Best Backpacking Emergency Gear – How to Choose

Toilet of the Forest
In case of emergency! Believe it or not, we’ve seen worse… mostly in China.

Nature is wild and it can be dangerous. The best backpacking emergency gear and supplies should include items that help you not only survive an accident but also follow leave-no-trace principles. More often than not twisted ankles, blisters, broken gear, and the need to use the facilities when there are none are the great challenges of the wild. Backpacking does of course have other risks and you should travel prepared to not only help yourself but others when emergency situations arrive. Many backpacking items could be seen as emergency use gear like shelter, food, lighters, and clothing. This article focuses on the less obvious and sometimes overlooked needs of backpacking that arise during a time of emergency.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify most of the best backpacking emergency gear in this article as necessary but also give each item a rating. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all backpacking gear in one place.

Best Backpacking Emergency Medical Kit

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • F-Rating: Save money as this product often needs to be replaced regardless of the quality.

You need an emergency medical kit when you are off the grid and you need to know how to use it. Accidents happen in the backcountry. Typical problems are scratches, cuts, indigestion, tick bites, blisters, and twisted ankles. Animal attacks are very rare and snake bites are far more common than bear or mountain lion attacks. There are lots of medical kits on the market and Jennifer and I backpack with supplies we cobbled together over the years. The emergency medical kit we have listed here is a good start but supplies need to be replaced over time so eventually, you will cobble together a kit as well.

Duct Tape

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • F-Rating: Save money as this product often needs to be replaced regardless of the quality.

Some medical kits actually come with duct tape in the kit. The one we listed does not but we feel like this is a necessary supply to have in your backpack. Don’t carry the entire roll. Peel off about three feet of tape and then fold it back on itself about every inch. Put it in your backpack, don’t take it out and replace it after any of it is used. Duct Tape has saved us more than our medial kit. We’ve used it when we broke our spork, tore a hole in a shoe, and had a porcupine eat through a shoulder strap on my backpack… and that is just the list from the 2019 season.

Toilet Paper

Barrel Toilets
This is a loo with a view, but no privacy.
  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • F-Rating: Save money as this product often needs to be replaced regardless of the quality.

Toilet paper may seem commonplace, until you have none and then it is indeed an emergency. Many backcountry campsites in parks will have a toilet of some sort. Pit toilets are common. The toilet might have an outhouse around it, it might just be open to nature, or it might be a hole in the ground. Barrel toilets are less common but are popular in the Canadian Rockies. Barrel toilets are what they sound like, a large barrel with a toilet seat built above it. These types of toilets have the benefit of keeping nature pristine, once a helicopter flies them away anyways. However, few of these backwoods options will come supplied with toilet paper so make sure you carry your own.

Poop Trowel

Prairie Dog Trowel - The Best Backpacking Emergency Gear
The extremely lightweight but effective Prairie Dog UL is the best backpacking poop trowel.
  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • C-Rating: Spend some money on a quality product if you can but if not you can save money now and plan on upgrading later.

A poop trowel for those unaware is a small pack shovel for when nature calls and there is no toilet provided. Dig a small hole at least 6″ deep, do your business, and then fill in the hole with the soil you dugout. Also make sure to be at least 200′ from any water source, trail, or campsite. This is one of the less glorious yet necessary parts of backpacking and must be done when needed. Just because a bear poops in the woods doesn’t make it okay for you too. There are even place like The Narrows in Zion National Park that don’t allow this. You get to go in a bag… the Parks Service provides the wag bag.

The Prairie Dog UL Shovel

We used to own a small folding backpacking trowel that we got from Walmart. I hated it. When I would put pressure on the handle it would want to collapse and it often did, slicing into my hand and waisting medical supplies. In 2019 we bit the bullet and spent $20 on a Prairie Dog UL. Can you tell I was reluctant to upgrade at that cost? At less than 1oz, the Prairie Dog ultra-light shovel is truly incredible. It slices into the dirt easily but if the ground is too hard, it can be strapped to a trekking pole with the provided reusable zip-ties, giving you a lot of leverage. It is a well thought out tool for a basic but essential backpacking need.

Bear Spray

Bear Spray
This is an actual photo from our bear encounter… not really, but my face probably did look like that.
  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.

Bear spray has actually been proven to be more effective at warding off bear attacks than firearms. The results of these studies are questionable but with handguns having a 50% effectiveness, even if the 98% effectiveness of bear spray isn’t totally accurate, it is still a more viable solution. Handguns also require a good ability to aim in an intense situation. Higher caliber weapons are more effective than smaller ones, meaning the gun will be heavy. Bear Spray is less reliant on good aim but you should also be aware of its limitations. You should take wind and distance into consideration before discharging bear spray. Put a priority on carrying it where it is easy to reach and practice accessing it quickly. Bears are faster than mustangs in a dash so practicing to the point that accessing the bear spray is a reflex is crucial.

Bear Encounters

Big Bear
My! what big nails you have! This isn’t the bear we found on the trail. The one on the trail was much bigger. Luckily they prefer berries over humans.

Have we scared you yet? Don’t be. Jennifer and I have backpacked all over the world for thousands of miles. We have only come across bears on three occasions in the backcountry. In all three instances, the bears were not aggressive but usually cautious. In one instance, the momma grizzly was huge (the size of a mini coup) and could have easily killed us, but she was in no way aggressive.

Bear Defense

North St. Vrain Campsite
Jennifer and I camping at the North St. Vrain Campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoying a Snickers. This is kind of a tragic inside joke, if you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, you should do so.

Carry bear spray as a precaution when in bear country. You should also replace your bear spray if it has been more than four years since you purchased it as aerosols lose pressure over time. Ultimately the best defense against a bear while backpacking is to be noisy so that they know you are in the area. Bells are annoying and not all that effective. It is better to have loud conversations with your friends. When hiking alone, I play music on my phone, but when I come in close proximity to others I mute it quickly. No one wants to backpack to your soundtrack.

Bears will typically avoid humans. Make sure to practice cleanliness and proper food storage around the campsite in addition to other good bear prevention practices. Sadly, a large majority of bear attacks occur because people have snuck up on bears or have food scented items inside their tents. Bears are primal creatures and you must respect their behavior.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Emergency Gear

Best Backpacking Emergency Gear
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When backpacking essential human needs do not change, but how we go about them does. Accidents happen and hiking with the best backpacking emergency gear and supplies, as well as, knowing how to use them is a part of the challenge of being sufficient in the wild. Keep your gear and supplies maintained and use leave-no-trace principles whenever you venture into nature.

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