version of pemmican, the original high calorie, long shelf-life food, you pay $2.50 to $3 per ounce.)
The down-side is that the nine 400 calorie squares are packaged in a single pouch, so once opened - well - there goes the shelf-life for the leftovers! So I use a vacuum sealer and repackage the squares into 4 sets of two bars each. (The ninth bar? Well someone has to test this stuff out don't they?)
Lemony flavor or not, these things are not going to win any culinary awards, but the whole point is calories, which they have! In fact, for the sake of your digestive system I recommend eating half a square then waiting an hour to eat the other half. My strategic plan is to eat these, one square per day, at the end of the day when the influx of calories will set my body up for combating the cold night and to reward myself for all the work I did towards self-rescue during that day. (Yep, mind-games, but they are important!)
OK. Now the first-aid kit.
Look on-line for these things and you will see that they can range from a briefcase sized kit worthy of an EMT seeing 3 or 4 cases of severe trauma per day, all the way down to - well nothing for those that aren't carrying one at all.
I used to carry pre-packaged first aid kits even though I had no idea what I would do with half the stuff in even the smallest of them, but after years of actual experience I threw away the fancy boxed kits and created one of my own populated with things I have used in the past. (Look out, my minimalist is showing here!)
A few adhesive bandages of course, some antibiotic gel - which also makes a good lip-balm, a couple well-sealed tabs of Imodium because becoming dehydrated through diarrhea out on the trail is pretty debilitating, and a tick-key for when I'm hiking in the buggy Midwest.
That pretty much encompass my whole first-aid kit, though I do have a few other things tucked in there as well.
That yellow paper is repair patch material for my air-mattress and pillow. (that I use when backwoods camping) I didn't have anywhere else to put the thing that would ensure I didn't lose it or forget to take it with me, so there it is.
Toothbrush with a fair bit of dental floss wrapped around the handle because of that whole clean-makes-you-feel-better thing.
Emergency Mylar blanket. Again because this is something you should always have and it seems like a good place to keep it. (And yes, it's called a blanket but with shiny-side out it also makes a decent sun-shelter that can help protect from the heat.)
And finally a heavy-duty needle jammed into a wooden plug to protect the pointy end. This plug can also be used as a thimble for shoving the needle through thick material.
True, this needle could probably be used to sew up a serious cut, but I doubt I'd be able to do that because I'm just too squeamish about these things, (I'm constantly having to close my eyes right now what with all the news reports about vaccines that use stock footage of people getting needles jammed into their arms!) opting instead for pulling the wound closed as best I could with the bandaids then using some of my cordage to secure the bandanna around it. But if I were to break a pack-strap or get a rip in my poncho I can use this needle to patch things up.
Remember that dental-floss wrapped around the toothbrush. That stuff is remarkably strong. Also, the inner core of para-cord, of which I have quite a bit with me, is seven individual strands, and each of those is made up of three smaller strands, so I have enough "thread" to build a blimp let alone close up a rip or rejoin the ends of a broken strap.
OK, if you made it this far you've figured out that I day-hike with what seems like a whole-lota crap. And all of this, with the exception of the day's lunch and extra clothing, stays in my pack all the time.
To take a hike, regardless of whether it is a one mile round-trip jaunt down to a viewpoint or a 12 mile hike into rough country, I throw lunch into a zip-lock, grab the pack and my hiking sticks from the back of The Van, turn on the GPS, and set off. No fiddling around loading up the pack with stuff stashed all over The Van, or editing the gear I carry to match the intended hike. Either of which has the potential for leaving something critical behind. (The intended hike doesn't always turn out to be the actual hike!) And I'd like to point out that in my lifetime I have hiked several thousand miles, some if it in some pretty remote and rugged places, the vast majority of it by myself, and I'm still here.
With all that gear listed above loaded into my pack you can see that it weighs in at 18.6 pounds. Add a pound and a half for the camera that I was taking this photo with and it's up to 20.1 pounds. Subtract the 3.6 pounds the pack itself weighs and 6.6 pounds for the three liters of water in my bladders, and all that gear, including camera, weighs in at just about 10 pounds, which doesn't seem all that bad to me.
Yep, even with all the crap I carry, a pack that's big enough for modest back-country camping trips just may be a little overkill when it comes to day-hiking, but the alternative is to carry two separate packs in The Van. And in my case, lazy as I am about packing, that means two complete sets of hiking gear so each pack is always pre-loaded and read to go.
So I think I'll just live with overkill.
Whatever you carry on your day-hikes - happy hiking and stay safe!