Beautiful as it might be, nature is known for its unpredictability and danger. Flash floods can come out of nowhere and sweep you away. Blizzards can keep you trapped in one place for days. Holes and cliff edges can hide under the cover of darkness. The possibilities are limitless, and the unprepared hiker could find themselves in a painful, if not deadly, situation if they aren’t careful.
The point is, we want you to be safe. Even if you’re only planning on going for a day hike, or staying relatively close to civilization, it’s good to remember that anything can happen. And more than likely, it’ll happen when you least expect it.
Below, we’ve laid out the classic 10 essentials list, developed in the 1930’s to help people prepare for emergency situations outdoors. We’ve also included some of our own thoughts and tips after backpacking all over the world.
The 10 Essentials
To start off this list of 10 essentials, we’re going to talk about something that most people might consider non-essential: navigation. In an age where you can see where you are at any time just by looking at your phone, who needs to know how to use things like maps and compasses? We live in a world of satellites and GPS navigation, right?
We’ll talk about why this thinking can get you into a lot of trouble later. First, let’s lay out some of the individual items that are necessary to make sure you know where you’re going, and potentially help others find you if needed.
A good topographical map is a vital tool to bring. Since Google Maps doesn’t do the greatest job at showing elevation changes, you might find yourself entering some difficult terrain if your phone is the only map you’re looking at.
You probably have one on your phone already, but it doesn’t hurt to have a backup. They’re light and don’t require batteries or any other power source, so it’s a good tool to have as a Plan B. If you’ve never used a compass before, or could use a refresher course, check out my guide for compass use here.
It’s hard to know which way to go if you don’t even know where you are. Again, your phone should be fine, but keep track of your battery life. If you don’t have one already, I would recommend getting a durable phone case as well.
Personal Locator Beacon
This handy little gadget will notify emergency response teams if you need help. Good to have for any circumstance, it’s especially useful for giving you peace of mind when you’re in the middle of nowhere. They still work even if you don’t have cell signal, so you don’t have to worry about going too deep into the wilderness.
Useful if you have a topographical map, an altimeter will tell you what your elevation is so you can pinpoint your location on the map.
So now you’re probably wondering why you can’t just use your phone, since many of these items are on there anyway. And I’ll tell you that you can use your phone, just with a few minor adjustments. First, download a map of your location so you can look at it offline. Chances are you’ll be coming in and out of cell signal, or might be completely off the grid altogether. There are few feelings worse than trying to find out where you are but not being able to load a map.
Second, phones will run out of battery eventually, and nature is notorious for its lack of electrical outlets. Maps and compasses won’t ever die on you, so you won’t have to be worried when your battery drops to 1 percent. If you still don’t feel like going old school, bring a portable power bank as a backup, and keep your phone use to a minimum to conserve power.
Ideally, you’ll have prepared well enough where you won’t be hiking or setting up camp in the dark. However, sometimes this isn’t always possible. Perhaps you have to get an early start before the sun rises, or it took you longer to get to your campsite than expected. Whatever the reason, you’ll be glad to have a headlamp. When I was in the Himalayas, we came into our campsite about two hours after the sun set. Not only did the light keep me from stumbling on loose rock, it also let me see what I was doing while pitching the tent. The hands-free design makes it a better option than a flashlight or lantern.
3. Sun Protection
I love the mountains. I’ve been to several of the major ranges all over the world. And one thing I can tell you from my experience is that it’s really easy to get burned! In fact, with every 1,000 meters of elevation gain (3,280 feet), the level of UV radiation increases by about 12 percent. Think you’re safe in the late fall or early spring? Think again. The sun is still powerful enough to make your skin peel, and that’s why sun protection is a crucial component to the 10 essentials.
Even if you don’t plan on going to a high elevation, don’t get complacent with skin care. Put sunscreen on, and wear sunglasses and clothing that protects against the sun.
4. First Aid
Blisters are a given if you plan on trekking any significant distance. Other scratches or cuts are bound to happen eventually too, especially if you brush past trees or slip on a rock. If you think you know what you’ll need on your journey, pack your own first aid kit so you can customize it to your needs. I always like to carry some extra alcohol wipes, lip balm, and insect repellent in my first aid kit, along with everything else that usually comes in one. If you’ve never done this before, or are unsure on what you should bring, it’s easy to find pre-packed first aid kits to bring with you.
A knife will likely become the most versatile tool in your arsenal, which is why you should always carry one. Even if all you have is a single foldout blade, you can use it to make kindling, prepare food, do first aid, cut cord, or make a spark if you have a fire steel. Perhaps not the most important item listed in the 10 essentials, but still something that is nice to have.
If you’re a more inexperienced camper, consider getting a swiss army knife or other multitool. Having a screwdriver, scissor, and can opener attachment may come in handy depending on what your needs are.
Beyond the standard blade, though, we also recommend bringing a couple other handyman items along the way. If you find yourself deep in the wilderness, you’ll especially want duct tape and cordage. If any of your gear rips or breaks, you’ll be able to manage a quick fix with these items.
An essential addition for warmth and cooking, you’ll want to bring everything you need to start a fire when you head out. Disposable butane lighters are cheap and light, which makes them a popular choice for starting a fire. If you prefer matches, make sure they’re waterproof or in a waterproof container. Getting a store bought matchbox probably won’t cut it, considering how flimsy they are.
It’s also worth it to prepare something to set on fire as well. Grab some leaves, pine needles, or kindling to start on fire, and pack them away in a dry space. Lint buildup from your dryer also makes for a great firestarter. If you’ve never built a fire before or could use a refresher, check out my guide that will walk you through everything you need to know to build the best campfire.
If you’re going out in winter or plan to camp above the treeline, your options for fuel are going to be limited to non-existent. Consider bringing a stove for a heat and water source if you think you’ll need it.
7. Emergency Shelter
Always have some sort of emergency shelter on you in case you get stranded or injured and need protection from the elements. You can use your tent as a shelter, but that’s only if you always have it with you – which, if you’re using a one person tent, you might! If you plan on leaving camp or don’t have a tent, bring a bivy sack or ultralight tarp to use if needed.
A friend of mine once went out elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains during winter. As he was tracking an elk that he shot, a sudden blizzard came out of nowhere, trapping him where he was. Fortunately he had a tarp to set up to offer some shelter, but if he didn’t have one on him, frostbite might have been the least of his worries. Find something waterproof to help you stay dry, and carry some cord on you to tie up the tarp if you need to make an emergency shelter.
8. Extra Food
It’s good to have at least a day’s worth of food on you at all times, just in case you’re out longer than expected or there’s an injury. Items that don’t need to be heated and aren’t perishable, like trail mix and granola bars, are the best options to bring with you.
9. Extra Water
In addition to having extra food, the fact that this takes a spot in the 10 essentials should be a no brainer. Running out of water is dangerous, so keep a full bladder or some other container with you at all times. However, if you plan on being out for a long time, it’s not reasonable to carry all the water you’ll want for the entire journey. Have a filter or purification tablets that you can use to clean water you pick up from a nearby river or other water source. In moderate conditions, the average person should drink half a liter of water every hour, so I recommend using that as a guideline.
10. Extra Clothes
Weather can be fickle. You might see sun in the morning, but the afternoon could be a whole different story. That’s why it’s important to bring a few extra layers of clothes with you, so you can dress for whatever comes your way. If you want an in depth look at the art of layering, check out my guide before going on your trip.
That may be the end of the tradition 10 essentials list, but there are a couple other things we think you should consider. I’ve been caught in numerous rain showers while hiking and climbing, and I can tell you that having a small towel to wipe yourself off with is a luxury. It might not save your life, but it’s a nice creature comfort to keep in case you get soaked with rain or sweat.
Having extra batteries, or a way to recharge your necessary electronics is a great thing to consider investing in. I always make sure I include a portable power bank in my checklist anytime I know I’ll be out for more than a couple of days.
The other item I would recommend keeping on you is a whistle. If you do get trapped somewhere, or are unable to move and need help, a shrill whistle might save your life.
Want more help figuring out how to prepare for your next adventure? Check out these guides for more insights!
How to Go Camping: A Guide for your Next Adventure
Using a Compass: How to Find your Way in Nature