What to carry in your rucksack

Top Tips - 28/02/2024

Posted by William, 5th March 2024


This is the second of three articles about staying safe in the mountains or remote locations. This article looks at how you should prepare your rucksack before you set off for your day's walking trip. The others look at preparing your trip and what to do in an emergency

This advice applies equally to people venturing out for the weekend in UK mountains as it does to mountainous or remote regions abroad such as the Alps or Pyrenees. It also applies to our independent walking holidays in mountainous regions such as our hike which traverses the Panoramic Vercors. It does not apply to those backpacking treks where you have to carry all your own gear for the week, where several additional items are needed. 

The key to surviving in any unexpected situation is being prepared. 


Spare clothes and staying warm: Make sure you have some spare clothes especially a top such as a fleece and waterproof/windproof when you go hiking in the mountains. A woolen hat and gloves are also essential for days when you could be exposed to cold and windy conditions. Your head loses a great deal of heat and therefore wearing a hat is a quick way of feeling warmer, whilst extremities such as hands and feet are prone to the cold. (When you become cold your body automatically protects the vital organs - brain, lungs, heart - to the detriment of your less vital ones.) But why bother if the weather looks set fair? 

Because the temperature changes with an increase or decrease of altitude. This change depends on the amount of moisture in the air. The decrease varies from about 1°C per 100m if the air is dry to about 0.5°C if the air is saturated. So even if it seems warm down in the valley by the time you reach the summit the air temperature may have dropped considerably. In addition, cloud cover and a strong wind can add to the sensation of cold. Of course if you get stuck on the mountain due to benightment or accident, you'll automatically become colder due to a lack of activity (and possibly food). It is also best to prepare for wet weather, as being wet will significantly reduce your level of warmth. 


Survival bag: It essential that you carry a bivvy bag or survival sack of some description if you are walking in mountainous or remote locations. They can save your life if you have an accident and find yourself stuck for several hours or even days out in cold weather. Tinfoil blankets are a useful extra as they take up very little space, but can help preserve body heat. They are readily available from all outdoor retailers. 


Heat torch: A headtorch should be taken with you into the mountains at all times as you never know when it may be needed. If you become caught out in the mountains in the dark, it will help you walk down to safety. It can also be used in case of emergency to attract attention (see our related article on what to do in an emergency) and to guide the rescue party towards you. A head torch is far more practical than a normal handheld torch as it allows your hands to be free whilst walking, so you can hold a map or use your walking poles. 


Food and water: It is essential that you carry enough food and water with you to be able to cope with any eventual extra time spent on the mountain either walking or still. (You can also check the map in relation to your walking trail to see if there are any water sources or mountain huts on the way). High-energy foods such as dried fruits, nuts, and cereals are good as they take up less space and contain a high number of calories. 


First aid kit: When walking in the mountains, it is important that you have a small first aid kit with essential items such as paracetamol (pain relief), antiseptic in case of cuts and a roll of elastic adhesive bandage and a knife or scissors to cut it as this can have multiple uses in an emergency. If you are taking specific treatments, don't forget to take additional amounts in case of a problem. 


Phone: It is not possible to rely on having a phone signal in mountainous or remote locations, however, it is worth having it with you just in case. In addition, it is useful to have a means of telling the time, so that you can judge your walking progress on the hills. When not required, switch your phone off to preserve the batteries for when you need it. 


Documents: Make sure you carry a means of ID, contact numbers and your travel insurance, especially abroad, covering you for such things as mountain rescue and hospital treatment.