The first time a tent pole broke on me, I was 14 years old and on an overnight hike with my dad in the Cascades. We were camped well above tree line on a vast snowfield. One of us, stumbling around at dusk after dinner, managed to step on the point where one of the crappy fiberglass poles met the pin that attached it to the floor of the tent, snapping off the end of the pole.
Our shelter sagged as the light wind became a stiff breeze. We tried a few fixes—first attempting to tie the pole to the tent floor, which failed utterly—before we hit upon the best solution: Gutting the inside of a container of lip balm, fitting the hollow balm tube over the end of the pin, putting the pole inside the other end, and fastening it all together with duct tape. That saved the day.
It proved to me at a very young age that a little MacGyvering is often necessary in the camping experience. Have I broken tent poles since? You bet. But I’ve never failed to make a decent field repair—and because I learned what essentials to pack, I’ll never have to destroy another lip balm. Throw this stuff into your pack and you’ll be ready for anything.
Lighter: Matches, smatches! Yes, there are times when matches are handy (lighters break), but a cheap gas station Bic is a superb tool for emergencies (need fire for warmth!) and nonemergencies (need fire for s’mores!).
Cordelette: This isn’t string. Cordelette is nylon line that is considerably stronger. You can buy it in lengths at REI, a good climb shop, and some better hardware stores. It comes in handy for splinting broken tent poles; the above lip-balm fix can be emulated with a sturdy stick or an extra tent stake tied around the busted pole end. Cordelette has myriad other uses, from guying out a tarp between trees when you’re car camping and it decides to thunder on your site to something as simple as hanging a lantern high enough to bathe the entire plot in light.
Headlamp: This isn’t an emergency item, but it’s an emergency (or nearly one) if you forget to pack it. Also, check the batteries before you leave, and just in case, pack a brand-new spare set.
Benadryl: From bee stings to spider bites to a tent mate who snores and snores and snores, an antihistamine is a must-pack. Friendly tip: Don’t give the snorer the drugs—take a dose yourself to konk out through the din.
Pill bottle wrapped with nonstick gauze: This should be a plus-size pill bottle from the drugstore. Inside, stuff some bandages, self-sealed antiseptic wipes, and sterile pads. The nonstick gauze on the outside should be long enough to wrap a sprained ankle. Put a couple wide rubber bands around it to secure the gauze in place.
Duct tape: It mends holes in tents and jackets, and even blisters in your tired feet that aren’t quite used to that new pair of boots you didn’t break in.
Three gallon-size Ziplocs: The plastic bag becomes an improvised water bottle, a cold compress, a dry bag for your puffy when the afternoon desert shower decides to squat overhead for 18 hours, and a leftover food storage satchel. Ziplocs weigh nothing and take no space, and if you have them, they’ll always go to good use.
A folding knife with extras: A multitool is fine, but it typically leads to handling imbalances (too much weight in the grip makes for an unwieldy knife). We like folding blades like SOG’s Escape—the handle incorporates a line cutter for slicing through cordelette, the blade locks full and firmly, and it’s partially serrated, so you can use it to both cut and saw.
Compass: When the batteries die in your mobile or GPS, a compass keeps working. And, yes, that means you should know how to use it.
Emergency blanket: A “space” blanket is like a giant foil wrapper that packs to the size of a sandwich bag and is very light—and it can save your life. These bounce back a ton of heat: If you’ve underpacked for a campout, when spread over two sleeping bags in a tent, they’ll add 10 to 15 degrees of overnight warmth.
Mini playing cards: You never know when you might have to kill an afternoon waiting out the weather. A junior-sized deck of cards won’t save your life, but it will help lighten the mood.