What's in My Hiking Emergency Kit

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What's in My Hiking Emergency Kit

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Every hiker should carry an emergency kit. Exactly what your kit includes will vary depending on where you're hiking, your skill level, and your comfort level. (Some people might be comfortable plunging into the woods with just a knife clenched in their teeth -- I like to have a few other things with me!)

Here's a look at what I typically carry in my hiking emergency kit. The contents vary a bit depending on what kind of hike I'm on and who I'm with but, as you can see, everything except my first aid supplies pack down into a quart-size plastic bag with plenty of room to spare. Make sure you click all the way through to the end for a peek at the most important survival tool of them all.

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Pocket Knife

knife hiker alps eating meal
Photo (c) DESCAMPS Simon/hemis.fr/Getty Images

The classic multipurpose survival tool. You can use it for everything from shaving kindling to carving blazes, fashioning parts of an emergency shelter and cutting that annoying duct tape off your shoe.

I don't particularly care how many gadgets -- other than a blade -- my knife has. I do, however, care that it's sturdy and holds a nice, sharp edge. If you have a folding knife, make sure the hinge mechanism is robust; it's the weak point at which your knife will split when being used to gnarly survival tasks like splitting wood for a fire.

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Duct Tape

Photo © Lisa Maloney

...because duct tape can fix almost anything. It's particularly good for patching ripped, torn or broken gear and you can even, in a pinch, use it to patch ripped and torn parts of your body. Use it as an improvised blister shield, or to piece together pieces of an emergency shelter. You get the idea -- duct tape is tops for building things or putting stuff back together.

When I used to work a retail job, I'd swipe the plastic cores from empty rolls of cash register paper and wind duct tape around them to keep in my emergency kit. Nowadays I'm more likely to wind duct tape around the handle of my trekking poles or even a pen, since it's something I'll have in my pack anyway. I've also heard people say you should buy those little pre-made mini rolls of duct tape -- instead of rolling your own -- because it'll stick better than something that's already been peeled and stuck once.

How you carry your duct tape doesn't matter anywhere near as much as just having the stuff along.

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A Headlamp

woman hiker headlamp
Photo (c) Tyler Stableford/Digital Vision/Getty Images

One night lost in the dark is all it takes to remind you of just how important seeing what you're doing -- or where you're going -- is for your continued survival. Just staying out a little too late and having to make your way back in the dark can feel like an emergency, or be the start of one.

If I'm out with others, my "primary" headlamp is enough -- but if I'm out by myself, I will sometimes carry a tiny second headlamp, like the Black Diamond Ion, in my emergency kit or around my neck like a necklace. It might not light up the whole trail, but it comes in handy for changing the batteries in the big headlamp... and even if I forget the primary headlamp at home, I'm guaranteed to still have something on me.

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Firemaking tools

Photo (c) John Slater/Photodisc/Getty Images

Fire -- or heat -- is a critical survival need. I don't care what you use to start a fire -- whether it's a lighter, waterproof/windproof matches, flint and steel, or rubbing two sticks together -- as long as you practice with it until you're confident you can make it work in an emergency.

(Fire-making may not be rocket science -- quite -- but getting a fire going when you're nervous, scared, wet, or cold, is a lot harder than doing it in a comfortable, controlled situation.)

I like to carry firestarters, which help take the place of tinder and reduce the need for kindling, too. They're small, light, and make it a whole lot easier to get a fire going in difficult circumstances. Balls of wax and sawdust, half an emergency candle, and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls all work well.

Learn how to find dry tinder and make your own firestarters.

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Water Treatment Tablets

Photo (c) Heath Korvola

As long as there's a water source of some sort nearby, being able to treat/filter the water is enough in case of emergency. Even if you already have a water filter or purifier in your pack, it's nice to have chemical tablets as an emergency backup. No mechanical filter? Use a bandana as a crude pre-filter; it's better than nothing.

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map and compass
Photo (c) Lisa Maloney

I'm not much on using a GPS in the backcountry (although they sure do come in handy, and if you have a smartphone it can even coach you through some wilderness survival skills). But I still default to a compass and, unless I know the terrain like the back of my hand, a map too.

There's just less that can go wrong, which means these are the tools that are most likely to get you home in one piece. (As long as you practice and know how to use them!)

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Space Blanket

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Aw, look at that -- isn't it cute? It's also a small, lightweight emergency shelter for warm climates, or the start of a shelter for use in colder climates. Something this big and shiny can also be used to signal rescuers. The S.O.L. Emergency Bivvy is another good option.

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Garbage Bag

Photo (c) Lisa Maloney

Garbage bags make surprisingly awesome survival tools. You can use them to do everything from collect water to shed rain, stuff them with soft debris to create a makeshift sleeping bag, or even crouch inside it as an emergency shelter of sorts. (Ventilate the top first!) Click the link above to see more emergency uses for the humble garbage bag.

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First Aid Supplies

Photo © Lisa Maloney

I usually carry very simple first aid supplies, starting with a SAM splint and wrap, burn/trauma pads, tweezers, a few band-aids, and moleskin. And don't forget that other items in your pack can be adapted to first-aid uses, too. A bandana or extra shirt gets used as a triangle bandage, extra layers pad a splint made from duct tape and hiking poles (or your backpack frame), and so on.

That said, the longer the hike, the more I'll carry. Here's an excellent breakdown of a more comprehensive hiking first-aid kit from our first aid expert, Rod Brouhard.

Also, I stick to carrying things I actually know how to use. Let's face it -- that tracheotomy kit isn't going to do me, or anybody else, any good unless I know what to do with it.

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Emergency Whistle

Photo © Lisa Maloney

This is another one of those things that's worth carrying on the one-in-a-million chance of actually needing it. I couldn't care less what my whistle looks like as long as it's loud, which this one is.

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Hand Warmers and Other Comfort Items

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Hand warmers are a great comfort item. They can also be tucked almost anywhere on your body for a little extra heat; one of my favorite tricks is tucking them into my hat, over my ears.

Depending on what I'm up to, I might have other emergency supplies along just in case. Some of the most useful things I like to carry on my person or in my pack include:

  • Bandana(s)
  • Cordage
  • Extra clothing layers
  • Extra (dry) socks
  • Map in a zip-close plastic bag

Next up: The most important survival tool of them all...

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Your Brain!

Photo © Lisa Maloney

That's right, the most important survival tool of them all is you -- or more accurately, your brain. Having a bus-sized survival kit along won't help you if you don't know how to use it, but if you know what you're doing, you can get by with less than I've pictured here.

Click "Next" to see reader suggestions for what else you should carry in your emergency kit!

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Reader Suggestions

Photo (c) Peter Cade/Stone/Getty Images

Thank you to those of you who've written in to share what else you keep in your emergency kit! Here's the list:

  • Candy bars (or other high-fat food for sustained energy and warmth, with a kick of sugar for instant energy)
  • Safety pins
  • Dental floss and a tiny needle (for patching/mending)
  • Zip ties

Do you always carry something that's not in this list? Keep the emails coming!