The most important survival tool that you can carry into the wilderness fits neatly between your ears. Knowledge, experience, and a little common sense will serve you better than any amount of equipment that you could possibly haul into the outback. Year after year reports surface about some lost hiker or skier that died of hyperthermia even though they had a pack containing shelter, a sleeping bag, and dry clothing. Survival gear without the knowledge of how to use it properly will do nothing for you. A realistic self evaluation is highly recommended. If you are new to hiking and backpacking, joining a group with experienced guides will help you learn techniques and proper equipment. Local groups often provide survival training as well as wilderness first-aid. Seek out these groups as often as you can. Join hikes and backpacking trips with experienced hikers and talk to them to gain a better understanding of wilderness skills. Once you’ve gained some experience and confidence in your personal abilities, then you can start to evaluate and choose the equipment that will make up your survival and first-aid gear. In this months article, we will discuss the basic ultralight essentials plus a few more recommended items. I’ll offer some alternatives that may help you cut some pack weight while still ensuring that you have what you need to survive an unexpected night out or a possible injury. You don’t need to leave the safety items at home in your quest to go ultralight.

Ultalight Essentials

1. MAP: Always carry a detailed map of the area you will be visiting. Depending on the activities you’ll be taking part in, you may only need a basic map with popular trails indicated. If you will be bushwhacking and traveling off trail, then a 7.5 minute USGS might be the best choice. Proper trip planning and map study can go a long way toward an enjoyable trip. I often customize my maps prior to a trip. Sometimes, I’ll trim the margins from a map or even cut off the areas on a map that don’t pertain to the trip. I take what I need and discard what I don’t need. Typically, I bring a ruler calibrated for the map. Also, I often mark the magnetic declination on the map. It makes it easier to shoot a heading directly from the map to compass. Remember, it’s not what you cut, it’s what you don’t cut. Even if I’m with a group with several leaders or organizers, I still always have a map with me….

2. COMPASS: Carry a compass whenever you visit the wilderness. I highly recommend taking a land navigation class or at least pickup a book and learn how to use a compass. Practice often and keep your skills sharp. The quality and features of your compass should match your activities. At a minimum, the compass should have a 0 to 360 degree ring in 2 degree increments. My personal compass is made by Suunto. It is liquid filled and is designed to wear on a wrist band. It’s about 1 inch square and weighs only grams. I don’t usually do a lot of off trial hiking, however, when I do, I take a higher quality compass with the features necessary for accurately “sighting” when plotting a course. Use the right tool for the job…If you don’t need a precision compass, why carry the extra weight.

3. FLASHLIGHT/ HEADLAMP: I always have a flashlight with me, even on day hikes. You just never know when a day hike may turn into an overnight adventure. When selecting a flashlight or headlamp at the very least it should be water resistant. There are a multitude of excellent flashlights and headlamps on the market today. The LED, light emitting diode, type offer superior candle power and incredibly long battery life. My light of choice is the Photon II key ring light. The light is as bright as many larger flashlights but is the size of a quarter. It uses a watch battery that will last for years, with normal use. I wear the light on a necklace with my compass, whistle, and knife. If I know I’m going to be hiking at night, I’ll supplement the Photon with a lightweight headlamp.

4. EXTRA FOOD: The mountaineers recommend that you carry a one-day supply of food. I usually bring an extra meal on a backpacking trip. If I’m going out on a day hike, I usually bring some extra snacks. Energy bars are an excellent lightweight choice.

5. EXTRA CLOTHING: The rule is to bring extra clothing to get you through an unexpected night out. I covered clothing in last months article, so, I will not go into great detail on clothing here. When backpacking, I always carry dry clothes that I can change into once I’ve reached camp. For day hikes, I always bring rain gear and shells to block the wind. I also, substitute a tube tent for extra clothes. There are many options for space blankets and bags that are ultralight that will do a good job of keeping you dry and warm in an emergency.

6. SUNGLASSES: Your eyes can be injured from intense sunlight. The problem is multiplied when it is reflected off snow. If your trip includes spending time on the snow, you may want to consider glasses with side shields. I wear prescription glasses that adjust to the light conditions. If not for the requirement for corrective glasses, I would always bring a good quality pair of sunglasses. You should do the same…

7. FIRST-AID KIT: What else can be said about the need to have a first-aid kit. Now, the big question is how far do you go when putting together a kit. Again, here is where your personal knowledge and confidence comes into play when building your kit. My first-aid kit has a fair assortment of band-aids, disinfectants, pain killers, and other assorted pieces. Spending an hour or so surfing the internet for building a backpacking first-aid kit will help you put together a complete kit while keeping the weight down.

8. POCKET KNIFE: There are literally thousands of options available for you to choose from. Everything from a simple single blade folding knife to the “everything and the kitchen sink Swiss Army Knife”. I personally have carried everything from My trusty Air Force survival knife to a deluxe Leatherman to my current favorite, little single blade locking folder that clips to my compass/ flashlight necklace. My little knife gets more use than any other piece of gear that I carry, except for maybe my flask of single malt Scotch….(Scotch = Essential Item)

9. WATERPROOF MATCHES: There has been a lot written on the need to have waterproof matches in your survival kit. I was a true believer in this rule until I attended a survival class conducted by a gentleman that was the director of survival training for the Air Force Academy. He presented a very realistic scenario. Suppose that you have fallen and possibly dislocated or broken your arm. Now, gather some dry tender into a pile and start trying to strike a match using one hand. It’s not so easy. I now carry a miniature bic lighter along with vasoline coated cotton balls.

10. FIRE STARTER: Along with the lighter and cotton balls, I also carry a small striker that produces a shower of sparks. It’s a very simple procedure to light one of the cotton balls, even if the striker is wet. The cotton balls will burn for several minutes. When selecting a fire starter, ensure that it will work even if it gets wet. Some other light weight ideas are, magnesium blocks with a striking flint or chemically-treated fire sticks.

11. WATER BOTTLES/ FILTERS: Always bring plenty of water. There are a multitude of water bottles available today. Some have built in filters and most are very lightweight. I prefer the platypus water bottles. They are ultralight and when empty, they fold flat and hardly take up any room in my pack. For treating water, I use Aquamira chemical treatment. Aquamira is a two part chemical treatment that is ultralight and very effective in killing just about any bug that may be present in water. It also eliminates bad taste.

12. WHISTLE: A whistle can be very useful even in non emergency situations. If you become separated from your group, a quick whistle can bring you back together fast. I carry mine on the neckless with my flashlight, compass, and knife. The very basic survival tools are always close at hand. If you don’t like the idea of wearing a neckless, at least put the whistle somewhere that you can reach it without having to dig into your pack. Suppose you slip and fall on a steep trail and land in a position that restricts your ability to remove your pack… Having a whistle close at hand could be the difference in survival.

13. INSECT REPELLENT: Depending on the time of year, I will bring a small bottle of DEET. I have engaged in numerous discussions with fellow hikers over the years regarding insect repellent. I’ve seen just about every type of repellent in production and finally came to the conclusion that DEET works best. A head net is also advised when the bugs are really swarming. To ensure your sanity, decide how you’re going to deal with insects and follow your plan. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the insects own the mountains for a few weeks around the first of July. If you plan on hiking around this time, just remember, they will make you pay dearly.

14: SUN BLOCK: The sun can be very intense at higher elevations. A multi-day backpacking trip can be pretty miserable if you burn on the first day. A little sun screen can go a long way to protecting your skin.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: In addition to the items listed above, I also bring a high quality glass signal mirror. Besides the obvious intended purpose, I find that it is useful for other task, such as shaving… That’s right, on multi-day trips, I often bring a cheap razor, with the handle cut down. I guess my military background continues to haunt me. You just never know where and when you may have to stand inspection…

So, all these items must weigh a ton, right? They don’t have to… My kit weighs in around 18 ounces give or take a couple of ounces…depending on the time of the year. When it comes to your survival kit, take the advise from the American Express Card commercials, “Never leave home without it”….

Until we meet again, be safe and have fun!

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