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First Aid Kit

Recommended Books

How to Stay Alive in the Woods: a complete guide to food, shelter, and self-preservation by Bradford Angier.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency by Matthew Stein

Backpacking by Victoria Steele Logue.

Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking by Karen Berger

The Backpacker's Field Manual by Rick Curtis

The Backpacker's Handbook by Chris Townsend

Lipsmackin' Backpackin': Lightweight Trail-tested Recipes for Backcountry Trips by Christine Conners

Mary Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook by Mary Bell

Trail Food: Drying and Cooking Food for Backpacking and Paddling by Alan Kesselheim

Gear Tips

Advice and How-To Guides

How to choose a backpack
Backpacking kitchen supplies checklist

Fitting a backpack video

Tents - Complete Overview

Choosing a tent
Choosing a sleeping bag
Keeping leather boots waterproof

Dick's Sporting Goods

Choosing a survival knife

Shelter Systems
Some clever designs and photos

Schools and Training

The physical education department at many community colleges offers courses in backpacking, rock climbing and sometimes even wilderness survival. The geology department, meanwhile, may sponsor field trips to remote areas each semester, (open to non-majors), which is another affordable way to learn how to camp and survive in the woods.

The Sierra Club sponsors trips to remote locations throughout the world. The lengthy list of destinations and itineraries is posted in their quarterly magazine and online. Local club chapters organize more affordable trips to nearby state and national parks.

Wilderness outfitters like R.E.I. sometimes offer free seminars on backpacking, navigation techniques and backcountry safety. (They may also charge fees for these short courses.)

Finally, there are a number of survival schools around the country that offer special curriculums tailored to surviving outdoors. Check the Wilderness Survival page for an extensive list of them.

Evacuation Gear

Whether you're evacuating for a disaster or simply planning a vacation, weight and volume are critical factors in choosing what to bring. To expedite things in an emergency, store your outdoor gear together with your long-term first aid kit and other emergency supplies. Here's a list of travel items to consider:


For transporting 45 pounds or more (including food, water and clothes), most adult travelers opt for an internal-frame backpack with two aluminum stays that transfer much of the load to your hips. Foam padding minimizes muscle soreness and a plastic web frame separates the pack from your back. On a long journey, you'll appreciate all these features, but they can make the pack itself heavy - typically 4 to 5 pounds.

All models are rated for the amount of internal storage space they offer. The sizes are reflected in liters -- not very helpful if you're an American. For instance, a model rated 45, 55, or 60 (i.e. the liter amount) is generally considered a "multi-day" pack, meaning less than a week. For those planning a longer trip without stopping for provisions, a pack rated 70- 90 is normal. However, many people find these packs too cumbersome. Some packs on the market - referred to as "minimalist" - skip the aluminum stays and much of the webbing to get their weight down to under 3 pounds. (A popular, relatively affordable line of mimimalist packs is sold under the brand name Go-Lite.)

Remember, your hips carry the brunt of the load when using packs with aluminum stays. That fact, plus all the climbing and walking involved in your journey can wear the joints down and strain the muscles wrapped around them. Post-menopausal women have the added burden of weaker bones -- especially if you have past injuries. Keep that in mind when you're shopping around. You may prefer to spread the weight around your back instead of piling it all onto your hips.

The rule of thumb for humans and pets is to never carry more than one-third of the body weight. In an evacuation scenario, most of your load will include a substantial first aid kit, water and protective clothing. You'll also need a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries, some trail mix or energy bars, a knife, firestarter, your survival notes, and any of the other items mentioned below that you can squeeze in without weighing yourself down.

Dogs and older kids should be fitted with backpacks tailored for their size. Many wilderness outfitters also sell back-mounted baby carriers with additional storage capacity. (Victoria Logue's book, listed on the right, discusses the ins and outs of trekking with pets and kids.)

Backpack models also accomodate a variety of torso heights. Some have an adjustable setting, while others come in small, medium or large. Women's packs are generally made for smaller torsos and larger hips. If you're not much more than five feet tall, look for a 12-15 inch torso length.

Since a good fit can be hard to come by, the best way to shop is to visit a wilderness outfitter or sporting goods store and try on the different packs. To save money, wait until the beginning of the year, when closeout models go on sale. Otherwise an internal frame pack runs anywhere from $100 to $300.

One good-quality, mid-range pack worth a peak is the Act Lite model from Deuter, featured in the photo above. It's lightweight but still has the stays, padding and torso adjustment. The pack comes in both men's and women's versions, weekend and multi-day variations. (On last check, the prices at Amazon were running high for all backpacks, so you might want to shop around for the best deal.)


Most seasoned trekkers avoid wearing cotton next to their skin in hot or cold weather. Instead, they opt for polyester and other fabrics that "wick" perspiration away from your skin. In cold weather, moisture can freeze. Sport jerseys serve the same purpose in hot weather, when sweat combined with wind creates a draft through your open pores. If you don't like polyester, silk is another option, while nylon pants are considered preferable to jeans.

For socks, the special Merino wool blends are extremely popular nowadays. These socks are thick and long-lasting, eliminate the moisture problem and provide warmth without creating the itch associated with coarser wools. SmartWool makes socks with 70 percent wool content and the other 30 percent nylon or Spandex.

Round out your wilderness wardrobe with a pair of waterproof, heavy-duty hiking boots with high tops and a parka that's not too bulky. A zip-up fleece sweater, warm hat and gloves will also help protect you from wind and cold. Ideally, you'll dress in layers, since the air space between clothing provides added insulation. Survival guides also recommend a cotton or nylon shirt with large button-up chest pockets for storing items like a compass, map and pen.

A belt with a strong buckle will come in handy during an emergency and is in any case needed to hold your knife sheath, water bottle or binoculars.

Food and Water

On backpacking expeditions or for an evacuation, bring along dehydrated food, trail mix (dried fruit and nuts), jerky, powder milk and flour/baking soda (for shiskabob bread). Together these items provide a complete nutrition of fat, carbs and protein. Dried seaweed (widely available in natural food stores) is another nutritious food option. Coffee, herb tea, honey and chocolate will provide a moral boost and are also useful as first aid.

Having said all this, in a dire emergency, food may take up too much room and will have to be left behind. You can last three or four weeks without any food, but only a few days without water. Try to pack as much of the latter as possible (and drink as much as possible before leaving a water source) if you're not sure of your future supply.

And don't forget water for pets, either, since they can dehydrate even more quickly than humans.

Safety Gear

In the case of a nuclear disaster, a personal radiation detector (aka dosimeter) may come in handy, along with potassium iodide pills or liquid tincture, which prevent the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. Children and pregnant women are considered to have the highest risk because of the increased rate of cell division in their bodies. Popular dosimeter brands include UltraRadiac and RadEye.

An industrial disaster might require the use of a half-mask respirator with cartridges that absorb either organic vapors (i.e. toxic chemicals) or particulates like asbestos and radioactive fallout. 3M company manufactures a variety respiratory and safety products widely available on the internet. (The website generally offers lower prices than other sites.)

See also First Aid kit.

Sleeping Bag

This may be an optional item to bring along in an evacuation, unless you're heading into the extreme cold, at which point it becomes essential. There are numerous products on the market, including traditional rectangular and mummy bags. The mummy configuration more efficiently insulates the body and is much lighter in weight, making it the choice of backpackers and moutaineers. You can get either polyester or goose down fibers as an insulating material. The latter choice is the far more expensive, but lighter weight. On the other hand, polyester performs better in damp climates, since wet down feathers tend to lose their ability to insulate. Some people are allergic to the feathers in any case, so can't use a down bag under any conditions.

Bags are rated according to the lowest temperature they can reasonably accommodate. The ratings tend to be on the optimistic side. For instance, if you buy a bag with a zero degree rating, you should be good to go in below-freezing weather but not very comfortable if the thermometer actually drops to zero degrees. Also keep in mind that a sleeping bag rated for a low tempertabure will be too warm to sleep in on a summer night.

One way gain flexibility for different conditions is to buy a middle range bag (e.g. +15 to +20 Fahrenheit), which should be fine in three seasons. For winter, you can add a fleece liner or some other insulating fabric for extra warmth. And another tip: since the body loses most of its heat through the ground, if you place a pad or other insulator directly underneath your bag when sleeping, you'll stay warmer.

Bag sizes include regular (84 inches long), short, youth (60 inches long), women's (shaped for bigger hips, 66 to 72 inches long), long and extra long.

Popular models nowadays include Eureka Casper and Marmot Trestles They both sell for under $100.

Most backpackers consider a sleeping pad or inflatable air mattress essential gear despite the extra bulk. It makes for a better night's sleep and can usually be attached to the outside of your pack.


In an emergency, a sufficient shelter can usually be rigged from available materials on the ground, so packing a tent isn't a priority. However, for non-emergency trekking you may want to bring one along.

On first glance, a 4-season alpine tent may appear the right choice for handling the full range of weather. Unfortunately, the cost of these puppies can run five hundred dollars or more. They also tend to be rather toasty on a hot summer night. Consider a 3-season tent instead, or even an inexpensive summer tent made of a durable fabric, with a solid zipper, windows and window flaps to facilitate ventilation. In the event of rain, wind or cold weather, you can insert a plastic tarp between the tent and rainfly for more insulation.

Having said all that, the reality of tent shopping is much more complicated. These days most good-quality models use poles with clips that sit four or five inches off the tent fabric. This makes covering your tent with a tarp less effective in keeping out the cold. In addition, both summer and three-season tents invariably use "no-see-um" mesh for ceilings, windows and doors, usually without the benefit of flaps. The mesh allows the breeze to blow through and makes insulating for warmth an impossible task.

Other tent considerations:

* pack weight

Cheaper tents weigh more, but if you split the gear among two or more backpackers, that offsets the heavier load. Backpacking or trail tents have smaller floor space than car camping tents, hence they're lighter.

* vestibule?

This is the tent version of a porch and standard on most high-end models. Backpacks, boots and other gear are stowed outside the entrance, safe from the elements and thieves, allowing the occupants more room inside the tent proper. 

* ventilation

Window and door flaps have traditionally served this purpose. However, a newer fabric called "no-see-um" mesh is now widely used in tent material. It's great for hot weather and for looking up at the stars. Not so great in cold weather.

* polyurethane coating?

This petroleum by-product is commonly used on the rainfly for waterproofing. However, some tent manufacturers also coat the floor and walls of the tent as well. Polyurethane is considered toxic by some people, so you may want to think twice about having your nose rubbing against this stuff at night.

* seam sealer

Another urethane product, but essential for rainproofing the tent. Buy a 1-ounce tube and apply it like caulk on all the seams. Give the goop plenty of time to dry and out-gas before repacking the tent in its bag.

* durability of tent poles

Aluminum poles are light and last longer than fiberglass, but you'll only find them on the higher-priced tents. Fiberglass poles should last a good little while, but eventually they crack. Look for poles that are reinforced with metal sleeves on either end. In a pinch, you can repair a split pole with duct or electric tape.

* footprint?

This is a fancy term for a drop cloth. It's measured and cut to fit a specific tent, but can cost as much as $70. Your $5 rain poncho layed across a bed of pine needles will accomplish as much. If you expect a lot of rain, be sure to dig a moat around your shelter.

A more recent alternative to the tent is the "shelter". This is basically some plastic sewn together around some narrow poles. It's a great way to keep the weight down but since the cost is higher than a tent, you might as well pack some large black trash bags cut open and attached to thin tree branches or roots. You'll be about as comfortable and the second option costs almost nothing.

Survival Knife

For skinning fish or dressing game, cutting branches, self-defense and many other uses, you'll need a durable fixed blade knife. Bear Grylls' knife (Man Vs. Wild host) costs a whopping $700! That's more money than anyone needs to spend, but by checking out his specifications, you can try to approximate the knife in another model. His blade is four inches long, partially serrated (with simple grooves that can be resharpened), extremely thick (so he can bang on the dull end with a rock to cut branches), and made from a high grade of steel. It's described as chunky but lightweight at 7 ounces.

Bear Grylls' knife

In late 2010, began selling the "Gerber 31-000751 Bear Grylls Survival Series". It's more of a souvenir product, however, and for $60 you can can get better quality with the Ka-Bar Becker BK2 Campanion Fixed Blade Knife. This one doesn't have a serrated section, so you'll have to supplement it with a serrated knife or folding saw. (See below.)

Shopping online, blade thickness is usually listed in metric numbers, which can be a hindrance. As for the grade of steel, you have to be a blacksmith to understand what they're talking about. In general, carbon knives are harder and hold an edge longer than stainless steel, but they rust easily in wet weather, which makes stainless steel knives more versatile. A blade that's between 3/16 and 1/4 inch thick is ideal for pounding the knife with a rock or hard branch. A thinner blade might break. A knife with a partially serrated edge is useful for cutting skin, hide, fabric and bread, or for sawing, but that limits the amount of straight edge on the knife.

If you're on a tight budget, the Gerber Big Rock Knife, with a 4.5 inch blade, sells for under $30.

Older versions of the ever popular Sog Field Pup can usually be purchased for $40. (This knife shouldn't be confused with the differently shaped Seal Pup.) The Gerber LMF II is the knife of choice among paramilitary enthusiasts, with its longer blade doubling as a weapon. (Park police will sometimes confiscate blades of more than five or six inches, so keep that in mind while shopping.) For a higher quality line of knives, check out the company Fallkniven.

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Survival | Food | Medicine | Skills | Evacuation | Disaster Monitoring | 2012

Other Gear:

* Firestarter

In addition to matches or a lighter, consider a magnesium firestarter, which will last indefinitely even if it gets wet. A good magnesium bar with a flint striker costs under $6 and fits in your pocket, but it takes a lot of work to light a fire with it.

* Water Bottle or Canteen

Since the revelations about the dangers of BPA in hard plastic bottles, most backpackers have switched over to lightweight, single-walled stainless steel and BPA-free plastic bottles. Kleen Kanteen and Camelback are the most popular brands at the moment. A one-liter plastic bottle for water is standard for most backpackers. Amazon usually has the best price for the 27-ounce Klean Kanteen. Mountaineers and bicyclists prefer using "bladders" to carry their water.

Pocket knife or Multi-Tool

For cutting rope and tape, whittling wood, making incisions, and various utilitarian needs around camp. Many packers prefer a multi-tool or Swiss Army knife, with an assortment of tools, including scissors, can opener, cork screw, file, awl screwdrivers, wire snips, etc. The Leatherman Kick Pocket Multi-Tool and Gerber Suspension Butterfly Opening Multi-Plier both cost under $30. Be aware that many multi-tool styles are small enough to fit on a key chain, so check the dimensions before ordering online. While compact, the smaller tools won't give you much torque in a difficult situation, forcing you to use more brute strength to get the job done.

Lightweight Ax, Machete or Saw

For building a shelter or raft, firewood collection, chopping animal bones, etc. Most packers don't carry these, but for a long-term stay in the backcountry, your survival knife will probably be insufficient. Although handles on smaller axes run about 10 to 14 inches, that doesn't give you much leverage for chopping. The longer the handle, the greater the force of the swing, so take some time to research a solution consistent with your needs.

One the best portable saws on the market today is the Sven Saw, which comes in a 15 and 21 inch option. The replacement blades are cheap and it won't take up much room in the backpack.


Before buying a compass, do some research on how this tool is used and the options different models provide. After all, there's a lot more to finding your way through unfamiliar territory than just knowing the four cardinal points. (See Navigation.) For instance, you can use a compass and the Sun to determine the time of day if you don't have a watch. You can also use the device to measure distances on to map, the steepness of slopes, and the approximate time it takes to get from point A to B.

The Suunto company in Finland makes a line of compasses that are extremely accurate and durable, which is why they're popular with wilderness enthusiasts. The M-3G Global amd 3-DL models are the best-selling right now, with both under $35. Other reputable compass makers include Brunton and Silva.


There's now a magnetic L.E.D. flashlight on the market that requires no batteries or solar power. You shake it and it recharges. This might be a good choice for a long-term evacuation. An L.E.D. headlamp using AAA batteries is another option.

As for a lantern, if you decide to pack one, choose a model that can utilize a variety of fuel sources. Otherwise, make sure your camp stove runs on the same size propane cartridges.

Camp stove, small steel pot/cup, plate and utensils

Backpackers mostly heat water with their stoves and add dehydrated food packets. The most popular lightweight models are the JetBoil personal cooking system and the MSR Dragonfly and Whisperlight. The Whisperlight can be fueled by any form of liquid gas and costs about $90. Unfortunately, it only has one setting (high). The Dragonfly has a low and high setting, which allows you to simmer and slow-cook. It costs $130.

If your budget is tight, you can build your own stove out of a soda can. Check Youtube for several how-to vidoes on the subject.

Rope and Paracord

For climbing, rigging, ice travel, snares, a security trip cord stretched around your camp at night, tying raft logs together, hanging food in a tree out of a bear's reach, etc. etc. Paracord was used originally for parachutes, but its strength and small size make it invaluable on the trail. A few feet of brass wire may also be useful.

Rain Poncho

Get one big enough to cover your backpack as well as yourself. In camp, use it as a waterproof drop cloth (or "footprint") for your tent.


In inclement weather you can slip this between the rainfly and tent for warmth and to keep out the rain. An 8 X 10-foot tarp will cover a 3-person tent. You can also throw it over a tree branch for use as a temporary shelter or use it as a waterproof ground cloth.


These have many uses: head scarf, neck cover, wash rag, pot holder, dust/ash mask, sling, water filter, carrying pouch, etc. Silk is a sturdier fabric than cotton and the choice of stagecoach drivers in the Old West. Consider packing a half dozen cotton scarves and wearing the silk around your neck,


Biodegradable toilet paper (compressed for easier packing) is a mainstay of backwoods hikers. In a survival situation, moss or leaves offer the next closest thing. Items like toothpaste and soap have their equivalents in baking soda and glycerin, respectively. Nature's substitute for a toothbrush is Manzanita and alder leaves. And if you want learn how to make your own sunscreen, here's a recipe.


Most people don't think of this, but it's useful for drawing maps or diagrams, taking notes during a medical emergency, of keeping a record of your travels. Don't forget pen, pencil and eraser, and your survival notes.