A lot can go wrong when you’re hiking or backpacking far from civilization: you could get turned around, become dehydrated, suffer from hypothermia, or get stuck in inclement weather. Whether you’re prepared for those problems depends largely on what’s in your backpack, so you’d better be carrying the essentials.
We’re talking about the Ten Essentials, a list first published by outdoor organization The Mountaineers in 1974. This group of items was designed to answer two important questions:
- Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively if one occurs?
- Can you safely spend a night or more outside?
According to Steve McClure, instructor at The Mountaineers and author of the updated 10 essentials in the most recent edition of the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, whether you need all 10 will depend on your destination. For example, a short, easy day hike in the frontcountry where you’ll never be out of cell service or more than a short distance from a trailhead or road likely won’t require you to pack an emergency shelter or a firestarter.
But for longer hikes in the backcountry, don’t skip any of these important items—even if you’re familiar with the territory or consider yourself experienced. “Stuff happens,” McClure says. “It just does. Eventually it’s gonna happen to you or someone you’re with.” And it’s always best to be prepared. To make packing easy, keep the first seven items in your favorite hiking pack all the time and toss in the last three (plus a map) before you head out the door.
1. Navigational tools
“Today we carry five tools for navigation in the backcountry,” McClure says. “These key tools are a physical paper map, a compass, an altimeter app on your phone or a watch with an altimeter, a cell phone GPS app, downloaded digital maps, and a way to contact first responders with a device such as a Garmin inReach.” Just don’t forget extra batteries or a power bank, especially if you’ll be using your phone to help navigate.
Few hikers who have gotten lost in the woods or fell behind schedule were probably anticipating being in the woods or mountains after dark. So no matter the length of the hike, pack a headlamp or flashlight. Sure, we all have cell phones with built-in lights these days, but those tend to drain the battery quickly, making your phone unavailable for emergency calls or digital maps. Just make sure your headlamp batteries are charged and bring spares, just in case.
3. Sun protection
Sunscreen, sunglasses, and other sun protection like sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats are vital, especially in the summer. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need this stuff in the winter. No matter the season, you absolutely need to protect exposed skin, especially if you’re at high altitudes where there’s less atmosphere to filter out ultraviolet rays.
4. First aid
A first aid kit should never be missing from your pack. How comprehensive it is depends on the hike in question, but even short day hikes near home require at least a simple kit. You can buy a pre-made one or build your own with items like bandages, skin closures, gauze pads and dressings, a roller bandage or wrap, tape, antiseptic, blister prevention and treatment supplies, nitrile gloves, tweezers, a needle, non-prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, antidiarrheal medicine, antihistamine tablets, a topical antibiotic, insect repellent, and blister prevention patches. Longer trips naturally require more supplies, and don’t forget personal medications like an EpiPen or insulin.
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5. Knife (and other necessary tools)
A knife or multi tool and repair patches are essential. Wrap a few layers of duct tape around your trekking pole or water bottle and carry a length of paracord and an adhesive patch or two on longer hikes in case your jacket or backpack springs a leak.
If the worst should happen, having a way to light a fire for warmth—or an emergency signal—can help you make it through an unexpected night outdoors. But items like matches and tinder are only helpful if you’re in an area with downed wood. Trails above the treeline or in the snow can be lacking in that department. So think more along the lines of whether you have the ability to heat water, McClure explains, suggesting items like a backpacking stove and lightweight pot.
A shelter can mean many things depending on where you’re headed and how long you plan to be out there, but for a day hike, think less “tent” and more “tarp.” McClure brings an ultralight emergency bivy for warmer hikes and a warmer bivy for winter hikes. An emergency blanket or a tarp can also bring peace of mind and potentially save your life in inclement weather. Of course, if you’re backpacking, you’ve likely already packed a tent.
8. Extra food
No matter the length of your hike, always bring more food than you think you’ll need. Even on a day hike you might be surprised how quickly your stomach starts to grumble when you’re exerting yourself on a tough trail. So on day hikes, bring extra snacks like trail mix, cookies, or other high-calorie foods. And on multi-day hikes, pack an extra meal or two.
[Related: What happens to the food you leave outdoors]
9. Extra water
Not enough water can quickly cause dehydration, especially in warmer months, and this can lead to a whole slew of additional health problems—it can even kill you. So pack at least half a liter per hour that you plan to be hiking and bring more than you think you need, especially on longer excursions.
10. Extra clothes
No matter the season or the length of the hike, always pack an extra layer. Even in the summer, temperatures can drop or wet weather can roll in, so bring an extra item of clothing or two. Depending on the forecast and where you’re hiking, that might be a cozy fleece, a rain jacket, or a lightweight puffer. Check the forecast before you go and bring that extra layer just in case.
The bottom line
Each of The Ten Essentials may look slightly different depending on the hike you’re planning, but your goal should be to leave home prepared for any eventuality. Just don’t skimp on important gear in the name of saving weight. Think of it this way, McClure says: “You almost never use your spare tire, but you never think of leaving it at home.” So make counting these 10 a habit, and explore confidently.