10 Essentials

The Ten Essentials is a list of essential items hiking authorities promote as recommended for safe travel in the back country. Here they are:

1.  Map
2.  Compass (optionally supplemented with a GPS receiver)
3.  Sunglasses and sunscreen (a sunhat also helps in this department)
4.  Extra food and water
5.  Extra clothes
6.  Headlamp (outdoor)/flashlight
7.  First aid kit
8.  Fire starter
9.  Matches
10. Knife

Not every expedition will require the use of an essential item. Carrying these basic items improves the chances that one is prepared for an unexpected emergency in the outdoors. For instance, if a hiker experiences a sudden snow storm, fresh clothes and fire starter may be used to keep warm, or the map and compass and headlamp will allow them to exit the wilderness quickly; otherwise hypothermia becomes a prominent possibility, perhaps even death

Now lets break them down……

A map and compass assists one in not getting lost in the field. Losing one’s bearing in unfamiliar terrain raises the risk of anxiety and panic, and hence, physical injury. Maps that cover the relevant area in sufficient detail and dimension (topography, trails, roads, campsites, towns, etc.) and the skill and knowledge to use them are indispensable when traveling through the outdoors, especially when the place of travel lacks signage, markings or guides. Even a basic compass can help an individual find his way to safety.
Sunglasses help prevent snow blindness. Sunlight, especially when reflected in snow, can seriously limit visibility, and jeopardize one’s ability to travel safely. Sunglasses also help prevent any possible eye injury inflicted by tree branches, flying debris, and other possible hazards while traveling on foot. And of course they also just keep all that sun out of your eyes!
Sunscreen is a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product that absorbs or reflects some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation on the skin exposed to sunlight and thus helps protect against sunburn. Sunburn is a very uncomfortable thing, and while it may not ruin a whole trip, it very well can ruin some of it.
A Sun hat is a hat which shades the face and shoulders from the sun. The sun can burn your head and shoulders so you can use the sun hat to protect your head and shoulders from harmful ultraviolet rays. Sun hats can range from small to large brims. Sun hats can be also certified to a seal that is physician endorsed and the brim is usually 4 to 7 inches and shades the face and shoulders and neck.

Extra food and water can prevent or cure hypothermia and dehydration, common illness that can be serious risks in the back country where immediate medical response is not possible. These items also minimize the likelihood of panic. It is not recommended that one eat food when there is no water, as the body requires water to metabolize food. It is recommended that you carry at least one extra meal, and up to an extra full days worth of food. This all depends on the trip underway.
Extra clothes protect against hypothermia. Multiple layers of clothes are generally warmer than a single thick garment. By having the ability to simply take off a layer of clothes, one can avoid overheating, which can cause sweat and dampen clothing. Moreover, a change into dry clothes is the fastest way to become warm. Extra clothing is also useful for protection from the elements, including thorns, insects, sun, wind, and often cold. If necessary, they can be cut into bandages, used as a tree climbing aid, made into hot pads, pillows, towels, or makeshift ropes. For overnight trekking, one should keep one set of clothes dry for wear in the evening. One can wear the “day” clothes during the next day’s hike when they are drier.
Flashlights and headlamps protect against physical injury when traveling in the dark. A flashlight is also useful for finding things in the pack, observing wildlife in dark crevices and folds, and for distant signaling. Extra batteries and bulbs are highly recommended. Lamps using LEDs have become very popular, due to their robustness and low power consumption.
A first aid kit usually contains items to treat cuts, abrasions (blisters), punctures and burns. Additional items might address broken fingers, limbs, cardiac conditions, hypothermia, frostbite, hyperthermia, hypoxia, insect and snake bites, allergic reactions, burns and other wounds. If applicable, include any personal medications. Many first-aid its are sold pre-made, however many people decide to make their own.
Matches (or a lighter) and a fire starter (typically chemical heat tabs, canned heat, or magnesium stick) to light a campfire is useful for preventing hypothermia and to signal for aid. In an emergency, a fire increases one’s psychological will to survive.
A knife is useful for opening packages, building shelter, shaving wood for tinder, eating, field surgery (after sterilization), cutting rope and clothing, etc. A multi-tool such as a Leatherman is also a versatile choice. A larger knife (machete) might be essential when one needs or desires to go off trail into thicker growth. A heavier axe or knife is more effective when one has larger needs for construction or for collecting firewood.

Some other items that are recommended and can supplement the 10 Essentials are:

1.  Water treatment device (water filter or chemicals) and water bottles.
A water treatment device (filter or chemical treatment) makes water potable. All water, including that from streams, lakes, or pools, needs to be treated for bacteria and viruses in order to ensure safety. Most back country travelers carry a water filter: low end models are inexpensive and provide protection against many pathogens, but not viruses. Some more expensive filters and improved chemical treatments get rid of most health risks, including giardia and other protozoa and viruses. Treating the water reduces the likelihood of gastrointestinal diseases. Since some chemical treatments such as iodine or chlorine may leave a bad taste, many suggest mixing in a flavor to hide the taste. These include powdered lemonade or fruit drinks, Tang, Gatorade, or Crystal Light.
Water bottles are useful for transporting a water supply. You can use the filter to pump clean water into the bottle, or use a bottle to scoop up water and then add the chemicals (drops or tablets). Most any kind of bottles can be used. The Aqua Fina bottles are a popular bottle that backpackers carry. It is cheap, and light and easily replaceable.

  1. Repair kit, including duct tape and basic sewing materials.
    If you carry a self-inflating mattress or tent, you need to carry a repair kit for it. Many sleeping pad and tent manufacturers sale these kits to accommodate their particular product. Here’s a classic tip for carrying the basics of a poor-man’s repair kit: Wrap strips of duct tape (the universal fix-it product) around your water bottle or trekking poles so you can repair who-knows-what in the back country. A basic sewing kit is recommended to repair any clothing or backpack or other type of material that may become damaged and require a quick fix.

  2. Insect repellent (or clothing designed for this purpose)
    Bugs can all but ruin a trip. So protection must be taken. Your most effective options are: 1) Lotion or spray repellents containing DEET, and/or 2) Clothing that has been treated with permethrin.

  3. Signaling devices, such as a whistle, cell phone, two-way radio, satellite phone, unbreakable signal mirror or flare.
    A whistle is a compact, lightweight, and inexpensive way to signal for help. Although a person cannot shout for a long period, he can whistle for extended amounts of time. Moreover, the sharp sound of a whistle travels over longer distances than the human voice, and provides a much more distinct sound. Although environmental factors such as wind, snow, and heavy rain may drown out a voice, the sound of a whistle is clearly distinguishable in the field.
    A cell phone, two-way radio, and satellite phone  offers a way of communicating with the outside world should you need assistance. While these are all limited to signals, the sat phone is by far the most reliable of the three.
    A signal mirror can be used to signal airplanes or other hikers by reflecting the light from the sun.

  4. Emergency Shelter such as a plastic tarp and rope.
    The shelter is targeted at day trippers. (Most overnight wilderness travelers already carry a tent or tarp.) The thinking is, if getting lost or injured leaves you stranded in the back country, something is better than nothing if you have to deal with wind or rain or snow. Options include an ultra-light tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket (which packs small and weighs just ounces), or even a large plastic trash bag.


Of course the trip that you will be taking will determine how much of the essentials are actually needed. A short day hike may only require a few of the items, while a full day of hiking may require more. An overnight trip should encompass all of the essentials.

Some of the items are recommended to keep on your person. Some wear a lanyard around their neck with a few of the items attached to it. As it is though, it is your hike, so hike it how you want, but know that these items are listed for your safety. They will not require much room or add much weight, and if you need them you will be very glad that you have them!

9 Responses to 10 Essentials

  1. Bobo says:

    yup, toilet paper is on my list! Also, I pack a light weight hat and gloves in every pack, even my daypack. Thanks for sharing, Stick. I am enjoying your blog!


  2. You forgot the 11th esscential, Toilet Paper. You can make money with it when your friends run out 🙂


  3. chokapi says:

    Hey, Stick. I’ve reorganized my list a bit. I combined first aid and repair (items in each system are often used in the other, like duct tape, needle and thread, knife/scissors, etc.,) into one system, simply, ‘Repair.’ The way I see it, if it breaks, I fix it with available means, whether it be a flesh tear or pole compromise. For all repair items to be in one place is convenient.

    I’ve also redefined ‘Shelter’ and ‘Protection from the Sun’ and ‘Insulation’ as ‘Protection from the Elements’ and ‘Temperature Regulation.’ When we’re out, we’re not trying to stay warm or cool, we’re trying to regulate our temperature. Insulation is useless in hot, dry conditions; you’re looking to maintain a lower body temperature. In cold, wet conditions, you’re trying to keep it up. But when you’re hot, it’s hard to maintain your temp when you’ve got the sun beating down on you. Good to protect yourself from that. Or, when it’s cold, to keep precipitation off you. Either way, protection from the elements. Insulation in cold temps fortifies shelter.


  4. Dave J. says:

    I passed this post along to my friends. I think it is easy to forget the essentials and everyone needs reminding now and then.


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