What's In Your PACK?

What’s In Your PACK?

Too many folks these days are getting lost or hurt in the local hills. We go into nature to enjoy the natural world, perhaps to seek solitude and quiet, and to get refreshed. Most of us expect to get back home safely. But getting back home safely doesn’t always happen. Lots of things can get in the way of us getting home safely: unexpected weather, various accidents, unexpected terrain, or just your own inability to find your way. You should never go hiking and exploring into the local mountains and deserts without some very basic preparedness.

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First, whether you’re going on a car trip or a hiking trip, do some pre-trip research and preparation. Your excitement to get out and go and your desire for spontaneity are your enemies. Slow down. Research where you intend to go, and research the weather conditions, and whether or not there will be water. Are there any trails at all? Do other people go there? Are there great temperature extremes between day and night?


Make a plan and an itinerary. Be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you intend to return. If you’re traveling by car, be sure to carry extra water, as well as a blanket, some snacks, and a way to make a fire should the need arise. Have a map with you of the area in which you intend to travel. Be sure to carry road flares and jumper cables, as well as a simple tool kit (things you should always carry at all times). If you’re hiking — even out for a short day hike — there are certain items you should always have with you – in your pack, or in your pockets. And keep in mind that your knowledge and experience are as valuable as all the “stuff” you carry.

Carry at least a quart of water. But that’s bare minimum, because on a hot day, you’ll use that up quickly. Will there be water at your intended destination? Stay alert to sources of water along your journey, and ways to purify that water should the need arise. Water purifiers could be pills, or any of the pump devices sold at every backpacking store. Did you know that you could fill an old beer can with river water, and boil it over a fire to purify it? Beer cans and discarded water bottles are everywhere and could be used in a pinch.


I believe that everyone should carry a way to make a fire at all times. If lost while hiking, that controlled fire could be a lifesaver. Not only would it keep you warm, but also it could be a signal to someone trying to find you.

I like the Doan’s magnesium fire starter, which can always be carried on the keychain. But there’s nothing wrong with a Bic, or even matches as long as they are kept in a waterproof container. In fact, I teach my students dozens of ways to make a fire should the need arise. Even the little fresnel magnifying lens is a good way to make a fire when the sun is shining.

But if you didn’t plan ahead, there may still be hope. The concave bottom of that discarded beer can could create a fire if you’re patient. When pointed at the sun, with a bit of tinder held at the focal point (you’ll figure this out if you try it), you can ignite the tinder with the sun. Then there’s the fire by friction method that the Native Americans used, the hand drill spun onto a flat piece of wood – but if you’ve never tried this before, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this when lost. Carry that magnesium fire starter.


A knife should always be carried, at least a multi-blade Swiss Army knife. Get one that has a knife, scissors, and a saw, at least. These come in handy for countless tasks. I always carry a bundle of cord, such as the inexpensive nylon cord used for surveying. Cord has innumerable uses, and in an emergency, could be pressed into service for emergency first aid, for making a pack, for various repairs, and many other possibilities.

A small first aid kit with at least a lot of Band-Aids and perhaps a few anti-infection creams should be included. In fact, you should enroll in a Red Cross emergency first aid course because “first aid” is more about knowing what to do, rather than knowing what to carry.


A signaling mirror is also a good idea for a small daypack. They are small, and could also be used for certain first aid applications. They are not expensive, and come in glass or metal. Also, the used hard drive platters from computers are nearly unbreakable, and make excellent signaling mirrors.

You probably already carry a cell phone, which is great for emergencies. However, there is often no cell coverage in many wilderness areas, and your battery will not last very long in cold weather.

Compass? Yes, carry one along with the map of the area you intend to visit. But remember that the compass is of no value if you haven’t taken the time to learn how to use it with your map.


Though tents and sleeping bags are too bulky to carry in a daypack, you should at least consider the possibility of spending the night in the wild. What would you do? Knowledge of making a wilderness lean-to, or other expedient shelter, is a good idea. But for the pack, you should consider carrying a little emergency space blanket, which is not fantastic, but certainly better than nothing. If you have a slightly bigger pack, consider adding a tube tent. Tube tents are lightweight, inexpensive, and fold fairly flat.

You should also add some simple snacks to your pack. These wouldn’t be your lunch, but just something to eat “just in case.”

Back when I first got interested in survival preparedness, I’d have long discussions with the folks at the Wilderness Training Institute (a nonprofit concerned about the full picture of survival) about the necessity of always having a pack ready in case you ever had to make a quick evacuation or in case you got lost in the woods. Knives, tools, water, clothes, fire, shelter, light – these are the areas of greatest concern. We agreed that the ideal survival pack should be lightweight and not a burden. We learned that the more you knew, the less you had to carry. And yes, there are many, many more items that hikers could carry, and many do. But the above represents the bare-bones minimum that anyone traveling on foot should carry.

Here is the list that we developed over many years. Of course, you should not blindly follow anyone’s list, but just use it as a way to consider your own needs.


This particular list was developed over the span of 20 years and is based on the WTI and the School of Self- Reliance field trips. It assumes you may have to live out of this pack for more than a day, and maybe even longer, so this is not just a simple daybag. This pack also assumes that you have the knowledge and skills to do and make things with the tools in your pack, and that you have the knowledge of plants for food, fiber, etc. Any kit should be modified to fit your personal needs and circumstances.

Pack: Your pack must be comfortable. It should have padded straps, and a waist strap.

Sleeping Bag: Though a sleeping bag is optional on our overnight trips, we recommend it because, in some areas, there may not be enough natural materials to allow everyone to make a lean-to with insulation. If in doubt, ask us in advance.

Clothing: Always dress comfortably, and dress in layers. It is easy to add or remove a layer of clothing as the weather permits.

  • Rain protection (if needed)
  • Sun protection (hat, eye glasses)
  • Comfortable shoes, moccasins, or boots
  • Hand protection
  • Extra shoelaces
  • A large bandanna has many uses

Sewing Kit: This should include needles, various thread, an awl, small scissors, and safety pins. Kevlar thread is virtually tear-proof.

Compass and Maps: Having a good working compass and a practical map (i.e. a topo) of the area will provide you with a vast wealth of knowledge about your surroundings.

Notepad and Pencil: Sometimes, jotting down notes or keeping a journal of your experience will help provide some mental clarity and keep your brain working and preoccupied if boredom or fear sets in.

Water: Of course, it’s essential to have access to water. Also include iodine for purification and a water-filtering device.

Eating Utensils: Though these are definitely optional — you can make a plate from bark and a fork from a sharp stick, it is nice to have some cleanable utensils if you can spare the room.

  • Sierra Cup (or equivalent)
  • Large coffee can with a wire handle
  • An old pie pan can be used as a bowl or frying pan

First Aid Kit: A conventional first aid kit should be augmented with a small container of raw honey, a container of raw vinegar, and one leaf from an Aloe Vera plant. Also include something to deal with chapped lips and hands, like castor oil or other skin moisturizer. Also consider the snake bite kit if in rattlesnake country.

Sharpened Gear: There isn’t enough room in this article to explain how important it is to have a knife with you at all times. However, there are a few more recommended tools.

  • Folding shovel
  • Heavy-duty sheath knife or lockback
  • Multi-blade Swiss Army-type knife
  • Both a stone and a steel sharpener are recommended
  • Small folding camp saw
  • Ratchet garden clippers

Weapons: This is a personal choice to carry a firearm or a silent weapon, such as bows, booms, bolas, blowgun, atlatl (spear thrower), etc.

Fire Starters: Next to a source of water and a knife, ways to start and maintain a fire are paramount. It provides a way to cook food, create light, and offer comfort in the dark.

  • A butane lighter
  • Magnifying glass
  • Magnesium fire starter

Also consider preparing a waterproof tinderbox. Pack it with the finest (grade 000 or 0000) steel wool, cotton stuffing, “fatwood,” oiled and waxed sawdust, dried mugwort leaves, etc. If you don’t have these, you can collect tinder along the trail in a plastic bag.

Personal items: Though they can be done without in an emergency situation, it is nice to have a few creature comforts to maintain an element of civilization.

  • Toilet paper or a pack of tissues (or learn how to collect your own — keep your eye out for mullein, aka “cowboy toilet paper”).
  • A natural bristle brush — for “drywashing” your body when water is scarce.

Cord/rope: Pack about 15 to 20 feet of lightweight nylon cord or rope (and/or paracord). For an easy solution, buy a length of clothesline at the hardware store. It can even be used for fire starting.

As you put together your gear, keep in mind this pack is an everyday carry. It doesn’t do you any good to toss it into the back of your closet and forget about it. Keep it in your trunk when you commute or travel, grab it for a quick day at the park, and make sure it is readily available at a moment’s notice. The first key element to survival is to be ready and to be ready quickly.


KNOWING HOW much gear you need to carry depends on several factors, namely, your environment, your skill base, and your personal needs at that point in your life. If you live out in the middle of nowhere and have to drive or walk a mile just to check the mailbox, you may want to consider more gear tailored for longer stays — perhaps include some snacks. However, if you live in and rarely leave the bustling city, your personal items should be more urban — protection from people, germs, debris.


When packing the items into your pack, consider weight and frequency of use. Heavy items, of course, should go on the bottom, but also take note of the balance. You’ll want to spread out those heavy items to either side of the pack so the weight is not favored on one side or the other. This will put undue pressure on one shoulder and cause abnormal fatigue. Items that you think you might frequently use — things like the first aid kit, snacks, compass/map, gloves, and flashlight — should go on the top or in outside pockets so they can be retrieved quickly and without hassle. Tarps for shelter, extra clothes, rope, and fire starting equipment will be used infrequently and should reside further into your pack.

Backpacks with compartments work best, as it is a good idea to stay as organized as possible. This eliminates confusion and under utilized gear due to forgetfulness and promotes efficiency.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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