Recently a friend of mine called me to ask some advice on gear. Specifically, he was planning a 3 day hike with his two kids (adult aged kids), and wanted to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything essential. Their hike would entail sleeping out each night, and having to pack everything they were going to need on their backs. Although the specifics of each persons overnight hike will vary, there are some basic essentials that I won’t go into the field without.
Water is the single most important consideration (for me) when preparing for overnight, or multi-day hikes. Having personally experienced not having water for days (while on a mission in Afghanistan) I can tell you first hand, do not underestimate your need for water (and the detrimental consequences of dehydration). If possible plan your route to intersect with water sources at various points on your trip. Absent being able to do that, you will need to be able to pack enough water for your entire trip.
This includes cooking water. If you do not think that you will be able to carry that much water (and you cannot plan routes to water), then you need to seriously reconsider the validity of your trip. Also, I like to have two methods for water purification. I use boiling water as my primary means, and a LifeStraw as my alternative. The LifeStraw is cheap, compact, and easy-to-use. There are other purification devices on the market, but if size/weight is your concern it’s hard to beat the LifeStraw.
Fire is my next biggest concern. Like water, I like to have at least two methods for creating fire. I use a bic lighter as my primary, and a flint & steel striker as my alternative. I also make sure to carry my own (dry) ignition source. There are some great methods to making your own ignition sources, but I keep it simple by bagging up some dryer lint (from your lint catcher in the dryer). Fire can keep you warm, boil water, cook food, keep predators away, and signal help in an emergency. Make sure that the first time you are trying to start a fire with flint & steel isn’t in an emergency (practice, practice, practice).
You have to be able to land navigate while on multi-day hikes. Some people like to use their phone, or a GPS device to make sure that they are staying on track. Call me old-fashioned, but there just isn’t anything better than a compass. It doesn’t need a connection, it doesn’t run on batteries, and it cannot have a software glitch that sends me in the wrong direction. Of course you will need to learn how to use one before you head out, but its a skill that you be able to use over, and over again.
Make sure to pack clothing appropriate to the environmental conditions you are in. I won’t go into great detail here because there are too many options/scenarios available for clothing. However, when it comes to packs, make sure to go with a quality pack. Generally speaking, when you are on a multi-day hike you will be hauling a lot of weight. Framed packs offer more support, and can allow you to haul more gear. Be realistic with what you carry, for some people hauling 60+ pounds is a non-starter. Conversely, should you really be going on a 3 day hike if you are only capable of carrying 15lbs?
There is no more versatile tool for outdoor work than a blade. A blade allows you to build shelter, prep a fire, kill an animal, skin/gut an animal, fashion clothing, perform first-aid, and more. On my hip I carry a field dress kit by Gerber (two-blade kit), and I also carry a general purpose blade. If I am performing work that will damage a blade, I try to keep that work to a single blade (the general purpose blade). You can also carry small sharpener in your kit that will help keep your edge sharp. Again, with so many options available look for a blade that is appropriate to your environment, and the work you want it to perform.
(6) Sleep System
You may not always be able to carry shelter with you (tent), but I highly recommend that you carry a sleep system with you. I have a sleeping bag system which is composed of three bags; light, intermediate-cold, and gortex. You simply place one bag inside the other (depending on the conditions) to generate more warm, and use the gortex bag as your overall protection from the elements. I have placed this system in the snow, zipped up the gortex (it completely closes off), and slept through the night. It wasn’t the best night sleep I’ve ever had, but it was doable. You can also use a system like this to store gear out of the elements (boots, pack, etc.).
This may seem a little far down the essential list for some, but food isn’t as important as people think. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying, food is essential, but you can live a long time without it. Also food is the easiest thing to acquire from nature itself. I digress, I prefer to pack freeze-dried foods, or field stripped MRE-type foods. Both are compact, light-weight, and calorie dense, giving you the most bang for your buck. I use a JetBoil to boil water, and prepare freeze-dried foods. JetBoil are light-weight, durable, and fuel conscious meaning I won’t need to pack a ton of fuel. Remember, there are specific mixtures of fuels depending on the environmental conditions (elevation/season) you are hiking through.
Do some research into the area that you are traveling. What are some common injuries/problems that people run into. Are there poisonous animals/insects? Do people frequently get injured traveling in this area (broken bone, etc.)? Build a specific kit for the issues common to the area you are hiking. The one thing I will carry regardless of where I am traveling is, a tourniquet. Aside from stopping mass hemorrhaging, a tourniquet can be used to hold a splint, or secure a shelter in a pinch. It is too versatile to leave home.
(9) Contingency Plan
Plan your route (including likely times of departure/arrival) and give it to someone in the form of a contingency plan. If you do not show up when you are supposed to, then this person can notify the appropriate people. If applicable, leave an additional contingency plan in the vehicle that got you to the start of your hike. Having a contingency plan only works if you give it to someone, and you stick to it yourself. If you are injured and you wonder off somewhere (didn’t stick to the planned routes) what good is the contingency plan? If you are unable to travel I would hold up somewhere on your route and wait for the Calvary to arrive.
Really my essentials list is only 9 items, but because I was in the military I tend to plan for the unexpected. I carry a tiny emergency kit which holds: matches, snare wire, whistle, blade, flint & steel (with cotton ball), and floss (fishing/snare). When I say tiny I mean that this whole kit is about 4.5X4.5” and fits nicely into a waterproof bag. This kit will be on my actual person (cargo pocket), and even if I took a tumble that separated me from my main kit, I’d have these items. Paranoid? Maybe, but you will only ever need a kit like this once, on the worst day of your life.
Now, there are definitely more items that I will take with me on overnight hikes, but these are the ones I will not go without. There are also some items that would be essential in specific environments (ropes while mountaineering for example). An old military saying that I heard throughout my time in was, “failing to plan, is planning to fail”. Take the time before your trip to make sure your experience will be safe, fun and repeatable. Think I missed something? Let me know in the comment section below.