The Hiking Essentials: 10 Things You Should Never Hike Without
“On an easy, 7 mile hike, I don’t even bother bringing the Ten Essentials. It’s seven miles. You can survive anything for 7 miles.”
I uttered those words to a friend as we planned to hike together the following weekend. As a new hiker, she was asking me what she should bring, and specifically asked about the Ten Essentials. I wasn’t that experienced and I thought I knew everything, and as a result I gave the newbie hiker some of the worst advice possible. Sure, I would show up at the trailhead with a pack a few pounds lighter than hers. But if we’d gotten into any sort of trouble, I’d be the one begging for an emergency blanket if we had to spend a night in the woods.
The day we met up for the hike, we’d intended to hike 7 easy miles round trip to an alpine lake. When we made it to the lake in really good time, we decided to push on another 3.5 miles to the upper lake (adding 3,000 feet of elevation as well). It was a long, hard haul on a remote trail, where we only saw two other people the entire day. It’s a good thing I’d packed nothing but snacks and water so I didn’t have much weight to haul around. And it was a really good thing we didn’t get ourselves into a situation where we needed something other than just snacks and water.
You can never fully anticipate what will happen on the trial. Even if it isn’t you yourself that might need one of the essential items, you might pass another hiker on the trial who will need help. It is just good stewardship to be prepared for an emergency to happen. Follow this list so that you can be better prepared in case something on the trail doesn’t go as planned.
The Ten Essentials
1. Navigation (Map and Compass)
Navigation doesn’t haven’t to be a map and compass. And if you don’t know how to read a map or use a compass, it shouldn’t consist of a map and compass. In our current age of technology, there are a plethora of really great navigation systems you can use to navigate your way in and out of the woods. Be careful of battery life on these kinds of devices, and make sure you are adequately prepared for the trip you will be going on. There are also many excellent apps now that provide as an excellent source of navigation. I only use apps if it is a day hike in a not-so-remote area. I would hate to get lost and stranded because my phone battery died. However, Gaia allows you to download maps of entire areas, tracks your location on the map, and also shows where the trail is. There are a ton of these apps out there, but so far this is my favorite.
If you want to get really fancy, you can get devices that are a Digital altimeter, with digital barometer, digital compass, weather forecast, time, calendar, thermometer, and backlight all in one.
2. Sun Protection (Sunglasses and Sunscreen)
These ones are self-explanatory. Even if the weather looks overcast, please wear both. I’ve forgotten both before. I forgot to put on sunscreen (which I had with me, in my pack) on a 12 mile day-tromp in Washington’s Goat Rock Wilderness, where the majority of our time was spent in the snow. I was wearing a tank top. My skin was so sunburned it turned purple. It took me 2 years to get rid of those tan lines. I really wish I was exaggerating. And snow-blindness is a real thing. Even if you don’t think you’ll need these items, bring them. Your ophthalmologist and dermatologist can thank me later.
3. Insulation (Extra Clothing)
It can be impossible to accurately predict what the elements will do on your day outside, so it is a really good idea to bring an extra layer. You can gauge what kind of extra layer to bring by anticipating the most realistic, worst-case-scenario weather. If I am hiking on a hot day in the summer, I bring a light-weight, insulated jacket. I won’t bring an extra pair of socks, because I lay them out on a rock to dry off the sweat when I take a little lunch break. You can bring extra socks if you want to, I just don’t consider it imperative. If I’m hiking in the spring or fall, or if rain is anywhere in the forecast, I will bring my rain jacket. If I’m snowshoeing in 23 degree temperatures, I will bring an extra pair of socks, a wool hat, an extra core layer (usually an insulated jacket of some sort that would be too warm to actually wear while I snowshoe), and possibly even a wool scarf (depending on conditions). That is all in addition to the layers I am already wearing.
4. Illumination (Headlamp/Flashlight)
I keep a headlamp in my backpack. It stays there - I don’t ever take it out. You never know when something might happen, causing you to be on the trail after dark. It doesn’t have to be a headlamp – throw in a flashlight. Just make sure you have some means of light to help you out if you get stuck on the trail after dark.
5. First-Aid Supplies
This is perhaps the most difficult of the ten essentials. Most first-aid kits contain unnecessary elements that take up space and weight, and give you a false sense of security until someone is actually hurt. And then when someone is hurt and they need more than anti-itch cream and a Band-Aid, you realize you are SOL.
My first-aid supplies vary depending on where I’m going, and when I’m going. I take different first aid supplies on a solo hike in the winter than I do on a group hike in the summer. The supplies also vary depending on the length of my trip and how remote the trail is. When you are putting together your first-aid supplies, make sure you are aware of the conditions you will be in and you have adequately anticipated the potential risks. I typically like to make sure I have these items at a minimum:
- Bandages/gauze – more than just Band-Aids!
- Antibacterial cream/alcohol swabs – to clean a wound and prevent infection
- Athletic tape – can be used for stabilizing injuries, securing bandages, and blister treatment/prevention
- Antihistamines – Benadryl can save your life if you have an allergic reaction miles out on the trail. Even if you have never had an allergic reaction before, it is a good idea to carry it with you. You never know when you or someone else might need it.
- Pain relief – Ibuprofen or Tylenol
If I’m on a REALLY remote trip, I also throw in a tourniquet and a compression sleeve/splint. Please make sure you store your medical supplies in a waterproof storage container (you can even use a Ziploc freezer bag if necessary. These supplies won’t do you any good if they are sopping wet.
6. Fire (Waterproof Matches/Lighter/Candles)
Always bring means to start a fire, and make sure it is waterproof. If you are bringing flint and steel, make sure you are practiced enough to be able to use them to start a fire if you’re sopping wet, shivering uncontrollably, and not thinking clearly. Bring something simple that you are familiar with. Fire can be what saves you if something has gone really, really wrong. There is no reason not to carry means to make a fire.
There are some pretty nifty Firestarter tools out there. Just be sure you know how to use them before you hit the trail!
7. Repair Kit and Tools
This category encompasses any type of tool you might need while you’re out and about in the woods. Now, before you grab your chainsaw, let me be a little more specific. You should always bring a knife with you. This will be handy for everything from building a shelter to preparing food, to making kindling to start a fire, etc. Some multi-tool knives include fold-out scissors and screw drivers. These things might be convenient for things like fixing your trekking pole (screw driver) or cutting away at something (scissors). On short day trips, I bring a tiny little knife. It is small and light weight, but it is sharp and will cut whatever I need to. If I’m going on an overnight trip or a long day hike in a more remote location, I’m going to bring a more heavy-duty knife that will be more functional if I need to kill and skin a bear.
8. Nutrition (Extra Food)
There’s really no reason not to bring an extra day’s worth of food. You can bring something light and easy like a freeze-dried meal, or even an extra bag of trail mix and a few bars. If you end up spending extra and unexpected time on the trail, you’ll at least have fuel for your brain and body (both are equally important in emergency situations). I like to bring tuna packets for protein, and bars for calories. They are quick, easy, and light.
9. Hydration (Extra Water)
The amount of water you need to carry will depend completely upon your circumstances. But no matter where you are, running out of water is BAD. Really, really bad. Standard rule of thumb is to bring a liter more than you think you’ll need, and bring means to purify water (chemical treatment or purification system).
I bring a minimum of 2 liters on a day hike. If it is going to be long (12-20 miles), I bring a third liter if I won’t be able to filter water. If water is accessible for filtering, I’ll keep to my 2 liters and I will filter as necessary. For day hikers who don’t want to invest in a water filtration system, you should carry a Life Straw with you. It is cheap, only weighs 2oz, and supplies endless clean water in an emergency.
10. Emergency Shelter
If you are doing an overnight trip, you don’t need to bring a backup tent/shelter (that would be excessive). But for day hikes, you do still need to carry some sort of shelter with you in case you need to hunker down in the woods for an extended period of time unexpectedly. This can be anything from a lightweight tarp to a thin emergency blanket. You can even use a large heavy-duty garbage bag (only do this in the summer with high temps and no rain in the forecast). Just make sure you bring something that will help protect you from wind and rain.
Honorable Mention - Benadryl
One time, I was hiking with my sister and her husband, and we got attacked by a swarm of bees. My sister got stung 19 times. I got away with one sting. My brother in law didn’t want to count (it was going to be more than 19 stings). Luckily none of us are allergic to bees. There could have been someone else on the trail who was allergic and forgot an epi-pen. Or you may encounter a bug or plant that gives you an allergic reaction and you had no idea you were allergic to begin with. I read about a girl in a hiking group I’m a part of, who had never had an anaphylactic reaction to anything in her life. She was hiking with her one year old, and all of the sudden her throat started to swell up. She was over a mile from her car, and had no choice but to just start walking and hope she made it back. She passed hiker after hiker who didn’t have anything to help her. How terrifying! She ended up being okay (she did get hospitalized), but it could have been so much worse. I always keep a few Benadryl on me.
That’s all, folks!
The Ten Essentials might seem like an overwhelming list, but I promise they really aren’t. It is worth investing in these items in order to be adequately prepared in case of an emergency. Will they provide you with absolutely ever item you would ever want or need in an emergency? Of course not – nothing could. However, carrying the Ten Essentials really does provide you with the bare necessities required for survival when things go wrong on the trail.