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7 Backcountry Survival Essentials

Plan for the best, prepare for the worst.

By: Spencer Madden + Save to a List

For all of us explorers and adventurers, the more you go out, the more you expose yourself to situations where things can go wrong. It only takes a poor decision, a shift in the weather, or a misread direction and you can find yourself in a survival situation. Survival is a mindset. By being prepared when you venture into the wilderness, you greatly minimize your risk and increase your chance of being rescued. These are seven survival essentials that I never head into the backcountry without.

Photo: Crystal Brindle

1. Fixed-Blade Knife

As the Norwegian's say “a knife-less man is a lifeless man.” Fixed, full-tang blades are critical for everything from cutting, skinning, wood-chopping, protection, digging, levering and poking. They are vastly superior to a flip blade that is prone to breaking. Seriously, ditch your flip blade and get a proper fixed blade. Look for one with a minimum 4” blade – you won't regret your purchase if you end up needing it.

2. Waterproof Matches

Without a fire, you could die of exposure at night if you are in a cold environment. Not only does a fire give you warmth, it gives confidence and is critical for signaling rescuers. Always have waterproof matches and a lighter on you. However, without fire building knowledge, these won't get you far. Practice building fires in all conditions: wet, dry, windy and with all types of starters and woods.

3. Compact Water Filter

There are a couple easy-to-use water purifiers that weigh next to nothing on the market. Sawyer's Mini comes to mind and ensures that all water you are taking in is clean. It allows you to tap muddy puddles if necessary. Water is critical to survival, so don't risk drinking contaminated water – it won't help your situation if you get sick before help arrives.

Photo: Miranda Leconte

4. Compass

Having a compass with you - and better yet, knowing how to use it - can be the difference between making it back to your car and spending the night in the woods. This age old tool is one every explorer should familiarize themselves with and keep with them on any off-the-grid adventures.

5. Hockey Tape

As all Canadians know, hockey tape can come in handy for outdoor hacks. You can use it to cover blisters, split it and wrap into a string, or use it for waterproof patch-ups.

Photo: Becky Simrose

6. SAS Survival Book

Knowledge is power. Always carry this small pocket book – if you do get lost, sit down and read for 20 minutes. You'll find something that will be helpful and gain some peace of mind. Good enough for the SAS – good enough for you! Plus, it makes for great reading material around the fire. Again: knowledge is power.

7. Family Photo

I believe it's important to carry a laminated photo of your family, friends, or someone to live for with you as you explore. When the going gets rough, looking at this is critical to carrying on. Fold it up and put it under the sole of your shoe.

Photo: Dusty Klein

Survival is a mindset – supplies will only get you so far. That said, with the list above, an outdoor adventurer should be set up to survive for several days, which will give rescuers time to locate you. As always, put these to use in practice survival scenarios, so you are always prepared. Email me at spencer@mountainobsession.com if you'd like to get out on a practice scenario with me – it is a blast!

Cover photo: Eric Bennett

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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