10 Essentials of Outdoor Survival

On the road to Bralorne, BC we encounter a bike with a flat and no repair kit. Or, running down the Bright Angel Trail of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, mid-way down I pass two day hikers equipped with nothing but handheld water bottles. In driving sleet on Cactus to Clouds outside Palm Springs I cross paths with a shivering teen without a waterproof shell. In every case, including occasionally my own, the difference between front and back country, is one slip, one mistake, one lapse of judgement away — and that can happen only a couple miles from the main road. The “ten essentials” of outdoor survival are your insurance should that razor thin difference cut, and you need to overnight on the trail, or wait for rescue.

The ten essentials help you survive being lost, injured, suffering from exposure or exhaustion. They are designed to prevent you from becoming a statistic, by providing you self-sufficiency to survive a few days in the woods in an emergency. Or, if you encounter someone in crisis, be ready to assist. We’re stewards of the back country and our sport after all, we may come along when no one else will; and go from reprobate dirtbikers to trail angles with the offer of assistance.

There is, of course, the argument against all this of “I don’t want to carry all this sh*t”. Consider it extra training and a small price to pay, compared to the embarrassment of a Search and Rescue incident, or death.

This list is a variant of Vancouver North Shore Search and Rescue’s “Ten Essentials” to bring for outdoor survival in an emergency.  I was introduced to the ten as part of my second ultramarathon, Whistler Alpine Meadows 55 Ultra, by virtue of a midpoint aid station that is airlifted to the base of a glacier by helicopter. As we all know, helicopters can be grounded by weather, so race director Gary Robbins’ (https://twitter.com/gary_robbins) required the ten essentials –  as one had to be prepared to tough out a night up top should anything go wrong, or the aid station not be in place.  The list though is a fantastic idea for adventure, dualsport and dirt riders, as we run a high probability of needing the insurance it offers.

This list has been modified based on personal experience, and the weight and space constraints created by any adventure sport.  In reality the “ten essentials” only weight out to a kilogram or two.  Where possible, have been consolidated with other uses; so items like paper tape in a first aid kit are replaced by using duct tape for repairs, blister treatment, and bandaging. The original list can be found here: http://www.northshorerescue.com/education/what-to-bring/

  1. Light
  • LED Headlamp (300+ Lumens ideal)
  • Backup Headlamp (if running solo).
  • Extra batteries.
  • Glow stick or small turtle lights as emergency backup.

Why so many headlamps? Packed lamps can accidentally be turned on and their batteries depleted. A dropped headlamp off an embankment may not be retrievable. And, a second light in your hand can help “fill” the light cast from a headlamp during repairs.

The Petzl ACTIK (https://amzn.to/2r6J0fM) provides good throw and lots of fill light, even on medium settings. There is also a 350 lumen version which can come with a rechargeable battery (https://amzn.to/2Jy1DAe).

As a precaution, it’s a good practice to check all lamp batteries, rechargeable or otherwise, before heading out. I shy away from rechargeable packs on the trail, as a single fresh battery can prolong the lifetime of a lamp even if a second and third backup battery is lost. Also, if you come across others in the backcountry whose headlight batteries have been expended, standard fitting AAA batteries are more likely to fit their lamps than a specially shaped rechargeable pack.

  1. Signalling Device

Yep, it’s a whistle, plus your headlamp, and the glow stick mentioned above.

  • Why a whistle? Long after your voice is too hoarse from shouting to the top of an embankment, you can still blow a whistle to help rescuers locate you. Fox40 is highly recommended.
  • “When sending out a distress whistle blast do three short blasts in timed intervals of 1 to 5 minutes and in different directions from where you are standing as rescuers may be above below or to the sides of you, especially if you are lost in a canyon. If you here whistle blasts from rescuers it doesn’t mean that they can hear you. Continue whistle blasts at even shorter intervals 1 minutes or less until they can make voice contact with you and the follow their instructions etc.”
  1. Fire Starter Kit
  • Blow torch style lighter (better for starting damp wood)
  • Waterproof matches as a backup
  • Toilet paper as fire starter, and toilet paper… Obviously this is multi-purpose.
  1. Warm clothes

I adjust this cautiously based on a four day weather forecast, but keep in mind that the weather in mountains (looking at you China Head) can be highly changeable.

  • Buff (https://amzn.to/2r7Y38c) — this wraps around your wrist for cool looking storage, and can be wetted and worn around your neck for cooling, turned into a headband to hold in a bit of heat, or a back-up or additional toque should things get cold.
  • Water and windproof shell
  • Polypro or merino wool top — keep in mind merino wool stays warm when wet, and also breaths well enough to provide sun coverage in the heat
  • Plastic bags to keep it all dry

If you are headed into the mountains, or if there are cool nights or days ahead in the weather forecast also consider bringing:

  • A “puffy” jacket – Due to the volume, and the redundancy with other emergency items, I generally consider this optional, but the compress to near nothing. Go for synthetic fills designed to stay warm in the wet.  Base whether you carry a puffy or not on the weather forecasts.
  • I also carry a toque, or beanie as non-Canadians call it (https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5042-538/Active-Beanie).
  • Gloves
  • Polypro or merino wool tights
  1. Pocket knife or Multitool

This doesn’t have to be big knife, my favourite is tiny enough that it looks like a dangerous child’s toy, but it’s large enough to cut items like a bluff into a sling, dressing, trim tape, or fray the edge of a piece of wood to help light a fire.  The small knife is good to have on your person in a crash.

For the bike, I side with a multitool for repairs though.

  1. Shelter
  • SOS Emergency Bivy Sack (https://amzn.to/2HCw9wb) — way better than an emergency blanket, this “mylar sleeping bag” encloses you keeping in heat, and keeping out the weather. It also comes compacted enough to fit in your running vest, with enough extra room in the packbag to hold most of your 10 essentials. I consider this a must carry option on any backcountry outing.

I also carry, one of the following two options for shelter as a backup:

  • Emergency Blanket — Why a second emergency shelter? With your pocket knife you can cut a head hole into an emergency blanket creating a rain poncho, or use it in conjunction with some rock and stick ingenuity to create a lean-to shelter for the night. These also tend to be reflective, so assist searchers in spotting you from the air.


  • Large Orange Plastic Garbage Bag — Similar to the above you can turn it into a poncho, crawl into it for warmth and shelter, collect water in it should your water bladder bust, and the orange colour is also highly visible from the air. On the down side, it doesn’t reflect your body heat inwards like an emergency blanket.
  1. Water and Nutrition

Water availability can be a challenge, and even clear streams can have upstream contaminates so consider purification:

  • Inline water filter — Source Outdoor Drinking Tube Kit with Helix Bite Valve and Sawyer Products Mini Water Filter (https://amzn.to/2KjJgjE).
  • Or, water purification tablets — small, and light, but don’t work well with water that has particulate matter in it… you have to drink that particulate matter (https://amzn.to/2r7FAZH)
  • Extra energy bars (or other nutrition). In particular this should be nutrition that you hate, but doesn’t make you vomit… reason being you won’t eat your emergency stash without good reason.
  1. First-aid kit
  • Dressings (or your Buff can be re-cut as dressings, or sling, in emergency)
  • Gorilla Tape (instead of paper tape bring a small self-rolled section of gorilla tape), it can be used to repair your equipment, or you by taping up blisters and wounds.
  • Hitting the deep backcountry? Consider a SAM Splint (Structural Aluminum Malleable), which is good for immobilizing bone, or soft tissue injuries. Though at the point where a foot, ankle, leg or hip bone is broken, it’s probably time to press the SOS button on your inReach (which will be covered in section 10), unless you are within hobbling distance of the rim.
  1. Navigation
  • Smartphone loaded with offline maps and GPX tracks, set to flight mode to conserve battery.
  • GPX tracks loaded on your inReach (we’ll cover the inReach below)
  • GPX course loaded onto your watch if you’re using something akin to the Garmin Fenix 3 or 5.
  • Going for more than 5 hours out? If you’re bike doesn’t have a 12v outlet, a small 5000mAH Battery Pack will provide your phone or inReach with multiple recharges (https://amzn.to/2I05I2Q)
  • Charging cable
  • Paper map backup in a plastic bag.

Most proactive Search and Rescue organizations recommend a good compass, but that requires additional training, but even a poor compass will help point you in the right direction when batteries fail.

A cell phone on flight mode consolidates compass, GPS, downloaded trail descriptions, and camera all into one. The caveat is battery life, in flight mode, my Samsung S7 requires a recharge around 7-8 hours out (less if shooting video and pictures). So, a back-up battery pack (https://amzn.to/2I05I2Q) can come to the rescue.

If you feel that navigating out of the backcountry should be easy in the dark, a spill, or getting a little off trail… fatigue and darkness put a different complexion on things. Having a GPS track to follow back out can reduce following false trails and keep you oriented in event of concussion.

  1. Communications

deLorme/Garmin inReach:
I can not recommend the deLorme inReach highly enough, it is a fantastic insurance policy, and the ability to update someone acting at your “Ground Control” of your progress in a live manner makes any backcountry outing a lot safer:

  • Two way communications, via Satellite/SMS — “Honey, running late by 5 hours. Found a wolf dog hybrid… I think. Not emergency.”
  • Shared tracking keeps your Ground Control, or others informed of your position while they lounge about on social media.
  • It enables two-way SMS satellite communication with your “ground control”, should you need assistance. This is a huge advantage over passive one-way communicators such as the Spot, in that you can clearly communicate the problem, and know that your call for help was heard.
  • It provides backup GPS navigation.
  • The battery life is multi-day even while navigating and updating tracking, and will outlast your phone and watch easily.
  • It has the SOS button, which initiates a search and rescue response in an emergency.

Just be aware that in narrower canyons tracking accuracy can be reduced, and communications aren’t truly real time. SMS messaging can take up to 15 minutes to transmit as a satellite comes into “view”, so communications are not truly “live”.

Cell Phone

While in some locations you can still get a cell signal to send out an SMS from high elevations even outside normal “frontcountry” coverage, don’t rely on your cell phone for communications! 

  • Tell someone (your Ground Control) where you are going, leave a full itinerary, call them at an ungodly hour of the morning to let them know when you’re headed out.
  • Then, remember to call your Ground Control when you have finished your latest epic adventure!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff Katzer says:

    Nice work on the list. Well thought out and comprehensive. Cheers!


    1. NJ says:

      Thanks Jeff


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