Essential Backcountry Safety Kit - Initial Ascent

Essential Backcountry Safety Kit

A friend of mine, who is not experienced at all, once got lost on a hunt with a couple of friends and their boys. He somehow got separated from the group, got turned around, and ended up spending the night lost and cold. The next day he showed up in a town 25 miles away tired from no sleep, cold, and hungry. My friend was lucky but was not prepared for what he would face that night. He had no navigational tools, no fire-starting materials, no first aid kit, no insulation layer, and no way to purify water. A snowstorm blew in the following night, and he surely wouldn’t have made it had he not stumbled upon the town. He only needed a few essential items in his pack to change this whole scenario.

These items are exactly that, essentials. You never go into the backcountry without them. The list below is a tip of the hat to the 1930’s and the origin of the Ten Essentials. The purpose is to answer two questions:

  1. Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency?

  2. Can you safely spend the night if needed?




You must know how to accurately navigate in the backcountry. I always carry a waterproof topo map of the area in which I’ll be. In the days of GPS now, things can and will happen unfortunately with your electronics. That’s why I also recommend bringing a compass, but only if you learn how to use it. There are tons of classes on basic backcountry navigation as well as lots of YouTube videos on the subject. Do yourself a favor and get educated.

I really like using the GPS mapping apps on your phone. There are two main platforms that I am familiar with in OnXMaps and BaseMap. Both give you the all-important private land boundaries among many other features. However, you must have phone service in order to use these fully unless you download the maps of your area ahead of time. You should preload a 10-mile radius of the area you’ll be hunting at a minimum. I recommend preloading 4 of those to be safe in case of relocation. Again, there are lots of videos available on how to use both.

I always carry a satellite communicator as well in the form of the Garmin InReach Mini. This pairs to your cell phone via Bluetooth and utilizing it’s own app, you can text anyone in your contact list. It only weighs 3.5 oz so that is definitely a plus. It also has an SOS button that will contact emergency personnel. This is another “piece of mind” item for you and your loved ones.




This is an essential that can keep you comfortable and most importantly, alive. It will keep you warm, allow you to purify water, and allow you to cook food. Basic, right? Well, you will have to have a way to start the fire. I always recommend a waterproof butane lighter or my new favorite, the Pyro Putty Dual Arc Plasma Lighter, and waterproof matches in a watertight container for backup. These lighters may not work well at higher elevations so a backup source is essential.

Next, you must have a substrate to light that burns long enough to get tinder and small twigs going. My choice for this is Pyro Putty. It is waterproof, it floats, and a nickel-sized piece burns for 10 minutes producing a 4-6 inch flame. You can also use Rem Oil wipes as a backup in case you lose or run out of Pyro Putty. Rem Oil Wipes are lightweight and simple to light.

Speaking of light, I always carry a headlamp with fresh lithium batteries such as the Black Diamond Storm375. I change my batteries quite often too. I don’t carry extra batteries. I check my battery indicator on the headlamp before every trip, and if the battery level is at half or less, I change them. I also carry a backup headlamp called the Petzl e-Lite. It weighs less than an ounce and produces 50 lumens.



Water is the most essential nutrient that our bodies need. Without it, a person will not last long at all. You must have a container and a way to filter out or kill the bacteria that could be present in the water source. I recommend either carrying a 1.5-3 liter bladder system or a 32 oz Nalgene-type bottle with an additional 3-liter foldable water container with a lid.

With these two systems, You need to be able to filter water. There are several good systems out there. Sawyer, MSR, and Steripen are all good systems. For me, Bladder or bottle depends on the time of year and temps. For warmer weather hunts where freezing won’t be an issue, I like my bladder system with a Sawyer Squeeze filter. I just tend to drink more water from a bladder In extreme cold weather, the Steripen will be my choice along with the 32 oz Nalgene or GSN bottle.  It’s also not a bad idea to carry a small bottle of Iodine tablets for backup. It just makes me feel better.

So how much water should you carry? Here is a great article on the “Backcountry Fuel Box” website you should reference: “How Much Water Should I Put in My Pack?”

As far as food, I try to carry enough that I’ll have another half of a day’s rations. That usually equals about 1500 calories. I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve tried to save weight by going minimalist on food and sticking to 1-1.25 lb/day. Not smart at all! Food is fuel and fuel helps you get things done. Now, I make sure I have 1.5 lb of energy-dense food (at least 100 Cal/oz) per day equally about 3000 Cal/d total.




You never know when you might have to take cover, stay put, or spend the night in the backcountry. One of the most important “basics” besides food, water, and fire is shelter. I’m not recommending bring a tent, pad, and sleeping bag along in your essentials kit, but you just need a way to stay warm and dry. These are two keys to survival. There are multiple ways to do this, but my kit includes only a couple of things to help in this department. The first is the “shelter” in the SOL Escape Lite Bivy. It weighs next to nothing (5.5 oz) and will keep you warm and dry in a pinch. This could save your life as it helps regulate core body temp in an emergency situation with its reflective inner lining. There are different options offered out there for this solution and I’m constantly looking for something better. If anyone has an alternative, please reach out. I also have my insulation layer or puffy jacket wherever I go. It has a hood to help hold the heat in as well. Plus, I always keep a pair of merino gloves and a light beanie in the pocket of my puffy. These items compress down to almost nothing and weigh only a few ounces.

 The List

Below is the complete list that will always be with me in my pack.


  • Navigation- waterproof paper topo map, BaseMap or OnX Maps apps on phone with preloaded maps of a 10 mile radius, Satellite communicator

  • Headlamp and small Petzl backup

  • First aid kit including blister care (Leukotape)

  • Fire Kit (see above)

  • The lightest multitool you can find (Leatherman Skeletool)

  • Chapstick (Blistex) and sunglasses

  • Toilet paper and wet wipes

  • 5- 3-liter water bladder or 32 oz Nalgene-type water bottle

  • Water filter (e.g. Sawyer), or Steripen and iodine tablets (backup)

  • Light, emergency bivy (e.g. Sol Escape Lite)

  • Food- Bring enough for a full day if you eat breakfast in camp. If you don’t eat breakfast in camp, bring a day and a breakfast in case you have to spend the night

  • Puffy jacket (insulation layer) and Light raingear top if weather calls for showers (keep handy at camp if not)

  • Knife

  • Duct Tape and/or Electrical Tape (10 ft wrapped on trekking poles, water bottle, etc.)(Don’t bring the roll!)

  • 25 ft of Paracord (usually in my kill kit)

  • Total wt- 80 oz! (does not include food and water)



This system is not only going to give you a sense of security, but go over the items with your loved ones and put their minds at ease as well. I’ve found that doing this exercise not only eases their minds but it forces you to refamiliarize yourself with the contents and how to use them. You should always carry these items in your pack no matter what and help to insure that you’ll live to experience many more trips in the future.

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Excellent article. I got lost at dark back in the day when most guys had a knife, rifle and extra shells on your belt. Luckily with some help from the Almighty I found my way out after only about 4 hours. But never again. Went and bought a fanny pack and at least packed some fire starter and some water. It was better than nothing.

Travis Arnott

Thanks Travis! I think everyone that’s spent much time in the woods have lost their way at least once. I know I have. We have to be prepared every time we go out so good on you for getting better prepared.

Dennis Stokes

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Excellent article. I thought I was the only one that packed all those what if items. Glad to see someone else with those “ Essential” recommendations.

Arnold Teves

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