The ten essentials are the ten pieces of gear that every hiker should bring out when them on the trail, whether on a short hike or multi-month through hike. The ten essentials were invented in the 1930s to help people enjoy the outdoors safely. It was an era before helicopter evacuations and satellite beacons; the ten essentials were designed to help folks stay alive outside. Today the ten essentials still hold true at their core, but can be improved upon with the help of new gear and technology. Here’s my take on the hiking essentials; this is what I take on every hike and what you should too.
Modern Ten Hiking Essentials
- Navigation Tools – Electronic & Paper
- Hydration – Bladder & Portable Filter
- Nutrition – Dense Superfoods
- Sun Protection – Sunscreen
- Insulation – Shell & Fleece
- Illumination – Headlamp
- Fire – Fire Starter, Magnifying Glass, Outdoors Lighter
- Repair Gear
- Shelter – Emergency Bivy
- Bonus Essential – Signalling Device
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Improving on the Ten Hiking Essentials
Today technology has made hiking much easier. Smartphones allow you to map and overlay weather in real time. LED bulbs are bright and last thousands of hours. There’s a lot of great technology out there that’s helpful. That is, until it fails. So when I pack the ten essentials, I generally include two options, a high-tech version that works great, and an old-school version that works if the high tech version fails. The small size and low weight of hiking gear today makes this possible.
Using a GPS is easy, but know what to do when your battery dies.
Navigation and maps might be the most important hiking essential. If you know where you are, you should know how to get home. If you’re lost, you’re in trouble. In this case I actually use several devices.
• GPS watch with track loaded
• Dedicated backup GPS device with maps loaded
• Smartphone app with offline maps (make sure you’re in airplane mode)
• Paper topographic maps
• Guidebook or hike printout
• Compass to navigate with paper
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This is pretty straightforward. Use sunscreen and SPF protected clothing to avoid sunburn (and sun poisoning). I also carry a tarp and cord in my pack so I can erect a shade shelter if need be.
Sunglasses come in handy when I’m hiking in very bright environments that are pretty common in snow, mountains, and desert conditions. Snow blindness, or photokeratitis, is sun-burn for your eyes, and can happen without snow. I’ve had it; it makes it very hard to see in general. If you’re in bright conditions, sunglasses are a smart move, even if you don’t think you need them.
Ice on Mt. Washington, NH, on the 4th of July. At the beginning of the hike it was 80F and sunny. Being prepared to handle the elements can mean the difference between a happy hike and dying of exposure.
I always bring extra layers in my pack. Clothing is so lightweight and compact-able these days, it’s not a hassle. An easy way to do this is to get pants that convert to shorts. Then use a long-sleeve hiking shirt where you can roll up the sleeves. Bring a fleece layer to top that, and then a lightweight rain shell to cover. If you have all that on, it’ll be like having a winter jacket. A small beanie is light, small, and keeps you warm.
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Ask yourself what the worse conditions could be on the hike, and then pack for that. And if you’re in the desert or at altitude, remember that it can get very cold at night.
If you’re hiking in the mountains, realize that the temperature can be very different at the summit than at the base.
If you can see at night, you can get things done (like building a shelter). Illumination also helps signal rescuers. Here’s what I bring:
• Adjustable LED headlamp
• Smaller backup LED headlamp
I specifically mention LED illumination because LED bulbs can last hundreds of hours on a small charge, unlike a traditional incandescent bulb.
If you find yourself in an emergency signaling situation, use the strobe function found on many headlamps to save power and make yourself more visible to rescuers. Practice using strobe mode at home; chances are you won’t have the manual with you out in the backcountry when you need it.
And don’t forget to pack extra batteries. Practice changing your batteries in the dark.
I updated my first aid kit with some other items and the helpful laminated first aid field guide that you get in class.
I have a pre-packaged first-aid kit that I’ve supplemented with some Tenacious Tape if I need to seal a major gash.
It helps to take a NOLS First Aid class; it will teach you how to actually use a first-aid kit and potentially save a life. Another benefit of the class is that they show you how you can customize a first-aid kit.
Most of the time that I’ve pulled out my first-aid kit, it’s been to help another hiker. It’s been handier than I’ve imagined.
One of the things you learn at the Tracker survival school is how to start a fire without matches. After the classroom demonstration, you get to do it on your own with help from the instructor. You learn how to make fire, shelter, find food, and in general, feel very comfortable living in the outdoors.
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You can use fire for light, warmth, a rescue signal, to cook food, and more. I try to have a lot of ways to create fire because each tool is small and light.
• Wind-proof lighter
• Waterproof matches
• Cheap Bic lighters
• Magnifying glass
• Cotton balls soaked in vaseline, in a small sealed
sandwich bag (used as tinder)
You can also learn the primitive skill of creating a fire with a bow-drill. It’s empowering to know that you can start a fire with some raw materials.
Just make sure you keep the fire under control. People trying to signal a rescue with fire have started forest fires that burned thousands of acres.
Repair Kit and Tools
If you need to build a shelter, find food, etc., you’ll need some tools. I look at this hiking essential as a general pool of things that I might need to solve a variety of problems, not just repair something.
• Duct tape or Tenacious Tape to repair gear
• Knife and multi-tool
• Utility cord to rig up a shelter or trap
• Tent footprint which you can use to haul wood and other materials.
• Clear contractor bags to haul and store water