Knowledge & Preparation = Survival

Print McNeil & Company 3:24 pm

By Tom Gillingham
Guest Columnist

hiking 1    go bag

It was October 1992 when my high school aged son and I were approaching the end of the tree line on Hahns Peak Mountain, 30 miles north of Steamboat Springs. Hahns Peak, its elevation at 10,400 feet, is a cone shaped mountain that has earned its reputation for deadly lightning storms. With our two golden retrievers flushing grouse, my son Tom and I were enjoying a beautiful, flawless fall afternoon.

At about 4:00 PM, and within a matter of minutes, our beautiful, flawless afternoon turned into a violent lightning storm. We were caught in an open meadow surrounded by massive evergreens. The lightning was dancing around us, the thunder was deafening and our hair was standing straight from the electricity in the air. We immediately ditched our shotguns, which were now lightning rods, and ran for a large outcropping of boulders we had passed a few hundred yards back. Crawling between the enormous boulders, we waited. The temperature dropped almost 30 degrees and the sunlight had all but disappeared. The wind was blowing hard and the landscape changed dramatically. Once the lightning and pounding rain passed, it was time to locate our shotguns and hike down the mountain to where our car was parked.

Having spent most of my teen years in and around the Florida Everglades, as well as the US/Canadian Rockies and Alaska as an adult, I had never been lost. I was so confident of my skills I didn’t think I could get lost. But after retrieving our shotguns we found ourselves disoriented; and lost! Saying the conditions had changed the scenery is an understatement. To make matters even more dangerous, we were not prepared for the temperature drop and wet conditions. After all, it was just a leisurely afternoon of hiking and hunting grouse on a beautiful fall day; why would we need a backpack of supplies? What could have turned into a long and perilous night, fortunately did not. After several hours of hiking and backtracking, we literally stumbled upon our vehicle.

The moral of this story is obvious: be prepared at all times and for all conditions when in the wilderness. Recognize that being prepared is not a difficult task. The fact is, not being prepared is irresponsible, lazy or both! When hunting or day hiking, I do so with as light a pack as possible. And like an Emergency Ditch Bag on my offshore fishing boat, my backpack becomes a Go Bag during an excursion. The bag is prepacked so that each time I venture into the wilderness my safety gear is intact and nothing is forgotten. When winter arrives in the Rockies the same Go Bag is further modified and stays in my car in case I have an auto emergency.

Following is a list of light weight items that will not exceed 10 pounds in the aggregate and will pack comfortably in a good backpack. They can save your life, and in my case that fall afternoon, my son’s life.

The Obvious:

  • 12 oz. metal canteen or water carrier w/10 chlorine dioxide purification tablets. Why a metal carrier? So you can also boil water.
  • Three high calorie energy bars.
  • Matches in a waterproof container with cotton balls for tinder.
  • A waterproof shell, poncho or jacket made of Gortex or polypropylene to ward off rain and hypothermia. Both materials are lightweight and pack into a small space.  Always dress in layered synthetics that wick body moister. Never pack cotton clothing, particularly sweat shirts.
  • Compass.
  • Swiss Army knife with tools.
  • 3 small LED flashlights, one for a headlamp.
  • Whistle.
  • Cell phone with GPS responder or personal location beacon.
  •  If in a new area, a map is essential.

The Not So Obvious:

  • Two hand held flares like those used for traffic accidents. There are far too many incidents where search and rescue, on land or in the air, could have found the missing party immediately if a flare was ignited at the appropriate time.
  • Solar blanket.
  •  Parachute cord; light, strong and great for building a shelter.
  • Orange hunters tape to mark where you have been and where you are going. A felt pen to leave messages on the orange tape.
  • Wool gloves
  • For Wyoming and points north: bear spray.


  • Two tourniquets.
  • Roll of gauze and medical tape.
  • Benadryl.
  • Butterfly bandages.
  • QuickClot hemostatic agent.

*Most medical kits take up too much space and contain items that will never be used. Plan for an emergency, not a minor cut or abrasion.

All the items above will fit easily into a backpack and weigh less than 10 lbs. The list should be modified to meet your specific needs and adjusted for the winter season or if you are planning multiple nights in the back country. For my purposes, I pack the items listed if I will be summer day hiking or hunting for the day in the wilderness. Many companies on line, like REI, and Amazon, offer recommendations for seasonal or designed recreational activities, like mountaineering or snowmobiling.

Finally, the two most important items, which can’t be carried in a backpack, are: backcountry knowledge and experience and filing a plan with a friend or family. Both are critical to your safety and survival.

Have a great time and be safe.

Tom Gillingham has hunted and fished throughout North America, New Zealand, Patagonia and other parts of the world. In retirement his passion has turned to salt and fresh water fly fishing coupled with upland and waterfowl hunting with his retrievers.

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