Living in modern society, we’ve lost the understanding that things such as warmth, food, and water are requirements that equate to life and death. Sure, we all know it in the back of minds, but that is the problem. It is in the back of our minds, so we fail to adequately prepare, because so many everyday necessities are normally easily obtained.
Backcountry hunting, fishing, and adventuring has always been a reset button for me, and therefore, is something I do as often as I can. Throughout the years, I’ve been mentored on the essentials that make backcountry outings as safe as they can be and look to pass along these lessons. I would be remiss by not saying that at times, I’ve been lucky. However, the more I study, know, and practice, the luckier I seem to be.
To be clear, the backcountry is nothing to be afraid of. Getting the proper equipment, knowledge, and practice will get you out and back to civilization safely. On the other hand, being ill prepared gets people in trouble, and there’s no such thing as being over prepared.
I’ve always liked the phrase, “Two is one; one is none.” Something I’ve been reminded of time and time again from my dad, friends in the military, and backcountry enthusiasts. No, I don’t think it means having two of everything. Instead, take this to mean that when something is necessary for your life, don’t leave it to chance and rely only on a single item. Many items can serve more than one purpose. This lesson can lessen the weight of your load or offer redundancy as necessary.
Before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of what to bring to keep yourself safe, we need to discuss the basic dangers, which are: injury, food/water, illness, and hypothermia. Injury is one of those inevitable circumstances that if you do anything long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a bad situation. It can happen at any time or place and comes in the form of something as minor, but regrettable, as poison ivy, a scrape, deep gash, broken limb, or worse. Sure, many of these things can happen walking on a hiking trail in a park. However, activities such as hiking under a heavy load, gutting an animal with extremely sharp knives (dull blades pose an even greater hazard), and carrying/using firearms all compound the risk.
The basic dangers, which are: injury, food/water, illness, and hypothermia.
Conversely, you can bring all the medical supplies in the world, but if you don’t know how or when to use them you might as well have left them in your vehicle. Arm yourself with as much research on where you’re going, the regional hazards that exist (weather, predators, snakes, terrain, water-crossings, etc.), and general to advanced backcountry first-aid. From a first-aid standpoint, you can assemble your own or purchase a ready-made medical kit. You often get what you pay for; so think about what your life is worth or how much you would pay for an item in an emergency before selecting a kit.
When hunting or fishing, we tend to be more focused on recreation and become careless of our safety. Don’t be complacent—safety is always #1.
For brevity of this discussion, I’m going to assume you’re able to find food with relative ease in the form of hunting or fishing. Don’t take this ability for granted and overlook the local flora. It pays to know what plants are edible where you’re going. For example, if you are Dall sheep hunting in Alaska you can almost always count on mountain blueberries as a daily supplement. I said almost because sometimes the bears have cleaned them out, they’re not ripe, or maybe you just don’t run into any. Again, research where you’re going and what’s available.
Next is our most critical resource: water.
You can live without food for approximately three weeks, but can only live without water for three days.
Typically, if you’re heading for the backcountry, you’re going to stay reasonably close to a water source, but that does not mean the water is automatically safe to drink. You should always be prepared to treat water. A good water filter is well worth its weight, and while emergency filters such as filtering straws, cannot and should not be counted on for your daily water needs. Contaminated water can make you painfully or even dangerously sick. In the backcountry, you should consider all water contaminated.
One of the more common pathogens, Giardia, is found wherever mammals live, and—at the very least— it’s no fun and a long recovery if you contract it. Having to deal with it in the backcountry can very quickly become deadly. Fortunately, there are hundreds of water purifiers on the market. I prefer pump-type purifiers for their convenience and large volume output, however, they are mechanical so they can break, freeze, etc. Additionally, if you’re filtering heavily silted water, they can clog.
Having a backup method is key. Some use purifying droplets such as Aqua Mira, iodine tablets from companies such as Coughlan’s and others simply boil their water. Typically, you’re going to have a stove when you travel—or at least fire of some sort—and boiling kills everything. Which method is the best? That depends on where you’re going and your preference. Seeing as how an otherwise healthy individual can die in a fairly short time without water, you should always have two methods of purifying your water. My home state is in the arid southwest; not having access to enough clean water can put you in a lot of trouble in a hurry.
Hypothermia can be the result of a number of unfortunate circumstances, but all mean the same thing—your body is cooling down faster than it can warm up. Unbeknownst to most people, you can get hypothermia just about anywhere if the right (or wrong) situation presents itself. A few minor items in your pack can mean the difference between being comfortable or surviving a situation. Yes, these safety items do weigh something. Fortunately, quite a few of the items are only a few ounces and many of them have multiple uses, which helps to cover our “Two is one; one is none” motto.
I’d rather carry a little extra weight than be shivering and wishing I had. Even if you’re perfectly safe, the quickest way to have an unenjoyable experience is to be miserably cold. To combat this problem from the start, remember that layering is king and pack accordingly. I prefer synthetics and wool due to their ability to function when wet, although wool is typically heavier and takes longer to dry, it has the benefit of creating its own heat when damp.
Here’s a list of things I take into the backcountry no matter where I go.
For addressing injury, I like the Blue Force Gear Micro Trauma Kit NOW! It’s a small package that covers many first-aid bases. It has multiple attachment styles, colors, and set-ups. With the addition of QuickClot Combat Gauze, a Nasopharyngeal Airway (NPA), and Duct Tape, the basic set-up will suit most people’s needs for some major problems.
More often than not, I use Duct Tape to address injuries. You can close a cut; make a splint, and its great for taping gauze around a wound. Simply fold the duct tape (Not gorilla tape; when that stuff sticks together it doesn’t come apart) on itself and 5 yards of duct tape easily fits anywhere in your pack or kit. Duct tape can also temporarily repair your tent, sleeping bag, boots…nearly anything.
Another item that can save your life and weighs very little is an emergency blanket. When the body goes into shock, which it can for multiple reasons, you lose body heat. Wrapping someone in an emergency blanket, regardless of temperature, is standard procedure for backcountry medics treating shock.
An emergency blanket can also help with food and water issues. If you need water, and aren’t near a source, an emergency blanket would make a good rain or dew catching system (2 uses). You can also setup a makeshift shelter (3 uses), use it as a signaling device, rain parka, or even wrap it around you to sleep in a wet sleeping bag. The possible uses are only as limited as your imagination and research. Needless to say, an emergency blanket is a no-brainer.
Last but not least is a heat source. Whether it’s campfire or a small packable stove, fire still reigns as the “can’t do without” item. A nice campfire or pack stove has many benefits, including drying clothes, boiling water, cooking food, and warming your body. In order to start a fire, there are easy to use products such as lighters and waterproof matches which are very light, so they should always be in your pack. Unfortunately, both of these can fail, and failure in the backcountry can mean death. Other options include carrying a flint/Spark stick or magnesium Firestarter. I’m paranoid enough to always carry all three.
Additional Items to Consider
- Trash bags
- Ziploc bags
- More duct tape
- Shoe goo (use for more than shoes)
- Superglue (which I’ve also used to close wounds)
- Signal mirror
- Cleansing wipes for hygiene
- LED headlamp
- Aleve/Motrin or other anti-inflammatory
- Paracord (can also be a tourniquet)
- Squirt water bottle both for drinking and cleaning a wound
The backcountry can be dangerous or docile. Be prepared for both.
What items do you carry in your backcountry survival, hunting, or fishing kit? Share your answers in the comment section.
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