How to Stay Alive

The Gear You Need for a Worst-Case Scenario in the Wild


Gregory Kanter, a New York-based wilderness survival instructor for the REI Outdoor School, encourages people to think about “the unavoidable and abrupt turns of fortune” when venturing outdoors. The worst of these — his terrible “what if” — is breaking a leg. Threats of dehydration, hypothermia and an escalating injury are all legitimate concerns. “But there are things you can do to sort of catch that before it becomes a huge problem,” he says. “Usually your worst-case scenario is suddenly becoming immobilized.”

Though every situation differs, Kanter’s general rule of thumb is straightforward: “If I went in now and broke my leg and my rescuer did not come until half a day after the first call goes out, could I lie down right here and not move for another 12 to 24 hours and still come out of it alive?” To answer yes, both Kanter and the REI Outdoor School curriculum advocate the “10 essential systems approach” to wilderness survival preparedness, credit for which is given to The Mountaineers, a nonprofit volunteer-based organization in the Pacific Northwest started in 1906. Instead of prioritizing gear needs, each system is an abstract category of preparedness — such as navigation, sun protection, shelter, etc. — under which specific gear falls most appropriate, depending on where you are and who you’re with.

Though Kanter calls himself an “ultralight” hiker, he is sure that his pack list covers the 10 essentials every time he hits the trail. “There are so many variables,” he says, “that I’ve probably never brought the same combination of things twice.” For example, a hiker can provide themselves sun protection simply by hiking very early in the morning. To this point, Kanter stresses some age-old wilderness wisdom reflecting a lifelong experience in the outdoors. “There is an 11th essential that is not on any list, and that is your brain — to think critically and make good decisions,” he says. “It can’t be overstated. Good decision making is the overarching thing that ties all the other systems together.” Here, he shares advice on the best approach to each system, why it’s important and a number of gear recommendations that can help you stay alive when they matter most.


“I always say, bring enough water or the means to create some. If I’m in the Northeast and I know my route and it crosses a bunch of streams, I’m going to have the means to treat the water instead of bringing the three liters I’m going to need for a really hot day. In that case, I just use a little Sawyer filter. Then in my first aid kit I have a couple chlorine tablets in case the Sawyer filter fails. But as long as you’re in the developed world and nobody has put a virus into some little mountain stream, you’re okay with filtration instead of purification every time.”

Sawyer Products Mini Water Filtration System $18
Potable Aqua Water Treatment Tablets $7


Always bring a map, a trail map, and/or a topo map. With a compass. The more the merrier. Don’t bother with a little toy compass. You want to have the declination adjustment and, of course, as the cliché goes, know how to use it. Take a class. It is mysterious and complicated until it’s revealed to you. Consider your GPS, or an app on your phone, as backup. Google Maps is not sufficient for the terrain. AllTrails is a good app. It allows you to save topo maps offline so you can access them when you’re not anywhere near civilization, and most smartphones now have a true GPS inside of them. Even if you have no service, it will show you exactly where you are. But remember, the GPS can always run out of battery so you should never just have a GPS. But you can just have a map and compass.”

AllTrails App Free
National Geographic Illustrated Maps $10+
Suunto A-10 Field Compass $21
Garmin Oregon 650t 3-Inch Handheld GPS $429

Sun Protection

“Sun protection is not just a thing that you bring. You can provide yourself sun protection just by hiking at night, or hiking at a different time of day while the sun is on the other side of the mountain. Otherwise, bring UV-blocking sunglasses, sunscreen and maybe a long-sleeve, light-colored shirt. With sunscreen, I say go big or go home. I do SPF 50 every time. If you’re going to lather something onto your skin, why would you bother with anything less than the best you can get?”

La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Body Mineral Tinted Ultra Light Sunscreen $37
Patagonia Sunshade technical Hoodie $53
Revo Crux S RE $102


“Your insulation should be warm enough that you can spend the night on the bare ground and be okay in the morning. Hat, gloves, jacket. I would say don’t bring anything that you can’t wear simultaneously. I don’t necessarily need a change of clothes, but you should be able to wear everything that you have brought. On a longer hike I will bring a sleeping pad. One of those ultralight Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite sleeping pads. I would bring it even on a day hike so I can sit on it and get comfortable, and then if I get into any sort of trouble I can just roll onto that and that will greatly increase the thermal comfort during the night even without a sleeping bag. It insulates you from the cold ground and it reflects some of your body heat back at you. And not to mention it’s a lot more comfortable than sleeping on a bunch of twigs directly. Anything you can do to keep yourself off the ground is good.”

Ice breaker Tech Top Long Sleeve Crewe $70+
Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck Top $99
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Mattress $27
SmartWool Liner Glove $25
Woolpower Cap 400 $47


“The important thing about a shelter is to ensure that it will block the wind and block any moisture. Tarps are great — a really good emergency shelter. Usually the recommendation is to bring clothing for the coldest possible temperature that can occur in that time of year where you are. But what I do is pretend that it can get 10 degrees colder and I won’t bring a tent, or I won’t bring a bivvy. I just bring a little extra clothing so that I’m confident that if I have to spend the night out there, I’m going to be okay. That being said, on a winter trip, even a day trip, I will throw a bivvy sack into my pack.”

Steel Skewer Tent Pegs $7
Outdoor Products Rolled Tarp $5+
Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy $183+


“I will bring a headlamp every single hike that I do, no matter how short. I don’t see a use for a flashlight: a flashlight is only a flashlight, a headlight is both headlamp and flashlight. I always want the use of my hands. But my most important recommendation would be for it to be over 90 lumens. If it’s any dimmer than 90 lumens, it’s really not super helpful for walking confidently at night. 90 is the cutoff. People often don’t realize how dark nighttime is when you’re in the woods. It’s black. Without a headlamp everything else is moot — you’re not setting up a tent, you’re not moving, you’re not walking, you’re not finding water. In the winter I bring two of them.”

Petzl TIKKA XP $43

First Aid

“Don’t go crazy but definitely have some stuff. And if you don’t know how to use what’s in your first aid kit, either learn how to use it or don’t bother bringing it. For a beginner, a couple Band-Aids, some Advil, and interestingly — though it doesn’t come in a lot of first aid kits — bring a Quikclot sponge. What will totally prevent a person from walking out ever again is a catastrophic blood loss. A Quikclot sponge can literally save your life.”

Band-Aid Brand Adhesive Bandages $7
Advil Tablets $8
QuikClot Advanced Clotting Sponge $12


Fire has many uses. It keeps animals away, it keeps you warm, it can be used as a signaling device, it can be used for cooking and, not least, it vastly improves morale. If you’re in a big party and only one person is injured, it gives a lot of people purpose. However, a big caveat is that in Leave No Trace, you just really shouldn’t make a fire. We’re still finding fire rings from 5,000 years ago, so yours last night is probably going to be found by someone. And needless to say there have been massive, massive fires out west caused by irresponsible humans. But you should always bring the means to create fire. If it’s wintertime, build that fire, please. Some people say waterproof matches, I say lighter. With waterproof matches, there are only so many of them and a lighter is a little more versatile. In my first aid kit I also have magnesium fire starter so I still have a spark, no matter what.”

Magnesium Fire Starter $5
UCO Stormproof Match Kit $8
Classic Lighter Six for $8


“Always bring a knife. There are so many uses: you can cut cord, cut food, use it as a utensil, there are a few medical uses for it. The list goes on. It’s probably the most helpful thing in making an emergency shelter from scratch. I’d also encourage people to have a multitool and also have a pair of pliers because they’re super helpful when it comes to gear repair. Classic duct tape, measure tape, cord, zip ties — all that stuff is in my little tool box. I’d also bring a pen or a marker, which is helpful for labelling gear or if you have to write somebody’s medical problem on their forehead while you run for help. Frequently, trail registers for signing in and out just don’t have one. If someone’s jacked the pencil and you can’t sign out, it could mean that people are going to be looking for you because of something so stupid. Bring a pen.”

Adventure Medical SOL Duct Tape $6
TEKTON Cable Ties $6
Nite Ize Reflective Cord $8
Rite in the Rain All-Weather Orange Pen $19
Leatherman Wave Multitool $85


“Keep it dry, keep it nonperishable, keep it consolidated and keep it dense. Popped popcorn is probably not the best trail food. An apple is probably not the best trail food because then you have to deal with the core. If you’re going to bring an apple or a pear or oranges or that kind of thing then definitely, definitely have a receptacle for it that is not just your bag. There’s just no excuse for throwing your apple core off the trail; it’s not biodegradable enough and you will attract more animals to the trail, increase animal-human interaction and screw up the diet of some local animals. Therefore good trail food is one that doesn’t cause you to deal with the aftermath of your meal. Dried fruit is awesome because it doesn’t weigh that much and it has a lot of sugar in it so it keeps you going. Jerky is great if you eat meat. The salt is good for excercise and it’s just a nice thing to have. And chocolate. Whatever, you’re hiking and you’ve earned it.”

Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter Packs 10 for $11 Venison Jerky $9

AJ Powell

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