It's Always an Adventure...
Your Guide to the Ten Essentials
Ten things you should bring on every hike
Are you going on an outdoor adventure and don't know what to pack? To make your packing list a little easier, take a look at the Ten Essentials. Originally created in the 1930s by a Seattle-based outdoors organization, The Mountaineers, the items on the Ten Essentials list has always been to answer two questions: are you prepared for an emergency situation and can you safely spend one night - or more - outside?
The Ten Essentials have evolved from a list of individual items to a list of functional systems that satisfy human needs. These essentials are the definitive framework of how to prepare for a trip whether you're planning for a short day hike or a backpacking trip. Sure - on a routine trip, you may use only a few of the essential or none at all. It's when something goes awry that you'll truly appreciate the value of carrying these items that could very well be essential to your survival. After all, not everything goes according to plan.
Below is an overview of each essential, including why you want it and what to bring. Let's dive in!
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The Ten Essentials
Repair Kit & Tools
#1 - NAVIGATION
It's almost a guarantee you'll be spending at least one night outside if you get lost. So, let's make sure that doesn't happen. Navigation supplies - and knowing how to use them - are crucial for hiking. Even if you're on trail, it's possible to get lost. Here are some options to help point you in the right direction.
Map: Sure, cell phones are great for providing maps but there's a reason physical maps are timeless... they don't run out of batteries. Physical maps are lightweight, affordable, and easy to use. You can always grab a paper map at the park entrance but getting a detailed topographic map in advance of your trip is best. Bring a zip-lock bag or map case along to protect your map from the elements.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated - From Acadia to Zion and beyond (like the AT and PCT), NatGeo has a map for you.
Tom Harrison Maps - Great for trails in California, such as the Six Pack of Peaks.
Green Trails Maps - Available for trails in Arizona, British Columbia, California, New York, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
USGS - The USGS was entrusted with the responsibility for mapping the country in 1879 and has been the primary civilian mapping agency of the United States ever since. The best known USGS maps are the 1:24,000-scale topographic maps, also known as 7.5-minute quadrangles. You can search for and download maps here and order prints here.
Compass: Having a map is just the first step to "staying found." Now that you have your map, you need to figure out which way is which and a compass will help you answer that question. Using the right compass will help you distinguish between true north and magnetic north. I use and highly recommend the Suunto MC-2 Compass available on Amazon and REI.
Altimeter: One of the many reasons I like the Suunto MC-2 Compass is because it has a built in altimeter. An altimeter shows what your altitude it which is useful in figuring out how far you've hiked and exactly where you are. Other options for altimeters include digital watches. The Garmin Forerunner 645 is on my wish-list.
Technology: It's the 21st century and many, many people ignore the warnings to learn how to use a map and compass. As such, here's to hoping your cell phone battery and/or any other electronics work when you need them. I use the pro version of the app AllTrails to double check my navigation skills. My Dad also recently purchased the Garmin InReach Explorer+ which is truly a lifesaving piece of gear.
#2 - ILLUMINATION
The next essential is referred to as illumination but more commonly known as a light or a flashlight. Sure, we can guess when the sun will go down but we may have underestimated our hiking pace or, while your original plan may have been to head out for a day hike, people don't necessarily plan for twisted ankles that could keep them on trail past sundown. So, bring a light source. In addition to helping you find your way or digging through your bag, some flashlights or headlamps have a strobe-light type feature that can be used to signal for help.
If I'm out past sunset, I inevitably see at least one hiker using the flashlight feature on their cell phone. For the same reason I don't recommend using your cell phone as a map; you can run out of phone battery. What I do recommend is a headlamp. They are lightweight, affordable, use minimal battery, and they even free up your hands. No matter how dorky you may look wearing a headlamp, you'll be thankful you have both hands free to set up your tent and cook dinner when you roll into camp late.
My go-to headlamp is the Petzl Tikka Headlamp available on Amazon and REI.com. Other recommendations include using new batteries, bringing extra batteries on long trips, and an often overlooked suggestion: checking the bulb life. Remember: bringing a good headlamp will ensure a bright trip!
#3 - SUN PROTECTION
No matter your desire to look like a golden goddess, it's always a good idea to stay safe from the sun. Even if you plan to go out nice and early to beat the heat, not everything goes according to plan. Make sure to protect yourself with proper sun gear.
Sunscreen: When I think of sun protection, my first thought is sunscreen. It also happens to be one of the many things I don't want to be bothered to do. However, true to its name, sunscreen drastically reduces the intensity of the UV rays that ultimately penetrate your skin. When I do wear sunscreen, I opt for one that is at least 30 SPF and protects against both UVA and UVB sun rays. Apply vigorously about 20-30 minutes prior to heading out to allow it to sink in. Consider lip balm to protect your lips from the harsh rays and facial sunscreens that contain Zinc oxide. Don't forget to apply sunscreen to all exposed skin including the undersides of your chin and nose and the insides of your nostrils and ears.
Sunglasses: Whether you're hiking in the desert or the snow, you want to protect your eyes. The sun beats down on you and the UV rays are so powerful that they'll both radiate through clouds and reflect off white snow. I hear snow blindness is real and it's not something I want to experience. The corneas of unprotected eyes can be easily burned before any discomfort is felt, resulting in the excruciatingly painful condition known as snow blindness. Ideally, the frames of sunglasses should have eye shields that reduce the light reaching your eyes, yet allow adequate ventilation to prevent fogging. Bring a good pair of sunglasses or glacier sunglasses in order to spend more time outside.
Hat: Ah, while my baseball hat is usually just another way I can rep #BillsMafia while on the trail, I should be using a wide-brim hat that protects my head, face, and neck. After hiking all around Utah and Colorado this past summer without a hat, I'm convinced there's nothing worse than a sunburned scalp. Take my word for it and bring a quality hat.
Clothing: So we're protecting our head and our eyes with our hats and our sunglasses and hopefully we're applying sunscreen, too. It turns out clothing is the original sunscreen. Save some sunscreen and wear long sleeves and pants! It amazes me that clothes actually come with sun ratings, known as Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). A plain white t-shirt offers about 5 UPF while Columbia makes a shirt that offers 40 UPF sun protection!
#4 - NUTRITION (EXTRA FOOD)
I love food and this item/system is essential for both planned outings and those that end up with unplanned mishaps. Unless you're foraging for plants or berries or catching fish with your bare hands, bring some snacks! Sometimes I tell people I hike so I can eat and that rings particularly true as I'm munching on a Snickers bar in my tent at 2am when it's 10 degrees outside. Don't judge me, eating warms you up!
If you're like me, you might be sick of the go-to gorp but don't worry there are plenty of other great snacks for the outdoors. When considering snacks for the trail, think about the following:
Calorically Dense - Eat smarter, not harder! Bring foods that have a higher Calorie density so you don't have to carry a lot of weight.
Convenient - What I mean by this is bring something that is of the grab-n-go variety. There is no need to have to start a fire or stove just to have a bite to eat.
Non-Perishable - This list is all about the Ten Essentials so the extra food you're bringing should more so be thought of as survival food. I'm fortunate because I haven't had to rely on my survival food yet to survive. As such, it's still in my pack. Make sure these items have a long shelf-life!
Portable - Similar to the grab-n-go convenience aspect, make sure your snacks are sealed so unwanted animals don't eat your snacks before you do.
There is a reason you see so many hikers eating Clif Bars on the trail. Clif Bars happen to by my survival food and there is always at least one bar in my day pack. Other great snacks include nuts (almonds, peanuts, pistachios, etc.), beef jerky, and dried fruit.
#5 - HYDRATION (EXTRA WATER)
The key here is to bring a sufficient amount of water and have the skills and tools to obtain and purify more. True, all the items on this list are essential but water is like really, really essential! Depending on the person, daily consumption ranges from two to three liters per day. Of course that amount increases if you're in higher altitudes and hot weather. I typically fill my 3 Liter Camelbak Hydration Bladder with 2-2.5 liters of water and bring a 1 Liter Nalgene filled with water as well. Believe me, it's better to bring too much water than not enough.
Water Purification - In the event you don't bring enough water, you need to somehow acquire more. Ideally there's a stream or lake nearby that's accessible. Even if the water looks clean, you still want to purify it. Chances are you cannot see what is going on upstream. I remember thinking a water source in Alaska was the purist water I could find...only to discover there was mining that occurred nearby.
Tablets: One of the simplest options to purify water is by using water purification tablets. The quick-dissolving pellets use chemistry to turn any water into drinking water. I hate the chemical taste you're inevitably left with so I carry a little extra weight and bring a water filter on overnight trips.
Water Filter: The Katadyn Hiker Pro, Sawyer Micro Squeeze Water Filtration System, and Lifestraw are all great water filters. The Sawyer Micro Squeeze and Lifestraw are both affordable, lightweight, and all three options instantly turn dirty water into life-saving drinking water. I recently got the Katadyn BeFree Collapsible Water Filter Bottle and cannot wait to test it out!
Boiling: In cold environments, a stove, fuel, pot, and lighter are needed to melt snow for additional water. I use and recommend both the JetBoil and the MSR Pocket Rocket 2.
#6 - INSULATION (EXTRA CLOTHING)
The term "extra clothing" refers to additional layers that would be needed to survive the long, inactive hours of an unplanned bivouac. How much and what type should be selected based on the season. Ask yourself the question "what is needed to survive the worst conditions that could realistically be encountered on this trip?" An extra layer of long underwear can add much warmth while adding little weight to a pack. An extra hat or balaclava can provide more warmth for their weight than any other article of clothing. An extra pair of socks and/or a pair of gloves can go a long way to provide added warmth once the sun goes down.
Extra clothes are commonly used to keep you warm but it should be noted they can also be used for staying dry. You might think you can predict the likelihood of rain based on the weather forecast but we all know that we actually never know when it's going to rain. It is critical to pack a rain jacket or waterproof coat when you go hiking - yes, even for a day hike. I have a few options depending on the length of the trip (day hike versus backpack). Even if you just get a cheap rain poncho or use a garbage bag, you'll be glad you have something when there is nothing to hide under. Consider a rain jacket as an absolute necessity.
#7 - FIRE
Fire is one of the most important components for surviving emergency situations. A well-built fire can help search and rescue locate you, help you stay warm, and you can even cook on it. I haven't perfected making a fire from scratch so I use one of the following options:
Matchbook: The most basic of matches can start a fire but the matchbooks you can find at a bar are most likely too flimsy for the outdoors and too likely to turn useless when wet.
Disposable Lighter: Even though I prefer to start campfires with a match, I carry a disposable lighter that are available at most gas stations. Double check the butane level before heading outdoors.
Stormproof Matches: These are the type of matches I'd recommend for the outdoors because just like the name implies, they are waterproof by design and even come in a waterproof container with a striker attached. Portable, convenient, and inexpensive.
Fire Starter/Ferro Rod: A Ferro rod is a rod made out of Ferrocerium, a metal that produces sparks when struck with another metal. You'll probably want to bring a fire-starter with you if you opt for the Ferro rod.
#8 - EMERGENCY SHELTER
Another item that might be considered overkill for a day hike but think about how thankful you'll be to have a "roof" over your head if you get lost or hurt and need to spend the night. This item could potentially add quite a bit of weight to your pack but it doesn't have to. An emergency shelter can be as cheap, easy, and lightweight as an industrial size garbage bag. Another useful, lightweight tool is an emergency space blanket as it'll help you retain heat much longer.
Depending on what size day pack I bring, I might throw in this SOL Emergency Bivy available on both Amazon and REI.com. The term "bivy" comes from bivouac, a French word meaning "temporary encampment." The Adventure Medical Kits SOL Emergency Bivy fits in the palm of your hand and only weighs 3.8 ounces! The bivy option is pretty much an ultralight plastic sleeping bag that is made to keep you warm. So of course it's ideal for those occasions when you take a wrong turn and are forced to spend the unexpected night out.
#9 - REPAIR KIT & TOOLS
This category is fairly broad and can certainly be interpreted in many different ways. The item I carry in this category that immediately jumps to mind is duct tape; it can fix almost anything. A knife also falls into this category as it can help repair gear, start a fire, administer first aid, and prep food. Paracord is another item that is small but can go a long way. You can use it to fix tents or bags, make a clothesline or animal trap, and even fish with it if you really had to!
I also carry a repair kit for my sleeping pad - which I have had to use in the backcountry. Other 'parts' you may want to have in your inventory include additional fabric for your tent or backpack, extra tips or caps for your trekking poles, zip ties, etc.
#10 - FIRST-AID KIT
I have entire first-aid kit containing gauze, band-aids, scissors, moleskin, and much, much more that I carry on every trip, it's always in my day pack. I very, very rarely need anything more than a band-aid but I still carry the entire kit because I never know what could happen to me or someone else on the trail. Even if that someone else isn't in my group, I want to be prepared to help anyone else on the trail that may be in distress.
Whether you make your own First-Aid Kit or pick up a grab-n-go kit from your local drug store or outdoors store, there is no excuse for not having the bare essentials. They're affordable, light, easy to pack, and did I mention they could save a life? I'd recommend buying a First-Aid Kit from Amazon, Backcountry.com, Eastern Mountain Sports, or REI.com.
If you want to make a kit with what you have around the house, here are some suggestions for what to include:
Disposable gloves, small garbage bag, paper + pencil
Band-Aids (adhesive bandages)
Butterfly bandages + Triangular bandages
Brace or Wrap
Gauze pads in various sizes
Adhesive tape (or use your duct tape from your emergency kit)
Painkillers + Other medications
Antiseptic + Topical antibiotic
Blister prevention and treatment
Check out this article from REI to learn more about what you should have on your First-Aid Kit Checklist.
And, there you have it: The Ten Essentials. It's a lot to digest, I know. The Ten Essentials are a framework, a system, not necessarily a set of rules. Use this guide to think about what could happen in an emergency situation and adapt accordingly. Do know that most people do not even know what The Ten Essentials are so just by having knowledge of the framework already sets you ahead of most hikers and campers. With more time and experience you'll feel more comfortable adapting the framework for your situation ensuring a safe and fun outdoor experience. Enjoy!