Gear That Will Save Your Life

October 1, 2004
Filed under Feature Stories

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Every camper has his or her favorite things to take on a camping trip. Some items are for convenience, some are for the success of the camping trip and some are downright essential for survival. Some gear can save your life.

These vital pieces of equipment are what experienced outdoorsmen often refer to as the “10 Essentials,” the basic, bottom-line, you-better-have-them-or-else items that can make the difference between survival and disaster.

But as the saying goes, “Man [or woman] cannot live by bread alone.” Along with these 10 must-haves, there are many other items that should be included on your hiking-trip checklist. These other bits of gear and goodies may not be a matter of life and death, but without them, life in the woods would be a heck of a lot less fun.

Let’s begin with the 10 Essentials. Whether you’re car camping, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking or biking in the wilderness, these are the most important items to carry with you. If these 10 things are all that you have, you should be able to survive long enough to be rescued or walk your way to safety. Keep a daypack filled with these items in camp or on your back (when hiking) at all times. This list can be supplemented to accommodate your specific needs and desires:

Extra Clothing — If you get wet or the weather turns cold, you will need more than just the shirt on your back. Bring at least a change of socks and a weatherproof shell (rain jacket) for comfort and protection. If you typically hike in shorts, a pair of convertible (zip-on legs) pants can be nice when the air chills. There are a number of windproof and waterproof shells and midlayers on the market. It’s also a good idea to keep a spare set of bootlaces in your daypack, too.

Extra Food — It’s not just an army that travels on its stomach. Physical activity requires nutrient replacement to sustain it. Always carry “energy bars” or trail snacks in your daypack. Dried fruit, GORP (trail mix), jerky and Clif Bars are among our favorites. Pack one extra meal in addition to what you need for the day’s activities. You should have enough to carry you through an unexpected delay just in case you get lost or injured.

Sunglasses — Eyestrain and the associated headaches, as well as permanent eye damage from the sun’s radiation, make “shades” a must-have. The intense glare reflected from snow, ice-covered ground or light, sandy soils can temporarily blind or permanently damage unprotected eyes. But don’t buy “cheapies.” Spend the money to get top-quality, UV-cutting sunglasses. Also get a “keeper” for them so they won’t fall off your face and into the creek.

Pocketknife — A good, sharp knife is probably the most important survival tool you can have. It can be used for everything from whittling kindling to slicing food to cutting up cloth for bandages. We prefer pocketknives that are not overly complicated — a good single-blade folder or a knife that has just a few tools (can opener, awl, tweezers, etc.) is all you really need.

Fire Starter — Under any conditions, but especially in wet, stormy weather, some sort of fire-starting device (either commercially bought or homemade) can be a lifesaver, especially if an overnight stay without shelter is unavoidable, or if hypothermia is a concern.

Waterproof Matches; Cigarette Lighter — Waterproof matches, which you can either pick up at the store or fashion yourself by dipping regular match heads in molten parafin wax, will light your stove or campfire even in rainy weather. Bring a butane-fueled cigarette lighter, which will dry easily and light consistently, but always bring matches, too.

First-Aid Kit — Bring along a first-aid kit that will cover the basic problems you can attend to before contacting emergency medical personnel. Augment the kit’s contents to customize it for your family’s special needs, such as with allergy medications.

Flashlight — Always bring a quality flashlight with you. You don’t want some cheap “dime-store” one that won’t last through the first night. And don’t forget to bring along a spare set of fresh batteries.

Map of the Area — A topographic map of the area you’re hiking or camping in is a vital part of your checklist. Reconnoiter and learn your immediate surroundings soon after making camp.

Compass — Get one for everybody in your party, and teach each person how to use it. As soon as you set up camp, use the compass to orient everyone to the bearings of the surroundings. Keep a compass with you whenever you go for a hike!

Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers are a modern miracle, but you should not solely rely on them for emergency navigation. They run on batteries that can run out of juice, and most GPS units have compasses that only work when you’re moving at a high speed.

My daypack not only includes these 10 Essentials, but it is also filled with six other necessities.

Prior to setting out on the trail, I always pack at least a quart of clean water in a food-grade plastic bottle in my daypack. A small bottle of water-purification tablets are tucked away in my first-aid kit, too. I also tote along a “space blanket” to help keep warm and cozy in a pinch.

Plus, I always bring a whistle for making noise in an emergency (it keeps me from losing my voice by having to yell to attract attention). A 20-foot coil of rope (you would be surprised how handy this can be) is in there, too. I also have a barbed-wire-style, compact handsaw for cutting up wood.

There are several supplementary kits that we suggest you assemble and carry with you on your hikes. You can customize these microkits to suit your needs, or invent microkits of your own for the activities you participate in. We carry our microkits in small, nylon stuff sacks.

Foot-Health Microkit — Since hiking includes lots of fancy footwork, we recommend you keep a small foot-care kit as part of your main first-aid kit. We suggest the following items be included:
- Adhesive-backed moleskin for covering hot spots to keep them from becoming blisters, and for protecting blisters from continued inflammation.
- Small, folding scissors for cutting moleskin (and bandages and medical tape).
- Cotton balls for cleaning skin.
- Antiseptic foot powder (a sprinkle in both shoes during a hiking break can help protect, cool and dry your hot, tired feet).
- A tiny plastic bottle with a couple of ounces of rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide for disinfecting blisters.

First-Aid Microkit — In my daypack there is also a small medical accessory kit to augment the full-blown first-aid kit I carry on every trip. This first-aid microkit includes:
- Sunscreen with SPF 35.
- Insect repellent with a high concentration of DEET.
- Pain-relief ointment for insect stings and bites.
- Small tube of antibacterial cream.
- Small bottle of ibuprofen tablets (good for head- and muscle aches).
- Lip balm with sunscreen.
- Disinfectant hand-cleaning gel.
- Liquid bandage (a paint-on liquid that dries but remains flexible to seal up minor cuts; especially useful on body parts that bend, such as fingers).

There are dozens of other items that would not be classified as “essentials” but are really handy to have around. The items on this list will depend on your special needs or activities. Here are a few things that we always bring along for the hike.
- Prepackaged moist towelettes (collect them when you go to fast-food restaurants or to your neighborhood BBQ rib joint) for cleaning hands or face without soap and water.
- A trekking pole or a good, old-fashioned hiking stick. When hiking over uneven or rocky ground, or when crossing streams, three legs (or four, for that matter) are better than two. Trekking poles that can break down and fit nicely in a small pack are available.
- A bandanna to use as a towel to mop up sweat and to dip into a cold creek to use as a back-of-the-neck cooling system. The cooling produced by evaporation can have a restorative effect in the middle of a long hike.
- Bird identification book. This is something we make room for in our day-hikes.
- Hard, fruit-flavored candies (such as Jolly Ranchers). Something sweet can make your mouth water when it’s dry and hot.
- Wristwatch. Knowing the time of day can help you assess how far you have traveled and how much time you have to reach camp before dark. And, heaven forbid, should you forget your compass, you can use an analog watch to guide you. With the hour hand aimed at the sun, the halfway mark between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch will point southward.

In addition to the survival basics, I carry a pocket weather station for keeping track of temperature and wind changes. A pair of compact binoculars has a permanent post in the daypack, too. A hat is also considered essential. And a notebook and a couple of pencils are always along for the ride.

Also included are a small camera and at least two rolls of film. No self-respecting photographer would be caught dead without these important items. A half-roll of duct tape, flattened to make it compact, also has a corner in my bag. You can fix (at least temporarily) almost anything with duct tape — even yourself! I have used it to repair tent poles, sleeping bags, boots and even to cover my own blisters when somebody used up all the moleskin.

Oh, yeah, there is one last “essential” you never want to forget to bring along — toilet paper.

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