Basic Universal Gear
It is my opinion that there is no true universal list of gear, because there is no universal set of conditions. Nevertheless…MOST of this gear comes with me on MOST hikes of over a mile.
Knife: Also known as the ‘stabby thing.’ Invest in a utility knife or multi-tool that has a locking main blade and can do a number of things. I use a Leatherman Multi-tool which is somewhat heavy, but has the advantage of taking the place of several pieces of equipment.
Compass: That which knows the way North. Note that in outdoor literature, you will see the words ‘map and compass’ paired together quite often. This refers to a particular set of skills used to establish location on a map using a compass and reference points. To do this, you will need…
- A VERY accurate scale map
- An accurate compass
- The skill to use them both in coordination
- At least one visible reference point
If you don’t have all these things, you can’t map and compass your way out of anything. Most people don’t have these skills, and use GPS these days. But, a compass is still useful for establishing direction with reasonable accuracy. I bring a compass, but I do not use it to orientate.
Fire starter: Most experts agree: fire good. Cold and dark, bad.
However, I happen to disagree with those who say that a fire starter is essential survival gear because, to be frank, the chances of an average person being able to get a fire going in a pinch is just too iffy unless conditions are ideal. There are MANY keys to starting a fire…skill, local conditions, available dry tinder and fuel, and sufficient working light. The ability to strike a match by no means guarantees success. You are more likely to spend a lot of frustrating time and calories which you could better be using making a shelter (more necessary in a survival situation.)
Nonetheless I do bring a fire starter with me in all situations. They don’t weigh much, they could save your life, and they are good for peace of mind. They are, of course, necessary equipment for overnight hikes.
A fire starter ideally should be easy to use, effective and reliable. Three general methods here…regular matches, lighters, and sort of flint striker or ‘metal match.’ A lighter is, in my opinion, the most convenient and effective; the striker is the least convenient and effective, but operates when wet and never goes bad or runs out of fuel. I personally bring both…I no longer bring regular matches which are unreliable, even so called waterproof ones.
Space Blanket: Thin sheet of Mylar, weighs almost nothing and has about a dozen uses. Functions as a thermal blanket, as a shelter roof, as a tarp for catching water or as a signaling device. I have personally used it as an impromptu dry tent floor. VERY useful, I ALWAYS bring one on every hike.
Police-style whistle: May come in handy signaling help if you get lost, can be heard from much further away than a human voice can. Very handy, along with a pair of white gloves, for directing traffic in the backcountry. I carry one (the whistle) but have never used it.
Signal mirror: Can be used to signal passing ships or aircraft for help. Many survival manuals also note that you can start a fire with one. Plus, they can help keep you looking handsome in the bush.
The problem with this is…
- You need a passing aircraft or boat
- You need someone on that passing aircraft or boat to be looking at you
- You need bright sun
- You need a clear line of sight between you and the target
In a heavily wooded area, the chances of all this coming together are quite low. And as a fire starter, this is REALLY a last resort, you need HOURS of intense sun and dry conditions to make this happen. I would suggest taking a mirror if you are hiking in the desert, or in an open or coastal area. In the woods, its usefulness is going to be restricted to keeping you well groomed.
GPS: Direction finding gadget; One of the major works of the devil. I do not carry one. There are situations where one could be very helpful, but in order for this to happen, it has to WORK. GPS depend on power and satellite signals and you could lose both. Also, they are less effective if not combined with an accurate contour map. You not only need to know where you are, you must know what is between you and where you need to go. My own opinion is, TITWOTD. They are not worth the trouble.
Mobile Phone: Another piece of TITWOTD. A cellular phone can be a very useful piece of survival equipment, as it can summon help…IF it works. Satellite phone are more reliable in the backcountry but are pricey. Most people’s cameras are their phones nowadays, so my advice is, bring the phone…but NEVER depend on mobile phones as a survival tool. And stop checking the damn thing every 30 seconds! Instagram will be there when you get back.
Rope/cordage: I carry 25 feet or so of para cord when I go on extended hikes. Useful for a variety of purposes, from a clothes line to assisting with a shelter to hanging food out of bear reach. Or for repairing gear. Cordage will be very hard to come by in survival situations. Note that I do not expect to use this rope as an impromptu climbing aid; If I did, I would take real climbing rope. My opinion is that if you do not have rock climbing or rappelling experience, you should not be trying to shimmy up or down ropes. I do not bring rope on day hikes.
Medical kit: Packaged ‘red bag’ medical kits are available for purchase at any outdoor retailer. These are good choices for beginning hikers as they have most of the essentials. My advice is to use one when you start out, but as you develop your gear collection, discard the packaged medical kit and make up your own. I usually take a few roles of bandages, disinfectants, pain killers etc in a Ziploc bag. My multi-tool does everything shiny medical equipment does (except shine).
Two other things about medical kits:
- Medical equipment is not very useful if you don’t know anything about first aid
- Perishable gear like bandages and medications must be regularly replaced as they get old, expire, or get exposed to sun and moisture.
Map: See Compass above. Maps come in various types, which can be summed up as follows:
- Hand drawn cartoon on a napkin made by Bob: Almost useless, even for Bob.
- Crude Tourist Map: Must be assumed to be very inaccurate
- A good, recent hikers map like the ones published by Nat Geo: Reasonably accurate, but not enough so to plan an overland route
- A scale contour map of the type printed by the US Geological survey: Typically very accurate and the only type that can be reliably used for overland navigation.
You many not consult a map even once on a hike, but it is FAR better to have even a crude one than nothing at all, if only for peace of mind. Do keep in mind that a poor map, or even a good map if misread, could put a lost hiker in worse shape than before. You don’t absolutely need a contour map, but bring the best one you can. I recommend one printed on vinyl, plastic, waxed paper or on a sheet that has been laminated and therefore won’t run or dissolve in water.
The Universal Repair Component: Commercially known as Duct Tape. The URC can be used to repair all outdoor gear that falls apart, including tents, shoes, clothes, pots, stoves, hiking poles., maps, gloves, cameras, water supplies, and hikers themselves. It is postulated that the entire Earth could be held together with enough URC. Don’t leave home without it!
Light source: In my opinion this is essential gear for ANY hike. I first realized this fact after a near disastrous hike in the White Mountains nearly 20 years ago, which I began too late in the day, with poor plan and too little gear. To make a long story short…if the sun sets on you, and you are still in the woods, and you don’t have light, you stop seeing. If you stop seeing, the following happens:
- You stop walking
- You can’t assemble even a crude shelter
- You can’t realistically start a fire
- Even if you could start fire, you would be hard pressed to gather fuel
- Chances of a mechanical injury go up exponentially
- If something goes bump in the night, you have no idea what just went bump
- You are completely helpless
In short, being in the wild without a light after sunset is a disaster which might result in a fatality. Monkey can’t see, monkey can’t do. Don’t be that shaved monkey. Carry a light on ALL HIKES above a mile in length regardless of whether you plan to be out at night or not. I recommend a very light headlamp.