Trail Talk: Russ’s ‘Other’ Ten Essentials

Trail Talk: Russ’s ‘Other’ Ten Essentials

by Russ Winkler

This Saturday, June 9, is National Get Outdoors Day: . In preparation for getting outdoors and enjoying the natural world safely I am continuing the series on hiking I started last week. Last week I covered the ten essentials, the short list of what you should be bringing whenever you exchange civilization for the wilderness, be it for an hour or a month.

In reality, this is in fact a short list of survival items which is geared to get you through a survival situation if you are stranded out in the woods longer than you planned, especially if you must remain overnight. I’ve compiled a list of the second ten essential- items that will either help you avoid such a situation in the first place or make the experience much less of a survival scenario and more likely just an inconvenience.

Russ’s ‘Other’ Ten Essentials

  1. Duct Tape: Hailed by Backpacker Magazine as the winner of the most valuable material invention for backpackers this Superman of materials can fix just about everything, at least temporarily. From taping back broken hiking boot soles; to patching up a hole in a backpack, rain gear, tent cloth, or article of clothing; to repairing a snapped tent pole; to securing a makeshift splint or even serving as a temporary bandage in an emergency this miracle tape should be with you at all times in the wild. To avoid the weight of carrying the whole roll and to show-off your outdoors savvy to your fellow trail mates, wrap strips around your water bottle and/or trekking poles. Soon you too will be singing a Hymn to the Mighty Spool of Duct Tape!
  2. Emergency Blanket: This almost weightless, foil-based “blanket” can save your life in an emergency situation. It is designed to keep you warm by reflecting your own body heat back to you when wrapped around you like a blanket. This is useful if you are stranded overnight in the woods without proper layers and is life-saving for keeping an injured or ill patient from developing hypothermiaand other cold-related conditions and for stabilizing the body temperature of somebody who went into shock due to trauma or illness. This item is for one-time use so store in your first aid kit and crack open only when necessary.
  3. A Few Large, Heavy-duty Trash Bags: Ode to the Many Survival Uses of a Heavy Duty Trash Bag- it can be a poncho (slice open an opening for your head and two small ones for your arms), a tarp to protect you from precipitation while you rest, a crude sleeping bag, a pack cover or a pack liner to protect your gear from moisture, a container to collect rain water in for drinking if you run out of water, or a bag to protect collected fire wood from the elements. Bring a few on your next outing and someday you may be authoring your own ode!
  4. Water Purification Tablets: I mentioned these in the last article regarding multi-day trips but they are lightweight enough and inexpensive enough to be carried even on day hikes as an emergency measure. Freshwater in the wild contains microorganisms that, while usually not life-threatening, can cause discomfort and illness. Drink untreated water in a real emergency; illness is better than dehydration. Boiling, filtering, or using treatment tablets will remove or kill the ‘bugs’ in fresh water. Tablets are the easiest and lightest back-up plan among the three for day hikers planning for contingencies.
  5. Emergency Whistle: This is a powerful whistle that produces sounds that can be heard at greater distances than traditional whistles or shouting. Therefore, only sound this whistle in a real medical emergency or if lost off-trail in the wilderness.
  6. Signal Mirror: A small signal mirror can be used to draw the attention of distant people, vehicles, or even aircraft if you are lost or stranded.
  7. Fully Charged Cell Phone: Keep you mobile phone fully charged (or at least in a low-energy mode) and in a watertight zip-lock bag while on the trail. Besides being inconsiderate to others, using your phone along the trail drains its battery life. You may need it in an emergency to contact help from park staff or emergency services.
  8. GPS: If you own (or can afford to own) a GPS unit, be it as a separate device or as an app on your mobile phone, why not bring it on the trail (fully charged, in a watertight zip top bag) as a back-up plan. While carrying a GPS is not a replacement for a topographical trail map and compass, it could help get you back on track to civilization if you find yourself helplessly off trail, especially if used as a supplement to sharp map and compass skills.
  9. Emergency Cash: I know what you are thinking: “What can I possibly use cash for in the wilderness?” No, I am not envisioning fairies or trolls out to capitalize on lost hikers. But you never know when, after getting lost or stranded you are able to navigate to a car road or local town, you may find a few extra bucks handy in ‘convincing’ the locals to give you a ride into town, a place to sleep, or a hot meal.
  10. Insect Repellant: Some people are plagued by bugs more so than others so not everybody bothers with bug spray or lotion. But find yourself overnight in the woods without a tent and most everybody will be glad they brought some along. There are natural varieties out there for the environmentally-conscious and there are even home-made versions in home remedy type books. This may not save your life (although it may if you have allergies to certain insect bites or if it wards off certain kinds of spiders) but it may indeed make a night in the woods that much less frustrating.

Finally, the most important item to bring on an outing to improve your survival chances and your likelihood of dealing with an unexpected turn of events safely is a positive attitude. Panic and despair are the twin enemies of survival. Always keep your cool and focus on the positive no matter what fate hands you. If the unexpected hits, focus on your will to survive. Before doing anything pause for a bite to eat, a swig of water, and give yourself (and your group) a pep talk to banish negative thinking. After that you will be able to deal with anything more calmly. As the Boy Scouts say: “STOP- Stop, Think, Observe, Plan.” In other words, use your wits, skills, gear, and confidence to persevere- and you will.

Russ Winkler is a NYS DEC licensed hiking guide. He has been hiking since 1997 and leading and co-leading day hikes and multi-day backpacking treks for Boy Scout troops and other community organizations since 2007. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. He can be contacted at regarding guided hikes and all things hiking.


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