Pack Like Your Life Depends On It with Jessie Krebs

Uncover the secrets of survival packing essentials with renowned survivalist Jessie Krebs as she shares her expert tips and strategies.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here. This episode contains graphic content that may not be suitable for all listeners. 

Join renowned survivalist, SERE instructor, and former “Alone” contestant, Jessie Krebs as she shares her knowledge and expertise on the crucial framework you need to know when it comes to packing for any trip.

Drawing from her extensive experience in extreme survival situations, Jessie unveils the essential items and strategies that can make all the difference between a successful adventure and a perilous ordeal.


Host: The items you carry on your hiking trip can make all the difference if you find yourself in a survival situation, and when it comes to packing for the trail, everyone has a different opinion. But what’s even more important than what you put in your pack is the knowledge and foresight about the conditions you might encounter.

Achieving an advanced level of preparedness means not relying on packing lists for your adventure. But having a comprehensive understanding of the environment itself. If you struggle with deciding what to pack for adventures. Today’s episode is for you.

We spoke with survival expert Jessie Krebs about the framework she uses to prepare for backcountry excursions. Jessie is a former Survival Evasion, Resistance and Escape (or SERE) instructor for the U.S. Air Force, and she now runs her own wilderness survival school. You might remember Jessie from our previous episode about signal fires.

Jessie Krebs: I’m originally from Michigan, and at 18 I joined the military and ended up becoming a SERE instructor.

I used to teach our military members what to do if they came down behind enemy lines and how to get back home safely. At the time that I went through SERE, we were also, however, doing non-combat training as well. So we would start with non-combat and then change it over to tactical situations.

So I feel grateful that I had a lot of training also in more civilian-based scenarios. At SERE training, the main thing we worked with was the five basic needs, and this is a way to look at what the environment is going to be and prepare yourself for that particular environment. So when people ask, “What should I take?”

It really depends on where you’re going and doing a little research to figure out exactly what you’re gonna be facing. And I always model everything off of those five basic needs. 

Host: The five basic needs don’t cover everything you want on your backpacking trip, but they do give you a framework to think about what might save your life if things don’t go to plan. The five basic needs are signaling, personal protection, sustenance, navigation, and health.

Jessie Krebs: So when I’m about to take off for a trip or teaching clients to do this, I’ll say run through the five basic needs and look at that environment and see what you’re gonna need in that environment to meet those five basic needs.

The first and the most important, number one and done is signaling. If you signal properly and quickly and well, you’re done, you’re out of the situation. You didn’t have to find water, you didn’t have to make a shelter, you didn’t have to do anything else. I’m gonna look at my signaling and say, “Okay, what can I take for this particular environment that’s gonna help me with signaling and signaling starts before you even leave?”

I’m also gonna tell two people where I’m planning on going, what my route is, what equipment I’m taking, all that kind of thing, when they should call 911 or the local sheriff’s department to set out a search for me if I don’t come back. 

Host: According to Jessie, there are three primary methods of signaling: electronic, pyrotechnic, and ground air signals.

Electronic signals like a text for help sent from your cell phone or an SOS from your satellite device can easily make the difference between life or death in a survival scenario. And actually a commitment to buy a Garmin inReach or a spot device is one of the most common lessons that people tell us they’ve learned after sharing their story on the show.

Jessie Krebs: There’s so many different electronics that we have now, and sometimes you don’t work in your area or you lose it, or you break it, or the battery dies, right? 

Host: When calling for help electronically isn’t an option, flares or signal fires can be an effective yet tricky option. Check out our signal fire episode if you wanna learn more about how to responsibly set a signal fire. Jessie gave some really great tips in that episode as well. 

Jessie Krebs: The third type is ground air signals, and these are things like a signal blanket like a Mylar or a space blanket and laying that on the ground or a signal mirror, which you can flash and can be seen for many, many, many miles. Or laying out either a V or an X on the ground, 30 feet long if you can make it. Something very large.

So those are three primary types of signaling pyrotechnic, electronic and ground air. The second of your basic needs, and I say number two, take care of you is personal protection. And this really is thermal regulation. The first thing we use as a defense against getting too hot or too cold is our clothes and any equipment we have with us.

So this could be a sleeping bag. What do I have with my clothing and equipment? What am I gonna wear? Is it gonna be good for the environment? What extra clothing can I take? Maybe just putting a garbage bag and maybe a good larger than normal rain gear with me that I can fill up with other things in the environment to make it into an insulated puffy if I need to.

But then I’m not really taking that much shelter also fits underneath that category and the garbage bag. I can use that also for shelter, right? I can pack that in, I can pack it full of debris and climb into it almost like a waterproof sleeping bag. So what can you use for shelter? If you end up trapped or injured or something happens.

Right? And then lastly, fire. What do you have to make fire with both ignition methods and a tender of some kind? So that’s number two. Take care of you.

Number three as go pee. This is sustenance. So that focuses mostly on water. Food is very not important. We are really good at fasting and people unfortunately somehow have the concept that we can only go a few days.

We can go usually about 30 days without food pretty easily, unless you have some sort of medical condition. But water is extremely important and just a small deduction in our optimal water levels can really start to impair our judgment and our thinking. Am I taking enough water? Are there water places that I can refill along the way?

What are my alternates? If those water sources are dry? Sometimes we get to wild water sources and there’s actually nothing there, and there’s so many ways we can find water. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know them. So water, what do I have to disinfect it if I need to? And do I need to know some basic water principles?

Number four, explore. This is navigation. So this is how not to get lost. So map encompass skills. Also scouting techniques. Do I have a paper map? And you should be able to go online now. There’s lots of free apps where you can literally download. A colored version of a topographical map and have that with you.

Do I at least have a little button compass, right? Literally the size of a button that can tell me which way is which. That would be so useful, and that way if I end up in trouble, hey, I know which way I’m going. It’s also how to move safely through different terrains. So for some reason I need to get off a trail, or sometimes even on some pretty extreme trails.

Knowing how to move safely and how to create things around you that can help you move more safely as well, like walking sticks and improvising snowshoes, and things along those lines. And then five is stay alive. This is health. What’s mental and emotional health? Making sure that I’m calming down, that I’m thinking rationally and that really means stopping.

Most of the time when we travel, that’s when we’re using up a lot more calories using up our precious calories In food. We’re also using up a lot of water and were way, way, way more likely to get injured. Stop and relax. That’s the first part of health: If we start to feel nervous and anxious, stop moving.

Second part of health would be anything hygiene related. And last is all the first aid stuff. What are the most common health issues that happen in this particular area? What are the injuries and do you have any critical meds? Make sure you take at least enough meds for twice your estimated length of stay.

So, again, if I’m just planning on being there one day. Take enough meds for at least two. Most survival situations are resolved within three days. So those are our five basic needs. Signaling personal protection, which is clothing and equipment, shelter and fire sustenance, which is water and food.

Navigation is number four, and five is stay alive. So when you ask, “What do we take on a trip?” We’re gonna look at the environment, then I can plan what I take with me accordingly. And am I going on quote unquote, just a dayhike?

Host: According to Jessie, dayhikes are the most dangerous trips because we tend to carry the least amount of gear thinking about the five basic needs, even when packing for a shorter hike can save you if you end up being out longer than you planned.

Jessie Krebs: There doesn’t have to be much in my kit. I just need to know how to use it. So that’s a quick example of how I would go through the five basic needs to decide what I wanna take with me on a particular expedition or dayhike or whatever it is. 

Host: This Survival Short from Out Alive was written and produced by Zoe Gates and me, Louisa Albanese Scoring and Sound Design was by Jason Patton.

Thanks to our survival expert Jessie Krebs for being a wealth of knowledge in offering your time to us. You can learn more about Jessie and her survival school at Thank you for listening to Out Alive. We will be back in two weeks with another survival story.

From 2022