Essential Items & First Aid Kits – Episode 5

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10 Backpacking Essentials & Lightweight First Aid Kits

When you’re ultralight backpacking, you’ll want to cut down on equipment as much as possible, but you never want to do that at the expense of your own safety.

When it comes to packing gear for a trip, it can sometimes feel like bringing more is better. More clothing to stay warm, more food in case you get hungry, or more items in a first aid kit for increased safety.

The problem is, bringing a bunch of small extras can add up to a lot of weight, and that’s going to make your hike far less comfortable. So you’ll always want to be careful about how much extra gear you bring.

Ultralight backpacking is all about striking the right balance between safety and comfort. With a little bit of experience, you’ll learn to keep essential items nice and light. That way, you won’t have to sacrifice camping comfort or hiking comfort, and you’ll still be prepared for wilderness emergencies.

10 Ultralight Backpacking Essentials: 

1. Map, Compass & Whistle

  • Your map and compass will help keep you from getting lost and the whistle will help you get found (blow three sharp blasts every 15 minutes or so).
  • Maps and compasses are light tools and they’re extremely useful if you know how to use them. 
  • Battery powered tools, like GPS units, are also useful, but they can run out of battery. So always bring a map and compass.  

2. Extra Food

  • Knowing how much food to bring will take experience. Bring a few extra lightweight snacks until you get it dialed in. 
  • You’ll burn more calories than you might think on longer trips, so be prepared.
  • If you run out of food, don’t panic. Water, shelter, a positive attitude, and clear thinking are all far more important in an emergency. Stay calm and hike out as soon as possible.  

3. Water & Filter

  • Always purify your water to prevent sickness. Don’t press your luck unnecessarily. 
  • Pack plenty of water when hiking from one water source to the next. Never rely on seasonal sources that could be dry.  

4. Extra Clothing

  • Know the weather forecast for your trip and prepare for weather that’s chillier than you might expect. 
  • Prepare for wet weather with a lightweight rain shell, even if the forecast looks sunny. 
  • It’s almost always best to bring a lightweight hat, mittens, and down jacket, especially in the mountains. 

5. Lightweight Shelter

  • A reliable shelter is absolutely critical for reducing exposure in harsh conditions. 
  • If you’re hiking with a group, make sure everyone has a shelter, just in case someone gets lost on their own. 
  • An emergency bivy only weighs 3oz and could save your life if things go wrong.  

6. Waterproof Matches, Small Lighter & Fire starter

  • Fire can get be a lifesaver in emergency situations. It’s good for warmth, signaling, moral boosting, cooking, and water purification.
  • A fire starter will make your task a lot easier in wet conditions. A small lighter and waterproof matches won’t weigh much either.  

7. Pocket Knife or Multi-tool

  • A knife is a very useful tool and it’s necessary on all trips. Choose a lightweight knife to cut down on unnecessary weight.
  • Multitools can be overkill, but there are a few good lightweight options out there. Avoid heavy tools with too many gadgets. 

8. Sunglasses, Sunscreen & Lip Balm

  • Sun protection is an absolute must in the wilderness. 
  • Snow blindness and bad sunburns can be crippling to your safety.  

9. Headlamp & Small LED Backup

  • You’ll use a headlamp almost every night on the trail for a variety of different tasks. 
  • A small LED backup will weigh very little and could come in handy if your headlight runs out of battery. 

10. First aid kit

  • Never venture into the wilderness without a complete first aid kit and the knowledge of what to do in a variety of emergency situations. 

Ultralight First Aid Kits

Bringing a large, bulky first aid kit is not the proper way to prepare for emergencies on the trail. Experience, knowledge, andtraining will allow you to feel more confident in your emergency skills, and help you to lighten your first aid kit down to the essential items.

If your first aid skills are rusty (or nonexistent), brush up with some online training and consider taking a wilderness first aid course. Those are the types of preparations that can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

When I first started backpacking, I carried a large plastic first aid kit with lots of unnecessary items that weighed almost a full pound. Now that I have more experience, confidence, and training, my first aid kit only weighs a few ounces. 

Pre-made First Aid Kits can be a great place to start building a lightweight emergency kit. Make sure to customize your first aid kit depending on your needs. Take out any unnecessary extras, add your personal medications, and repackage the kit to save weight. 

You can also just make your own kit from scratch with items that you already have in your house and some small plastic containers. Making a first aid kit like this will often be lighter and cheaper than first aid kits you’ll find at the store. 

To learn more, check out our Best First Aid Kits for Hiking guide.

First Aid Kit Essentials:

Prevention Items:

  • Hand sanitizer & biodegradable soap (use away from water sources) for sterilization and cleaning your hands before meals and after bathroom breaks. 
  • Lip balm & sunscreen to protect against sun burns.
  • Moleskin or duct tape for hot spots on your feet. Stop and put on moleskin the moment you start to feel a hot spot on your feet. 
  • Lotion or sports balm will help with a variety of conditions including cracked skin and chafing.
  • Latex gloves for sanitation when dealing with bodily fluids. 


  • Pain relievers to help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Antidiarrheal pills for an upset stomach.
  • Allergy medication for severe allergic reactions.


  • Band-aids of a few different sizes for cuts. 
  • Butterfly bandages will help pull the skin together with deeper cuts.
  • Gauze pads will help to cover larger scrapes.
  • Medical tape, cohesive wrap, or duct tape can be used to hold bandages in place. 
  • Antibiotic ointment is important for keeping cuts clean and helping them to heal quickly. 


  • Safety pins are useful for a variety of situations, like fastening wrap around bandages and slings.
  • Small tweezers will come in handy to remove ticks and splinters.
  • Make sure to pack any personal medications as well.

This list might seem like a lot of items, but if you portion correctly and refill after your trips, a first aid kit like this will only weigh a few ounces. 

Personalizing your first aid kit is a good thing, but always make sure that you’re properly prepared with essential first aid equipment.



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