Basic Emergency Outdoor Survival Gear

A basic set of survival gear is one of those things that seems like a pain — until you need it. Years ago, I found myself next to a remote Canadian river, my cotton clothing soaked through from a surprise rainstorm, facing the prospect of spending the night with no food, shelter, or fire. I knew better but there I was. There’s nothing like feeling exposed to get you thinking about the basic necessities of survival.

In retrospect, the experience was a gift. I had some quality time – under a mild amount of duress – to consider what survival gear I should have brought on my ill-planned adventure.

The list I came up with not exhaustive, and I offer it on no expert authority. It’s a bare-bones collection of items that would have made me safer and more comfortable had I needed to spend that wet summer night next to the river.

Here are the things I wished I’d carried in a backpack that day:

Rain gear and thermal layers

My soaked cotton pants and shirt were none too warm and dried none too quickly. I needed rain gear. At the minimum, I should have carried a rain coat. Even better if I had rain pants. Both would ideally be made of a waterproof-breathable material.

To trap warm air next to my skin, I would have liked thermal layers (hat, shirt, bottoms, socks) made of a quick-drying material such as wool or a synthetic like polypropylene.

Our Pick

This waterproof poncho from Teton Sports can serve multiple purposes if you get caught out in inclement weather. You can wear it as a poncho that will keep most of your body covered as well as a backpack. If you’re going to be in one place overnight, you can set it up as an emergency shelter. It weighs less than a pound and packs up fairly tightly.

Fire starter

After rain gear and thermals, a lighter or waterproof matches were next on my list. I really wanted to start a fire after the rainstorm passed. I had access to plenty of wood, but nothing with which to ignite a fire. Waterproof matches seem like a safer bet than a lighter since there are no moving parts to break.

Another option are ferro rod sparking devices like those made by Bayite and Swedish FireSteel. These devices are durable and have a long life. Another nicety would be to pack a bit of vacuum-wrapped tender to help get the flames going in wet conditions.

Our Picks

This Baylite ferro rod firestarter kit is a quality choice. It uses a paracord lanyard to connect the striker and the rod, so you can use the cord for other purposes if need be. It’s a mid-sized ferro rod fire starter, large enough to handle easily and produce enough sparks to start a fire, but also small enough to keep in an easy-to-carry emergency kit.

These QuickStove natural waterproof survival & camping fuel disks are easy to carry fire starters. You can pack one or two in your emergency survival kit, and break it out to start a fire when you need it. They are waterproof and only weigh 3.5 ounces. They come 10 to a pack, and you can use the extras to start wood campfires during your non-emergency camping trips.

Food and water

As remote as the river seemed, drinking from it presented a serious risk. Wild animals can carry microorganisms capable of making humans very sick. And who knew what pit stops my paddling friends were making up river. I was wishing for a water purifier of some sort.

Boiling water can address this issue, but it’s unlikely that I would pack a bulky pot in an emergency kit. My best bet would have been using water treatment tablets that kill microbes with either iodine or chlorine or water filters, which have gotten much smaller in recent years.

As for food, a couple of Clif Bars would have been a veritable feast! One thing to note: If you or one of your fellow adventurers is allergic to nuts or other foods, be sure to take that into account when buying backcountry snacks or emergency food. The last thing you want is for someone to accidentally eat something that gives them a dangerous allergic reaction when you’re in the wilderness.

Our Pick

I find that when I’m in the outdoors, I tend to drink more fluid when I’m wearing a CamelBak backpack with an internal reservoir and prefer them to water bottles as a hydration system (both hiking and biking). The CamelBak® Cloud Walker 18 – Lightweight Hiking Hydration Day Pack with a 2.5-liter reservoir is a popular choice and large enough to also hold the other items in your emergency kit. You can always carry extra water in the side pockets of the bag as well — not a bad idea in SoCal’s arid climate.


What if I’d needed to start a fire or purify water in the dark? A waterproof headlamp or hand-held flashlight would have made a huge difference. Don’t forget to check the batteries.

Had the paddlers needed to carry their boats to the car in the dark, having an extra light or two would have made everyone safer.

In fact, during the long hike out, it was getting dark, and two of us who finished first ran back to bring flashlights to the stragglers.

Our Pick

I’m personally a fan of headlamps, as they provide hands-free light during times when you might really need to use your hands. The TIKKA headlamp from Petzl provides a bright, wide beam. It’s highly rated and people find it easy to use, which is important when you may be feeling a bit panicky. Just remember to keep a fresh battery in it.

Rain/sun tarp

Protection from the elements is one of the basic functions of outdoor survival gear. Even wearing rain gear, I would have been miserable sitting next to the river in Canada in pouring rain all night. I also would have struggled to keep a fire lit.

A rain tarp would have helped. The poncho/shelter we mentioned above is probably fine for one person. A group, however, would want something larger. Here in Southern California, shade from the sun can be as important as protection from the rain. It needs to be something light enough that I’d be willing to carry it with me, but rainproof, sunproof, and big enough to provide a decent shelter.

A few gear manufacturers now offer ultra-light shelters that can be held up with a few feet of tent cord and a couple of tree branches or hiking poles.

Our Pick

I own a Kelty Noah’s Tarp 12 that I’ve found pretty versatile for carrying in my backpack or for using when my family and I car camp. There are ultralight tarps on the market that are lighter than the Kelty tarp, but they get pretty pricey. I honestly don’t bring this tarp with me all the time if I’m hiking or biking — it’s the largest item in my emergency outdoor survival gear kit — but I do bring it if I’m getting far away from quick and easy rescue, especially if I’m with one or two other people.

First aid kit

I very occasionally suffer from asthma, and it occurred to me that I should have at least had an inhaler and antihistamine tablets with me.

Beyond that, I probably should have been carrying a basic first aid kit in case I or one of the paddlers I was meeting had a health problem. My son has a nut allergy, so nowadays I don’t go anywhere with him — especially the wilderness — without epinephrine (an Epipen or alternative brand).

Frankly, I’m not qualified to say what a basic wilderness first aid kit should contain, but I’m hoping to take a basic wilderness first aid course from an organization like the National Outdoor Leadership School to find out.

Our Pick

The Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series hiker medic kit includes basic first aid supplied for a couple of people. It comes with medicines for pain and stomach ailments, bandages, gauze and antibiotic ointment, a blister kit, and other essentials. A first aid handbook is included for cases where you might need guidance on dealing with a medical emergency in the backcountry.

Bring it with you

Once you’ve assembled the basic survival gear, the next challenge is to actually carry it with you. I had access to much of the gear listed above when I left the car, but chose not to bring it. Big fail.

One thing that might help is to collect the things you’re unlikely to use often – firestarter, water treatment, rain shelter – into a single bag. That way you can just throw the bag into a backpack, and don’t have to spend a lot of time collecting these items. To hedge your bets you could add to this kit a cheap plastic rain parka, a backup flashlight, and a bit of freeze-dried food.

There are other items I would probably add to my kit – a compass or GPS comes to mind. But the items on the list above were the things I really wanted that day next to the river. I’ll be carrying them next time I’m headed into the wilderness.

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