If you’ve been hiking or backpacking for very long, you’ve probably heard the term and seen an accompanying list of “the Ten Essentials.” The term dates back to the 1930s when The Mountaineers first used it to describe a safety and packing system taught in their mountaineering courses. The Ten Essentials gained popularity with outdoor enthusiasts when it was first published in the 1974 edition of the iconic text, “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.”
The list of essential systems needed for safe travel in the backcountry has changed slightly over the years. Depending on the location of your trip, the time of year, and the forecasted weather, the items you bring should also change. Selecting appropriate gear for each hike is an important part of the trip planning process. Careful consideration of what we carry can help us stay safe and comfortable while on the trail and will help us make decisions that reduce our impact on the environment.
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Listed below are the essential systems, as published in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 9th Edition, that all hikers and backpackers should consider before hitting the trail. We’ve also included some AGC staff recommendations for each category.
Keeping yourself oriented is the best way to avoid becoming lost. A detailed map of the area and a quality compass are two of the most critical items to have in your backpack. An altimeter can also be a handy tool for navigating. Modern technologies are also available to help us navigate the backcountry but should not take the place of a map and compass. Other items for this system that hikers/backpackers may want to consider include a GPS device and digital map, a personal locator beacon (PLB), and a satellite communicator.
- Suunto A-10 Compass
- Garmin inReach Mini2
- FarOut (formerly GutHooks)
- National Geographic Topo Maps
Headlamps protect against physical injury when traveling in the dark. They are helpful for finding things in your backpack, cooking after dark, distant signaling, and those unexpected pilgrimages to the outhouse at night! Look for a good quality waterproof headlamp with at least 100 lumens. Bring extra batteries or choose a rechargeable headlamp - just be sure to charge up between trips.
3. Sun Protection
Sunscreen and lip balm of at least SPF 30 and sunglasses with 100% UV protection are essential items. Sunburns are one of the most common injuries in the backcountry and one of the easiest to prevent. Sunglasses help prevent snow blindness when recreating in wintertime or in high alpine environments where snow persists in the summer months. Sun-protective clothing and sun hats can also be considered in this category.
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted Sunscreen SPF 50
- Sun Bum SPF 30 Sunscreen Lip Balm
- Mountain Hardwear Women's Crater Lake Long Sleeve Hoody
- Mountain Hardwear Women's Sunshadow Long Sleeve Hoody
- Tilley sun hat
4. First Aid Kit
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, insect bites, allergic reactions, burns, and other wounds. If applicable, include any personal medications. Insect repellent and foot care are included here. There are some great pre-made first aid kits available for hikers and backpackers to purchase. Always customize your first aid kit for your needs and the needs of those traveling with you.
5. Knife/Repair Kit
A knife is another handy tool in the backcountry and can be used in first aid, repairs, and food preparation. Look for small, lite-weight, easy-to-use options. Also, consider packing a small repair kit for fixing things like your backpack or tent in the field - at the very least, carry a knife and a small roll of duct tape.
- Victorinox Classic SD 7 Function Pocket Knife
- Kershaw Barricade (8650) Orange Multifunction Rescue Pocket Knife
Carrying waterproof matches and a fire starter to light a fire is helpful in an emergency. Packing a lightweight camp stove, warm clothes, and a headlamp will decrease your chances of needing to build an emergency campfire.
- UST WetFire Tinder - Compact, lightweight, and starts easily.
A tent, tarp, or lightweight emergency bivvy can protect you from the elements and can be life-saving when the unexpected happens. Many hikers carry lightweight shelters even on day trips, particularly when hiking alone.
- Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL Ultralight Tent
- Zpacks Duplex Tent - lightweight and best for warm weather camping. Perfect as a 2-person tent or solo tent with tons of extra space.
- SOL Emergency Blanket for day hikes
8. Extra food
Bring a small amount of extra food in case you are out longer than expected. Food should be calorie dense (high amount of calories, small in size and weight), require no cooking, be easy to digest, and have a long shelf life. Examples are nuts, jerky, and energy bars. Some hikers store this extra bit of food in their first aid kit.
- Honey Stinger Gluten Free Organic Waffles
- All things Trader Joe's!
9. Water/Water Treatment System
All water, including water from pristine-looking natural bodies of water like lakes and streams, needs to be treated for bacteria to ensure safety. Always carry at least one water bottle or hydration blatter. You should also have enough water for your trip or a water treatment device (filter, UV sterilizer, or chemical treatment) that makes water potable.
- Katadyn BeFree Water filter system
- Sawyer Products Squeeze Water Filtration System
- SteriPEN ULT-MP-EF SterPen Ultra UV Water Purifier
- Aquamira - Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment Two Part Liquid (1 oz Droppers Bottles)
- Katadyn Gravity BeFree 6L Water Microfilter
10. Extra Clothes
Bring an extra insulating layer, just in case. An extra set of gloves, hat, and warm socks are recommended depending on the time of year. Think about what clothes you need to survive an unexpected night out in the area you are visiting. Bring layers that will stay warm even when wet and that will dry quickly, such as wool or synthetic materials. Avoid cotton fabrics that are slow to dry.
Whether you're headed out on a one-day hike or a multi-day hike, carrying the ten essentials can make all the difference in what makes a successful hike. Becoming familiar with each item and how to use them before stepping foot on the trail will further contribute to a safe outdoor experience. In addition to acquiring these essential items, know your limits and be sure to leave your itinerary with friends or relatives.