The Ten Essentials: critical gear for hiking and backpacking

Wondering what should go in your pack? This stuff! The “ten essentials” really do need to find a place in your backpack. Don’t leave home without them.

  1. Navigation (map & compass)

Always carry a detailed topographic map of the area you are visiting and place it in a protective case or plastic covering. Always carry a compass. You may also choose to carry other navigational tools such as an altimeter or global positioning system (GPS) receiver (remember – electronics can fail); other aids include route descriptions, trip reports smartphones and photos.

  1. Sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen)

Carry and use sunglasses, sunscreen for the lips and skin, and clothing for sun protection.

  1. Insulation (extra clothing)

How much extra clothing is necessary for an emergency? The garments used during the active portion of a trip on the PCT and considered to be the basic outfit include socks, footwear, underwear, pants, shirt, warm jacket, hat, mittens or gloves, and rain gear. The term “extra clothing” refers to additional layers that would be needed to survive bad storms.

  1. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)

Even if your party plans to return to your cars before dark, it is essential to carry a headlamp or flashlight, just in case. In an emergency, you may be forced to move at night. Lose track of the time or get off route and you’ve created an emergency – a blackout. Often it’s too dark in the backcountry to do it without a headlamp. Batteries do not last forever, so carry spares at all times.

  1. First aid supplies

Carry and know how to use a first aid kit, but do not let a first aid kit give you a false sense of security. The best course of action is to always take the steps necessary to avoid injury or sickness in the first place.

  1. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/starter)

Carry the means to start and sustain an emergency fire. Most people carry a lighter or two, instead of matches in a waterproof container. Either must be absolutely reliable. Firestarters are indispensable for igniting wet wood quickly to make an emergency campfire. Where firewood is nonexistent, it is advisable to carry a stove as an additional emergency heat and water source. Staying warm could keep you alive. It’s that simple.

  1. Repair kit and tools

Knives are so useful in first aid, food preparation and gear repairs that every person should carry one. Other useful repair items are safety pins, needle and thread (dental floss works), duct tape, nylon fabric repair tape and cordage. If your shoe breaks apart or your backpack strap rips off, you should be adequately prepared to deal with the problem. Think MacGyver.

  1. Nutrition (extra food)

For shorter trips, a one-day supply of extra food is a reasonable emergency stockpile in case foul weather, faulty navigation, injury or other unexpected events that delay the planned return. Shoulder seasons may require more. Remember: food = fuel. The food should require no cooking, and be easily digestible.

  1. Hydration (extra water)

Carry extra water and have the skills and tools required for obtaining and purifying more. Always carry at least one water bottle or collapsible water sack. Daily water consumption will vary greatly depending on conditions. Two quarts (liters) daily is a reasonable minimum; in hot weather or at high altitudes, six quarts may not be enough. In dry environments, more is needed. Plan for enough water to accommodate the heat, cold, altitude, exertion or emergency.

  1. Emergency shelter (tent/tarp/garbage bag)

If you are not carrying a shelter, carry some sort of solution for providing protection from rain, wind and cold, such as a jumbo plastic trash bag. A better option is a reflective emergency blanket or emergency bivvy sack. It can be used while administering first aid to an injured or hypothermic person and can double as a means of shelter.

–This Ten Essentials information is adapted from Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, published by Mountaineers Books.