10 Essentials of Outdoor Survival for Ultrarunners and Day Hikers

Photo Credit: Kevin Miklossy

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. On the Devil’s Backbone, I encounter a young couple asking for directions to Mount Baldy. 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 trail head. 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 front and back country after all.

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. Death does happen; according to the US National Parks Service, 2004 and 2014 some 46,609 people required search and rescue aid, 13,957 people were injured and 1,578 of those died.

This list is a variant of Vancouver North Shore Search and Rescue’s “Ten Essentials” to bring for outdoor survival in an emergency, and those required for Gary Robbins’ (https://twitter.com/gary_robbins) Whistler Alpine Meadows 55 Ultra — part of the Coast Mountain Trail Series (https://twitter.com/CoastMtnTrail). WAM 55 is a scenically fantastic race, featuring 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 one has to be prepared to tough out a night up top should anything go wrong, or self support should the aid station not be able to be put in place.

This list has been modified based on personal experience, and the weight and space constraints created by a running pack like the Ultimate Directions SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 (https://amzn.to/2rsFcWr), or your day pack, and tuned to meet the special needs of ultrarunning. Mainly, where possible, items like paper tape in a first aid kit have been consolidated with other uses, such as using duct tape for repair, 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 in the Grand Canyon may not be retrievable. And, a second light in your hand can help “fill” the light cast from a headlamp.

The Petzl ACTIK (https://amzn.to/2r6J0fM) was a great light for the Grand Canyon ascent, providing 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 on the trail whose headlight batteries have been expended, standard fitting AAA batteries are more likely to fit their lamps than a specially shaped rechargeable pack.

2. 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, you can still blow a whistle to help rescuers locate you. Running vests like those from Ultimate Directions have a whistle built into the pack, so one less thing to carry.
  • “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.”

3. 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.

4. Warm clothes

I adjust this cautiously based on a four day weather forecast, but keep in mind that the weather in mountains 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:

  • Due to the volume, and the redundancy with other emergency items, I generally consider a “puffy” jacket optional, but base whether you carry this 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

5. 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.

6. 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 cary 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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? 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, after 50k, 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 stumbling through stream crossings, and following the occasional false trail.

10. 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, I’ve run out of food… can you hike down with calories, and then pace me?” Or, “running late by 5 hours. Found a wolf dog hybrid… I think.”
  • 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, that initiates a search and rescue response in an emergency.

The Downsides to the inReach? Well, the inReach isn’t going to replace your fitness tracker, since in narrower canyons tracking accuracy can be reduced. So it’s not great for logging your efforts. Plus, 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! Service is remarkably scant in most National Parks and the backcountry.

  • 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!
  • Consider posting trailhead selfies with locations tagged if you’re run-venture starts within cell range. Post another once you’ve completed your outing.

This is a modified excerpt from my upcoming e-book, How to Run Across the Grand Canyon (and Back): A Practical Guide to Rim to Rim to Rim for Non-Superhuman Runners

Ultrarunner, Motorcycle & Auto journalist, UI/UX guy, Social Media-ist & Techie.

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