What are must-have items in an emergency kit for a multi-day hiking trip?
Obviously, what you decide to pack depends on your trip and the environment, but these are the staples I always bring along:
Navigation: You always need to be able to figure out where you are and which way you need to head to get out. In my opinion, a map without topography isn't a map (unless you're on very flat land).
- GPS with extra batteries
- Local trail map with detailed topography
Warmth & Shelter: You need to be able to get warm and protected from the elements. I always bring a sleeping bag if I know it'll get cold at night, even on single-day hikes where I don't plan on sleeping in the backcountry. God forbid you get lost and have to spend the night, it's worth the extra few pounds for peace of mind.
- Waterproof matches
- Synthetic tinder (If it has rained recently, it'll be hard to find dry sticks for starting a fire)
- Space blanket
- Trash bags (Infinitely usable as waterproof containers or shelters)
- Sleeping bag
Rescue & Signaling: If you fall and break both your legs or get your arm pinned under a rock, you need to be able to make a commotion and attract attention.
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Signaling mirror (I personally don't bring one, but I know a lot of people say you should)
Food & Water: This isn't just so you can stand on a mountain eating a Nature Valley bar like they do in the commercials. If you need to survive for a few days, you'll appreciate the sustenance.
- Pot for boiling water
- Water bottle with clean water
- Granola bars or bagels
General Survival: If you have to make shelter, conduct first aid or perform any other basic camp tasks, you'll probably need this stuff anyways.
- Knife or multitool
- Rope or parachute cord
- Duct tape
- First Aid Kit
Edit: As Phil mentioned, you should always bring a cell phone. Keep it in a waterproof bag, and turn it off so you're not disturbed. But having one in a pinch is the difference between being able to summon help for yourself and sitting around hoping someone is out there looking for you.
There are different types of being stranded; there's "lost the trail an hour in" stranded, "lost the trail twenty miles in" stranded, and "broke a leg" stranded, just to name a few.
Considering your question
- Multi-day Hiking -- Therefore I assume you have standard hiking gear and are not asking for that. Also assuming that you're not going to be nearby a car (car-camping).
- Multi-day trip -- You're going to be out a ways.
Your emergency kit should be gear that never leaves your person. If I get stranded away from my gear, I have this kit. People have died from going to take a leak in the middle of the night and getting lost. Your general hiking equipment is your "gear," moreso than your "emergency kit".
Why "never leaves your person"? You are at primary risk of two types of problems. For simplicity we will assume the worst case in both, that you have lost your group.
- Injury -- If you become seriously injured, your world will be limited to a very small area. Self rescue is limited.
- Lost -- If you become lost and separated, because it is a multi-day hike, rescue will likely be more than a few hours away. Assuming you cannot self rescue, you may be in for a long wait of a week or more depending on when S&R is notified of your absence.
If you won't have your emergency gear with you, then it's not an emergency kit. With that in mind, I build my kit for three things
- Light -- I never feel burdened and so I never set it down.
- Small -- It's easy to attach to whatever I am wearing, or just strap to my leg.
- Supportive -- My kit may not be shelter, but it will help me make it. It may not be food, but it will help me secure some. It may not be rescue, but it will help them find me.
- Knife (big enough to use, but not super heavy)
- Space blanket (for warmth)
- 50' paracord (a million uses)
- Trash bag (rain cover, distillation tool, lots of uses here)
- Water purification (iodine is light and works)
- .5 liter water container (iodine tabs will do .5 liter. I carry a .5 liter platypus, but it's your choice, you need a water container)
- Fishing line & hooks (I carry about ten. 1 is not enough, 100 is too many)
- 200 calorie snack (200 calories won't keep you alive, but I want something to nibble on while I find food)
- Compass (assuming you can use it)
- A few oz of salt (good to eat, can double as a temporary fix for infections)
- Whistle (I prefer the ridiculous whistles that can be heard really far away)
- Scout flint & steel (learn how to use it)
- Small flashlight (again I'm on the super-low-weight side, so I carry a Fenix)
- Based on Hartley's point, I think I will be adding my super-small Snow Peak .75L pot
Any kit is nothing without knowledge. You need to know how to use all this stuff, how to make your own shelter, and preferably all the local edibles and how to find them. Before you go out on a day hike, I recommend you practice with this gear to make sure you can do the minimal of:
- Build a shelter
- Start a fire
- Collect and purify water
- Signal with mirror, fire, and whistle
This stuff never leaves my emergency kit. For any of it that I also use regularly in camp, I have a second one. My emergency kit is for emergencies only and is separate from the rest of my gear. It has its own pouch that I keep with me (not with my pack).
I hike the Appalachians. It gets cold, but not Canada cold, and it's not desert. This would likely need to be tweaked for extreme cold or heat.
Hartley (and Phil) pretty much have it covered, but I'd add a couple of things.
- A bothy bag - basically a quick emergency shelter for 4-6 people that packs down nice and small
- High energy/sugar foods - mars bars, peanuts, jelly, energy bars etc
Also, it's a little over the top, but we take emergency cards that you fill out with vital information like the nature of the emergency, how many people in the party, an emergency contact for your party, your location etc, and send someone with the card to get help.
For a multi-day hike obviously you'll have a tent which can be very useful in emergencies.
Just additional two cents, but don't underestimate the visibility of a green laser pointer at night. In survival situations and with light fog, a green laser pointer shooting up in the sky will make your position extremely clear.
For the exact same reason, don't use it with airplanes around. They hate that, and you will be found and prosecuted.
The other answers focus on general survival kits, but don't give much coverage to first aid kits.
Here's what you need in a first aid kit, in order of importance:
- Training. It takes up no space, weighs nothing, and is more critical than anything else.
- A cell phone. In a serious medical emergency, there's no piece of equipment you'll want more. Take it even if you don't get reception for the whole excursion. It can still shave hours off the response time because it will likely get a signal a few miles before you've reached civilization.
- Two pairs of rubber gloves to protect yourself in case you have to treat bleeding.
- An epi pen. Someone in your party may be allergic to bee stings and there's no way to improvise this.
- Aspirin and ibuprofen tablets. The former for any heart attack symptoms and the later for general pain and swelling.
- Antiseptic wipes and band aids to prevent infection from minor cuts and scrapes.
That's it. Everything else you might need can be improvised from regular hiking equipment and the ten essentials.
My list may not sound as sexy as some of the others, but it's been tested in the field. I'm a former EMT and climbing guide, and I've faced multiple life-or-death medical emergencies in the wilderness.
All Emergency Kits need to be tailored to the area and situation you're in, Death Valley you will need more water/hydration, colder climates more thermal protection.
I've seen many "10 Essentials" lists around, the items you should have with you whenever hiking or in the outdoors, with varying contents. Usually these are unordered lists, as the most important items are those that you need and don't have and the importance varies by your location and circumstance. Water is of less importance to you if you have a constant clean source available. I live in Southern California, currently in its fifth year of drought. There are still streams flowing but it's always a desert. 10 Essentials doesn’t always mean 10 items. A Multiuse item can cover multiple areas, for instance an oversized durable poncho can act as rain gear and a shelter, covering two items. Sun Protection can mean clothing and or sunscreen. The first on my list then is :
1. Water. After a day of heat and slight dehydration, your mental capacity will be limited, so that’s why it is first on my list. Dehydration may develop into heat exhaustion and heatstroke. The human body may only survive for a few days without water. Portable water purifiers and water stills may be used to obtain potable water from virtually any source.
2. Proper Layered Clothing. Hot days and cold nights are a recipe for disaster if you’re not prepared. Multiple layers are superior to a single massive jacket, because layered clothing is adaptable to a wide range of temperatures. This could include sunglasses, hat, etc.
3. First Aid Kit. I'm not worried about bandages for small cuts. I want to be prepared to keep my feet walkable, have medications, and use meditape and wraps.
4. Multitool. I say multitool rather than knife because why carry a knife when a multitool has a knife and other useful items like a saw, pliers, etc. It is useful for tasks as large as building an emergency shelter or lighting a campfire with poor fuel, or as small as repairing a damaged backpack.
5. Headlamp. Again, rather than a flashlight which needs to be held. Hands free navigating in the dark, and also provides a sense of comfort and safety.
6. Fire starter. Use whatever works best for you, be it matches, lighter, or strikers. Light fires for heat, cooking, or for signaling purposes. I prefer having a lighter and a striker.
7. Trail Food. Lower on the list because you can survive a lot longer than you think without food, but you should have something. I carry protein energy bars.
8. Poncho/Tarp/Emergency Blanket. A multi-use shelter, waterproofing, heat saving, raingear. Being wet from rain may result in hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition. This is separate from clothing, because who hikes around in a waterproof rain suit? I currently carry a tarp, in a pinch will act as rain gear, but good shelter.
9. Protection. Partially included in Clothing (hat, etc.) Includes Sunscreen, Lip Balm and Insect Repellant.
10. Map & Compass & Whistle. On the bottom of the list not because of least importance, but most people wouldn't know how to use them to get orientated, let alone have an actual map of the area they are in. If you know how to use a map and compass, then it will be higher on your list, because if you can navigate yourself to safety quickly - you won’t need half of the other things on this list. Last on my list is a whistle. Some people show them on the list with the compass, a combination whistle, compass, light, fire starter, signaling mirror, etc. I don’t use those. The combination compass/”anything” is a waste. The compass is only useful if you can read it, and those “combos” are crap. Get a good compass that you can actually use to navigate. A good whistle noise will travel for miles, alerting searchers or other members of your party where you are. Three blasts of a whistle is internationally known for distress.
So there’s my list, I could make it 9 by combining food and water, but adapt yours to suit your needs and the areas that you’re hiking in.
A compact 10 Essentials list to choose from: Hydration and Food Clothing, Shelter, Sun protection, & Raingear First Aid & Medications Tools & Firestarter Map/Compass, Flashlight, & Signaling
A full 10 Essentials list to choose from: Hydration Food Clothing Shelter Rain Gear Sun Protection First Aid Kit Multitool Firestarter Flashlight Map & Compass Whistle GPS Radio/Communications
The answer is to not think too hard. First think about all of the things you would take anyway and then supplement for emergencies; the unexpected.
Goal is to get home and rescue, by self or otherwise, is the mechanism by which that goal is achieved. You will need your position and you will need to communicate it.
Phone, charger pack, waterproof and shockproof cases for both, wind up charger if you like.
If you are serious about being super remote where nobody knows where you are, then you want thinks like locator beacon, strobe, sat phone, radio, etc.
Without such items, you will need to create signals, which is a right pain. Saying that. a whistle is a simple, battery free, signal.
Familiarise yourself with all equipment before the world goes wrong. Check it before you leave.
In order to get rescued, you (or someone else) needs to be able to communicate your position. You will therefore need, route map, area map, compass, and if you like, GPS. Get a waterproof case, because the water resistant maps are dross. Know where you are at all times. Actually put it on the maps and double check. Position and navigation is a skill. Learn the skill.
Really though, the way to get rescued is to have someone to check in with who will actually tell the rescue services you are missing if you don't check in. You tell them your intended route at the beginning, and check in with your position and intended next leg or any plans that change.
Now we want to stay alive.
The overriding medical principle is that you want the body to stay the same. Don't get to hot, don't get too cold, don't dehydrate, get sleep, don't suffer from lack of energy or malnutrition.
You will need equipment and/or expertise to facilitate this.
First aid kit. Trauma kit if you can use one. First aid is a skill. Learn the and practice skill.
You don't get a fire in a first aid kit (though you do get tinder), so you will need to address the other issues. You can do this with clothing, snack bars, water treatment systems, or such as fires, BUT ONLY OF APPROPTIATE. Don't get hung up on fires if you're not going to get cold or treat water, etc.
Hygiene is super important.
Energy, time, and resources are the currency of action. You are either spending them or earning them. That is except time. You can spend less time, but you can never earn it.
Light is a massive factor in survivability. The dark makes everything a right pain. There is no guarantee that things will go wrong mid morning. The torch is your weapon against the darkness. Big torch, more power needed. You get the picture. I have a head torch and a really really bright torch. Extra batteries. One might consider a wind up. This can be combined with a phone charger.
High calorie, high density snacks. Probably based on nuts.
Guide to local plants might not go a miss. Ones that give carbs though; man cannot live on salad alone. Learn your wild foods in advance.
High quality, well maintained, multi-purpose, high function to size/weight ratio. Do you really need that axe, or would a saw and some food be better? They need to work in the rain, wind, and the dark.
Doctrine has us believe that a survival kit is associated with potential months out with nothing but the kit. When hiking, we carry all sorts of things. We don't need to worry too much about natural shelter building if we have a tent, for instance.
What we need to consider the emergencies and subsequent rescue and medical issues. Everything else facilitates those.