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

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 could have saved a young man's life.

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.

Carry a 24-hour pack

Carry a 24-hour pack

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.

An imaginary fire won't keep you warm. Don't forget a fire-starter kit and a small stove for hot drinks.

An imaginary fire won't keep you warm. Don't forget a fire-starter kit and a small stove for hot drinks.

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.

24-hour pack

24-hour pack

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.

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

Okay, I guess I've made my point.

Okay, I guess I've made my point.

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.

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


Suggested Gear

It's 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 and Rescue too.)
Yeah, that's the ticket.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

  • 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, 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. A 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 bivvy 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.) Here's more on water purification options.
  • 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? Include 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 nothing, 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.
Contents of a well-equipped 24-hour pack (which pack up a lot smaller than this)

Contents of a well-equipped 24-hour pack (which pack up a lot smaller than this)

Build Your Own 24-Hour Pack

You can pick and choose among the individual pieces of gear as you build your own pack at....

A Well-Equipped Daypack For Hikers

Because it's a good idea to have what you need in case the unexpected happens.

Here's another gear list: Wind River SAR's 24-hour Search Pack. Geared toward Search and Rescue personnel but useful information for any outdoors person.

Hikers, Backcountry Skiers: How Prepared Are You?

You're just going to be out for a few hours -- definitely back by dinner. You're familiar with the trail, or at least you read a great description online. This is definitely not going to be an overnighter.

A thru-hiker called "Straightjacket"

A thru-hiker called "Straightjacket"

Beyond Light-Weight Backpacking

Now, this is taking the bare essentials a bit too far. (That's a Z-rest he's wearing.)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Deb Kingsbury

Your Feedback On 24-Hour Packs is Welcome!

thewarriorpoet on November 08, 2013:

It's a good idea to be prepared!

Andrew4M on August 08, 2013:

Good one.

mariacarbonara on May 26, 2013:

Really useful info

ChristyZ on April 18, 2013:

This is a very good idea, I always bring a water bottle when hiking, but that's it. After reading this lens, I'll think differently, you can never be too prepared in case something goes wrong.

annieangel1 on February 24, 2013:

wonderful information on 24- hour packs

anonymous on February 24, 2013:

Hey folks this is great info. But in my opinion. you should be ABLE to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, fire starter (I dont mean matches they get used up), and canteen or you have no business being out there.

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 10, 2012:

This is excellent advice and I'll be adding a few things to my daypack. I like the duct tape tip. Thanks

SayGuddaycom on April 05, 2012:

@KathyMcGraw2: Sounds like a Bucket List to me. Make sure to post yours on She's a great gal and has a great blog that will give you lots of other ideas for your list.

SayGuddaycom on April 05, 2012:

Do you teach any backpacking or hiking courses?

Kathy McGraw from California on April 05, 2012:

I just finished making my "have to take" list from your suggestions. Oh, this will be fun, and hopefully I am at least sort of prepared :) Thanks for the good info Deb.

anonymous on February 28, 2012:

We definitely learned our lesson! We will be bringing everything listed here and a little more even on a day hike. We took a wrong trail in the snow on a hike and ended up pretty far from our car. With a flashlight and what was left of the battery on a cell phone, we checked GPS and matched up the logging road to where the trailhead and the car was. We will definitely be turning off our cell phones (unless we need them) because they both drained so quickly because I think they were searching for service. We will also pack emergency ponchos and extra cell phone batteries with a portable charger. Never want anything like that to happen again. It was a little scary!

Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on November 25, 2011:

*featured on my Earthquake Emergency Survival Kit lens, along with the Prepack one.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on November 09, 2011:

@prhammock: A basic 24-hour pack can weigh just a few pounds, plus the weight of the backpack and water. It doesn't take much weight to be prepared and even save a life.

prhammock on November 09, 2011:

Basically it is a question of being prepared - and most of us aren´t. I admit for a day hike, I take much less. By the weigh how much does a basic 24-hour pack weigh?

Frank Edens on October 29, 2011:

24 Hours packs? :) Amazing to see that hiking is a huge hobby AND great sport too..

anonymous on September 18, 2011:

I use an abreviated 24H pack every day (only two 0.5l water-bottles no bivvy, groundpad, only a "spaceblanket", extra clothes= flecejacket and extra pair o socks), bit extreme perhaps but I use it to and from work every day (bike or on foot).

main reason is that I have used something from the pack least once a week not to mention wishing I had something usually in it when ever it is left home.

one example;

this summer My wife and two friends went to a consert and I made her take the "short version" without letherman, for some reason considered a weapon if taken to a public gathering (socker, hockey...)game, concert...

guess what, she came back having used both water bottles the first aid kit, spaceblanket and examgloveson on couple of girls that had been trampled, the concert security was woefully unprepared as to first aid.

TravelingRae on June 27, 2011:

Great lens. I can't believe the number of people who go on a hike without a few essentials to get through a night. A 24-hour pack doesn't have to be heavy.

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on April 12, 2011:

It's amazing to see how many people get in real trouble on simple day hikes. Because I live and hike in fairly unpopulated areas, I no longer take the same risks I might have in the past. I always take a pack with the essentials you recommended. Excellent advice!

JeremiahStanghini on January 25, 2011:

I wonder if you'll get more hits to the page with the recent release of the movie with James Franco, 127 hours. :-)

With Love and Gratitude,


anonymous on January 02, 2011:

Thank you for this informative lens.

imolaK on December 15, 2010:

These are great advices. I agree with you, when someone is going on a trip or a walk in a forest must take a backpack with the suggested things. If you don't mind I'm lensrolling this lens to my " Helpful Tips When You Travel With a Baby" lens.

HorseAndPony LM on April 23, 2010:

I'm back for a visit. This is such an important topic. Thanks to you we have changed our hiking and riding ways. Blessed!

HorseAndPony LM on January 30, 2010:

Thanks for the tips. Since we moved from PA to CO our hikes have changed. We really need to be better prepared and will take your advice.

anonymous on August 15, 2009:

I never thought of bringing a whistle, that's a great idea.

Been thinking of you and Steve everyday while on your vacation.

I'll be waiting to hear about it, please give me a heads-up.

This is a very good lens with useful information.

Love that little hiker, cute!


ElizabethJeanAl on May 20, 2009:


My name is Elizabeth Jean Allen and I am the new group leader for the Nature and the Outdoors Group.


jpetals on May 11, 2009:

I love the comedy throughout this lens!! You really know how to piece these lenses together in such a unique way. =)

Allan R. Wallace from Wherever Human Rights Reign on April 25, 2009:

I've added this page to a favorite lens module in my rather bare bones disaster preparation lens. The depth, and the positive but assertive attitude found here are appreciated. I will also lensroll it at the Complicit Simplicity lens, the emerging novel mentions a "bug out pack;" this lens presents an excellent basic emergency pack for home, car, and office.

dustytoes on April 09, 2009:

You give great advice and I am going to keep checking out all your lenses. Thank you for coming by mine. I think I need to pack more when I go hiking!!!!

anonymous on March 28, 2009:

Way to go Ramkitten, I was going to write a lens along these lines. Good job.

Mortira on March 17, 2009:

This is a wonderful lens! It really can make a huge difference if you have just the right items with you in an emergency. I've rolled this over to my lens about using diaper bags as emergency kits.

Great info! * * * * *

Yvonne L B from Covington, LA on February 24, 2009:

Great lens. Welcome to the Naturally Native Squids group. Don't forget to add your lens link to the appropriate plexo and vote for it.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on February 13, 2009:

[in reply to Striker] That's certainly something to consider. For me, though, when I'm hiking, I honestly never have thought about a physical attack (okay, except maybe by big critters w/ big teeth :) ), and I doubt I'd ever have a knife handy enough to whip it out in time anyway. I'd more likely use my trekking pole.

I'll have to check out that 98.6 ... hadn't heard of it, so thanks, for sure. But, uhhhh, condom for water storage? I THINK I'll stick to bottles (I tend to re-use Gatorade bottles, which are lighter than Nalgenes) on that one!

anonymous on February 13, 2009:

An excellent list of items to take with you on a day hike. Just wondered what you think about 98.6 by Cody Lundin. I think his list of items is a good starting place, although I'm skeptical about using a condom for water storage. Also, have not figured out what I'd use the dental floss for other than cleaning between my teeth.

I like his argument for a fix blade, full-tang, carbon steel knife. Folders can break easily given that they are held together with one pin. I posted on one of the Backpackers forum and found general resistance for this type of knife. Most seem happy with the multi-tool as you suggest, but why not both? In another posting dealing with personal safety, I found that there was disregard for the idea that the fixed blade knife, or any knife that was easily accessible, could be used to protect oneself from a physical attack.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on February 10, 2009:

[in reply to Dennis] A tarp is definitely a good idea. I often don't carry one in my regular 24-hour pack (though it sure wouldn't hurt), but I use an all-weather (space) blanket in my Search & Rescue 24-hour pack, which is definitely heavier and has more emergency gear. The space blanket has grommets at all four corners, so I can rig it up with my nylon cord and make a tarp out of it, then use the bivy for extra warmth. And I do actually carry a heavy-duty garbage bag. Thanks, I forgot to add that to the list! I appreciate your comments.

anonymous on January 29, 2009:

Also recommend adding a 9x14 tarp and some plastic garbage bags (trash compactor bags are awesome and durable) for creating make shift shelters and for storing stuff in your back to keep them nice and dry.

Tiddledeewinks LM on January 25, 2009:

I ALWAYS keep a jug of water in my car and a blanket and snacks "just in case". Thanks for the tip on 9-1-1 and cell phones!

enslavedbyfaeries on January 06, 2009:

Wow, this is excellent information. My daughters' school plans tons of outdoor expeditions and I plan to share this with the parents so we will all be well prepared for our next outing.

Teddi14 LM on January 01, 2009:

Since you like to might like my lens about Iron Mountain I gave this 5*s

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on January 01, 2009:

Thank you for joining the Walk in the Woods Group. Please add your lens to the plexo and visit the other lenses walking in the woods. Together we make the world a beautiful place to walk in.

anonymous on December 31, 2008:


Excellent article!. I'm also on a SAR team down here in Tucson. The folks going out for a long hike in June/July with only 1 liter of water is staggering, follwed closely behind by not having lights.

This is an article that should be required to be read by eceryone before they leave the trailhead.


ElizabethJeanAl on December 30, 2008:

I used to hike a lot more when I was younger. Now days I hike along birding trails and walk the beach. There's nothing like the quiet and the solitude surrounding you as you hike. Nothing busts stress better.

Great lens


Not-Pop on December 22, 2008:

This is fabulous advice and well-written, to boot. Nicely done!

Soulshine_Expressions on December 20, 2008:

Great Lens with lots of good tips and information. Good advise for all hikers. 5*'s and lensroll. PEACE!

Soulshine_Expressions on December 20, 2008:

Great Lens with lots of good tips and information. Good advise for all hikers. 5*'s and lensroll. PEACE!

MacPharlain on December 11, 2008:

Excellent advice for anyone heading out on a hike. Weather can change quickly wherever you are. Be prepared.

anonymous on December 10, 2008:

A winter hat made all the difference for me and my two friends one time when we started up the side of that mountain at Flagstaff (we were their a long time ago). We started late, then once we were above the timberline, a storm rolled in much faster then we expected. Before we knew it, it was pitch black and raining. We were in T-shirts. I had a winter hat (although it was the summer) and my friend had a AA-batary flashlight. Finding our way down the trail on that black gravely mountain side was nearly impossible. That was the first time I discovered you could actually feel the trail under youre feet, because its so much more compact. I thought we were saved once we made it back into the woods, but eventually our flashlight went out and we lost the trail again and couldn’t pick it up. As we stood lost on the side of the slippery hill in the cold pouring rain, shivering trying to figure out how to get back to the car, that winter hat really came through for the three of us. Obviously we lived.

anonymous on December 09, 2008:

I have got to agree with sarman the compass is a must I can't remember the last time the battery's ran out on my compass. Kidding aside these are the items that could mean the difference between a rough night out there and a miserable night if not worse. And by the way thanks for the articles keep them coming

anonymous on December 09, 2008:

Hey Deb, great article! A few quick points. I like to make sure that as many items in my pack are multi-use as possible. One item I never go without is a Crazy Creek chair. This thing is awesome. It can be used as a sleeping pad. It can also be used as a splint in various ways (including removing the aluminum stays in it). I carry it all the time. It's not as light as a pad, but has many more uses. It's not the most comfortable, but as you say, this isn't comfy, this is an emergency. I would also say that while a GPS is optional, a compass is *mandatory*. Note that a good compass like the Silva Ranger has a signal mirror built in, too.

anonymous on December 09, 2008:

Hey Deb, great article! A few quick points. I like to make sure that as many items in my pack are multi-use as possible. One item I never go without is a Crazy Creek chair. This thing is awesome. It can be used as a sleeping pad. It can also be used as a splint in various ways (including removing the aluminum stays in it). I carry it all the time. It's not as light as a pad, but has many more uses. It's not the most comfortable, but as you say, this isn't comfy, this is an emergency. I would also say that while a GPS is optional, a compass is *mandatory*. Note that a good compass like the Silva Ranger has a signal mirror built in, too.