The Essentials: Survive an Unplanned Bivy


Everyone knows packing the 10 essentials is a good idea, but most people don’t actually pack them. It’s easy to get lax about loading things you hope not to use, but would you cancel your car insurance just because you haven’t had an accident yet? We consulted professional mountain guides as well as the venerable Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills to create this visual checklist for what you need to cover your ass if your perfect day in the alpine goes awry. (This list assumes you are climbing somewhere with a lengthy approach—as opposed to a day of bouldering 10 minutes from the car—and packing all gear required for that climb.)

A. Insulation. You may stay warm climbing in a baselayer, but what happens when you stop to belay or wait out rain? Pack extra layers, including a puffy.


B. First aid supplies. Pack a kit specific for the trip and group size. At minimum, you’ll need a means of stopping blood and controlling pain and any personal prescription meds. Most other things you can improvise. Pack a whistle to signal searchers or other climbers. Also, consider a Wilderness First Responder certification.

C. Repair kit and tools. The potential uses for a knife or multi-tool and duct tape are endless. Add any equipment you can’t improvise to repair specialized gear, such as bailing wire for a busted crampon strap or binding.

D. Nutrition. Stash a meager ration to get you through at least one extra day as well as an energy drink mix to replace electrolytes.

E. Illumination. A headlamp with fresh batteries is mandatory.

F. Fire. If you’re benighted in an area with wood, your warmth (and mental outlook) will improve greatly with a fire. It’s also an effective signaling tool. Bring a lighter or matches and tinder.

G. Hydration. In most alpine environments, you can replenish water from snow or runoff. Pack at least one bottle.

H. Emergency shelter. It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm, and to stay dry than to get dry. Bring a bivy sack or a tarp and a way to rig it. Emergency blankets are unreliable.

I. Sun protection. Sunburn can end a climb just as easily as a broken ankle. Climbing at altitude or crossing a glacier presents greater exposure to the sun’s radiation than bouldering beneath a canopy of 150-foot-tall trees. Plan for the worst-case scenario for the climate, and pack sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses.

J. Navigation. Pinpoint key landmarks of the approach on a map (e.g., lake at the climb’s base, creek crossings, the summit, where the climber trail meets the official trail, etc.), and then plug their coordinates into a GPS (more accurate and reliable in the backcountry than a smartphone). Don’t forget extra batteries and a compass. It helps to practice GPS, map, and compass use first on a low-risk ascent.