Survival Gear and Loading a Backpack

Need information about items one needs to survive on a multi-day trek into the wilderness or to survive in emergency situations? I will cover water purification and storage, equipment for warmth and shelter, fire starting equipment, first aid kits, food preparation options, and knives and other related tools that might make surviving in the wild that much easier. I’ll top it all off by looking at how to properly organize and load these and other standard items your backpack.

Basic Principles

  • Assuming you are not seriously injured, the only two things that will kill you in a short period of time are dehydration and hypothermia. Thus, gear that allows you to have a supply of safe drinking water and stay warm in cold/wet conditions takes priority over all other gear.
  • Hypothermia will kill you in three hours, dehydration in three days, and starvation in three weeks to three months. However, dehydration is the most likely problem you will encounter.
  • Redundancy – have more than one way to satisfy each survival need when possible. Each survival need below will start with the heaviest/slowest/most complex method for satisfying that need, and work down to lighter gear and more desperate measures for satisfying that need. Keep the largest and most complex items in your backpack, and keep the lightest and most desperate in jacket or pants pockets in case you become separated from your pack.
  • Choose the lightest gear you can afford without sacrificing function or comfort.
  • Be realistic about what you need and what you can physically carry. Don’t bring anything (especially if it is heavy) that you don’t absolutely need.

Survival Need: Hydration

Dehydration is the most common cause of death for humans in any survival situation, whether it be in the wilderness or during an emergency or natural disaster. Dehydration can occur in one of three ways: inability to obtain any fresh water, drinking salt water, and drinking too much water containing pathogens that cause some form of illness.

There are a number of ways to obtain and store safe drinking water using gear in your pack.

Collection and Purification

  • Boil water – This will require either a method to start a fire or some form of camp stove. In addition, you will need a container that can be subjected to a flame without losing its integrity.
  • Gravity water filter – Katadyn and other companies make larger gravity-fed water filters that can filter (and store if you are not on the move) gallons of water at a time. These are not an option for quick purification and are best used if you are with a group of people.
  • Pump water filter – MSR, Katadyn, Sawyer, and a few other companies make portable, lightweight pump filters. Many will attach directly to the top of a standard wide mouth Nalgene-style bottle. A pump filter is a great starting point because of the relatively small size and weight and because they can filter modest amounts of water faster than any other option.
  • UV pen – There are a number of UV pens that can kill pathogens in a container of impure water. These are a good backup option, but the main drawback is that they need power to operate.
  • Lifestraw – portable straw that filters water as you suck it directly out of a puddle, stream, or even a container you have with you. This is the easiest and most compact way to drink water immediately and safely. This is a great backup method to any other methods above.
  • Collect rain water – Use a tarp, rain fly, hammock, stuff sack, or any other waterproof or water resistant fabric to collect rain water. You can even use the outer shell of your coat. Some water may escape, but you can collect enough water to survive. Pour water into water bottles, bladders, or any other available containers as it collects.
  • Dig a seep (aka water hole) – Near a body of water or any low, damp area carefully dig a hole as deep as possible until it starts to fill with water. If there is simply no available fresh water nearby, this is an option to obtain water that you can purify. If you have no purification options, the water from a seep is typically safe to drink since the surrounding earth, sand, and clay acts as a natural filter. Just watch out for any signs of animal or human feces nearby that could cause contamination. A seep can be dug by hand, but having a camp shovel, trowel, or even a knife can make the task much easier.

Storage

Obvious: Water is heavy. However, it is better to carry extra weight in the form of water than to risk running out if there are few or no options to obtain more

  • Collapsible storage bladders – These can store large amounts of water but are bulky and hard to carry around. They store too much water to realistically carry over any distance.
  • Camelbak-style storage bladders – These can rest or hang inside a sleeve in most modern backpacks. Typically they will be positioned near your back. Most are designed to take quite a beating, so they are a great option and take up the least amount of space given the amount of water they can store.
  • Nalgene-style water bottles – Any water bottle with a wide mouth of standard size is a good option to have in quantity. These often can attach directly to pump water filters, making the filtration process fairly easy. The only drawback is that they cannot collapse when empty.
  • Collapsible water bottles – A number of companies make collapsible water bottles. These are very lightweight and pack down small when empty.
  • Waterproof bags – In a pinch, use a dry bag, dry sack, or any other waterproof container. Any Gore-Tex hat, mitten, or glove can store water if you’re desperate.
  • Natural items – Gourds or any other hollow natural item can store water.

Survival Need: Warmth

After dehydration, hypothermia is the most likely life threatening situation a person can experience. Typically, hypothermia is the result of lengthy immersion in cold water, but it can also be caused by exposure to cold air temperatures. It is important to note that hypothermia can be caused by immersion in water just a few degrees cooler than your body temperature – it will just take all day to occur.

Luckily, there is gear to help keep you warm and to warm you up in the event that your body temperature has dropped.

  • Clothing – Your clothing is the most obvious and easiest line of defense. Modern fabrics not only do a great job trapping and reflecting your own body heat, but they can often keep you warm even if they get wet. Wool will always help keep you warm if it is wet. Layer, layer, layer.
  • Tent – Many modern tents are designed to retain heat in cold conditions. A 3 or 4 season tent will help in cold situations.
  • Sleeping bag – Many sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm in sub-freezing conditions. Use your sleeping bag to help get warm if your body temperature has dropped.
  • Camp stove/heater – If you have your camp stove or portable heater, use those items to help keep you warm. Combined with the next item, a stove or heater can warm you up quickly.
  • Heat reflecting blanket – SOL and other companies make heat reflecting blankets that are a good backup plan in case most of your other gear is wet, damaged, or lost. These can also double as a rain cover/shelter, tent, and sleeping bag. Combine them with a camp stove, heater, or a fire to warm up.
  • Alternative shelter – If your tent is lost or damaged, you can use a tarp, rain fly, heat reflecting blanket, or even a parka as a temporary shelter. Staying dry is the easiest way to stay warm.

Start a Fire

One of the most obvious ways to stay warm is to start a fire. Getting a fire started also helps with two other survival needs: hydration and nutrition. If you can boil water and cook fish, animals, or plants, you stand a chance at surviving for a long time in any situation.

Because most tools for starting a fire are fairly small and lightweight, this is one area where you can have lots of redundancy without adding too much load to your pack.

Fuel/Tinder

  • Camp stove fuel – If you have access to your pack and have a camp stove, you likely have some fuel. Use that to help start a fire if it is not pressurized.
  • Premade firestarter/tinder – There are a number of tinder or firestarter options on the market. Use these if you do not have camp stove fuel. Some are just a flammable material (such as lint) soaked in flammable liquids. Others are made of wood shavings and paraffin. Make your own by putting dryer lint in ice cube trays and pouring paraffin or animal fat over it.
  • Natural tinder – In the absence of fuel or premade tinder, birch bark shavings, animal fur, pine needles, and dry leaves make some of the best tinder. Use a knife to create shavings from the inside of the birch bark. Your knife can also be used to make tinder sticks.

Sparks/Flame

  • Torch/lighter – Even if you use some fuel to help get a fire started, you will need a way to light it. The heaviest options are various torches (cigar torches or windproof lighters work well). A regular cigarette lighter works in a pinch, but you can also carry long reach lighters (the type most people use to light candles and grills) for this purpose. Windproof lighters or torches are the most reliable in windy situations.
  • Waterproof matches – There are a number of waterproof match kits available. Typically these come packaged in a watertight plastic box or tube. These are a good backup to any lighter in the event your lighter runs out of fuel or otherwise malfunctions.
  • Flint and steel – There are numerous flint and steel firestarters available. SOL and other companies make standalone flint and steel. In addition, many survival knives will come with a flint that you can strike against the back of the blade to generate sparks.

Survival Need: First Aid

Most injuries are less likely to be life threatening than dehydration or hypothermia, but any injury left untreated can help lead to other complications. There are literally thousands of first aid kits on the market, so there is no shortage of options.

  • Full scale emergency first aid kit – These kits are likely to have waterproof hard-shell cases and include nearly everything but the ambulance. However, they are expensive and typically too heavy to carry, unless your group can split the load for larger items.
  • Waterproof kits – Many companies offer waterproof kits of various degrees of complexity. Newer kits have a case made from Gore-tex or similar materials. Waterproof kits allow items like gauze and bandage packages to stay dry, which will help fight infection when applied to a wound.
  • Non-waterproof kits – If you already have pretty good waterproofing in your backpack or have a dry sack in which to put your kit, you can go a little cheaper and get a non-waterproof kit.

Survival Need: Nutrition

It can take months to die from starvation, but it is important to keep your energy level up in any survival situation. Proper nutrition can help combat the effects of dehydration and hypothermia. Moreover, your cognitive and motor skills suffer when your blood sugar is too low. Being able to start a fire is important, but so is carrying the right gear to prepare and store your food.

  • Cook kit – There are many different cook kits out there, some which include mess kit and utensils in one package. GSI is one of many companies that make excellent, lightweight kits.
  • Utensil kit – GSI and other companies make compact, lightweight kits containing utensils like spatulas and ladles.
  • Mess kit – If your cook kit does not include plates, bowls, and cups, a good mess kit is helpful for eating and storing food you prepare.
  • Heat-insulating gloves or pads – This is an often overlooked item, but when preparing food on a fire, it is helpful to have some way to handle hot pots and pans.
  • Dehydrated food – Carrying at least some dehydrated food is a good way to ensure that you have some balanced meals if more traditional food sources run out. More importantly, they take up relatively little space and weight.
  • Fishing gear – The easiest and most compact solution to obtaining protein is to fish for it. Carry a collapsible fishing pole and minimal tackle. Many survival knives contain some fishing line, hooks, and other basic tackle. Your knife or trowel can be used to dig for worms or peel back bark to find grubs and other insects. Find a dead animal: maggots are an excellent live bait for almost any fish species.
  • Field guide – If you are unable to hunt or fish for food, it is important to know what plants, fungi, and insects are not poisonous. There are numerous field guides on the market that will help you identify safe items to eat.

Other Useful Gear

So far we’ve focused on gear that is critical to survival. We’ll now cover gear that is helpful in all situations, roughly sorted from most important to least important. All of these items can be found in very lightweight versions.

  • Knife – A good knife is one of the most useful tools to have in your pack or kept on your person. Some survival knives have other items attached or enclosed, such as whistles, flint, and fishing tackle.
  • Paracord/rope – Next to a good knife, a length of paracord or rope is one of the best items you can carry with you. You can use it to make temporary shelter out of clothing, tie splints to your leg if you break a bone, create snares and traps to catch small animals, rappel down mountainous terrain, and many other functions.
  • Sunscreen – It is important to avoid sunburn, as it can help accelerate the effects of dehydration and make you physically ill.
  • Insect repellent – Keeping insect bites at bay is obviously important. Carrying at least two types for different situations is a good idea.
  • Whistle – If you get lost or separated from your group, a whistle is one of the best ways to be found or call attention to an emergency.
  • Reflecting mirror – There are many reflecting mirrors on the market for signaling to other people. Some of these can also be used to start a fire.
  • Compass/GPS – Getting lost is the first step in putting yourself in a situation to need to survive. Having a compass and knowing how to navigate can avoid the need for all the other survival gear. A GPS adds even more certainty.
  • Hat – Wide brimmed hats or knit caps are your first line of defense against hypothermia and sunburn.
  • Headlamp – Flashlights are hard to carry and easy to lose in the wilderness, so a good headlamp will give you enough light to prepare camp and get a fire started in the dark.
  • Lightweight/convertible clothing – Clothing was mentioned in the staying warm section, but it bears repeating when thinking about the weight of your gear. Use synthetic or wool fabrics when possible: avoid cotton. Invest in some pairs of lightweight convertible pants. These can change quickly from long pants to shorts. They help save weight by not needing to carrying shorts separately. They dry quickly, which is useful if you have to wade through a stream or lake.
  • Wash kit/lightweight towel – A towel is always a good item to have, but they are typically bulky and heavy (especially wet). Sea to Summit and other companies make compact, quick drying towels. Getting dry is the first step to avoiding hypothermia, so these towels are a key piece of survival gear. Some come with small wash kits, which come in handy if you need to clean a wound.
  • Hatchet/Axe – A good hatchet or axe serves three possible functions. The most obvious is to help cut down/shorten branches or tree trunks for firewood or temporary shelter. If the pommel of the axe has a flat edge, it can be used as a hammer for driving in tent stakes. Lastly, it can serve as a defensive weapon against large animals.
  • Saw – There are many compact saws on the market. These make short work of logs that are 10 inches or less in diameter. It generally requires less effort to make cuts with a saw than a hatchet.
  • Backpack rain cover – If your backpack does not already have a rain cover, there are many covers available. Modern backpacks are usually made of water resistant materials, but your gear will get soaked in a pouring rain.
  • Sleeping pad – This is an important piece of gear because the more comfortable you are, the better you’ll sleep. Most sleeping pads will help you stay warmer by keeping you off the cold ground. This is a piece of gear that varies widely in size and weight.
  • Lantern – Lanterns can vary greatly in size and weight. Black Diamond and other companies make super small and lightweight lanterns.
  • Trekking poles – Having one or two extra feet is very helpful on rugged terrain. A good pair of trekking poles can help prevent injuries such as sprains and broken legs. A trekking pole can double as a fishing pole.
  • Dry bag – Having one or more dry bags in your pack can help ensure that important gear stays dry. You can also use a dry bag to store water.
  • Tarp – A tarp or ground sheet can be used for shelter, to collect rain water, or as a blanket.
  • Hammock – These can be used as a lightweight alternative to tents, sleeping pads, and other standard sleeping gear. In addition, a hammock can be used as a chair, temporary shelter, or to collect rain water.
  • Ditty sacks/pack it cubes – Ditty sacks or packing cubes can help keep the items in your backpack organized. It is far easier to load a backpack when you don’t have to worry about each individual item.
  • Chair/stool – Anytime you can get off the cold ground, it is a good idea. Small comforts can make a big difference.
  • Satellite phone – If the area you are in does not have cell phone coverage, a satellite phone is invaluable.
  • Weather radio – Knowing what the weather conditions are is very important.

Organizing and Loading Your Backpack

Now that you have selected the lightest weight gear possible and ensured some redundancy, it’s time to load your backpack.

  1. Create a checklist that includes all the gear you own. This will ensure you don’t forget to pack something and allow you to make decisions about what gear to omit for shorter or less risky trips.
  2. Lay all gear out on the floor or a table.
  3. Put small items into ditty sacks or packing cubes.

Load your Backpack

  1. Place items that are used least frequently or not until evening toward the bottom.
  2. Place heaviest items (including hydration bladder) in the middle and close to your back. This will allow your body to better control the load while moving.
  3. Place items that are used most frequently toward the top.
  4. If your pack has a sleeping bag compartment, place your sleeping bag and/or any other frequently used, bulky gear in the compartment.
  5. Lash bulky or long items like sleeping pads and trekking poles to the exterior of your pack if they don’t fit inside. Make sure these items are securely attached so they don’t fall off.
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