You’re heading out for a long weekend backpacking trip. You have food, shelter, water purification, and extra layers. You’re prepared for anything right? But what if you get lost and unexpectedly need to extend your trip? What if you or one of your friends or family get injured and can’t make it back to the trailhead. Ensure your safety – and the safety of the people you’re responsible for – by bringing these 7 survival items every backpacker needs.

Survival Item #1:  Emergency Whistle

Look closely for the whistle
Look closely for the whistle

A whistle allows you to increase your range of communication. If you’ve ever been separated from your group, a loud whistle can be a lifesaver. Your voice can only travel so far.

Before heading out on the trail, talk about what you’ll do if a member of your group gets lost. I recommend staying put and then blowing your whistle 3 times. Then wait for a response.

If you are looking for a lost member of your group, it’s important to stop occasionally and listen for any sounds off in the distance.

If all you have is your voice, then yelling at the top of your lungs is not going to work for very long. A whistle can travel much farther than your voice.

Survival Tip: Check your chest harness buckle to see if you’re already carrying a whistle. Many backpacks have them.

Survival Item #2: Map and compass

Smartphones are incredible. There are several apps that will turn a phone into a makeshift GPS unit (Gaia GPS is my favorite). And real GPS technology is even better. Being able to pinpoint where you are within 15′ is very useful. But I am wary of anything that requires a battery. Yes, solar battery chargers are getting better and better. There are also portable wood stoves that have a USB port to charge your devices.

Even with all of that, I still carry a detailed map of the area I’m traveling and a baseplate compass. In my experience, there is no substitute. Depending on the length of your backpacking trip, you could carry a Green Trails map (1:69,500 scale) or a USGS topo map (1:24,000 scale). USGS topo maps give more detail, but they can be a pain to carry – especially if you are on a multi-day trek.

One workaround is to custom design a waterproof map for the specific area you’ll be traveling. Sound expensive? It’s not. You can get a custom map at for around $15.

Survival Item #3: Waterproof firestarter

If all you carry for firestarting is a lighter, then you are taking an unnecessary risk. Matches in a waterproof container are a good backup option, but I prefer to carry a metal match – also called a ferro rod. If you’re not familiar with metal matches, they are a rod of man-made metal that throw incredibly hot sparks when scraped. While they take some practice to use, they are fully waterproof and can light hundreds of fires.

Bonus use: If your lighter dies, they can light your stove.

Survival Item #4: Water treatment (Chemical)

Water Treatment Drops

We all know that drinking untreated water is a no-no. Thankfully there are many options to purify water. Water-filters are the standard when it comes to treating water. They take a little elbow grease to operate, but they remove unwanted micro-organisms without adding any “flavoring”.

Steri-pens are also on the rise. It only takes 1-minute to purify a liter of water using UV light. If nothing else, they make you feel like you’re on an episode of Star Trek.

But filters clog. And batteries die in steri-pens. That’s why it’s important to carry some form of chemical treatment. Yes, it takes at least 30 minutes to treat your water. But iodine or chlorine are reliable time and again. My favorite chemical treatment is Aquamira Water Treatment drops (chlorine dioxide).

Survival Item #5: Extra food

How are your wild edible plant identification skills? When’s the last time you snared a squirrel? While these skills are useful, most backpackers don’t have them in their toolkit. If your trip runs late for any reason, it’s comforting to know that you won’t be fasting. I carry a food stash that I will not eat as part of my regular meals. They are only for emergencies. This food doesn’t have to take up much weight either. It could be a freeze dried meal, jerky, dry fruit, or even chia seeds. Make sure to drink extra water when consuming dried foods.

Survival Item #6: Emergency bivvy

Tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. You have shelter covered. Right? For day hikes, I never leave home without an emergency shelter. But lately I’ve been taking an emergency bivvy with me on backpacking trips.

Why?Emergency Bivvy It’s an insurance policy if my gear gets soaked, if I need to add a few degrees on a chilly night, or if I venture off on a day hike without my loaded backpack.

Hypothermia is no joke in the Pacific Northwest. Even in summer, you are never fully out of harm’s way. My wife and I backpacked the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park. In July, we were still traversing tons of snow at moderate elevations. A few ounces of emergency shelter can be a life-saver.

The standard emergency shelter is the mylar space blanket. But I prefer Adventure Medical’s Emergency Bivvy. For a few extra bucks, you get a fully waterproof bivvy that your bag and pad will comfortably fit.

Survival Item #7: First Aid Kit

You carry a first aid kit, right? If you answered yes, then treat yourself with a Snickers bar. But do you know how to use it? For anyone entering the wilderness, it’s important to carry first aid gear. But it’s more important to have first aid training.

IMG_9207_webWhen we’re out on the trail, we can’t call 911 and expect a response within 10 minutes. Sometimes we have to wait hours or even days for help to arrive. That’s why having the gear and training to deal with a first aid emergency is crucial.

Wilderness First Aid (a weekend course) is a great place to start. You’ll get an introduction to all the basics. If you can spare a week of your time, a Wilderness First Responder is the cat’s meow of first aid training. You’ll learn how to deal with the most common life-threatening injuries and illnesses. And you’ll know how to use each item in your first aid kit. Remote Medical International is based in Seattle and offers great Wilderness First Aid Trainings.

The Wrap Up

I love gear. But having gear and knowing how to properly use it are two different things. Don’t lull yourself into thinking that because you have some piece of gear that you’ll be able to figure out how to use it in the field when you need it most.IMG_9222_web

If you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, there’s no reason to not be prepared for the myriad hazards you could potentially encounter in the great outdoors. Having these seven safety precautions in place allows you to be fully present to the wonders of the natural world. You don’t have to worry about all of the unknown dangers, because you’ll know how to deal with them. I want wild places to exist for my grandchildren. And I want to be around to see my grandchildren experience them.

You can purchase the gear mentioned in this article at retailers like REI or

If you want to learn the skills to survive a wilderness emergency, I recommend you join me for a wilderness survival course with Wilderness Awareness School. Here are some upcoming courses:

Wilderness Survival Basics: May 24-25

36 Hour Survival Overnight: June 14-15

For more details visit



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