Campfire, Parsons Landing, Catalina Island, CA

Guest post: What you need to make an emergency shelter and fire by Tom Sheppard

Hiking is such a great hobby. There’s nothing quite like getting out in nature, enjoying fantastic weather, getting good exercise, and seeing some amazing sites. It’s the natural high that we get that keeps us coming back for more. And usually we can hike in areas that aren’t too far from civilized life. There’s excitement for being in nature, but also comfort in knowing that other people aren’t too far away in case there’s ever any trouble.

Depending on which statistics you look at, one thing is for sure: every year, thousands of hikers get lost in the wilderness. The odds increase heavily if you are male and a solo hiker. I guess the age old saying that men are too stubborn to seek directions might be at play here. Ironically, men typically soldier on in the direction they are heading even when first lost, believing that eventually they will find some landmark or hit a major roadway. It turns out that the best strategy is to backtrack until you are familiar with the territory again.

Regardless of the fact that people do indeed get lost in nature while hiking, many of them neglect to carry any survival gear on them. It’s bad enough to get lost in nature, but being totally unprepared can make a hard situation much worse. Your hiking gear may determine whether you make it or not. That’s why in this article, we are going to look at some things that you should always be carrying with you on a hike so that if the situation ever arises where you get stuck in nature, you are prepared to survive until search and rescue has time to recover you, or you make your way back to civilization.


The biggest vulnerability that a human being has is regulating your body temperature in adverse weather conditions. In fact, an average human can only survive around 3 hours in bad weather. If it’s a lovely day around 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside with no rain, then you obviously can stay out there a long time without any trouble. However, what if the weather turns rainy, and the temperature drops to 50 degrees or colder? If you get wet, then you are going to be challenged in keeping your body temperature up and avoiding hypothermia. In fact, over 1,000 people a year die from hypothermia on average in the United States. Many of these deaths could of been avoided if the person had the right gear to help them stabilize their core body temperature.

A shelter doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It’s simply anything that you deploy that helps keep your body temperature in the safe zone. For example, putting on a rain suit and sitting behind bushes can do a lot for you by keeping you dry and keeping the wind from cooling down your body. Staying dry and out of the wind are the two main requirements for a shelter.

For these reasons, one of the most critical things you can carry in your pack while hiking is a standard military style poncho. A military poncho is not only great for you to cover most of your body to keep you dry, but you can actually break it down and turn it into a tarp as well.

Tarps are awfully useful for creating many different types of shelter. One great example is where you undo your poncho, which flattens it into a sizable tarp, and then use some cordage to tie it at each end to trees, creating a great shelter that as many as 3 people can sit under or one person can lay under.

The only items you need are the following: military poncho, paracord, and tent stakes. Creek Stewart, a popular survivalist, has a great rundown of the different shelter configurations that you can put together with only these pieces of gear. You can find the shelter setups here.

Since weight is a concern for any hike, a typical military poncho weighs around 1.75 pounds, tent stakes weigh around 0.2 pounds, and paracord is around 0.5 pounds. Hopefully you already carry a knife of some sort on you so that you can cut the paracord as needed without adding additional weight. This set of gear weighs around 2.5 pounds total. While that seems like a lot, it can really change your odds in a bad situation.

Another very useful item to carry on you is a Mylar thermal blanket. Thermal blankets are highly reflective material. By wrapping yourself with one of these blankets, the heat that you usually lose from your body by radiating it away, gets bounced back onto you, keeping you warm. They usually come in a compact bag and don’t take up much space or weight.

If you are terribly against the idea of setting up a shelter and carrying that gear, then a fall back option is a high quality bivvy. The easiest way to think about a bivvy is that it’s similar to a thermal blanket, but shaped in the form of a sleeping bag. That way, you can crawl inside of it, which will not only keep you warm but will also keep your covered parts dry. I personally recommend the SOL Escape bivvy and have used it several times. It only weighs 0.5 pounds and can get you bare bones shelter protection.

The Escape bivvy has higher quality breathable materials, so that it won’t build up moisture inside the bivvy like the cheaper Mylar bivvys do. If you want to explore the top options for blankets and bivvys, I reviewed them over at Trek Warrior.

Here’s a summary of the gear we just discussed:

  1. Mylar thermal blanket (everyone should carry one of these)
  1. SOL Escape bivvy (recommended for light travelers)
  1. Shelter gear of military poncho, tent stakes, and paracord (recommended for shelter)






 Having a shelter is a great start to controlling your body temperature, but what do you do when its colder and a shelter just isn’t enough? That’s where the ability to make fire comes in. Not only is fire great for providing heat, but you can also signal for help with it. It turns out that the gear you need isn’t too cumbersome for fire. However, making a fire out in the bush is far different than the ones that you usually make in your fireplace or on your grill at home. In fact, if you have never tried to start a fire in nature without the assistance of lighter fluid, you are in for a big surprise. I highly recommend that you try it in your back yard with only the essentials that you would have in nature to see how challenging it can be.

As for the gear that you need, you should consider having at least two sources of fire making ability. I personally prefer a classic lighter, which is useful in the majority of cases. However, in windy environments, you will find that your lighter usually won’t stay lit. As a fallback, I always carry the old fashioned ferro rod and striker.

When it comes to lighters, the common plastic BiCs work great. I recommend that you don’t use a Zappo lighter, since they are not sealed and are notorious for the lighter fluid evaporating out of them within weeks. It’s best to have a lighter in your gear so that you don’t forget it, but you also shouldn’t have to worry about keeping it full of fluid.

A great alternative to a BiC is something called a peanut lighter. These lighters are small capsules that have a full metal container that is sealed by a rubber o-ring in the center, keeping the fluid from evaporating out of them. I’ve tested mine and after two years of storage, it still had plenty of lighter fluid in it. Many of them have a stainless steel casing and are strong enough to survive being run over by a car, which is what makes them so great.

In terms of ferro rods and strikers, a great economic option is the Gerber Bear Grylls fire starter. It’s an all in one rod and striker that comes as a kit. I’ve started countless fires with this rig, as it throws showers of great sparks. With a lighter and ferro rod/striker in combination, you should be well prepared for getting a fire up and going.

Like we discussed earlier, a fire out in nature is not easy to start. You have to remember that your fire should be broken down into three stages: tinder, kindling, and fuel. Tinder is material that easily catches a spark or flame and ignites but doesn’t burn long. Kindling is thicker material that is harder to ignite but burns for a decent amount of time, like dry grass and small twigs. Fuel is your regular branches and logs that will burn a long time, but is hard to ignite.

The goal is to ignite your tinder first and use it to start your kindling. Once your kindling catches, you then use that to start your fuel. There are several different fire structures that you can use that makes this process run a lot more smoothly. Make sure and educate yourself on these, and then get out in your yard and practice it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be a pro.

You should consider carrying tinder on you, since it’s hard to find in nature. The cheapest option here is the dryer lint that you clean out of your dryer. It catches sparks easily and ignites fast with a decent burn time. It’s a good idea to put some in a waterproof zip lock bag and keep it in your hiking gear.

Here’s a summary of the gear we just discussed:

  1. Traditional lighter (BiC plastic lighter is great, or consider a peanut lighter)
  1. Ferro rod and striker (recommend Gerber Bear Grylls fire starter)
  1. Tinder (recommend some dryer lint in a waterproof bag)Fire starting equipment

About the Author

Tom Sheppard is a survival enthusiast and spends a lot of his free time in the woods of North Texas. He often tests out outdoor gear and enjoys sharing his findings. Tom often writes on survival topics over at Trek Warrior.

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