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12 Items To Always Keep in Your Backpack

Backpacker sitting with mountain range as the view.

You never know when the urge to go adventuring might strike, or when your car will break down and leave you stranded in the middle of somewhere that looks a whole lot like nowhere.  Being prepared can make a huge difference when a situation arises.

As every situation cannot be planned for, having specific items increase your chances of handling any situation. Regardless of the type of adventure you are seeking, being well prepared increases your chances of having fun.  It also helps to have the right tools for both non-emergencies and emergencies alike.  So here are some of the essentials to pack into your backpack, car, or motorcycle saddlebag.

1. Multitool knife

Multi purpose tool with woods in the background.

Never forget a pocket knife or a multitool. In just about any survival situation, this is probably one of the most important things to have. Learn how to wield a knife and it will be a very effective weapon. Men have killed bears with knives.

Probably. Knives aren’t just weapons, as you know if you’ve ever sliced cheese or lived in the real world for more than an hour. A good survival knife is a versatile tool that can do things your fingernails can’t. Get one with a thick fixed blade and a saw on the spine, and you’ll be set for any job that requires chopping, cutting, fixing, or slicing.

2. Reflective Thermal Blanket

A thin sheet of reflective material has tons of uses, like keeping you dry, and perhaps warmer than you’d be without it, or signaling for help by using it as a mirror. Other purposes for a tarp include an emergency blanket to keep you warm and out of the weather, something to sit on to keep you off of the wet or cold ground, a groundcover for a tent, hung up to a tent.  It has man uses which is impressive for something that is lightweight, and packable.

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3. Nylon Cord

Two sets of nylon cord with carabiners.

Paracord is particularly good.  There’s a reason Samwise Gamgee wanted some rope. Along with a knife, this is another top most important thing to have in any situation. The possibilities are endless: replace shoelaces, tie gear to your backpack, construct a simple lean-to, hang your food from a tree where scary creatures can’t reach it, build elaborate animal traps, and help construct a leverage mechanism to go potty outside.

4. Headlamp

Camper with headlamp on at campsite in the mountains.

While most people will say to carry a flashlight, you can do better. Headlamps are wonderful things because of look, no hands! They’re useful for all the typical things, like illumination at night, and maybe illuminating things at other times.  For their compact size and weight, there is no reason to leave it at home.

5. Compass

There may be few things more awesome than a compass. It’s a tiny sliver of metal that lines itself up with the earth! And if you get lost, a compass will magically guide you back to civilization…right? Sadly, the magic of childhood is greater than the dull reality to which it fades.

The truth is that a compass is only useful if you know what direction you need to go. As with many other items, don’t forget to bring along the knowledge of how to use it.  Check out the Compass 101 post to help start you on the basic uses of a compass.

6. Small Candle

Starting a fire can be difficult with just matches, but a candle makes it a bit easier.  It can be used to melt wax onto small tinder to help make a fire, warm up a small space (only if it is ventilated – like a snow cave), used as a lubricant for field repairs (great if it is rubbed onto things).  Small candles can complement fire starter kits very well.

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7.  Fire Starter Kit

Person using a fire starter on a small batch of kindling.

Some way of starting a fire is the third critical thing to have. There are many ways to start a fire, from fire starter kits to a handy lighter.  Choose a system that can be used in a ‘worst-case scenario’, such as being in a wet environment.  Having a small candle and a fire starter kit is a great start. Check out this post for ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter.  If you want an in-depth look at different fire starter kits, check out this post.

8. Small Water Bottle

Even if you’re in a waterlogged area like the Pacific Northwest, some sort of water transport device is definitely good to have. You may need to walk a full quarter-mile between two streams or lakes, believe it or not, and since purification tablets take a while to do their job, you’ll want some sort of liquid reserve that isn’t your bladder.

As an alternative to a small water bottle, you might try a large water bottle. If it has a wide enough mouth, you could pack the entirety of your survival kit into it. Don’t you just love tidy little packages?

9. Water Purification Tablets

They may not taste good, but it’s better than dying of sudden Oregon Trail diseases. They are lightweight, take up very little space, and work in a pinch.  Always know how to use the tablets to maximize their effectiveness.  Don’t forget to keep them stored in a small, watertight container.

10. Plastic Trash Bags

As versatile as reflective thermal blankets, plastic trash bags have been around since the dawn of…well, 1950. You can turn them into ponchos, use them to keep your clothes dry while crossing a body of water, and if the conditions are just right (or wrong, depending on your perspective), you can use a large plastic bag as a sled to quickly descend the slopes of a majestic mountain.

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11. First Aid Kit

First aid kit sitting against a pair of hiking boots outside.

With all your knife-wielding and outdoor gallivanting, you’re bound to hurt yourself at some point. So make sure you have a complete first aid kit. Pack up some bandages, gauze, painkillers, hand sanitizer, and a bandanna for use as a tourniquet…or many other things. It’s surprising what you can do with a square piece of fabric. You could even tie the bandanna around everything else with one of those fancy Boy Scout knots to make an adorable little package.

12. Duct Tape

How did humankind even survive before the invention of this stuff?  Take a small pencil, like the ones that libraries used to carry before the age of the internet, and wrap 40 layers of duct tape around it. This takes up less space and you will be surprised at how handy a pencil becomes. Duct tape has endless possibilities.  An old favorite is to use it as temporary blister control. Just make sure your skin is thoroughly dry before placing it on your skin.