Essential Survival Gear to Carry on Day Hikes

When you hit the trail, these easy-to-find items could potentially save the day

Every year, it seems there are news reports of hikers and campers who took a wrong turn and had their trip end tragically. In almost all accounts, had they brought with them just a minimal amount of survival gear and supplies, they might have fared much better and probably would have finally returned home alive.

No matter how familiar you are with an area, things can go awry. You might duck down a new-to-you trail in a park you’ve visited a dozen times, and then find yourself turned around and unable to find your way back. Or an ankle gets twisted and walking out becomes more fantasy than reality.

A hiking survival kit is easy to assemble together. You probably have most or all of it already, it is just a matter of bringing it along when you head out. Here are some gear items to consider packing.

Navigation Tools

There are several apps available that work in conjunction with your phone’s internal GPS to track your movement on the trail. Map My Run (formerly Map My Hike) is free to download and use. Among other things, it will provide you with a map of where you’ve been. If you take a wrong turn, you can use it to retrace your steps back to the main trail. However, that assumes you’ll have a phone with you—and one that hasn’t run out of juice yet. Play it safe and invest in some non-powered tools as well.

Ditch the little button compass. They are often inaccurate—typically more so when they get near anything metallic, such as that nifty mint tin you are using as a survival-kit container. Pay the extra couple bucks for a baseplate compass. This is only part of the equation, though. The compass will give you direction, but a map will tell you where you need to go. Many parks will have maps at the trailhead.

Fire Kit

Fire has many uses. It keeps us warm and dries us out. It boils water to make it safer to drink, alerts searchers to your location. A strong fire lights up the night. There’s a strong psychological component at work as well—one that’s actually two-fold in nature. First, sitting near a campfire generally makes us feel better about the situation. Second, building and maintaining the fire gives us something we can control. We might not be able to find our way home, but we can at least do this one thing to improve our situation.

Survival tools for starting a fire.
Pack a ferro rod and quick-catching tinder in case you need to get a fire going fast. Jim Cobb

A good quality lighter is a great start, but have at least one backup as well, such as a ferrocerium rod and striker. You should also have some ready-to-light tinder with you, in case it has been raining for three days straight and finding something dry proves troublesome.

Knife

Survival knife for everyday carry.
The M1 Backpacker Pro from White River Knife & Tool is an excellent option for a hike EDC knife. Small but incredibly useful as well as comfortable. Jim Cobb

A sharp blade makes many things much easier to accomplish, from building an expedient shelter to processing pieces of wood for the fire. You don’t need a big hunting knife, though. Even a folding pocketknife is better than nothing. Though a small fixed blade is a better option, all things considered. Choose something strong, but that won’t be a bear to sharpen. Incidentally, wearing a leather belt means you’ll always have a strop available to bring the edge back to the knife.

Cordage

Making cordage out of plant fibers isn’t an impossible task and can actually be a great way to pass the time while you’re sitting there doing nothing. But, it is predicated on not just knowing how to do it but being able to find the right materials. Life is easier with the proper tools. Tossing a hank of parachute cord into your kit is a wise choice. You can use p-cord in a variety of ways, from shelter building to replacing a broken bootlace.

Signaling Tools

Even at full “Angry Dad” volume, the human voice just doesn’t travel far in the wild. Plus, you can only shout for so long before you’ve added a sore throat to your list of miseries. Instead, carry a few things that you can use to call attention to yourself, should you need to do so. A simple whistle tops the list. It can be heard for miles.

Camper shows how to use a survival whistle.
A whistle’s sound carries much further than the human voice. Jim Cobb

A brightly colored bandana can be waved to overhead to catch someone’s eye. At night, switch to using a glow stick attached to the end of a short length of paracord. Crack the light to activate it, then swing it in a circle in front of you. You’d be surprised by how far away that glowing signal can be seen.

Water Bottle

Last, but not least, bring a water container. Dehydration is a serious risk and it can sneak up on you—even in cold weather. The bottle should be full at the outset of your hike, of course. And the container should be single-walled stainless steel. That way, you can use it to boil water to make it safer to drink. A small water filter is even better.