Safety items you should always have in your backpack

When you head out to the backcountry, depending on where you are, you may be far from getting help if you need it. It may take hours to get help, and you may need to overnight, so you need to be prepared.  In case of emergencies there are a few things that you should have in your backpack on all trips, and this becomes particularly important in winter.

1. Radio / PLB / Satphone

UHF or VHF radio you can use to call for help if you are in an area with coverage. A SPOT device is great or a SPOT satellite phone. These are becoming less expensive over the years and are an important ‘insurance’ for your safety in the outdoors. A satellite phone can be had for under $500 now days and in most location the call quality is as good as a cell phone.

If something happens and you are out of cellular contact, you need to have a way of reaching out to call for help.

spot gen 3

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2. Emergency blanket or Bivi

For a worst-case scenario, it’s super important that you carry a tarp or bivi tarp. In case you need to overnight, it’s important to have an item that will offer at least some basic protection from snow, rain, wind and cold.

Kelty Tarp

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3. First aid kit

There are a number of first aid kits created especially for outdoor use. Our favourite are adventure medical kits which are very lightweight and very comprehensive.

medical kit

4. Headlamp

You will be so glad that you have one. A headlamp is indispensable in an overnight situation, it weighs hardly anything, and is easy to remember to throw in your backpack. Try this Petzl TacTikka Plus headlamp or read our top 3 headlamps review.

tikka petzl

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5. Down jacket

Down jackets pack small and there are some very lightweight ones out there. If you should need it, you would be glad you have one, as they provide instant heat.  Read our blog post on advice how to choose a down or synthetic insulated jacket.

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer retails for $320 at REI

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Jacket

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6. Extra food and water

I always pack a little bit extra food, these include dense, high calorie items such as energy bars and nuts.  After every day out in the outdoors I generally have reserve left so I know if I were to get stuck out there I would have an emergency supply of food. Try Honey Stingers, or some other high calorie bars.

honey stinger

7. Map or GPS

Topographic Map or GPS system, compass, a Suunto watch: to keep from getting lost and to identify your position.

8. Repair Kit

If you’re skiing, you should definitely bring with you tools to fix broken bindings, or even an extra binding on those longer trips. Breaking a binding and not being able to ski back can be more than just a hassle.

9. Pocket Knife and Tools

Also, take along a pocket knife and multi-tools. A multitool is good to have in case you need to make a sling, shelter, cut wood, and so on.

leatherman multi tool

10. Fire Starter

A fire starter is a great thing to have if you are in a wooded area and need to keep warm.  Our favourite is the Light My Fire Scout Firestarter, which is handy and generates a spark even when wet.

light my fire

Are there any items you like to take along with you? Comment below.



Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts
  1. Al Everest said on February 12, 2015 6:33 pm:

    An axe or a hatchet, always.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:06 pm:

      Not a bad idea! If I’m trying to save weight I will carry a small (collapsible) bush saw

  2. Hillbasher said on February 18, 2015 3:26 pm:

    My thoughts on your list.
    1) If you need a Spot or PLB to get you out of a situation, you shouldn’t be out there in the first place. Depend on yourself and the people you are with to solve any problems. Yes, I know things may get beyond that point, but people have been enjoying the outdoors for hundreds of years before electronic extraction devices became popular.
    2)That pictured tarp would be completely useless in a storm in the winter. Don’t tell people to bring things that might make matters worse. Yes a bivy sack is a good idea for almost all overnight conditions in an emergency, but that tarp, don’t think so.
    3)That picture first aid kit is fine for car camping, but throw that in your pack and you loose room for taking along something else you might need even more. Make your own first aid kit, and keep it small, as you are not a MASH unit when in the outback.
    4)Headlamp, excellent choice.
    5)Down jacket, another excellent idea. My jacket saved my butt when caught out over night at over 12,000 in a snow storm on Whitney once in the month of November. Not sure I would be writing this critique if I had not had mine along.
    6)Extra food and water, goes without saying.
    7)Map or GPS? No. Map, compass, ability to correctly use them, and as an added luxury, a GPS. GPS alone, no way. Batteries die, as do lots of electronic devices.
    8 & 9)Repair kit, not much use for one if out in the summer. Winter is different entirely. If on snowshoes or skis, a multi tool can indeed save your life if needed.
    10) I never carried one of those sparking devices until a friend convinced me of their usefulness a few years back. They can’t go dead when wet, and lighters eventually stop working. Get one of these. They are inexpensive.
    I don’t claim to be John Muir or anything, but the points I bring up are mostly common sense issues when outdoors. If you don’t like my ideas. fine. But maybe they will help just one person one time. Have a great time out there.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:11 pm:

      Thanks so much for your awesome feedback. As far as PLB’s go or other emergency communication devices I still like to carry one, especially when guiding groups. When you are 3 hours to a day away from nearest person or a cell signal it’s good to have a way of calling for help. We see many successful rescues here in in the Canadian rockies where they injured party was able to call for help.

  3. Tom Murphy said on February 19, 2015 1:32 pm:

    1. radio – provides a false sense of security; replace with leave your trip itinerary with someone.

    5. Down jacket – replace with sufficient insulation layers to survive the expected overnight lows; in case you are benighted

    7. Map or GPS – replace with map and compass and the skill/experience to use them properly

    10. Fire Starter – add the skill/experience to create and sustain afire in the expected conditions

    ADD hard shell (rain protection) required to keep insulating layers dry while moving.

    Items I consider required – extra set of wool socks, wool hat, wool liner gloves

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:12 pm:

      Thanks Tom! Really appreciate your excellent ideas to refine our list

  4. darcy said on February 20, 2015 6:46 am:

    I’d add in a wool tuque, a sharp full-tang knife, a rainproof shell, and for cryin’ out loud some TINDER! those magnesium and steel fire kits aren’t worth much without the exact right tinder. Some charcloth or dryer lint makes starting a fire pretty foolproof.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:13 pm:

      Thanks Darcy. Looking at all of the fire starter related comments we should do a post on just that alone!

  5. E said on February 21, 2015 2:09 pm:

    Not a single mention of extra socks.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:14 pm:

      Great point. Not really an emergency item but so nice to have. Happy feet = happy hikers

  6. Walker said on February 22, 2015 9:47 am:

    No mention if this a day pack or a backpack? Totally different situations. Nothing wrong with the tarp shown, it can be setup many different ways, if you are have experience with your gear. For a day hike I would have a space blanket or a large (3mil) trash bag, both will help hold in body heat and keep out the elements. What I see missing for either scenario is signaling items, (mirror, whistle, camera…). Otherwise, great comments.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:14 pm:

      Thanks Walker

  7. Joseph Skinkis said on March 4, 2015 6:56 pm:

    A complete Gore-Tex outfit: boots, pants, and a jacket with hood.

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:15 pm:


    2. Tobias Terman Olsen said on October 23, 2015 2:45 am:

      just clothes there can stand the weather, so waterproof clothing, if you are in a area where it is needed. It does not need to be Gore-tex. personally I never use gore-tex boots, but leather.

      1. Mike said on November 4, 2015 12:13 pm:

        For sure. You would adjust your layers / footwear depending on where you live and the current weather

  8. Tanya said on March 9, 2015 10:23 am:

    I like to take a camera to take pictures of the area around in case I go “bushwacking” and want to know where my camp was at (redundancy to map and compass).

    I also like carrying a solar panel and rechargeable batteries for my headlamp, spot, Gps.

    And as a female a few hygiene products to keep my body safe from diseases or other injuries. 🙂 (f.e.: a few wet wipes to clean out south; sunscreen; dr.bronner soap; toothbrush; …)

    1. Mike said on March 11, 2015 2:15 pm:

      Thanks for your comments Tanya

  9. Tanya said on March 9, 2015 10:31 am:

    P.S. I love tampons from the brand “o.B.” they are a great source to start fire with (with a Firestarter f.e.), when it’s wet outside and you can’t find birch trees. They are waterproof and the only trash you have is the little plastic wrapping.

    And I agree with a tarp. You can build a big variety of shelters. A cheap one (8×6)from the next store (walmart f.e.) does the job for me everytime.

    Duct tape is great to repair wholes in your tarp or other gear. I prefer one that has a strong “glue power”, not the cheap ones.

  10. nubwaxer said on June 28, 2015 10:27 pm:

    First aid kit
    gauze tape and waterproof adhesive tape are essential.

    1. Mike said on June 29, 2015 12:24 pm:

      Good idea! Usually those are included in the 1st aid kit

    2. Mike said on November 4, 2015 12:11 pm:

      Thanks for these suggestions

  11. John McLean said on November 4, 2015 11:11 am:

    Always carry a knife, not too big, not too small.

    1. Mike said on November 4, 2015 12:14 pm:

      Pocket knife always comes in handy

  12. MrTommy said on December 21, 2015 8:45 pm:

    Take your “drone” so drone haters can find you. Better them than no one – ha.

  13. redrowan2000 said on June 19, 2016 2:47 pm:

    Kate Upton

  14. Flakes said on December 14, 2017 6:57 pm:

    Maybe a whistle to scare away bears.