I’m a fan of the “onion” approach to risk mitigation—consider your situation and your expected time to rescue, then plan your route and your gear accordingly, while assessing everything in terms of overlapping systems of support.
I start with a waist pack or a vest for a half-day trek, then augment as complexity and duration extend in concentric circles of time, environmental risk and estimated time-to-rescue. So the lists that follow are, for the most part, additive, and aligned to the 10 Essentials in the context of the humid continental climate of the Upper Midwest, where I normally adventure. I plan for five different levels of complexity.
I should note, for my gear-porn readers, that I’m not especially enamored of the ultralight approach. Part of this is pragmatic: It’s been my experience that much “ultralight” stuff on the market lacks an essential durability and versatility that I’d prefer. Part of it is also experiential: I used to be much heavier than I am now, so my knees, hips and spine don’t bat an eyelash at a few extra pounds in the pack. They’re accustomed to far worse!
My approach to first-aid planning and the inclusion of some apparently odd items on my list is informed by my certification as a Wilderness First Responder. Even on a well-trafficked area of the NCT, if someone experiences a medical emergency, that person usually must be brought to the ambulance. EMTs are not equipped to evacuate people from the middle of the forest — that’s what SAR teams do. So as a WFR, I also carry “extra stuff” that most people don’t, because if I happen to be present for a genuine medical emergency, I’m trained to either support a compromised hiker in place while reinforcements arrive or to supervise packaging and transport to an evac site where EMTs can then take over.
Attention! I do not recommend gear lists. The choice of what to bring or what to not-bring on a hike is a purely personal consideration. I share my thinking because it’s (a) iterative based on expected complexity and (b) an insight into how I think about risk mitigation in the field. It’s not intended to serve as a best-practice recommendation. The links, below, are not affiliate URLs. Just data to help you contextualize what I’m talking about.
Originally posted 17 Feb 2018; revised 02 Feb 2019 and 24 Feb 2020.
Complexity Level 1
A nature walk of less than a planned four hours in a place like a well-trafficked public park (e.g., the Kent Trails system in West Michigan) where cell coverage is solid and emergency services remain readily available.
- Everyday carry items — Leatherman Wave multitool, butane torch, Fisher space pen, pocket inspection light
- Wallet, iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods
- Bottle of water
Add the obvious: comfortable shoes, clothing attuned to the weather, sunscreen and sunglasses if appropriate, etc.
Complexity Level 2
A full or partial day hike in a place where you’ll occasionally encounter other people and are reasonably close to rapid medical evacuation, but where cell service may be spotty or nonexistent. For example, a section hike of the North Country Trail in Newaygo County.
I wear a rugged Coyote paintball vest supporting seven molle-secured pouches, despite that I generally disdain any product that bills itself as “tactical.” But the vest helps because everything’s accessible by hand without taking off a pack. Contents include:
- Attached to the vest independently, or stuffed inside the back panel:
- Small LED light with red and white lamps and a swivel clip (attaches to hat brim)
- Four 25×7 KN locking climbing carabiners
- Buck 119 fixed-blade knife
- Heavy-duty, extra-large waterproof survival blanket
- Pouch 1 (comms):
- Yaesu VX-6R submersible radio with water-resistant microphone (I’m an amateur radio operator; plus, I’ve programmed relevant frequencies into the radio, including the frequencies used for local search-and-rescue teams and club repeaters)
- Pouch 2 (personal):
- Space for my phone, ID card, car key, cash
- Sanitation items — travel tissues, hand sanitizer, wet wipes
- Pepper spray (dog defense!)
- HikerSnax — granola bars, nuts/gorp, etc.
- Green chemlight stick
- 1-qt. freezer bag for trash pack-out
- Pouch 3 (first aid):
- Just inside for easy emergency access:
- The Field Guide of Wilderness & Rescue Medicine — annotated with helpful tips
- Freezer bag with a dozen non-sterile exam gloves
- Cloth triangular bandage with pins
- EMT shears — the good kind that actual EMTs use, not the cheap plastic ones you get in the drug store
- Emergency CPR mask
- Timex watch (timing a pulse or respiration with an Apple Watch is a fool’s errand; you need a persistent second hand)
- Zipped, hard-shelled first-aid kit containing:
- Tweezers and sticky tape
- Pills (loperamide hydrochloride, diphenhydramine, ibuprofen, glucose, calcium carbonate)
- Drops (liquid bandage, lubricating eye drops)
- Triple antibiotic ointment
- Assorted small sterile gauze pads, bandages, sterile gauze rolls, cotton swabs, sting-relief pads, alcohol pads, moleskin
- (To be added — Narcan, epinephrine ampules, syringes)
- Just inside for easy emergency access:
- Pouch 4 (navigation):
- Flashlight (Fenix PD35) with fully charged battery
- Suunto MC2 compass
- Rite in the Rain pencil, pen and all-weather notebook — because you do need to take notes in all conditions!
- Maps (I print them in advance through CalTopo, on Rite in the Rain 4.7-mil waterproof paper) — 1:24000 scale, covering the planned itinerary
- 1:24000 UTM grid
- Laminated quick-reference cards (identifying my emergency contact info, radio reference, primary patient assessment quick reference, SOAP note template, etc.)
- Pouch 5 (survival)
- Gerber Suspension multi-tool
- Several chlorine dioxide tablets for water purification
- Duct tape (1.25-inch by roughly 20 feet)
- Heavy-duty flint-and-tinder
- Small, heavy-duty, half-ounce Tupperware container with cotton balls smeared with Vaseline
- Emergency “space blanket”
- Significant space blankets are useful. However, the tiny little fold-up 4-foot-square versions you buy at the supermarket that collapse into packs sized like a deck of cards, are practically useless. But I include one of the cheap ones to serve as fast-accessed ground cover for someone who’s injured and needs to lay on damp or dirty forest floors, or who needs a quick waterproof or sunscreen cover during medical triage. I don’t consider them to be a “blanket” in any meaningful sense of the word.
- Pair of backup AAA batteries for the clip light, taped together
- Backup battery and red/green/blue lens filters for the Fenix light
- Insect-repellent wipes (some with DEET, some with Picaridin)
- A half-dozen foot-long plastic zip ties
- MapTools ruler
- Pouch 6 (water)
- 1L wide-mouth Nalgene bottle
- Pouch 7 (cordage & shelter) [it’s a bigger pouch, on the back of the vest]
- Emergency bivy bag
- Emergency waterproof rain poncho
- ~50 ft. paracord
- Two 80-in. prusik cords with sewn eye-to-eyes
- ~25 ft. 1-inch poly webbing
This kit, fully assembled, weighs in at 10 lbs without water. And yes, I know I look a bit like a prepper. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the vest (even though it is, by far, the heaviest part of the setup) more evenly distributes weight over my hips and knees than either a backpack or a waist pack. I can — and have! — done easy 6-mile treks along the NCT with this setup and never felt pain or discomfort anywhere, whereas smaller daypacks (without good hip straps) and waist packs really irritate my lower back. Most importantly, everything I need to access, I can access without removing a backpack or digging for stuff. The only downside is that it’s a wickedly efficient insulator, so a fast hike at the peak of summer isn’t the most enjoyable outdoor activity with this set-up.
- Obviously, dress for the weather. I’m a fan of my light leather boots in all conditions because they offer just enough ankle support. If it’s super hot and the trail is in good shape, I’ll wear my trail-running shoes.
- Hats! In the summer, I wear an oiled cotton fedora with a chinstrap. It offers “face space” if I need to bring a mosquito net. In the winter, I wear my Ukrainian ushanka. It looks funny — a giant Siberian-style fur hat! — but it’s toasty and with the flaps up, it’s not too hot, either. Plus,l the ushanka makes me immediately obvious to new folks when I’m leading an NCT day hike.
- I always carry a 5-foot varnished hickory hiking staff with a brass point. It’s literally saved my life before, on a steep muddy incline on Isle Royale. No joke. I cannot imagine using collapsible trekking poles.
Some things many people carry on day hikes, but I do not —
- Lighters and matches. Both can fail, particularly in adverse weather conditions. A flint-and-tinder, with an appropriate ignition source, will not.
- GPS units. Often fail, and they sometimes prove inaccurate depending on conditions. Never, never, never, never, never go on the trail without an appropriate map and compass. Print maps at 1:24000 scale and learn how to orient yourself and to navigate with maps and compasses. It’s an essential skill, one that can’t be magically done for you by a piece of delicate, energy-sensitive electronics.
- Portable emergency communication devices. It’s rare you’ll encounter an emergency on a day hike that justifies such a device. A radio that can transmit on 2m and 70cm frequencies (provided you’re licensed, that is!) can help in emergencies as well as in non-emergency situations if you’re out-of-range of cell towers. Plus, if another person in your party is a radio operator, you can better coordinate leading and sweeping on spread-out hikes.
- Firearms. I’ve never encountered a trail scenario where a gun did more good than harm. I’m not at all opposed to firearms, but for a day hike? Too close to civilization, with too many inexperienced people in the mix; the risk-reward ratio isn’t favorable. In a deep backcountry setting, however ….
Complexity Level 3
A weekend excursion in the non-remote backcountry, where emergency evacuation may be expected within 120 minutes of a distress call. Likely includes a mix of hiking on established and primitive trails and camping at planned but rustic sites, or basic off-trail bushcrafting.
The vest goes away at this point because wearing the vest with a backpack is a recipe for shoulder-friction agony. I keep all the stuff from the vest but redistribute it between my backpack and a waistpack. So assume that everything at Level 2 also appears in Level 3, but I won’t belabor it by listing things twice.
Here’s the thing about the waistpack: I treat it like a medical fastpack. It contains my version of the survival 10 essentials plus medical triage stuff (gloves, notepad, shears, CPR mask). It only comes off when I’m in the sleeping bag. If I leave the bag, even to pee at 2 a.m., the waistpack comes with me. Because what if you get turned around in the dark?
- I’m a fan of the Kelty Coyote 80 because it fits my hips in just the right way where it doesn’t feel like I’m carrying a monkey behind my shoulders. (I own the much more robust 2011 version, not the 2016 redesign, which seems to be a significant step backwards. Mine features heavier-weight material and more durable zippers and stitching than the current iteration.)
- Pack rain cover.
- Appropriate netted bags or compression sacks to consolidate, segregate and compress the gear inside your main pack.
- Waistpack. I use a Kelty Oriole, a now-discontinued 6L lumbar pack that I wear facing the front.
- The stuff from bags 2, 4, and 5 from my vest go into the waistpack. The items individually attached the vest do, too. The radio clips to a side strap. The material from bags 6 and 7 go into the waistpack. Very few first-aid items (triage only) goes in the waistpack; the rest hides in the backpack.
Insulation (organized in backpack)
- Appropriate footwear—broken-in boots or shoes for trekking and light camp shoes for lounging at base or crossing small streams
- Wool socks and appropriate undergarments (x2)
- Appropriate hiking shirt, long sleeve (x2)—fishing shirts with quick-dry material and roll-up sleeve loops work well, as do the kind with built-in sun protection
- Appropriate hiking pants (x2)—I like the kind with heavier material, quick-dry, with pockets and zip-off lower legs
- Gaiters as needed
- Light sweater in case the night gets breezy
- Fingerless gloves, to protect your hands against abrasions
- Two-piece breathable rain suit, if the forecast suggests a storm, or an oversized poncho just in case
Bag 1: Cooking & Hydration
- Camp stove with 4 oz. fuel for every day of the trip
- Mug-slash-pot for boiling water, mixing soups, etc.
- Containers for 3L of drinking/cooking water per day, plus an additional liter for every five miles hiked (however, individual needs vary) — I use a 2L hydration pack with a bite valve, with a pair of backup 1L nalgene bottles carried in external pouches
Bag 2: Food
- Food for one day longer than you plan to be out on the trail — fast one-small-pot meals that you can eat hot or cold — with calories sufficient to support each day’s exertion
- Easy-to-access snacks for energy on the trail
- Coffee or tea
Bag 3: Sanitation
- Small spade for digging catholes, if outhouses aren’t available along your planned route
- Small roll of camper’s toilet paper (remember: bring a heavy Ziploc bag on the theory that you pack out all your inorganic waste to Leave No Trace)
- Biodegradable camp soap
- Moist towelettes
- Quick-dry towel, if you expect to get wet
- Toiletries kit for your specific needs (contact lens stuff, feminine hygiene products, toothbrush, medications)
- Bug spray (I prefer 100 percent DEET)
- Decent multi-purpose gloves for working with wood, debris, cordage, hot pots around the fire, etc.
- If you suspect there’s a reason (snow, rain, bugs, fear of trash pandas) you won’t want to leave your tent in the middle of the night to urinate, consider a bottle with a cap
- Additional heavy freezer bags for packing out trash
Bag 4: Fire, Water, Light & Tools
- Black Diamond Storm headlamp plus a set of replacement batteries
- I sometimes bring my 12×25 compact glasses if it’s an especially scenic trip
- Camp lantern, if you wish (I’m a fan of the small/light candle lanterns—just enough lumens to read by)
- Mosquito headnet, if the season calls for it
- Method of normal water purification (depending on context, I’ll carry either a travel hiking filter or a UV treatment kit)
- Small beeswax candle in a tin, with waterproof matches inside
- Additional firestarter material
- Small hand saw
- A few extra chemlights
Bag 5: First Aid
I augment my stock first-aid kit with additional materials depending on where I’m going, when I’m going, with whom I’m going and who else has some degree of first aid or medical training. It varies every time. I base it off a proprietary list shared with me by a small Canadian adventure-sports organization, which optimized the list for WFR-prepared explorers in light of expected-time-to-rescue for different climate conditions, although the NASAR 48-hour pack list is a good starting point, too.
Shelter & Environmental Protection
- Groundsheet (I use a 6-foot-by-8-foot tarp I bought at Meijer — and get the blue one; nothing’s blue in nature like that, so you’ll be more visible if you need rescue)
- Tent or bivy or hammock
- Sleeping pad (I use a now-discontinued Therm-a-Rest inflatable model)
- Light blanket or heavy blanket or 0°F sleeping bag, depending on the season
- Small inflatable travel pillow (optional)
- Sitting pad (optional)
Complexity Level 4
Between three and six nights in the remote backcountry, especially in a period where it’s likely to become cold. Evacuation is expected than four hours after contact and immediate recourse to emergency services (by cell phone or ham radio) may or may not be possible. The trail may or may not exist, or may be challenging to pass in places given terrain or environmental conditions. Camps may be established at existing primitive sites, or you’ll need to clear your own camp. Example: Isle Royale National Park in the off-peak season.
Assume everything listed for Level 3, with exceptions/substitutions noted below.
- As the temperature drops, you’ll need to plan for base layers (wool or technical material)
- A cold-weather hat and mittens protect against the chill
- Heavier-weight wool socks
- Gaiters, if you’re forging your own trail
- A windproof and water-resistant shell jacket
- Medium- or heavy-weight wool sweaters or technical fleeces to layer up while wicking away moisture
- A balaclava, if you expect it to get really cold
- Rain gear, regardless of the forecast
- Meals-in-a-mug are okay for a day or two, but if you’ll be out longer, or you’re out with friends, a more robust cookware set makes sense — a stackable pot, pan and kettle set opens the door to other kinds of meals or cooking for more than one
- Pack for a day extra than you’re planning, and remember that hiking burns more calories than normal, so higher-calorie, denser foods offer a better weight-to-volume ratio than a bunch of crap
- A set of emergency ration bars can be a life-saver; a compact, vacuum-sealed brick offers 3,600 additional calories while taking up 1.6 lbs and just a handful of cubic inches of space
- You’ll need a bear canister if you’re venturing far enough north
- Enough consumables (batteries, drops/tablets) to keep your water clean for an extra day or two longer than you plan to be on the trail
- Even Nalgene can either crack or vanish under adverse conditions, so consider packing an extra collapsible water bottle just in case
- The longer one’s on the trail, the more likely it is that some method of bathing will prove valuable
- Small hatchet
- A portable GPS unit that can summon help or check-in with loved-ones makes sense — I use the Garmin InReach Explorer+, which includes a (rudimentary) GPS mapping tool with satellite-based text messaging and global SOS services
- Enough consumables (batteries, candles) for an extra day or two of unplanned trail time
Repair & Support
- If you plan to stay in the same place for a while, you might bear the extra weight of a camp chair
- A small fishing kit, if you’ll be by water and are inclined (and are lawfully allowed) to fish for your supper
- Seam/patch repair kit for your tent, in case the tent gets a puncture or a tear
Complexity Level 5
Extended time in the remote backcountry of a week or longer, where challenging terrain and isolation are expected and there is little to no recourse to emergency services within the first twelve hours after a critical incident. Example: Zone hikes at Denali National Park.
As with Level 4, with the following amendments:
- You’ll be carrying in a ton of food (and maybe a bear canister!) so more of your gear may have to be attached to the outside of your pack—and as such, your pack should have enough straps and loops to get the job done
- Consider a pauk if you’re going in the snow
- Three complete changes of clothes (i.e., two in the pack and one on your body)
- Wear boots and bring gaiters to protect against snakebites, ticks and wet vegetation
- Plan for significant temperature variation for the place and time of the hike
- Deliberateness about food choices is crucial — balance variety, nutritive value and caloric density against weight/volume in the pack
- Plan for two extra days’ food if you’re extra-special isolated from rescue
- You will need to clean yourself at some point, whether it’s with at least moist towelettes or with a solar shower
- An understanding of the terrain is crucial before you depart. Will a normal tent work, or should you carry a bigger tent in case of unplanned camp days on account of weather? Will you need a hammock if you’re stuck traversing very wet ground?
- GPS units and professional-grade topographical maps matter, as does redundancy—relying on one electronic device that could lose its juice or break on a rock is much more dangerous than using that device but having a backup map and compass handy as well as some basic orienteering skills
Repair & Support
- Your first-aid kit will probably shift a bit in terms of what you’d carry, based on the need to stabilize and assess injury before evacuation—e.g., you might add a tourniquet but ditch a rescue breathing mask
I keep some stuff handy that aren’t a default part of my equipment list, but are available if special circumstances warrant it:
- If I think I might be near a place with a non-trivial fire risk, I might bring an N-95 mask. For example, if I knew I was going to do section hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, I know that wildfires are an unpredictable hazard, so the mask will help if I’m downwind while I need to evacuate to safety. Likewise, if winds will be brisk and sand plentiful, some sort of eye protection makes sense.
- Cold-winter travel often requires specialized tools like an ice axe, snowshoes, crampons or snow goggles.
- Travel through swamp or marsh terrain would benefit from a hammock instead of a tent. Don’t forget to check for leeches!
- Travel in very hot terrain—lookin’ at you, desert Southwest!—might require an umbrella for shade and extra oral rehydration salts.
- Light sleepers might pack some earplugs. Nothing like being alone in the forest with 100 billion very loud insects singing you to sleep.
- Adventuring in bear territory? You’ll need a bear canister for your food and plan your campsites appropriately to minimize human-ursine interaction. Grrr.
- Speaking of bears, you will probably want to also carry bear spray.
- Some folks carry a pistol in the backcountry. It’s worth checking the statutes about bringing firearms into Canada, if that’s your jam.
- Group travel means some gear might be distributed differently. For example, one person could carry the group first aid kit, another the group cookware, etc. Minimizes the need for individuals to fully self-provision everything while traveling in a pack. (Of course, you’ll want to carry survival basics on your own.)