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Going hiking? Eight Essentials You Might Be Forgetting

* All photos by lotzacurls unless otherwise credited *

Hiking Paradise Valley Lake Louise Banff National Park Canadian Rockies Alberta
Backcountry hike to Paradise Valley (Banff National Park) in autumn.

I’m not a big what if person, and I was never an always overly-prepared person. But I am friends with a few Search and Rescue volunteers. The one thing they’ve always emphasised, other than to be properly dressed and equipped for a hike, is to be prepared for a much longer stay outdoors, possibly even an overnight stay. It sounds scary and morbid, but that preparation could literally mean the difference between a rescue and a recovery.

It doesn’t happen often but when it does, hikers that must be rescued are often improperly dressed (cotton clothing, sneakers), poorly prepared for unexpected weather (no rain or cold weather gear) or sparsely equipped (no protection/shelter).

Most places you will hike won’t have cell service and an emergency can happen within a millisecond. Being a long way from your car could mean hours of waiting for help. Are you prepared?

1. Extra food/water and equipment

Regardless of where you’re heading, bring more food/water than you actually need. Weather can take a turn and leave you stranded, you could get lost, and injuries happen more often and faster than we think. All these circumstances could lead to spending much more time on the trail than intended, or even having to wait overnight for rescue. At least you won’t be hungry or dehydrated, and food can go a long way toward providing comfort.

2. Emergency blanket

Hiking survival blanket emergencies
I like carrying an XL or 2-person blanket. Photo credits: Heatsheets.

This is probably my biggest non-negotiable. If you’re ever stuck outside overnight, packing a blanket is easier and more practical than starting a fire. An emergency blanket uses your body warmth to keep you alive, so it’s important to wrap it around you before things get too chilly. Sure, bring along an extra coat or thermal wear, but emergency blankets pack small and light and do a great job sealing heat close to your body, including your head.

3. First Aid kit

Always a good thing to have whenever you’re away from home, but super useful on a hike. Bring blister pads and moleskin (never underestimate what problems blisters could cause), pain relief (naproxen like Aleve, ibuprofen like Advil and acetaminophen like Tylenol), plasters and bandages, antiseptic spray/wipes, gauze dressings, and medical tape for sprains. I’ve only ever had to use my First Aid kit for myself a few times, but I’ve given out a lot of pills, gauze and tape to injured hikers on the trail. Stock back up when you get home, before putting away your kit.

First Aid kits, hiking emergencies, hiking survival
My small (day hike) and large (backcountry hike) First Aid kits

4. Matches / firestarters

You may very well need to keep warm if you get stuck outside for longer than planned, even in the summer. It’s shocking how cold it can get overnight in the mountains, and most deaths from hypothermia happen between 0 and +10 degrees C and not in sub-zero temperatures, as most of us may suspect. I like bringing a ton of dryer lint (packed into a small Ziploc bag) and a few waterproof matches as my firestarters.

Fire starters hiking emergency survival overnight
It’s the just-above-zero temperatures that catch people unprepared in the wild, as it’s less obvious at that time of year to pack extra layers or firestarters. Photo by

5. Headlamp w/ extra batteries

Headlamps emergency survival hiking
Headlamps greatly increase flexibility by allowing you to go hands-free and climb, search around, prepare gear, read maps, etc.

A headlamp is a huge aid when the sun is going down and the trees start blocking any remaining sunlight. And if you have to stay overnight, it’s a downright lifesaver. You can find your stuff in your bag, build a shelter, forage for kindling to build a fire, search for a lost trail…

Don't forget extra batteries! You never know if your current ones are nearing the end of their life, and batteries die rather quickly when exposed to cold. So don’t be left in the dark; bring lots of life for your headlamp.

6. Paper topo map

Phones are useful for taking photos, but don’t rely on cell service or on the battery to keep your downloaded map accessible, especially in the cold. Bring a paper map and learn how to interpret it. Topography maps include ever-crucial contour lines and relief shading, as well as camping spots, rivers, creeks and lakes, service roads, and other points of interest. Here’s a short, simple and helpful video by REI on How to Read a Topo Map.

Reading a topo map hiking survival emergencies
The info contained in topo maps will allow you to find your bearings, track your steps through the wilderness and calculate energy levels needed to tackle the varying terrain. Photo by

7. Toilet paper or tissues / Ziploc bag

No need to explain why you might need toilet paper or tissues out on your hike, but bringing a small Ziploc bag will allow you to carry your soiled paper back with you. It won’t smell if it’s in a sealable bag and you can throw it in the garbage bin at the trailhead. Don’t even think of leaving soiled toilet paper out there. (By the way, I see absolutely no harm in peeing in nature, as long as it’s far from a water source).

8. Sprays (Bear, bug and sun)

I’ve lugged a few important sprays under the same group here. Bear spray is an obvious necessity if you live in bear country. Keep in mind that preventing a bear encounter is the best way to avoid problems with wildlife (make lots of noise and look ahead on the trail as much as possible). Bear spray is to be used once/if a bear approaches you ONLY; it is not to be sprayed on your skin/clothes like insect repellent! Here’s a funny and entertaining (but legit) clip on Using bear spray, or a shorter one about how to use bear spray.

Sun protection is an obvious safety issue, but I’ve skimped on bug spray before and really regretted it. What a relief when you find yourself under attack by swarms of ravenous mosquitoes or black flies.

Bear safety hiking emergency survival
Prevention is the key to bear safety; make lots of noise while hiking to avoid surprising a mama bear or a feeding bear. Photo by

So there you have it!

Don't forget …

Most backpacks have built-in whistles near the chest strap. This can be extremely useful if you suffer a fall and land off-trail, or if an injury keeps you from being able to seek help. A whistle will alert people as to your location if you’re somehow not visible.

And lastly, I cannot stress the importance of telling people where you’ll be hiking and when you’re expected to return. You cannot be searched for if you’re not missed or if no one has a clue where you might be.

See you on the trails!

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