Safety Comes First
Over the years I’ve owned a number of backpacks, hydration packs, boots, and trekking gear. Throughout that long period of time, I’ve been able to whittle down unneeded equipment but ensure that my hiking gear still had the essentials in case of an unexpected emergency; Not just for me, but for fellow hikers as well.
Almost every time I go on a hike, I occasionally run across inexperienced trekkers that have either run out of water, have accidentally cut themselves, have injured an ankle, are experiencing heat exhaustion, have acquired altitude sickness, have cactus thorns stuck in themselves, or are lost. By having the proper equipment on your person or within your backpack is essential for ensuring safety for you and other hiking enthusiasts.
Being safe out in the wilderness, requires several pieces of essential equipment to be carried with you at all times. The list of items I recommend taking with you on a hike are proven to be life saving essentials by wilderness experts, bush crafters, military, and survivalists. Keep in mind, I am narrowing the list down to hikers in Arizona, but these items would also be useful in other regions of the US as well.
Know Your Region and Your Body
Unfortunately, we hear often about people being lost out in the wilderness or desert terrain simply because they ventured onto the wrong trail or were sidetracked by exploring unfamiliar terrain and then lost track of time. We immediately think to ourselves, we need the essentials to survive the night or survive in the sweltering desert environments. So that must equate to seeking food, water, and shelter. Those are very important key things to know, but even more important than those top three comforts are to “Maintain Body Temperature.” By being able to regulate your body temperature at a comfort level is the number one factor in survival. Going on a hike and getting lost may result in spending the night in the wilderness, so preparing to regulate body temperature is crucial not only to you but also to someone you may have come across on your trekking journey. By becoming too hot, your body can experience heat stroke, nausea, and weakness, and by allowing your body to become too cold can result in hypothermia and/or frostbite.
Keep It Light
Keep in mind, there are literally dozens of gear items that can be taken with you on a long day hike, but weight is always an issue. I used to hike with 40 pounds in my backpack for the workout alone but soon began removing items that just weren’t needed for long day hikes. The hikes were not becoming as enjoyable while lugging around all the extra weight. The more you exert your body, the higher your body temperature becomes and precious fluids and minerals are being lost during the process. Trekking in the outdoors is fun only when the essential gear you will need is comfortable and somewhat on the lighter side.
There are basically 5 important items that all trekkers should be carrying on themselves at all times. Expert survivalists call these the “5 C’s” of survival. Here are the actual basic items I carry in my backpack at all times:
The 5 C’s of Survival
A stainless steel container of any kind that can be used to boil water. I carry 100 ounces of water in a Camelbak rubber bladder, but always take an additional 40 ounces in my Stainless Steel Kleen Kanteen. I once tumbled a short distance down a slippery hill and landed on my backpack. Luckily, the rubber bladder containing my main water supply didn’t burst open, but I had the steel container as a back up anyway. Also, the additional 40oz of water I carry usually ends up replenishing someone else along the trail that has already run out of their own water. Containers also come in very light materials such as titanium but can be very expensive… so any kind of container that can boil water and cook food is a standard. The item above the cup in the photo is a spreader that is inserted into the Kanteen to be hung over a fire.
In order to boil water, stay warm, ward off night creatures, or create a rescue smoke signal, combustion items are essential. They are very inexpensive, light weight and can include various categories such as a Bic lighter, matches, or a ferrocene rod with striker. I carry the two fire starting devices as pictured above. Plus, I carry with me cotton balls with Blistex that can aid in a very quick starting tinder. Simply smear the petroleum based Blistex onto the cotton balls and light. Another great fast lighting tinder is 100% extra fine steel wool. All the fire starting items I carry in my back pack are sealed in heavy duty non rip waterproof bags. Some outdoor extremist transport their fire starting items in a light weight tin container.
C3. Cutting Tool
A cutting tool of any kind is incredibly essential to have on you at all times trekking out into the desert or high country. I can’t begin tell you the benefits of having a Leatherman Multi-tool. I personally have used the pliers more times than I can remember by pulling out Cholla Cactus from my arms or legs, and removing them from other fellow hikers. A large “Rambo” style knife is not needed unless you are planning on staying out in the desert for much longer periods. Larger knives can be used for chopping and cutting harder materials, but for the most part they can become quite heavy. Multi-tools also usually have scissors and tweezers within their arsenal.
The fourth most vital piece of equipment to have in your backpack is a tarp of some kind. Having a quick form of shelter is essential especially in the desert under extreme heat and sun conditions. Temperatures can drop 20 degrees by just being in a shaded area and if none are available then a cover of some kind will do the trick. Tarps can keep you dry, warm, and can be easily setup as a temporary shelter or lean-to. In my backpack, I carry two extra heavy duty lawn trash bags that were cut and gorilla taped (duct taped) together. The material is extremely light and incredibly durable.
The final essential item needed to be with you at all times is some form of strong cord or rope. I use Paracord / Parachute Cord – 750lb Mil-C-5040-H Type IV as pictured above. This is one of the strongest cordage the military makes and is used on their tactical parachutes. I keep a roll of about 100 yards/meters at all times. Cord, like the one one pictured above, can be used to aid in setting up a shelter, tying sacks of food up off the ground away from animals in the night, can be used in creating a hammock, and can be used in dozens of other ways. A fellow hiker friend of mine unfortunately needed some cord when the entire bottom sole of his boot fell off on account of the extreme heat of the desert. We had about 2 miles of rugged terrain until our final destination and we wrapped and weaved the cord around the bottom and through the laces to secure the sole from coming off. It worked incredibly with little to no wear on the cord.
Keep Cost Low
All items mentioned above don’t have to cost tons of money to obtain. For instance, a knife in your kitchen drawer that’s never used or an old small pot with a handle are great gear equipment. The usually stronger and lighter materials will start becoming quite costly.
Additional Personal Gear
Every experienced hiker trekking along the Arizona trails carry unique gear items that vary according to comfort, terrain, and temperature. Equipment that I use has varied over the years. I’ve learned to condense and maximize weight efficiently, but in two more years what I carry may alter slightly. The gear you carry with you hiking is personal, but should also be protective and all safety measures should be carefully considered.
Here is a list of some more items I will always carry with me trekking the Arizona trails:
A. Emergency Sleeping Bag
This incredibly light weight and thin sleeping bag not only reflects body heat but is made of heavy duty mylar material that is tear resistant. It rolls up to about the size of a t-shirt.
B. Dry Bag
Marine Dry Bags are essential in keeping your extra clothes clean and dry. I have swam across ponds and the contents will remain dry. These bags are very durable and can also be used as a flotation device and can be used to gather and store water. These bags are pricey but very useful in many ways.
Backpacks, rucksacks, hydration packs, and nap sacks are varied by weight, liter size, comfort and material. I have owned a number of packs over the years and have also lived in many parts of the country including along the Appalachian Trail region of New England. In Arizona, after learning the ways of the rough terrain and wear and tear on my equipment, a military grade canvas material works the best for me. In the desert, the rocks are sharp and hot, and everywhere you set down your pack cactus thorns will penetrate cheap nylon sacks like butter. The draw back with a higher grade nylon is heaviness in choosing a tactical pack like the one seen in the photo above. This is a BlackHawk Barrage Hydration Pack with 1000 denier nylon and extreme sewing techniques to ensure durability. The BlackHawk has plenty of space and it is designed to compartmentalize your gear. Some backpacks are only top down loading and require to dig for essential items. This pack has easy access with a water bladder that can be stored either at the outmost compartment or at the innermost. My pack is setup with safety in mind. Each compartment has its purpose… first aid, food, clothing, navigation and communication, and emergency. Whatever pack you choose, make sure the shoulder straps are well padded and comfortable with actual weight in them. The pack may seem comfortable when trying it on in the REI Hiking Store, but with added gear and water weight, a 15km hike could be brutal. I consider my backpack to be like a luxury car… comfortable, spacious, functional, and durable.
Without a doubt, not wearing the proper trekking shoes or boots will make for a miserable trekking experience anywhere. This is a very touchy subject for most people since everybody’s feet are shaped differently and react to boot materials in various ways. Firstly, like most people, one of my feet are slightly longer than the other one. So, in trying on boots many things have to be taken into account. Should I choose leather or man-made materials, Gortex or synthetics, ankle supporting or opt for a lower sturdy lighter pair? Secondly, I have to consider what type of hiking am I going to do on average. Back east hiking along the Appalachian Trail I wore a pair of EMS Trail Guide leather boots for 10 years. Wearing the same boots out here in Arizona, they lasted two years before starting to break down. So I chose the Asolo TPS 520 GV as pictured above. I do a combination of rugged trail and off-trail hiking and need a boot with excellent ankle support and durability. I need a boot that is breathable and has an excellent quality Vibram sole for traction on steep incline rock climbing.
The Oboz Firebrand II are excellent trail walking shoes with fantastic bottom cushion support. These trail shoes are made in the US and are extremely durable and well crafted. I often use these trail walking shoes for road and city walking as well since the bottom soles are very heavy duty and they create less fatigue on the bottom of my feet. The soles on the bottom of these high quality shoes also have amazing traction on both dry and wet rocks.
Regardless of the hiking boots or trail walking shoes you are going to purchase, be advised to make sure your toes never touch the front of the shoe. Walk down and up ramps and steep inclines sideways and backward to test the boots to see if there is any uncomfortable pressure on your feet. I literally had to try on eight pairs of boots. I finally purchased a, what seemed to be hefty and durable, popular brand of high ankle boot. Then after a 14 mile moderate trek, large chunks of the boot’s tread had broken off. I took them back and they replaced them with no questions asked.
E. Plastic Bags
If you want your electronics and paper products to remain securely dry then these heavy weight tough zip lock bags are the best. I also use these bags to fold my maps into. The clear solid material can be seen through very well and they come in several different sizes.
F. Trekking Poles
Unless you’re trail running, using trekking poles for the distant hiker is a great way to save serious long term injuries to your knees. Not only are they amazing for adding stability and balance trekking down steep grades of loose and rocky terrain, but also aids in moving up hill at a greater stride. I am actually new to utilizing a trekking pole, but only wished I were using them 20 years ago to save wear and tear on my knees.
G. GPS Watch
Tracking your every move and keeping you not lost is only a couple of the amazing features a GPS device like the Suunto Ambit 2 can do. This device tracks and records your hikes and can with pinpoint accuracy lead you to any destination. Simply start a trekking exercise and the watch will map your every move. The Suunto Ambit 2 device is also great for backtracking your original steps in helping you find your way back to your original location. With the Garmin Oregon 650t, take a photo of the trailhead parking lot, and miles later track back to that original photo. These devices supply you with altitude, temperature, speed, distance, laps, and other features too numerous to count. I highly recommend one of these incredible GPS devices, to enhance your trekking experience and workout progress.
H. Emergency First Aid Kit
Trekking in Arizona can be brutal in the sweltering summer months as well as the winters months deep in the high country. Rocky desert terrain, loose footing on steep inclines, and cactus everywhere can lead to numerous injuries. Being prepared with at least the minimum first aid gear should be carried on you at all times. These premade kits are relatively inexpensive and can become quite useful if a crisis does unexpectedly occur. You can also custom fashion your own personal first aid kit as well.
I. Search and Rescue Device
After several years of trekking in various parts of the extreme desert terrain, only once did I come close to having to contact Search and Rescue. A hiker from Pennsylvania began to experience high altitude sickness and became quite faint. After finding shade and getting out of the elements of the sun and allowing his body to slowly become acclimated, he began to slowly decent back down to the trailhead. This device does not need cellular towers. It is completely reliant on satellites in the clear open sky. I’ve opted to use this device instead of carrying my cell phone. Most hiking trails away from the big cities won’t have any coverage. But with the Delorme inReach Explorer, I am able to send text messages, send emergency messages to Search and Rescue, and have my family members waypoint track me from home on the mapping system. Keep in mind, rates do apply but I feel it is well worth the cost per month.
Alway keep in mind, safety is the number one factor in hiking out in the wilderness. Not only for your safety, but for your hiking partner and fellow hikers you may find helpless and stranded along the way.