11 August 2023

The Day-Hike Bag We Should Have Brought (But Didn’t)

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, in summer.

About a month ago we set out for an impromptu hike at a nearby state park. We haven’t hiked since before the pandemic. The idea popped into our heads the night before, when we saw that the weather would be beautiful. I am the world’s least spontaneous person, so I mentioned to my wife that I really needed to spend the rest of today preparing for tomorrow.

I’d ghosted a book for NBC-TV’s medical and science correspondent, Dr. John Torres, who has kindly contributed to SleuthSayers in the past. Somewhere in that book was a list of what to pack for a day hike. Dr. Torres—an avid outdoorsman, former Air Force pilot, and ER physician—shared horror stories of people bringing nothing or an incomplete kit on short hikes, and later encountering problems that could have been averted. On his advice, during 2020 I assembled a much more complex “Bug-Out Bag” that would have sustained us if we had to traverse the terrain of Middle Earth to drop jewelry into a volcano.

I just needed a few hours to transfer some choice pieces of equipment from the big bag to the smaller bag. “It can’t be rushed!” I told Denise. “I need time to think.”

“We’ll be back in no time!” she scoffed. 
By now she well knows my penchant for overthinking things. But hey, does no one remember that the shipwreck that birthed 99 episodes of Gilligan’s Island originated as a three-hour tour?

The upshot: we set off with nothing more than water bottles strapped to our waists and some snacks for the dog.

A lot can happen in an hour in the woods. Seeing a trio of other dogs, our guy tore ahead on the trail, tugging my wife so hard that she tripped on a tree root, and sprained two of her fingers. Hike over, folks!

As we headed home, she remarked that she couldn’t believe how quickly her hand had morphed into a hideous, purplish balloon. She iced it upon reaching civilization, but gee, it really would have been nice to have had one of those instant cold packs in our (nonexistent) bag.

While it is still summer, I thought I would share Dr. Torres’s list with you, with my own commentary. Most of us are capable of assembling these basic items, either at your local pharmacy, a reputable outdoor store, or via online shopping. And who doesn’t love shopping?

Dr. Torres’s List:

Blister or moleskin bandages. These bandages are designed to cover a fresh blister before it pops and becomes painful to walk on. They cushion the blister and keep it from getting worse, then fall off on their own when the blister has sufficiently “heeled.” Look for Compeed or Band-Aid’s Hydro Seal.

Cold-weather clothing. I know it’s summer but deserts and mountains get chilly mornings and nights. If you’ve been sweating or got caught in the rain, you’ll feel cold without a fleece or extra layer.

Duct tape. Why? Because you can do many things with it. You can fashion a quick and dirty splint, for starters, which might have helped us.

Lighter, waterproof matches, or a fire starter tool. I’m listing these in escalating order of complexity. A lighter will be fine if you need to make a fire. But if you run out of fuel or something goes wrong with the flint mechanism, waterproof matches—which can literally be struck underwater—or ferrocerium rods that allow you to start a fire, caveman-style, could be lifesavers.

Food and water for each person. I’m thinking lunch, protein bars, and water bottles; more if you’re staying out for longer.

Headlamp. Dorky? Yes. But these allow you to keep both hands free in the dark while you study a map or compass. They come either rechargeable or battery powered. Take your pick, but make sure you have fresh batteries or a fresh charge before you leave home.

Headlamp (left) and compass.

Insect repellent. ’Nuff said.

Knife or multitool. I like Benchmade for folding knives, Victorinox for Swiss Army-type knives, and Leatherman multitools. Deploying multitools can be a pain if you don’t use them often, so pack a copy of the instructions as well.

Assorted knives/tools. The folding black one (by Benchmade) has a combo blade—half straight, half serrated.

Lightweight emergency blanket. These can be acquired quite cheaply. The chief ingredient is Mylar, which is annoying and crinkly, but helps retain much of your lost body heat. You can find more durable, tarp-like ones that could help you build a makeshift shelter if you needed it. Others resemble sleeping bags. The key is to choose ones that are not too heavy. You can always toss a wool blanket in the trunk of your car, but you need to get off the trail safely first.

Navigation tools. A compass and/or a GPS device.

Small first aid kit. You will want to amp up what you get in the kit from your drugstore. Most do not have the cold packs we so desperately needed, nor cooling gels and packs in case of burns.


It's been a terrible year for ticks where we live. We've used the tweezers and other supplies in here several times.

Tweezers. You want ones with very fine tips for extracting ticks or splinters. I’m fond of the kit put out by Tick-Ease.

Waterproof notebook and pen. You’re a writer, for heaven’s sake! Bring writing materials. Choose ones that won’t crap out if it rains.

Whistle. There are tons of really loud safety whistles on the market. I like the new titanium ones because I have actually crushed cheap plastic ones in my backpack. Dr. Torres taught me that three short blasts on the whistle is the universal code for SOS/HELP. 

That’s the end of Dr. T’s list.

As I reflect on this a few years later, I recognize that things get exponentially more complicated the longer you stay in the woods, and the more people and pets are in your party. For one, you’re obliged to bring along more food and water, not to mention blankets for everyone. 

Dog people recommend packing booties for the pooch. If beloved Rover hurts a paw, you don’t want to be stuck carrying him or her out.

I also notice that our list didn’t recommend bringing toilet paper, which you’ll miss immediately if you really need to go and you’re two miles from a bathroom or transportation. Most state and federal forests urge you to “pack in, pack out,” which means you’d also want Ziploc bags or plastic grocery bags to pick up after yourself, not to mention your animal.

If you want to go deeper—much, much deeper—you might enjoy this Substack post by former SleuthSayer Thomas Pluck, who took a course at a survive-in-the-woods/tracker school in New Jersey that has been in operation for 45 years.

Over to you, gang. Surely I’m not the only one to obsess over this stuff. I’d love to know what items I’ve forgotten, and what you tote when you venture outdoors.

I’ll close by pointing out that the pages of any back issue of EQMM or AHMM would serve as excellent toilet paper. The wonders of pulp fiction.

* * * 

See you in three weeks—if I survive the next outing.



  1. Back when the earth was young, I used to hike every weekend, and I packed pretty much most of what you listed. Make sure to add either tobacco or baking soda to the first-aid kit, because wetted down they will take some of the swelling, etc., out of hornet stings. (I know this first hand.) Some people (including my hiking partner) put a dog back-pack on Man's Best Friend, but my experience is that most dogs just try to get them off. Ah... experience...

    1. I knew nothing of the tobacco/baking soda remedy, Eve. Do both of them have to be used at together, or will one or the other suffice? (We also learned the hard way to take vinegar to the beach. It's apparently used to treat minor jellyfish stings.)

  2. Joe, it's one or the other. The key is to make sure you wet either to make a poultice for the sting(s).

  3. Love this! That's a great list. That's about what we carry when we hike Big Bend except with a Shemagh and 600,000 bottles of water haha. Oh, and that slicky stuff that keeps you from chafing. My wife and I have the same dynamic; I overthink everything and she lives her life pretty much moment-to-moment. Between us there's a normal human!


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