Emergency preparedness for a simple hike? Any hike could turn into an overnighter due to unfortunate events such as getting lost, a sprained ankle, or unexpected weather making a trail dangerous. You won't take a fully loaded backpack on every walk in the woods or jaunt through the desert, of course, so what items are most critical to carry? Here's my list followed by explanations:
- GPS, smartphone with GPS app, or button compass
- emergency whistle
- tiny LED flashlight or better
- flagging tape strips (if there are not easily visible landmarks)
- small pocket knife or multi-tool
- emergency mylar blanket, heat sheet or contractor bag(s)
- lighter and/or all-weather matches
- stainless steel or aluminum water bottle or cup
- a few bandages and insect repellant wipes
- a small amount of duct tape
First are tools to help you get home if you are lost or delayed. A GPS or smartphone app is the high-tech solution, provided you have marked your camp location before setting out and have the electronic device with you (along with enough battery life or an extra battery) and have a signal.
A simple button compass (liquid filled) is a simple solution to help steer you in the right direction if you’ve taken time to learn the basics and you know the general direction of your camp. The simplest tool is your own awareness: take note of recognizable features that can be seen from a distance all along the way, especially if you make a turn.
If you find yourself turned around and you’ve taken photos along the way, go back through the photos to see if they show your previous positions.
Next, always carry a compact, loud, emergency plastic whistle (get a non-metal one that doesn’t have a “pea” as those can be a problem in freezing weather). A whistle can be heard much farther than the human voice, and it never gets a raw throat. Three whistles in a series means “I need help.” (Three of anything is the international symbol for “Help!”)
A small but powerful flashlight is, in my opinion, the third essential for every hike. It may help you get home after the sun goes down, preventing the need to spend a night out.
If you have a tendency to wander off course when walking or there are no distant markers in the landscape, consider taking neon-colored “flagging tape” in your emergency kit. Tie these non-adhesive, nearly zero-weight strips onto branches or anchor an end under a rock. On the way home, collect the pieces you’ve used to mark your path.
Other than the smartphone or GPS, these items are small enough to fit in your pocket or small pouch, so there is really no excuse not to take them with you every time you walk away from camp. Or, the mini LED light, the whistle and even some tiny compasses can go on your key chain. Survival experts insist a knife is also necessary, so consider at least a small pocket knife or multi-tool on your keychain as well.
Now, imagine you are stuck a few miles from your car or RV without the ability to get to it. What additional items can you easily carry on every walk that may help you survive or be more comfortable until morning?
Your immediate need will be shelter from wind, rain, cold or heat/sun. Wearing appropriate clothing when you leave camp is your first line of “shelter.” For mini emergency kits, the most often-used shelter is a mylar sheet sometimes called a space blanket. These are better than having nothing to fend off hot sun or rain, but they are very cheap for a reason.
If you choose to wear something like a fanny pack, or if you have a decent-sized cargo pocket, you would be much happier with an emergency blanket such as those in the SOL line made by American Medical Kits (AMK). These bright orange “heat sheets” even have survival tips printed on one side (and the color helps others find you). Or, take along a 55-gallon trash bag or contractor bag that is at least 3 mil thick (4 mil is even better). Do an online search for “garbage bag shelter” to view the best ways to deploy your “shelter” in various locations and conditions. Here is a link to a very good explanation in a video produced by Colorado Parks and Wildlife: http://vimeo.com/35321994
A fire will not only keep you warmer but also make you feel safer overnight. It also may serve as a signal if someone is searching for you after dark. For these reasons, carry a lighter: one that is NOT childproof but is translucent. Childproof lighters can be difficult to operate if your fingers are cold or shaking from trauma. A translucent reservoir lets you keep tabs on the fuel so you can replace your lighter when needed.
A fire will also be necessary if you must find and purify (boil) water. Hopefully you are prudent enough to carry a bottle of water, but you’ll need more than a liter or two in very short order. You'll only last about three days without water (most can survive a week or two without food). To boil found water, many experts recommend carrying a stainless steel or aluminum water bottle. But in the desert, a metal bottle can get quite hot to carry and use. Consider taking along a metal cup or even a clean small food can if you decide to carry your water in a plastic bottle. If you are using the famous “Altoids tin” for your mini emergency kit, you can boil water in it, but you’d need to do that over and over to get enough to drink.
Most long-distance hikers insist on redundancy for crucial survival items. They would tell you to also carry a flint and steel or, for bad weather conditions, a magnesium stick and striker. Cotton balls well coated with petroleum jelly and kept in folded foil or a small prescription bottle are superb “tinder” to get your fire going from a shower of sparks. However, if this begins to feel too cumbersome, it’s better to keep a simple kit that is always with you instead of a better kit you never take.
Along with the bright colors of your emergency blanket (or contractor bag) and your flagging tape, a signal mirror can help rescuers find you if you are immobile. It is a small rectangular mirror with a sighting hole. If you carry one, know how to use it properly. (Your metal bottle or cup can also be used to reflect the sun in a pinch.)
For comfort, consider adding a few bandages and insect repellant wipes to your tiny kit. Finally, make yourself a small roll of duct tape, or wrap some around your water bottle or other items. It can cover a blister to make walking possible, repair a rip in your emergency blanket and do so much more.