Ten Essentials for Backcountry Hiking
Gear Isn't Everything ... But It Sure Helps
If you've read other articles of mine, you may be rolling your eyes right about now, thinking, ugh, is she harping on this stuff again? Well ... yeah, I can't help it; I'm a big proponent of being prepared, particularly in the backcountry.
And if you're a hiker or any other type of outdoor enthusiast, you've probably heard the term "the ten essentials" at least a time or two. That's okay, though, you can keep reading if you'd like. It never hurts to reinforce the idea.
Besides, it can be easy to get complacent when you've been at this trail-walking thing for a long time without incident. For me, though, being involved with Search and Rescue is a really good -- and, unfortunately, frequent -- reminder that a little bit of gear can go a long way, and even save a life.
What ARE The Ten Essentials?
A hiker's must-haves
(Photo: That's me, "slack-packing" on the Appalachian Trail with a 24-hour pack.)
To me, the ten essentials are best thought of as ten categories rather than ten items. So, do you need all of it if you're going for just a two-mile hike on a trail you've been over umpteen times before? Well, I'll leave that decision up to you. Besides, one two-mile trail or route can be very different than another.
Me, I have my basic 24-hour pack (for at least 24-hour preparedness on the trail) stocked with ten essential gear, ready to grab and go no matter if I plan to be hiking for one hour or all day and regardless of the trail.
Some of that gear falls under the "just in case" heading, while other items are preventative and sustaining.
For overnight or multi-day treks, I still bring the ten essentials, just more of some things, different versions of others, and additional items I wouldn't take on a day hike. Still, the concept is the same: hike smart, go prepared, be safe.
The following is a list of the ten essentials by category. You can click on a category to skip to that section, where I'll suggest some items I like and have used that fulfill that important part of my hiking gear:
The Ten Essentials Table of Contents
(in no particular order)
- First Aid
- Tools & Repair
- Sun Protection
Hiking Essential #1: Navigation
Tools for Finding Your Way
Where Am I? Where Am I Going? And How Do I Get Back?
The #1, most essential item in this category is the proper map, preferably a topographic map that shows the shape of the terrain. Without a map, a compass is of limited use. And a GPS can malfunction. With a map, however, along with the skill to interpret it and compare what you see on that paper to the terrain around you, you will rarely, if ever, be lost. Confused for a time perhaps, but not completely confounded, especially if you add some "alternative navigation" skills to that grab bag of tools.
As with all of the gear here, none of it takes the place of common sense or skill of course, and sometimes luck is a factor, too, but it sure helps to have these tools at your disposal.
One such tool is a compass. No batteries required, and the basic skills needed to use one properly aren't all that difficult with some practice. Put together with your map and your head, you should be able to find your way even if you get "momentarily misplaced."
Add to that some gadgetry like a GPS, and you'll have even more information and resources. Of course, gadgets can break, get lost, or run out of battery juice, so they shouldn't be relied upon to the exclusion of that map. What gets some folks into pickles, though, is being out-of-the-box users -- meaning removing that nice, new gizmo from its package and heading to the trailhead without first practicing with it in their own back yards.
Anyhow, here are a couple of suggestions in the navigation tool department:
But not all compasses are created equal. This is the one I use and recommend.
I like this compass because, for one thing, it has adjustable declination, so you can set it to the declination for the area in which you'll be traveling and then forget about it. No calculations necessary.
I also like that the sighting mirror can double as a signal mirror. This is a quality compass with an easy-to-read bezel and measuring scales, as well as a lanyard to keep it handy.
A Handheld GPS
A GPS is a great tool ... as long as you know how to use it of course. But even if you do, I recommend that you always take a back-up form of navigation (especially a map) because we all know that gadgets can fail and batteries can die.
I think this is a nice, middle-of-the-road and easy to use GPS, once you get the hang of it. And there aren't a bunch of unnecessary bells and whistles. At least, unnecessary for the "average hiker." In fact, I find this GPS to be more than enough for Search and Rescue work, too.
The Legend comes loaded with a full basemap of North and South America, with position accuracy to less than three meters. The basemap contains lakes, rivers, cities, interstates, national and state highways, railroads and coastlines. This GPS stores 1000 waypoints and 20 routes, includes a PC cable for downloading or uploading Mapsource maps, and runs for 18 hours on 2 AA batteries.
Hiking Essential #2: Illumination
Light Your Way in the Backcountry
Because bumping into things hurts
Most dayhikes are intended to be just that: daylight hikes. But sometimes things run a bit long for one reason or another, and darkness catches up. In those cases, or of course if you plan to be out at night or overnight, a light source sure comes in handy.
Our SAR team has been called out numerous times to rescue stranded hikers, climbers, backcountry skiers and others who simply got stuck because they couldn't see. So why not carry a lightweight light source, no matter what?
Flashlights are great, and I always bring a handheld as a backup because I think two sources are better than one, but my primary tool for illumination is always a headlamp for hand-free hiking or moving around camp. Not to mention for seeing what the heck just crawled across my face while I was lying in my tent.
These are two of my headlamp picks, one more for "just in case" than the other:
For hands-free lighting
This is one of a few headlamps I have in my gear stash.
The Myo RXP has 3 lighting modes, each of which can be adjusted to ten possible levels from 8 to 140 lumens. The wide angle lens allows you to switch from flood beam lighting to focused long-distance lighting. This headlamp is great for endurance-oriented activities, providing 95 hours of light duration at the "economic" level. The Myo RXP is compatible with lithium batteries, which are lighter than alkaline batteries, and have better performance at lower temperatures.
An Emergency Headlamp
Dependable, even after years of not being used
What good is an emergency light if it doesn't work when you suddenly find you need it? Sure, it's always a good idea to check it before you head out, but how many of us either forget to do that or honestly just blow it off? This is a great product to invest in -- and it's not expensive -- to account for both of those normal aspects of human nature.
Emergency lighting should be compact, lightweight, dependable and high-performance, and it should be ready for use today or next year. The Petzl e+Lite fits the bill with the long shelf-life of the CR2032 lithium batteries, meaning it will work when needed unexpectedly.
The e+Lite can be used in all conditions and can be stored with batteries for up to 10 years and still be operational. It shines up to 19 meters and has a built-in SOS signal in the rare case you might need it. This light can shine for up to four days in a row.
Hiking Essential #3: Insulation
Keep Warm and Protected
Because cold is uncomfortable ... and can be a killer
Like most ten essential categories, this one needs little if any explanation. But I'll do it anyway.
While being uncomfortably cold is no fun whatsoever, the real concern is hypothermia, which is caused by a reduction in body temperature. If untreated, hypothermia can result in organ death, heart arhythmias, or disorientation, and that disorientation can even lead to "paradoxical undressing"--removing clothing because one doesn't feel the cold. If the person isn't found and treated quickly, death is very likely.
Sure, there's heat in the feet as they say, but once you stop and the sweat starts to dry, it can get chilly fast. And even a summer day can turn into a snow squall at elevation. In fact, hypothermia often occurs when the temperature is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when there's rain and/or wind added to the mix. So carrying at least some lightweight, emergency insulation along with extra layers of clothing, even on a summer dayhike, is a good idea.
In addition to whatever articles of clothing you might bring along--like a fleece top, a rain or wind shell and pants, a hat, gloves and extra socks, for example--here are a couple of suggestions for "just in case" insulating items:
An Emergency Bivvy
This may not be the toastiest way to spend a night outdoors, but it sure beats nothin'.
I've spent more than a few nights in one of these during Search & Rescue missions. With a closed cell foam pad underneath -- or just some pine needles -- and my small backpack for a pillow, I actually slept quite comfortably even when the outside temperature was in the 20s.
This lightweight bivvy reflects up to 90% of your own body heat, and it has Thermo-lite 2 material on the bottom, which can hold up to rocky ground and hard snow pack.
In a pinch, this bag is easily repaired in the field with duct tape. And the design allows you to open the side, bottom and top for moisture and heat to escape.
An All-Weather Space Blanket: What a difference it can make
This 12-ounce blanket made of tough laminate of fiber scrim and aluminized plastic reflects back up to 80% of your body heat and can be used as a ground cover, while you get in your emergency bivvy (above) to keep the cold out. Or if your bivvy alone isn't quite cutting it, you can put the blanket under you and then wrap the rest around the bivvy.
I don't usually carry a sleeping bag with me on Search and Rescue missions, but I do always carry one of these All-Weather blankets and have spent plenty of hours wrapped in mine during nighttime rest breaks and, along with my layers of clothing, have weathered the cold temps just fine.
Learn more about hypothermia and its treatment from The Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia & Cold Weather Injuries.
Hiking Essential #4: Hydration
Because dehydration can turn into one's elimination
Sorry, I'm just playing around with words. But seriously....
While people have survived without food for weeks or even months, it's dangerous to go without water for even a day. The generally accepted rule of thumb is that a person needs a minimum of two quarts of clean water per day, but in very hot or cold or dry environments, or if you're physically active, two quarts probably won't be enough to sustain you for days, let alone weeks.
So along with plenty of potable water, it's makes good sense to bring along some form of water purification method as well. Personally, I use a water filter or filtration bottles on my overnight or multi-day trips, while carrying purification tablets or iodine in solution as my emergency method of treating water on both dayhikes and backpacking trips. For more information on treating water on the trail, see Backcountry Water Purification.
There are many types and brands of water containers one can choose from, but I personally prefer bottles to water bladders. Water bladders are great for the convenience of drinking while on the move, and a lot of hikers obviously prefer them, but I like to see just how much water I have. And I've had more than my fair share of leaky Camelbak-type bladders.
There are many types and brands of water containers one can choose from, but I personally prefer bottles to water bladders. Water bladders are great for the convenience of drinking while on the move, and a lot of hikers and trail runners obviously prefer them, but I like to see just how much water I have. And I've had more than my fair share of leaky Camelbak-type bladders, so it's usually bottles for me -- or at least one bottle in addition to a bladder.
I always carry at least two liters or quarts of water on dayhikes, even short ones. On really hot days and long hikes, I carry four liters or roughly a gallon.
I do often use soda or Gatorade bottles to carry water, but I have plenty of Nalgenes as well. They're good for hot liquids too, which the soda and sports drink bottles are not. Nalgenes have the wide mouths that fit most water filters (the kind you pump) on the market.
A 48-Ounce Bottle
For some extra carrying capacity, I often bring along two 48-ounce Silos on my hikes and Search & Rescue missions. Being the same diameter as the quart-sized bottles above, they fit just as well in the side pockets of my backpack but are equivalent to close to three of the smaller containers.
Hiking Essential #5: Nutrition
Carry Enough Calories in the Backcountry
Because feeling lethargic and hungry can really slow you down
Calories may not be quite as vital as liquids in the short term, but they certainly are important and make you feel better. And I'm not just talking calories here; I'm also referring to sugars, salt, electrolytes, carbohydrates ... basically, fuel and energy.
To satisfy those needs, I always keep a stash of long-lasting food bars and snacks in my daypack, which I replace as I use, and add fresh goodies just before heading out the door. For longer trips, I usually bring some sort of backpacking stove or fuel tablets, along with dehydrated, hearty meals.
Here are a couple of suggestions:
Food Bars - Compact nutrition
Just make sure that you actually like the food you're carrying, so palatability is as important as having a long shelf-life -- foods that won't spoil or melt in your pack.
There are sooooo many options on the market when it comes to food bars, trail bars, energy bars. Some I just can't stand unless I'm totally famished. Others, like these here, I actually sort of like. Honestly, I've never really found a food bar I'd want to eat while at home, but these raw food Larabars are some of the few I've found that come close.
Other brands I recommend are KIND bars and PRO bars.
These taste amazing when you're really hungry ... and quite good even when you're not.
One of my favorite brands these days is MaryJane's Farm. They have lots of different meals to choose from, some of which are gluten-free, which not only taste really good but also come in very compact packaging.
Here's another brand I like and have been using for years....
Dehydrated Meals - These taste amazing when you're really hungry ... and quite good even when you're not.
Dehydrated meals aren't what I'd choose to make at home, but this brand tastes mighty good on the trail. Just add hot water to the bag, wait for the heat to do its thing, and bon apetite. I also like those Lipton pasta and rice dishes you can get at just about any grocery store. Oh, and then there's Ramen noodles, Knorr brand, etc., etc. etc.
Hiking Essential #6: First Aid
Carry a First Aid Kit
Because sucking on a cut all day ... well, sucks
When I'm not on a Search & Rescue mission, I don't carry a lot of extra medical supplies other than what I might need for myself and to share now and then. So most of what's in my first aid is pretty basic. I always make sure to add some disposable gloves if they're not already included, just in case I do have to tend to someone else. I also include a small pair of scissors and tweezers.
While there are plenty of prepacked medical kits on the market, from personal to professional, you can certainly compile your own basic kits from the drugstore shelves. Be sure to add any prescription medications you may be on or, if applicable, supplies for allergic reactions (ie. Epinephrine, Benadryl) or diabetes. You just never know for sure if you'll be home in time to take your next dose.
Here's a basic commercial kit I recommend:
A Personal First Aid Kit - To treat yourself and maybe a friend
There are a variety of kit sizes and contents to choose from. Prices vary, so see the Amazon listing for options.
This 1-lb kit includes:
- 4 Butterfly Closure bandages
- 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 4" x 4" pads
- 4 Adhesive fabric knuckle bandages
- 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 3" x 3"
- 1 Adhesive fabric bandage, 2" x 4.5"
- 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 2" x 2"
- 16 Adhesive Fabric Bandages, 1" x 3"
- 2 Non-Adherent, Sterile Dressings, 2" x 3"
- 1 Pair Gloves, Nitrile
- Hand Wipe
- 1 Trauma Pad, 5" x 9"
- 1 Moleskin, 3" x 4"
- 1 Cold Pack
- 1 Bandage, Elastic with Clips, 2"
- 1 Splinter Picker/Tick Remover Forceps
- 1 Scissors, Bandage with Blunt Tip
- 2 Safety Pins
- Aspirin (325 mg), Pkg/2
- 3 Acetaminophen (500 mg), Pkg/2
- 3 Ibuprofen (200mg), Pkg/2
- 3 Antihistamine (Diphenhydramine 25mg)
- 2 AfterBite Wipe
- 1 Mini Rescue Howler Whistle
- 1 Compass, Button, Liquid Filled
- 12 Antimicrobial Towelettes
- 1 Tape, 1/2" x 10 Yards
- 4 Triple Antibiotic Ointments, Single Use
- 4 Cotton Tip Applicators, Pkg/2
Hiking Essential #7: Tools & Repair
Carry Tools for Fixing Things on the Trail
Or for toenail clipping. Or splinter removal. Or kindling cutting. Or....
There are a whole slew of things that might need tending to or fixing while you're out and about in the backcountry. Most of them may never come up, but it sure is nice to have some tools other than your teeth and fingernails at your disposal.
My husband never leaves home without his little Leatherman Squirt, which he's got attached to his keychain, and I never hit the trail without a multi-tool either. Some follks prefer and get by just fine with just a knife, but I like the added features of the multi-tools.
Here are the one I use the most:
A Small Multi-Tool
The Squirts come in three different versions with three different main tools. This one has the needlenose pliers, which is my preference, but there's also a model with scissors and another with wire-cutters in that primary position. I carry scissors in my first aid kit, so I don't need them here too. The pliers, though, are useful for removing cactus barbs, for one, and grabbing other things I don't want to touch with my fingers, as well as for help in loosening tight knots. The Squirt also comes with a straight knife, wire cutters, 3 screwdrivers, a file, an opener, an awl and a lanyard attachment.
As far as the beefier multi-tools go, they're nice to have but generally more than you need for backpacking, not to mention on the heavy side. A little Squirt will do most hiker maintenance and repair jobs just fine.
All Leatherman multi-tools come with a 25-year guarantee.
Hiking Essential #8: Fire-Starting
Carry Tools to Light a Fire and Keep it Going
Because fire can be a lifesaver, too
I was on one Search & Rescue mission a couple of winters ago, where the lighter in a lost backcountry skier's pocket certainly saved his life, or at least kept him going until we found him. On another mission, the lack of firestarter may very well have cost a young man his life. Fire certainly has to be treated with respect and can take some practice to start, especially in wet and windy conditions, but the ability to do so is, to me, an absolute must.
Another benefit to having a fire, as long as you also have some kind of container that can take the heat, is that it's another way to purify water.
Here are some tools to help you get it done:
Stormproof Matches: Firestarters you can rely on....
I always keep some waterproof matches in a matchcase in my pack. Really, I've never found much of any difference between brands. Along with the matches, I carry a simple Bic lighter and two candles.
Another quick and easy way to start a fire is to use some dyer lint mixed with Vaseline.
Hiking Essential #9: Shelter
Carry Some Protection from the Elements
Because it beats getting wet
Shelter sure is nice when it's raining or really windy, and it adds warmth as well. I always carry some form of emergency shelter on dayhikes and Search & Rescue missions, and a tent on backpacking trips (though many hikers use tarps and some even hammocks).
Here's what I'm using these days:
An All Weather Space Blanket (Again!)
Yep, you've seen this before. Which is one thing I really like about the All Weather blanket; it's a multi-use piece of gear. Not only can it be used for insulation, but it's also handy for a ground cloth or as a tarp. This durable space blanket has grommets in all four corners, so it can be strung up with nylon cord to help protect you from the elements. You can use hiking poles or branches to prop it up if necessary, then wrap up in an emergency bivy or sleeping bag if you have one to fend off the cold.
A tent may seem a bit much when it comes to "just in case" gear if you're intending to dayhike, but with the ever lighter and more compact models available on the market, a single person tent or tarptent can weigh less than a pound.
I've always been a big fan of Sierra Designs tents. I find them to be well made and reasonably priced, and I've never been disappointed with any of their models I've owned. Even if I'm backpacking alone, I like having the space of a two-person tent to bring all of my gear inside and still have room to move around and change clothes, especially when it's cold or raining.
Here is a great list from Erik the Black of the lightest tents, tarptents and tarps on the market: The Ultimate Guide To Lightweight Backpacking Tents And Shelters
Hiking Essential #10: Sun Protection
Protect Your Skin from the Sun's Harmful Rays
Because a sunburn ain't nuttin' nice ... or healthy
Okay, I admit it: If there's one area of the ten essentials I've been remiss about, it's sun protection. Knock on wood, so far I haven't paid the price (that I know of). But, still, I can't leave it off the list, and I'm doing much better these days at practicing what I preach.
Sun protection includes not only sunscreen, but protective clothing and hats and sunglasses as well. Some folks even like to carry lightweight hiking umbrellas for some extra shade.
Here are a couple of sun protection products I've used:
I prefer towelettes, which I usually can use more than once on a hike, to bottles of sunscreen or sprays. Also, I have a tendency to misjudge how much is left in a bottle and have ended up with a bottle of air when I really needed the lotion that's supposed to be in there. With the towelettes, I always know how much I have left and don't have to carry more than I need.
A Sun Hat
I've always thought I looked goofy in hats, but I do prefer wearing one to slathering sunscreen all over my forehead and neck. For one, if I sweat while there's sunscreen on my face, it can run into my eyes and burn like crazy for a long time. A good sun hat solves that problem. And that funny little flap sure helps if you forget the back of your neck and don't have all the hair that I do to cover it up.
How About a Quick Hiker Preparedness Poll - Do you carry the 10 essentials when you hike?
Which one of these statements best describes you and the gear you hike with?
As a Search and Rescue volunteer, I've participated in many missions that wouldn't have happened in the first place had those we went looking for carried just...
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury