Gear choices can vary depending on a wide range of factors. How long am I going to be away? What environment am I travelling through? What type of trip am I taking? Is the weather likely to be good or bad?
Even with all these variables there are some essential items that I wouldn’t be without. These are the first to get put in my pack, around my neck, on my belt or in my pockets wherever I’m going.
Everyone has their own thoughts and preferences when it comes to equipment. These are simply my choices and what has worked for me in the past. I have included a few additional items at the end that I carry in particular environments but otherwise these are listed in no particular order.
As with other equipment on this list, a compass is only as good as the person using it. If you don’t know how to use one, it’s definitely worth going on a navigation course or asking someone who does know to show you.
Knowing how to read a map and compass is an essential wilderness skill.
There are other navigational aids available these days. GPS units can be highly effective as well as using navigation software on your mobile phone. I do use the latter but am aware of its shortcomings. Batteries can die and most electronic equipment is susceptible to moisture. They also require some form of reception in order to pinpoint your location.
The simple compass does not share any of these disadvantages and when combined with a map can make travelling through unknown areas a liberating experience.There’s no batteries to go flat, no signal required, and as long as you look after it, it should never need replacing.
Always keep your compass away from strong magnetic sources as found in TV’s or speakers as these can permanently affect its accuracy. When traveling, more localised magnetic interference can affect the reading so avoid taking bearings near anything made of metal.
Certain types of rock can also interfere with the reading. Not generally a problem but something to be aware of. You can always double-check your compass by using other clues such as the direction of the sun or comparisons with your map.
The compass I use is a Silva Expedition 54. It’s very accurate and includes a sighting lens that makes it easier to take bearings from visible features. I usually either keep my compass attached to my backpack or else on my person with a paracord lanyard.
I almost always have a mobile phone on me. I touched on the limitations of using a mobile phone for navigation but it’s still a useful tool for this as long as you understand what those limitations are.
While a very useful tool, mobile phones have their limitations. It’s important not to become too reliant on it.
It’s obvious function is as a communication device. You can contact friends and family to let them know how you are, arrange for suppliers or accommodation in advance or even in an emergency to call for assistance. The same limitations apply, however, as when using it for navigation. It could break, batteries could run out or you may not have any reception to make a call.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable and I’ve often used mine as a GPS or to get weather forecasts for the days ahead. When a mobile phone does become a problem is when people rely on it as their only tool for all of the uses above.
A phone is not a substitute for a map and compass or an emergency communication device but it can perform both of these functions under the right conditions. It’s often something you’ll be carrying anyway so use it by all means but don’t rely on it in an emergency.
I’ve carried some form of knife with me since I was a boy. My dad gave me a small penknife as a kid and I’ve carried one on my keyring ever since. It’s incredibly useful for all sorts of tasks.
As well as a small penknife I always take with me (but not in public) a larger fixed blade knife. Some people love collecting knives and I’ve lost count of the amount of discussions I’ve seen on bushcraft forums as people search for the perfect blade. It’s not something I’ve ever really been interested in. To me a knife is a tool so I’m not particularly precious about what I use.
A Mora Clipper knife. A cheap and practical knife which performs well for most tasks.
Most often I carry a very cheap Mora Clipper. It’s excellent value, is easy to sharpen and handles most jobs I ask of it. While I’ve never had one break on me I understand from those that hand them out on courses that occasionally one does snap and it’s usually as a result of using them for batoning.
That said I’ve used my Mora Clipper for this use extensively and not had a problem. On longer trips though I usually take a spare just in case one ever does fail.
Many people prefer a knife with a full tang (where the metal extends all the way through the handle) and at some point I may spend a little more to get one constructed this way. They are less likely to break when used for tougher tasks such as batoning wood. Where I’m likely to be processing a lot of wood such as in the far north then I’ll take an axe.
Being able to light a fire is one of the most important skills to have when out in the wilderness. Matches and cigarette lighters are commonly carried items to make starting a fire quick and efficient. I’ll often carry multiple sources of ignition when on a trip as I don’t want to be rubbing sticks together as my main form of fire lighting.
A firesteel (also knows as a fireflash or fire striker) is a brilliant fire lighting tool. Made of magnesium, these small rods can produce a shower of sparks that exceed 30000C.
They require you finding or carrying some good, dry tinder but they excel in being usable in almost all conditions.
A simple firesteel weighs little and is a dependable form of ignition even when wet.
I usually carry mine on a lanyard attached to my belt but sometimes I wear it around my neck or keep it in my pack as a backup depending on the trip.
Unlike a lighter or matches, a firesteel is still perfectly usable once soaked in water. This makes it a great fire lighting tool for canoe tripping where there is a higher possibility of getting wet. There’s nothing to go wrong with it and has no moving parts. Also if you lose the striker, the back of your knife makes a perfect substitute.
Finally, firesteels are good for around 12,000 strikes, much more than a box of matches or the fluid in your lighter. Even if you’re going to use a lighter or a box of matches, at around 50g a firesteel is a lightweight and useful backup.
Another staple item that I carry with me, either in a pocket or in my pack is a hank of paracord. It has a multitude of uses, from repairing a broken guyline to suspending a camp shower. You could even use it to fashion a makeshift fishing line in an emergency. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have found a use for some paracord.
A hank of paracord can be used for a multitude of purposes.
Make sure to get the genuine cord as well. It has a 550lb breaking strain unlike some imitations, so is incredibly strong and durable.
Some people wear paracord bracelets but I’m not much of a fan. They’re fiddly and time consuming to undo which is made even more challenging if your hands are cold. There’s also the possibility of it snagging on something. Not much of a worry on dry land but is more likely to be a danger in the water, especially as the cord is so strong and unlikely to break unless under extreme pressure.
First Aid Kit
Whenever I head outdoors I always carry a first aid kit. The contents may vary depending on the type and length of the trip involved but my basic kit stays the same. While you can pick up basic kits from various outdoor stores I prefer to put mine together myself. That way I know exactly what’s in there and how to use it.
I consider basic first aid training as a fundamental skill for anyone spending time outdoors or otherwise. This becomes a requirement if you are going to administer first aid on others. Some simple techniques could be the difference between saving or losing a life.
The contents of my first aid kit.
I can deal with most minor injuries I’m likely to face with the items below. I also keep a small print out of the dosages for each medicine to save me having to carry the boxes with me. The contents of my personal first aid kit includes:
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Allergy tablets
- Dioralyte rehydration powder
- Assorted plasters
- Compeed blister patches
- Alcohol prep pads
- O’tom Tick Twister
- Safety pins
- Tempa-DOT thermometer
- Melolin dressings
- Gauze swabs
- Tubular bandage
- Micropore tape
I keep all the items in small, waterproof Aloksaks within a clearly marked first aid pouch.The contents of my kit is for personal use only. There are items included that are safe for me to take but could cause an allergic reaction in others.
Water Treatment & Containers
Having access to clean drinking water is vital. Without it you would be unlikely to survive more than a few days. There are various methods of water treatment and it’s a good idea to have access to more than one option.
The simplest way of removing pathogens is by boiling. Keeping a metal mug or cup on you will make this easy (as long as you have a stove or means to produce fire). I use a steel mug which fits snugly underneath a NATO water bottle where weight isn’t an issue. If I’m backpacking or travelling light I use a lightweight, titanium Evernew cup which fits underneath a 1l Nalgene bottle.
NATO bottle and steel mug on the left is a durable and compact solution to carrying water. The Nalgene bottle and Evernew titanium mug on the right offer a significant weight saving though the practical uses for both are the same.
Boiling water does have it’s downsides and it’s not the method I use most frequently as it requires a lot of fuel. Having a water filter makes processing drinking water much quicker and isn’t reliant on a reasonable fuel supply (whether that be wood, gas, alcohol, meths etc).
For canoe trips I use an MSR Gravity Filter as it can filter a large quantity of water at once and can be hung from a tree to work while I get on with other tasks.
For backpacking I prefer a Sawyer Squeeze filter as it’s smaller and more lightweight. It takes more effort to use and isn’t as good for large quantities of water but it’s highly effective at removing most contaminants and has no moving parts to go wrong.
The Sawyer Squeeze filter is small and compact so there’s no excuse not to bring it with you.
Finally, some purification tablets make a good backup whatever method you’re planning on using. They’re quick and easy to use while taking up hardly any space. Chlorine dioxide tablets are my preference but there are other options as well.
The simple torch is a truly wonderful invention, and being able to wear it on your head just makes it better. You can keep your hands free to complete whatever task you’re doing. I carry a small Petzl Tikka Plus headlamp plus some spare batteries with me even if I’m not intending on being out after dark.
You never know if a situation will arise that means you end up staying out later than you thought, even overnight. In the winter where the days are short, you are more likely to get caught out than in the longer days of summer.
My current head torch is a Petzl Tikka Plus. As well as being able to change the lamp brightness I can also change the colour to help preserve my night vision for navigation.
The advantages of having a light source available are numerous. Setting up camp in the evening or reading in your sleeping bag after dark are obvious uses as well as answering the call of nature during the night.
Navigation after dark is almost impossible without a light source. Having a head lamp that allows you to change to colour of the light is useful for preserving your night vision. In an emergency you can also use it to signal for help.
All of the equipment above goes with me on pretty much every trip. There are some additional equipment choices below that are very high on my priority list but don’t always get brought along.
These gear options are more dependent on the type of trip I’m doing, how remote it’s going to be and the environment I’m travelling through.
Carrying a satellite communication device is more of a specialist item that the majority of people will live without, mainly due to the cost. If you’re in charge of a group in a very remote area then it’s a different story but for personal use, you decide what risks you’re willing to take.
Even in the UK where we have phone reception in most parts of the country, you don’t have to go far off the beaten track to find areas where reception is sporadic or non-existent. On Dartmoor where I regularly walk, it’s not uncommon for me to have no phone signal for the entire time I’m there.
Having some other means to call for assistance other than my mobile phone when travelling in areas that would be difficult to get help in an emergency could be lifesaving.
The device I carry is called a DeLorme InReach SE. The upfront cost is high and then you need to pay for a plan rather like a phone contract. I use the safety plan which is the lowest subscription level. It only costs around £8 per month and I can send an unlimited number of preset messages.
DeLorme InReach SE offers two-way communication as well as operating on the Iridium global satellite network.
The big advantage of the DeLorme over say a SPOT device is the ability to conduct a two-way conversation via text or email. That way you can give specific information to emergency services, keep in touch with friends and family or get weather updates. It also uses the Iridium satellite network which has global coverage.
You can use it to track your location and share it with others but that’s not a function I use. For me it’s purely to let my family know I’m safe or in case of an emergency. This also means I’m using the battery far less than would be needed for regular tracking so I find it lasts a very long time between charges.
Whether you are using a satellite communication device or not, always let someone know where you’re going and how long you’re going to be.
Folding Saw & Axe
Both a folding saw and an axe are very useful tools for a wilderness trip. The choice to take one or other or both depends on the type of trip, location and time of year.
A folding saw such as the Bahco Laplander is a versatile piece of equipment and when coupled with a knife makes a powerful combination.
Being small and portable it’s easy to carry either on your person or in your pack. It can quickly limb trees or make light of many campcraft tasks including processing firewood.
My preferred axe for wilderness travel, the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. Pictured along with a Bacho Laplander saw and my Mora knife.
Using an axe takes some skill, especially with regards to safety. I much prefer using my knife and saw before picking up an axe. While you can hurt yourself badly with a knife or a saw, the injuries that can be inflicted while improperly wielding an axe could be much more severe.
That said, in certain circumstances an axe is a vital tool. In the far north during winter especially. Where temperatures plummet well into the minus figures, staying warm is a high priority. Keeping an open fire or wood burning stove going for long periods requires a lot of firewood. While you could manage this without an axe, it makes life a whole lot easier.
In these situations I also prefer to carry a larger folding bucksaw as it’s more suited to cutting larger diameter limbs and for felling.
The axe I carry most frequently is a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. It’s a good size for a lot of tasks and is relatively portable. A splitting maul would be the ideal tool if you’re going to just be splitting firewood all day but it’s big and heavy to transport and not so good for other tasks. I find the Small Forest Axe just about right for most wilderness trips.
Carrying some form of shelter is always a good idea even if you’re not planning to be out overnight. The are a huge variety of options available including tarps, tents, bivy bags and emergency shelters.
When travelling through the woods, whether it’s just for the day or for longer periods I like to carry a tarp. At the moment my preference is a DD Superlight Tarp. It weighs less than 500g and gives a good 3m x 2.9m coverage. It’s also relatively inexpensive at around £60.
Carrying a tarp or emergency shelter in your day pack is a good idea even if you don’t plan on spending the night outdoors.
I’ve used tarps regularly not just for sleeping under at night but also during lunch stops when the weather is bad. They can be set up in a multitude of ways and something light such as the DD tarp is good to carry in your pack just in case.
If you’re hiking and carry trekking poles then it’s possible to use a tarp with them where there are no trees around. When I’m up in the hills I prefer to carry some kind of emergency shelter. It doesn’t require any poles or trees and is bright orange to make it easier to spot if you need to get assistance. I sometimes also carry a lightweight bivy bag instead or in addition to either a tarp or emergency shelter.
Obviously if you’re planning on staying out overnight then you’re likely to be more prepared anyway and carrying some kind of shelter. If I’m taking a tent to sleep in the hills then I won’t bother bringing an emergency shelter as well.
All of the equipment listed above are items that I consider first when packing for any trip. I don’t necessarily take all of them with me every time but these are the pieces of equipment that I’ll look through first.
Bear in mind the weight and bulk of certain equipment as well. I try to choose equipment that is durable while being as lightweight as possible. If all of your gear is heavy and bulky then you’re less likely to bring it with you.
If you’re hiking long distances then weight will be a critical factor. You might be willing to carry more on a short walk through the woods or when travelling by canoe. Being a keen photographer or fisherman will mean extra camera or fishing gear that you’re willing to take as that’s the very reason you’re on the trip.
Hopefully this list has been useful and either given you some ideas or reinforced your thoughts about equipment that you already take. I’m always interested to hear from others about the gear they bring with them on trips and usually pick up some new ideas that I can incorporate into future journeys.
What are your essential items? It would be great to hear about them in the comments below.