Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Packing your bag for a hike can be tough: Do I have enough snacks? Should I pack toilet paper? Is that a personal preference? What do I actually need?
A quick internet search may bury you in many differing opinions, and it can be hard to sort out what's needed, what's useful, and what's not. Thankfully, in the 1930s The Mountaineers, a Seattle based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers, established a list of the Ten Essentials. While updates are made as technology advances, the core essentials ring true even today.
The 10 Essentials ensure that we're prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors, and while you may not use every item every hike, it's important to always keep them handy. After all, you can’t plan an emergency, right?
The 10 Essentials are listed as "systems." Keep in mind that the specific items in each system are flexible and may be swapped out based on activity and climate.
10 Essential Systems
3. Sun Protection
4. First Aid
8. Extra Food
9. Extra Water
10. Extra Clothes
Let's break it down...
Phones can be useful tools, but service in hiking areas is often limited and battery power only goes so far, especially in extreme temperatures.
Whether you're analog or high-tech inclined, here are some tried-and-true alternatives:
- Map: Digital or analog, this is always the first thing you should have handy! Check park headquarters and websites for trail maps, topographic maps, and downloadable maps.
- Compass: Knowing your bearing is one of the best ways to prevent getting lost. Phones have handy compass apps to help you stay on track, but an old-school baseplate compass will work without fail and isn't reliant on dwindling battery power. Baseplate compasses often have a sighting mirror as well that can be used to flash sunlight in emergency rescue situations.
- GPS Device: Again phones are handy, but aren't always reliable or accurate. An independent GPS device allows you to accurately track your location and stay on course. There are many great options for outdoor use that include a tough and sturdy built for even the clumsiest of us on the trail.
Why a headlamp instead of a flashlight? Two words…hands free.
Let's pretend we're in one of those dramatic infomercials where the lady opens a cabinet and 300 tupperware dishes fall out:
After a long day of hiking through a gorgeous valley, you make your way back to the car. As it gets dark, you realize that adventuring to that extra waterfall may have cost too much time (gasp, never!). The trail gets darker, the terrain back to the car is uneven, there are water obstacles, and a few hazards to avoid. No worries, you have your flashlight.
As you hop over a muddy puddle, your foot catches a rock, your arms flail, you drop the flashlight, and it goes dark as it rolls off the trail. You crawl around in the grass, hands out hoping there aren't any reptiles or rodents around. After a few minutes with the creepy crawlies you find the flashlight, hit the switch, and discover you're holding it backwards. Now you're momentarily blinded, covered in dirt, and you're worried that may not be just a mosquito bite on your hand.
If only there was a better way.
Surprise, there is! Introducing the headlamp - a fantastic tool affixed to your noggin that shines a bright ray of light everywhere you look, quite literally. Now both hands are free for climbing, stabilizing, eating, and patty cake games.
There are many types of headlamps to choose from, including rechargeable, multiple brightnesses, and red light for night. Just remember to always bring a back up source, whether that be extra batteries, an external battery, or a backup light.
3. Sun Protection
Did you know you can still get sunburned on a cool or overcast day? Sun protection is easy to overlook in certain seasons and environments, but it's important for both your short- and long-term health to keep your body protected! Be sure to focus on more than just your skin too--you may not need much sunscreen on a snowy mountain hike, but don't forget to protect your eyes…snow blindness is REAL.
A few simple ways to stay protected are sunscreen (don't forget the chapstick!), clothing, and protective eyewear. Look for sunscreens that list zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the primary active ingredients (they're better for that beautiful environment you're enjoying!). Clothing can be anything from rashguards to hats, long sleeves, or gloves. Lot's of outdoor and athletic brands make clothing for specific environments, so you don't have to worry about overheating while preventing burns.
4. First Aid
It's important to carry a first aid kit AND know how to use the contents! Pre-assembled first aid kits, like Adventure Medical Kits, are super handy and take the guesswork out of building one yourself. As you get out on more adventures, pull out your fair share of thorns, or twist your ankle one too many times you'll begin to dial in your kit and find your favorite supplies.
Most kits should be stored in a waterproof container or area of your pack, and have at least the basics: bandages, gauze, disinfecting ointment, blister kits, relevant medication, wrap for bandages and sprains, and sterile gloves.
In case of an emergency, knowledge is key. Stay calm, assess the situation, and go to work. If you haven’t taken a certification course yet, CPR/First Aid is a great first step. Beyond the basics, if you adventure frequently, tend to visit more remote areas, or just want to be better prepared, consider a certification in Wilderness First Aid or equivalent.
No, I’m not taking about some Rambo style machete (although if you ask for my personal preference...), especially on those longer hikes when ounces matter. A small pocket knife or multitool will likely do the trick. Knives are great for food prep, first aid, gear repair, or making kindling.
Speaking of kindling…While you may not plan to need a fire, it may become necessary in an emergency. Carrying waterproof matches, a lighter, or a fire starter can be a life saver. In conditions where building a fire isn't possible, such as above the tree line or through a snowed-in area, a small stove can be indispensable. If you do build a fire, make sure it's completely extinguished before leaving the site. Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires…Thanks Smokey!
7. Emergency Shelter
I see your brain working…
”You mean like a tent? I’m not carrying that!”
Not even close! Shelter can mean a lot of things and while a tent is handy for an overnight or multi-day hike, it may not be practical for a quick day hike. Ultralight tarps, bivy sacks, space blankets or even a large trash bag can all be used to protect you from the elements if you get lost, stranded, or injured on trail. Even a rain jacket can help keep you dry and a little warmer in an emergency situation. All these options can pack down small and don’t add much weight.
8. Extra Food
Most of us throw in a few snacks when heading out for a hike, but many don’t think about what we're packing. Be sure to throw in a few things that are easy to eat, and loaded with good sources of protein and carbs. If you get stuck out in the wild, you'll be happy you have those nuts, dried fruit, jerky, protein bars…flaming hot Cheetos…
9. Extra Water
Water is essential for both your health and mood! Anyone else ever get grumpy when they're dehydrated? Nothing is worse than hiking in a hot or dry climate and realizing your group is running on empty. Even in cooler, temperate climates, staying hydrated is vital.
Pack as much water as you think you need, then throw in a little more. There's lots of info on the web about how to calculate your water needs, but it all boils down to these basics: length, difficulty of your hike, and conditions.
A great starting point is 2 cups or .5 liters of water for every hour of hiking. If it's particularly hot (hey Guam, Hawaii, Texas, Alabama...okay there's a lot of us sweating out here), you might factor as much as 1 liter per hour.
For full day and multi-day activities, a great rule of thumb is at least 1 gallon of water per person per day. If you're on a longer or more remote hike, you might also consider a water purifier, tablets, or other methods of water purification.
There are many ways to store water, so experiment a little and find what works best for you. Water bladders provide quick and hands-free access and disperse weight evenly as you drink. Traditional water bottles are a little easier to refill on trail and may be easier to pack depending on your activity.
10. Extra Clothes
Conditions can change in an instant. A warm sunny day with a light breeze can quickly turn into limb-numbing cold rain. Wearing layers and bringing a few extra items is always a good idea, just in case you get drenched or injured, or you plough through one too many thorn bushes and wreck your shirt beyond repair. Don’t pack your whole wardrobe, just assess your hiking environment and add a few extras: packable jacket, an extra shirt, or clean, dry socks can make a world of difference. If it's a quick and easy hike, you may opt to keep those extra clothes in the car.
So what do you pack, Jen?
Like most millennials, I always carry my phone. It serves as a map, GPS, and compass…and camera who are we kidding. I also always have backups for these items, including a physical map/trail guide and compass. I also bring an external battery on longer trips so I can recharge my phone if need be. I also slip my phone, battery, and paper maps into a dry bag for safe keeping on wet trails.
Headlamps are my weakness, in the "I'm kind of obsessed with them" sense, and I have a large collection of them. You might even find me sporting one in my own home while doing intricate tasks...I prefer the rechargeable type over the battery type, but both have their place.
As far as sun protection, I always have at least one pair of sunglasses somewhere in the black hole of my backpack. For skin protection, I throw in a reef safe sunscreen for the tropics or sun protective clothing for the temperates.
I’m big on first aid kits and always carry one. My kit tends to change regularly as I find new interesting things. I’m currently building my long-haul first aid kit, including a SAM splint and extra wraps. I am First Aid and CPR certified and hope to get my Wilderness First Aid certification soon.
At first my hiking knife was one of my husband’s random old pocket knives. He would stop using one because it was annoying to open, wasn’t sharp anymore, didn't match his backpack…but now I have my own, personal, husband-can’t-steal-it, dedicated hiking knife. It's nothing fancy, but it does the job, and it’s all mine.
As for fire, I have strike-able fire starters and a waterproof/weatherproof rechargeable tesla coil lighter. It's really nifty.
In regards to shelter, I'll admit I tend to slack on day hikes. I do carry a space blanket, which is better than nothing, but for longer or more remote hikes a small tarp would be a great addition.
For food and water I gravitate to the basics. I usually pack some of my favorite granola bars and nuts, as well as a piece or two of fruit, fresh or dried.
I always bring my water bladder, and while I often don’t drink all of it, it's nice to know it's there for myself or anyone else I may hike with!
I always dress in layers, and as the weather has been pretty cold here in Washington this season, those layers are even more important. A three-layer minimum is crucial for these colder temps, and a packable puffy jacket is essential in the mountains.
That's a wrap, so start rounding up your essentials and get outside!
Have questions or want to share your kit with us? Comment below, tag @militarywild, or send us a message!