Put Some Gray Matter in Your Backcountry Emergency Kit

By KÜHL Editor on September 25, 2023
8 min read

There is a ton of information on wilderness emergency equipment: What you should have, why you'll certainly die without it, and how much you should expect to carry if you plan to return to civilization with a pulse.

A newcomer to adventure sports might end up packing enough gear that they'll actually subject themselves to the exact dangers they'd need to treat: dehydration, hypothermia, blisters, and falling off the trail due to the sheer force of gravity.

I'm a huge fan of being prepared, but the key is to be ready for the scenarios you're most likely to experience on your particular activity be it a day paddle, section hike, Nordic skiing trip or a bucket-list trek through Nepal. I'm an even bigger fan of knowing why I need something, and how to make the most of it in the field.

Some of the following might seem obvious if you simply skim the sections, but take advantage of the links. What you don't know about these emergency standards will definitely put a damper on your trip.

First Aid & Training

With so many backcountry first aid kits on the market, it's easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of options. Kits are expensive, and you want to pick the right one. After all, there's a lot at stake, and you want to be prepared.

Do the best first aid kit candidates have stuff you don't know how to use and not enough of what you need? Are you thinking of springing for the one with the most components—and highest price tag— because you've psyched yourself into thinking you really do need sutures, hemostatic gauze, and epinephrine injection pens for every member of your party?

I've been there, too, and while it seems to make sense to be prepared for any medical emergency short of nuclear radiation (got potassium iodide tablets?) when you're miles away from the trailhead, you have to draw a line in the sand.

"You should never pack anything in a first aid kit that you don't know how to use. It's wise to go through each item and familiarize yourself with how to use each item before going into the backcountry." — Sarah Buer, "27 Considerations for a Wilderness First Aid Kit", NOLS 2016, updated 2018

Backup Water Purification

Man pouring hot water and making a beverage in nature
Photo by Christian Gustafson.

Hydrate or die. Now that I've got your attention, I'm going to discuss the obvious: Without clean water, dehydration's effects will not only throw off your physiological functions, but it will compromise your ability to make essential judgment calls.

Be sure you have a multi-layered system with three of the following components—five if you include two containers, each able to contain a quart or more. I pack a wide-mouth Nalgene bottle or collapsible bladder to transport questionable water, and a second bottle or bladder and bite-valve system to contain treated water.

  • A mechanical pump or gravity filter appropriate to your desired pack load. These might include filters built into drinking bottles. Be sure to grab a filter appropriate to the microbes in your area, especially if you travel to Asia or Africa.
  • A "straw" type filter for short trips or side excursions; these make great backups.
  • Tightly-woven clean fabric such as a bandana to pre-filter solids and extend the usefulness of other filters.
  • UV treatment "pens" which require batteries, but are super cool and effective.
  • Chemical treatments such as tablets and drops.

Two is one, and one is none. It's a Special Forces mantra that definitely applies here. I never go without the equipment to sieve, filter, purify, and store water, and you have a ton of packable options with which to triple-layer your emergency water system.

Want to know more? Dave and Annie over at Clever Hiker did a great job explaining purification processes and reviewing the types of treatment products available as of 2018.

Map and Compass

Two persons holding a map and compass.
Photo by Daniil Silantev.

Electronics play an important role in helping us enjoy the outdoors. We need to take photos to prove we summited or caught that gorgeous cutthroat trout. But if your GPS loses battery power, or you get lost under a dense tree canopy, how will you find your way home?

Invest in a quality compass and a full set of current topographic maps for your destination. The leading compass brands, SuuntoSilva, and Brunton, offer expedition-quality navigation tools.

These two books will teach you how to use your navigation gear:

  • Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS by Bob Burns and Mike Burns
  • Be Expert With Map & Compass by Bjorn Kjellstrom

By all means, bring along your GPS, but be sure you've downloaded the most current software and maps and packed at least two sets of fresh batteries.

Signaling Equipment

Seriously consider researching and investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB). These operate on the military-operated Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system. It's easy to make a choice based on aggressive advertising, but I trust tech nerds when it comes to emergency electronic equipment that gives you the best chance for a quick rescue when every hour counts.

In 2018, Two Way Radio Talk posted a comprehensive guide to selecting PLBs and emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs). The latter type of device is designed for marine use and might ring a bell for fans of Deadliest Catch. The comms tech site also took a deep dive into satellite messengers, which allow users to check in with base camp or friends and family back home or, when things go sideways, transmit a distress signal.

And now for the "analog" options, which should always ride along in your gear:

  • A loud whistle.
  • Signaling mirror. I happen to love the UST StarFlash Multi-Tool Signal Mirror because it includes a backup whistle, compass, ruler and fire steel... but the operative word here is "backup".
  • Cell phone, because you never know... you might just get service, and you'll probably have it with you anyway.

Emergency "Space" Blankets and Bivys

Lightweight Mylar sheets and insulated, reflective blankets or bivy sacks help retain warmth and repel the elements, and belong in every emergency kit. They're too packable to leave behind.

How Stuff Works explains the science behind these heat-retaining must-haves, and the Mountain Rescue Association lays out the symptoms, physiology, and backcountry hypothermia treatment far better than I can. I dusted off my printer and made a copy for each of my emergency kits, and then, in a moment of inspiration and concern for my fellow traveler, I stopped at a copy shop and made a bunch more to staple to trailhead information boards.

You're welcome!

I like to carry at least one thin Mylar space-type blanket and one heavy-duty reflective, insulated, safety orange bivy sack in my gear. The former doubles as a rain shelter or ground tarp if you're stuck in the elements, and you can use it to trap condensation for an emergency water source. Check out this video to learn how to build a solar still... useful if you utterly failed to bring along your emergency hydration kit.

Be aware that these products have their limits, and may instill a sense of false security. Your best defense against hypothermia includes warm, breathable, layered clothing and a little common sense.

Essential Odds and Ends

A black backpack hanging from a branch in a forest.
Photo by Keagan Henman.

Most of the following are somewhat self-explanatory, but they belong on your checklist. I always use a packing manifest before heading out, since human error and absentmindedness are major contributors to wilderness emergencies—before and after you leave civilization behind. You can use a packing app developed specifically for outdoor enthusiasts so you can make sure you haven't left these behind:

  • A fixed, high-quality belt knife at least 3" long. Folders and multitools are great, but fixed blades are more durable... and less likely to be buried deep in your pack when you need them ASAP.
  • 30' reflective paracord to mark trails, secure emergency shelters, and replace shoelaces.
  • Prescription medications and eyewear.
  • Pocket butane lighter (the everyday variety) and a handful of stashable Fire Steel striker rods.
  • Petroleum-impregnated cotton balls for emergency fire fuel.
  • Safety orange duct tape, which I wrap around tent poles, trekking poles, hard-case containers, Nalgene bottles, or other slick objects so I have it when I need it.
  • Ultra-bright LED headlamp and pocket flashlight.
  • e6000 Mini Tubes to repair pretty much anything but people... and that last part's up for debate.
  • Wide-nub permanent ink pen. Write a message or mark a trail if you need to leave your "hunker down" position, or use it to draw on your trail buddy's face when they're napping. Laughter's good medicine.
  • Speaking of trail buddies: Don't go into the wilderness without one.

Evolve and Adjust Your Wilderness Emergency Preparedness Strategy

Every adventure and environment calls for its own tweaks and add-ons. Paddling trips, ascents, dive trips, and backcountry boarding all have specialized requirements. I've probably missed a few key items, but these are the components that work for me.

Your wilderness emergency kit is incomplete without pre-planning. Learn to use what you carry, organize your emergency gear so you have the basics on you anytime you're away from your pack and don't tackle adventures beyond your ability. Wear adventure-appropriate clothing and properly-fitted footwear. Inspect and maintain your high-quality outdoor equipment. Do your own research. Work with your adventure team to develop contingency plans, and leave an itinerary with two responsible people back home.

Once you're properly equipped with the right equipment and basic skills, I promise you that you'll have a more fulfilling and confident experience out in the wild.

Featured image by Juliana Malta.

KÜHL Editor
KÜHL Editor


Get all the news right in your mail