The 24-Hour Pack: Hike Smart, Be Prepared, Be Safe

Don’t Be Caught Unprepared in the Backcountry

As a Search and Rescue volunteer, I’ve been involved in many missions that wouldn’t have happened in the first place had those we went looking for carried just a few simple items in a small daypack.

Sometimes, it was the lack of a light source or not bringing a few extra batteries that got folks into a bind. Or maybe they should have brought along that map, after all. And once, just a lighter or some matches may have saved a young man’s life. (You can read the tragic story of that Search & Rescue mission on my blog.)

So consider, if you will, some 24-hour pack suggestions for the next time you head out for “just a dayhike.” Not that my SAR teammates and I won’t be happy to come help you — we do it because we really want to — but at least you might be a bit more comfortable while you wait.

The photo above is me on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, “slackpacking” with a daypack.

What is a 24-Hour Pack?

And why would I need one? I’m just going for a day-hike.

It’s just what it sounds like: a day-pack filled with basic essentials and “just in case” gear for 24-hour preparedness … just in case things don’t quite go as planned.

We’ve all done it, right? Gone out for a short hike on a known or well-marked trail with just the clothes we have on and maybe a CamelBak full of water. Heck, I’ve even gone without the water. I admit it; I’ve been naughty. I mean, I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t more than a few miles or so.

I’d venture to guess it’s happened to any of us who’ve hiked enough. We set out and it’s warm and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Birds a-singin’, flowers a-bloomin’, and all’s right with the world.

But then, as you — or I should say, I am lost in that wonderful hiker’s “zone” … plop! A fat drop of water hits me on top of the head and trickles down my face. Was that a bird, blessing me from above? Nope, it’s a storm cloud–a big, black, rumbling storm cloud. Where’d that come from?

Oh, and … where did the trail go?? This doesn’t look like anything I remember from years ago. Hm, I must have really been in la-la land. As I always say, hiking a trail frees my mind to wander. But sometimes it wanders a bit too much.

I’ve been lucky, though, I do confess. I’ve managed to wander my way out of such pickles. And I’ve never tripped over a rock someone put right in the middle of the trail and broken my ankle, meaning a long wait for help to arrive. Yeah, I’m the one who’s often sat-n-slid on my keester, risking the seat of my pants and my pride rather than risking a fall. But even weenies like me can take spills and get hurt.

Basically, stuff can happen to any of us — or to our hiking buddy — so it’s nice to be able to say, “Hey, I have just the thing in my pack!”

Maybe the hike takes longer than expected, so it sure is a relief to have that light source. Maybe the trail isn’t as well marked as we’d expected, but, phew, I have a map right here in my pack and a compass to give me a hand. Or, poo, I’m stuck waiting for daylight or for help getting out of here, but at least I won’t freeze my toochas off, cuz I have here my emergency bivy and something to start a campfire.

You get the picture … and then some, I’m sure.

What a 24-Hour Pack is Not

It’s not intended to provide a soft and cushy, cozy backpacking experience.

If you’re planning to spend the night in the great outdoors, well, then you pack to do so, right? Sleeping bag, sleeping pad (closed cell foam for us tough cookies; inflatables for the more delicate), dinner and breakfast, cooking stuff, maybe even a tent.

With a 24-hour pack, though, if you end up actually spending twenty-four hours on the trail (or off of it, as the case may be), you may not be all that comfortable, but you should be able to get by.

Better yet, the contents of your backpack may even prevent that night out in the first place.

A 24-hour pack should not be left behind when you go for a day-hike. It should be on your back. (See photo above: wrong!)

Okay, I know, enough preaching, Deb! Sorry, but I care. I really do!

Did I Mention What A 24-hour Pack Is Not?

Okay, I guess I’ve made my point.

Suggested Gear

Not an exact science

The following list may seem extensive to some and lacking to others, so pick and choose, add and subtract, as you will. This is what I carry in my own 24-hour pack when I go for a recreational day-hike. (I take even more for Search and Rescue missions.)

  • Daypack (Duh!) : I like the Osprey Kestrel 28 Backpack
  • Light source–I recommend a headlamp, but a hand-held flashlight will certainly do. Better yet, why not take both! Or at least extra bulbs for one or the other. I like the Fenix brand headlamps and flashlights, for their superior quality, features, and battery life. (It’s the brand I use for Search & Rescue too.)
  • Water bottles–at least 2 liters–and you might as well fill ’em before you go. Just sayin’.
  • Map, preferably a USGS topo. I know, you’re following a trail, but still … humor me.
  • Compass and a GPS (But it’s best to know how to use them before you put these instruments in your pack. If I had to choose one as more essential than the other, though, I’d certainly take the compass.) Visit Basic Map & Compass and How To Use A GPS: The Basics and Background for some pointers on how to use these tools.
  • Extra layers of clothing (ie. non-cotton, long-sleeved shirt; a jacket; rain- or wind pants; a fleece top)
  • A hat and gloves (or glove liners) … Yeah, even in the summer
  • A small multi-tool or pocket knife: The Leatherman Squirt Multi-tool is what I carry in my daypack. It’s very small but handy and has a keychain attachment which I use to clip it to my pack.
  • Extra batteries for your light source/s and, if you take one, your GPS
  • Fire-starters (I’d recommend more than one kind: waterproof matches, lighter, flint, etc.) and a small candle or two to help get a campfire going.
  • Emergency bivy and/or space blanket (There are “All Weather Blankets” with grommets at each corner, so the blanket can be rigged as a shelter while the bivy provides the extra warmth.)
  • Hand and foot warmers (You know, those little packets you whack to get goin’.)
  • Sunscreen (even just a packet or a wipe; don’t have to take a whole bottle)
  • Food: Energy bars, salty snacks, dried fruit, etc.
  • Electrolyte replacement drink packet/s
  • Water purification product (Tablets or drops are lighter and less bulky than a filter, but a filter is fine too. I’ve heard good reports about the Steripen as well.) For more on water purification options, visit Backcountry Water Purification.
  • Personal First Aid kit (You don’t have to go prepared to perform surgery, just take any meds you might need–allergic to anything? diabetic? asthmatic?–including some Benadryl and some basics like bandaids, gauze pads, alcohol wipes, and I recommend tweezers and a mini pair of scissors if your multi-tool doesn’t include them.)
  • A closed-cell foam pad or at least a piece of one. Sitting directly on cold and/or wet ground can be a real bummer for the bum (and the rest of you, too). I like to carry a Thermarest Z-Lite Pad, attached to the bottom of my day-pack, especially when going on long hikes.
  • Small notepad and pencil in a plastic baggie. Handy for making notes/reminders to yourself (or possibly even leaving them for others).
  • Signal Mirror — It’s small, weighs next-to-nothin’, but it can be seen for miles and from way up high. You can also get a compass with a sighting mirror and use that as your signal mirror instead.
  • A couple of Light Sticks (You crack them to activate; some last up to 12 hours. Glow sticks can be seen by a rescue helicopter.)
  • Roll of flagging tape (Helps mark where you’ve been, as in when you’re not sure if you’ll recognize the route on the way back. Some flagging is biodegradable.)
  • TP (beats using leaves) and one of those little orange cat-hole diggers, though a boot heel or a good stick can work just fine, too. I also throw in a little bottle of hand sanitizer.
  • Nylon Paracord, about 50 feet. (I just always have this in my pack. If nothing else, it works for making emergency spare boot or shoe laces. I’ve used it for lowering my pack at times, too, not to mention for rigging an all-weather blanket as a tarp.)
  • Emergency whistle: I like the Windstorm Safety Whistle, because it’s LOUD.
  • And, if you’re good and take at least some of the above, you can take your cellphone too. Might wanna turn it off unless you need it, to save the battery. My point is, this shouldn’t be the only piece of “just in case” gear in your pack.