What’s in Your Pack? – Cheap and Easy Lifesaving Stuff

September 09, 2022

By Charlie Schudson

We all have favorite and useful things in backpacks. Beyond those, there are simple and inexpensive items that can greatly enhance safety on the trails.

Safety in numbers – no guarantee, but that’s part of Westerners hiking.  On the trails, someone in each group probably will have, well … just about anything.  After all, many members are advanced hikers; several are Search and Rescue volunteers.  Buried in their backpacks we’re likely to find, well … just about everything. 

But beyond the Westerners, we also hike with family and friends.  Occasionally, trading safety for solitude, some even hike solo.  What should hikers always carry -- for ourselves … our friends … our children and grandchildren?

After many years with the Westerners, a Friends of the Forest volunteer, and as a retired member of Verde Search and Rescue, I have seen more than my fair share of teachable moments. The items we will soon discuss are simple and practical, but most of all they are useful and may save your life one day.

Recently, on a hike with the “Trackers” – the Westerners’ educational hiking group – we considered what every hiker should carry.  

“Relax,” some say.  “I know the trail; we’re only going out for an hour or two.”  Famous lost words … famous last words.  On Sedona’s spaghetti-shaped trails, a wrong turn can turn your midday stroll into a search-and-rescue midnight mission.  Even on “easy” trails, a twisted ankle can turn your daylight return into a darkness ordeal.

So aside from the obvious (from cell phones to snacks) what are the essential items we all should carry?  What might be our lifesavers? 

Long and worthy lists are on many survival websites.  But here, let’s look at a few we all know and a few more we may not have considered.  Weighing and costing little, these may prevent deadly dangers; these may save a hiker hoping for rescuers.

First, check your pack for the “obvious” but often neglected: knife, whistle, waterproof matches, first aid kit, flashlight (preferably an elastic-banded head-lamp).

Next, let’s dig deeper for what should become our essential hiking companions:

  1. Extra-large, heavy-duty garbage bags – they become sleeping bags or, with a half torn-off corner, hooded ponchos.  In fact, a few years ago, surprised by a sudden rainstorm while leading a Westerners hike of Sandy’s Canyons, I was able to pull them from my pack for four hikers who were not carrying raingear. 
  2. Gloves and a wool hat, even in “warm” weather – they help hold body heat when, at dusk, temperatures fall.  Most hypothermic deaths occur not in freezing temperatures, but in the fifties.
  3. “Duck” tape – but what for?  Everything, of course (like securing the old soles that just came off those old boots you should have replaced long ago).
  4. A strap (available at most hiking stores), or cordage, or one of those braided bracelets that unravel to become a 10’-12’ lifesaver.  After all, what goes up must come down.  In Sedona in recent years, serious injuries and at least one death came to hikers who, with relative ease, scrambled up a ledge only to find no easy way down.  And just as important -- commonsense.  You say you don’t have cordage or a strap?  I say you do.  Look at your shoelaces, pantlegs and shirtsleeves, backpack straps.      

What about other essentials?  Yes, but there’s a word limit here.  And this column makes no attempt to offer a comprehensive list.  It’s here to remind us of a few true essentials we may not have considered.

Still, two final reminders …

Body temperature is critical.    The typically endangered hiker is the day-hiker, wearing shorts and a T, who sets out for a few hours on a sunny day in the seventies, makes a wrong turn or miscalculates daylight, and soon is shivering in the fifties.  Carry extra layers that can save your life. 

Water is critical.  We can survive hunger for days, but not dehydration.  Before walking out the door, take more water.  Consider the southwest’s rule of thumb: “Take twice as much water as you think you’ll need, and you’ll have half as much as you’ll want.”

If you are interested in joining the Sedona Westerners, please visit our website at www.sedonawesterners.org/membership.  It only takes five minutes to join, and we have hiking groups suitable for all abilities. 

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