emergency kit

I recently lost my emergency kit.

This gave me the opportunity to rethink what exactly goes into my kit. You put stuff there, and if you're doing it right things will come out of it, but only on pretty rare occasions. As a result it's easy to forget what you actually keep there. On that note, here's what I have in my kit.

Emergency Kit

Waxed twine or floss

This is for general ad-hoc gear repair. Sometimes I'll bind something back together, most of the time I'm stitching clothing, a pack, boots, or something similar.

Steel wire

Again this is for gear repair. You can fix a lot of gear with steel wire, you'd be surprised. It can replace a cotter pin and things like that in very secure way more easily than with twine. Due to it being stiff you can re-thread a pulled out draw-string. Additionally, I once used it to attach the exhaust system of a car to the car so we could get home without it dropping off.


Of course! This is useful for just about everything. Duct-tape is one of my favorite blister treatments. It's great for gear repair, especially for a quick-patch to a backpack. I use this constantly. It really can't be stressed enough just how useful a bit of duct-tape is. I usually roll it on itself off of a full-sized roll. Though I've also baught the mini rolls and those work to.

Note - putting it on your nalgene drinking bottle really doesn't work well. That will get wet a LOT and the duct-tape won't come back off very well.

emergency bivy

By this I mean one of those reflective "space blanket" style ones. They're just like the blankets but sealed across an extra edge. This makes them far easier to use as a bivy, and if you want them open you can always cut that edge again, and voila! I have only used this a couple of times. The last time it's because I was trying sleeping with 2 blankets up in mendecino. That didn't work out so well, but I had my bivy! lining the bivy with the blankets I had a fine nights sleep - while my friend couldn't get to sleep and had to beg fire and more blankets off someone else. I consider this a potential/probable life-saving item.

Aluminum foil

This has a lot of uses. I admit to never having actually used it though. Some examples include a solar still, and a signaling mirror. In the past I depended on the aluminum foil I already had for my alcohol stove's windscreen. Now I'm often carrying a wood-stove instead (or in addition, but it acts as a windscreen), so I've added aluminum foil back to the kit.

medical kit

I store this in a tiny nalgene bottle (like the ones people keep peppermint soap, or spices in). This keeps everything dry. I then store in that bottle

  • An oversize sharp needle with a large eye: As a medical item this can be used for ad-hoc stitching if you have to (I don't really know how, but if it's what you gotta do, just do it). More useful is popping blisters and draining infections. Additionally, the large eye lets me use it for stitching up packs, boots, shorts, or whatever.
  • ib profen: An anti-inflammatory. This is one of the most important things to carry. If you get a muscle or tendon injury this will help keep it from swelling to the point of not flexing anymore. It will also help speed healing of a lot of muscle injuries. I also have some knee problems that are inflamation related - this actually helps them HEAL, besides letting me walk on it. If you need it and have a high drug-resistance you'll want a lot. I try and carry at least 2400mg, enough for 3 doses for me if I really need it.
  • naproxin: I don't carry this for myself at all. I just carry a little for others. For many people who gets migraines this is *the* solution. In particular it can be used to avoid the migraine entirely if applied while they only have visual auras. As an added bonus it's another anti-inflammatory at high enough doses - so it's useful if someone can't have ib-profen due to a weak stomach lining, (ib profen can cause ulcers). I've never had this when I needed it.
  • diphenhydramine: For allergic reactions. Now, I'm not a doctor, so please don't take this as medical advice. That said, it's fairly common to give someone double or more the recommended dose if they are allergic to bees and get stung. This can often keep them from going into anaphalactic shock. It's also great for reducing reactions to poison ivy or other histamine reactions. It doesn't make me drowsy at all, if it does you may prefer another option.
  • butterfly sutures: This is a must. If you are awesome at stitching you might not need it. Short of that this is in my experience one of the best pieces of emergency gear to keep you on the trail. Impact and slash wounds are some of the more common when backpacking. These create nasty splits in the skin. A butterfly suture is a special band-aid designed for closing these wounds. Often they can be used in place of stitches (such as on my mom when she needed 3 stitches after hitting her head on a rock).
I also carry a truly minuscule bottle (smaller than my pinky) of tincture of benzoine : This is an extremely sticky antibacterial substance. If placed under bandages it will help with healing, help keep away infection, and help the bandage stick.

Additionally I depend on having some bandanas around to use as a sling and duct-tape for closing wounds and as blister treatement. I often carry gauze, which when combined with the ducttape, can make a very large bandage if needed.

Albutoral Inhaler

I'm asthmatic. If I can breath I can deal with a heck of a lot more more problems. If you have a necessary perscription drug, it's really worth carrying an extra somewhere in your pack.


You can always use the corner of your map. Having a pencil is useful if you get seperated from your hiking buddies for example, you can leave them a note. Additionally you'll find you want them for filing out little passes and things when getting camping spots, self-registering at a trailhead or whatever.

Non emergency kit emergency gear

Now, they always say that one way to drop weight is to make dual use of your gear. There's no reason that your non-emergency gear can't get included when thinking through what you'd do in an emergency. In particular here are some of the pieces of gear I depend on.

Miniature knife

This is a bit silly, this is my backup knife. I mostly have it so I can attach it to the lanyard, and have the lanyard stay light - so I'm not discouraged from throwing it around my neck when I drop my pack. I tend to carry an excessive number of knives.

"Light-My-Fire" sparker

This is basically a flint-and-steel, but it throws a better spark. Jess and I use these to light our alcohol stoves normally. I often carry an additional lighter, but I don't trust those. This is my "will just work" backup for general fire-starting. I've spent a while practicing starting a fire with one such that I can do it in non-ideal conditions (though still not as non-ideal as I'd like).

Photon 2

These are great. Many people use them as their *only* light source, and I have actually night-hiked with one. It works fine on-trail if you're used to night hiking. I like to have a spare light-source though. Probably 4 separate times I've been out on a trip when someone realized they left their light at home, or their light broke. In my system being able to walk is one of the most important safety measures this includes at night. A backup light is not a high-cost and it may make a trip far more pleasent when someone else forgot theirs. I also carry an additional clip for it so I can clip it to my hat, or a bandana tied to my head and use it like a headlamp. I should note that this uses the same batteries as my normal headlamp - so it also acts as a backup for batteries.


I find that I often want it when running off to check a bit down the trail. You can set up a standardized whistle system in your group. 3 whistles is always emergency, so Jess and I set up 1 whistle as "SIN" and "ACK". Think marco-polo. This lets you query for the other person's location even at a distance. 2 whistles is "Come here", but not an emergency. This way you can signal when you've found the correct path.

Button Compass

I used to always carry a map compass. It depends a lot now, I realized a map compass is rarely what I really want anyway. I either want a sighting compass, or a button compass is good enough. I carry a button compass in my emergency gear so I just always have one and don't have to worry about it. This also gives me a backup were I to lose my large compass - as it tends to come in and out of my pockets a lot.


You may notice that this stuff isn't in the emergency kit.
Instead I keep the last 5 items on a lanyard in an easy to reach pocket. This way when I say... go off to fetch water a mile or 2 away, or run down a trail to see if it's the right direction, or whatever, I can just grab the lanyard and drop my backpack.

Survival Knife

This is just a folding knife or a belt knife (I have both) with a good bland and a handle large enough to easily wield the blade for things like basic woodworking. Starting a fire without a knife is much much harder. This is also useful for cutting pine boughs for a shelter, and any wood construction.

Leatherman squirt

This is a *great* tool. I have the one with the pliers. There's nothing like sewing a boot to make you wish you had a thimble or pliers. Or fixing a stove you suddenly realize you need an awl. A small screwdriver to fix who knows what, a file to modify the zipper on your sleepingbag so it will mate with your partners (yes I did this, it *almost* worked). A full-size leatherman is just larger than I find I need, and very heavy. The squirt is perfect. I never use the blade, so it's nearly sterile and very very sharp - perfect for a quick minor surgery to remove a giant splinter.

Stay tuned: I'm rebuilding my emergency kit, so this may well get updated as I realize bits of gear I'm missing :).

- mbrewer


Water treatment

There are, as you may well know, many different options for water treatment while backpacking. Hopefully this will provide a good overview of the options.


  • Bringing your own water
  • Filtering
  • Chemically
  • UV wands
  • Boiling
  • Drinking Straight

Bringing you own water

This is, by far the simplest approach in concept - just carry everything you'll need. The obvious advantages are that you know the water's safe and palatable, and you don't have to go find it while you're out. The disadvantages are that you it's bloody heavy, and scales with the length of the trip. Even for relatively short trips you'll find a desire to predict how much water you'll need to reduce weight. You'll almost always want to carry some amount though. Few people drink exclusively from streams. It is not uncommon to need to carry water for a full day or even multiple days even when using other treatments. Consider areas such as in deep deserts.

  • Simple, guaranteed good water
  • Can be done in areas without ground water
  • Heavy and therefore impractical for longer trips
  • Not a great situation if you run out of water


Filters are hugely varied. Some require pumping, some are gravity fed. Some can filter raw sewage, and some don't remove much of anything. Pore size is related to what type of stuff a filter gets out of the water. The standard rule of thumb is that you want a pore size of 0.2 microns or smaller to remove bacteria, giardia and crypto. Some filters include an activated carbon or iodine stage (affectively blending filters into chemical treatments). Activated carbon grabs ions. Thus it is good at removing pollutants affecting taste as well as industrial chemicals. Note that some pollutants taste good (and are good for you), Brita filters are activated carbon. An iodine stage will kill viruses.

I started hiking with a filter, and found that it made drinking water a treat. We were always looking around to see which stream would have the best tasting water to try. As soon as the water had filtered I'd sip some up. I stopped carrying a filter after taking a nine day trip in the Alegany forest however. On that trip our gravity fed filter sprung a small leak, and became so clogged that we were spending a significant part of the day waiting for water to filter.
Brewer has used a ceramic pump filter, these can often be force backflushed by connecting up some hoses backwards and running already filtered water backwards through the pump. With the high-quality ones you can generally always make the pump work (modulo complete failure of the pump body). They can take futzing though, and are pricey, and may take a lot of back-flushing. Also a number of models (which often get good reviews) are barely functional. Note that a pump filter is far faster than a gravity filter, but you'll have to work for that speed.

  • Delisous
  • Can drink water imediately after filtering
  • Slow
  • Can unexpectedly fail
  • Expensive
  • Is the only thing that will help with polutants

Chemically treating

Again there is a wide variety here with some chemicals working much better than others. The big advantage of chemically treating is that it's very fast to fill up, and there isn't much to break. You can also adjust the dosage based on the quality of the water. The big disadvantages are water taste, and having to wait to drink it (in which time you're probably carrying it). Chemicals won't remove any bad taste from the water itself and they tend to leave a bad taste themselves. They also don't help with polution.

Despite all those disadvantages I usually treat my water with Polar Pure. Polar Pure is a glass bottle with iodine crystals in the bottom. To use you keep it filled with water, and use this water containing dissolved iodine to treat your main water supply. Dissolving the iodine before adding it to the water means you have to use much less to achieve the same treatment, which makes it way more palatable than iodine pills. It also means that to get more solution you just fill the bottle back up and wait. They're effective as long as there are still visible iodine crystals, which is many months of continuous use. It also means you have a concentrated iodine solution for disinfecting wounds if nessiary. On the down side the iodine does impart some taste, and requires a large intake of vitamin C. (Iodine cancels vitamin C, so if you continue to intake large amounts of iodine without any vitamin C your body will eventually reject it. On the plus side adding vitamin C to water after it's finished treating neutralizes most of the taste.) It also requires you to wait ~30 minutes before drinking new water.
Don't forget that you can always run water through a bandanna before treating it. If you're pulling water from a swamp, a seep, or after pulling a rock out of a nearly dry stream bed, this trick will make you much happier.

Stupid UV wands

There exist UV wands which run off batteries. They aledgedly treat water, however there is no way to know if the UV bulb has gone out, and they break and run out of batteries in a very unpredictable way. I ran into many people on the AT who ended up without any water treatment solution because they'd only been carrying a UV wand. They also don't work as well in murky water, which is arguably what needs the most treating. On the plus side they don't affect flavor at all and you can look like you come from the future.


Boiling works. It kills things. The disadvantage here is mostly time and inconvenience. Hiking in areas with sketchy water or in situations where I'm melting snow I'll often end up boiling my water to treat it because the stove is already set up. Boiling is also among the few treatment methods that you don't have to worry about freezing (e.g. freezing water in a filter can destroy it). Keep in mind though if you're boiling water you need to carry extra fuel and plan in the time to sit and wait for it to boil. This approach makes a lot more sense for static camping when you have a large fuel supply (such as wood). The great thing is, no flavor affect, and it works every time (modulo viruses).

Drinking straight

This is the riskest of the options, but also my favorite. I only drink water straight in situations where I'm fairly confident that it's safe. For example a 50 degree spring (50 degrees is about the temperature water is when it comes out of a true spring, due to geothermal heating) where I can get the water straight from the spring instead of from a still pool beneath it. Or if the water is fast moving, cold, near the top of a mountain, and I happen to know there isn't anything bad upstream. Bad things upstream include anything that poops (especially cows, beavers, and humans), roads, or anything else unsavory. Backpacking lite actually just ran an article about drinking water straight. I haven't gotten sick from drinking water yet, though it may always just be luck.
Something to keep in mind: a number of studies have pointed to self contamination as the primary cause of most "waterborn" diseases while backpacking. Statistically before worrying about treating your water, you should worry about washing your hands after every time you use a cat-hole.