Backcountry essentials: Go safely into the wilderness

Oct. 9, 2023
Go safely into the wilderness with these lists of backcountry essentials.
Whether you’re hiking for just a few hours or gearing up for several days of camping and backpacking, make sure you pack the backcountry essentials. Photo: Getty Images.

If you’re headed into the backcountry, Dr. Katie Marmillo is the perfect hiking buddy.

She spent two months in the Himalayas on Mount Everest at a health clinic tending to climbers at elevations as high as 17,000 feet, and she has expert advice on how to safely enjoy the Park Mountain Range where many Steamboat Springs outdoor enthusiasts spend leisure time.

“Be smart, don’t take on anything you can’t handle, and if you’re in doubt, turn around,” said the Steamboat Springs family medicine physician and member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Think about where you are going, who you are going with and what the weather is going to be like.”

Whether you’re hiking for just a few hours or gearing up for several days of camping and backpacking, Marmillo has a comprehensive list of backcountry essentials to bring along on your adventure.

Make a backcountry essentials list and check it twice

Before starting out on any trip, even short ones, Marmillo suggests having a “point person” who knows where you’re going, when you’re leaving and returning, and at what point past that return time a call for help should be made. She is not averse to solo adventurists, as long as they have done the necessary prep work.

“I think if you’re prepared, you can go safely and go alone, but have a back-up plan in place,” said Marmillo, who completed a fellowship with the Wilderness Medical Society.

For trips of any length, essentials include a fully charged cell phone, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, a downloaded or paper map of the area you’re traversing, and enough provisions to sustain you. Water is key – at least three to four liters a day is necessary for those who are active, as dehydration can occur quickly at higher altitude.

A hat or cap to shield your face from the sun is a necessity, especially in the mountains with the intense rays, and she always has a high-pitched whistle attached to her pack.

Marmillo recommendations considering additional gear for both single-day and multi-day trips into the wilderness.

Essential list for single-day backcountry trips

  • Head lamp with full batteries.
  • Trash bags that can double as a rain poncho, emergency shelter or blanket.
  • First aid supplies such as bandages; antibiotic, diphenhydramine (commonly referred to as Benadryl) and cortisone creams for scrapes, bug bites and run-ins with itchy plants; diarrhea medication; and ibuprofen and
  • Duct tape that can secure a bandage over a wound and or be used to create a makeshift splint with a piece of wood to stabilize a limb.
  • Insect repellant.

 Essential list for multi-day backcountry trips

  • A satellite communication device for emergencies when out of cell phone range.
  • Water purification system to sterilize water as well as iodine tablets (Marmillo suggests adding in a teaspoon of a drink mix like Tang or using Vitamin C tablets to make it taste better). While boiled water is always best, sterilization systems work well, she said: “Personally, I use a Steripen to purify water. It’s important to get water from a running stream whenever possible.”
  • Powder glucose solution that can be hydrated with water for extra energy in a pinch.
  • Wrap-style bandages and safety pins. If hard pressed for supplies, she recommends rolling up your shirt and pinning it to support an injured arm, elbow or hand.
  • “Combat gauze” that helps stem bleeding for deep a laceration.
  • Proper clothing – consider base, middle and top layers, and long underwear for nighttime and cool mornings.
  • A small reflection mirror.
  • And, when in bear country, bear spray.

Know the needs of your companions before heading into the backcountry

When hiking with others, be aware of their potential medical issues and how that might affect your trip.

“Anticipate the needs of your fellow hikers,” said Marmillo.

Do they have allergies? If so, an Epi pen may be necessary for bee stings. For anyone with asthma, make sure they bring their inhaler. If your hiking partner is coming from sea level, high-altitude medications may help with acclimation.

A little planning goes a long way in knowing you’re ready for whatever Mother Nature has in store.

“Educate yourself ahead of time and know the terrain,” said Marmillo. “Weather changes quickly, so be prepared. The goal is to have fun and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors but be safe doing it.”

This story first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot.

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.