The 10 essential items for hiking

A lot can go wrong when you’re hiking or backpacking far from civilization: you can get turned around, get dehydrated, suffer from hypothermia, or get stuck in bad weather. Whether you’re prepared for these problems depends a lot on what’s in your backpack, so it’s best to have the essentials with you.

We’re talking about the Ten Essentials, a list first published by outdoor organization The Mountaineers in 1974. This group of items was designed to answer two important questions:

  • Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively if one does occur?
  • Can you safely spend a night or more outside?

According to Steve McClure, instructor at The Mountaineers and author of the updated 10 essentials in the most recent edition of the book Mountaineering: The freedom of the hills, whether you need all 10 will depend on your destination. For example, a short, easy day hike in the backcountry, where you’ll never be out of cell phone service or more than a short distance from a trail or road, probably won’t require you to pack an emergency shelter or firefighting equipment.

But for longer backcountry hikes, don’t skip any of these essential items — even if you’re familiar with the area or consider yourself an expert. “Things happen,” says McClure. “It’s just true. Eventually it will happen to you or someone you’re with.” And it’s always best to be prepared. To make packing easy, keep the first seven items in your favorite hiking pack at all times and throw in the last three (plus a map) before heading out the door.

“Today we have five tools for backcountry navigation,” says McClure. “These essential tools are a physical paper map, a compass, an altimeter app on your phone or an altimeter watch, a cell phone GPS app, downloaded digital maps, and a way to contact first responders with a device like Garmin inReach.” Just don’t forget extra batteries or a power bank, especially if you use your phone to help you navigate.

2. Projector

A few hikers who got lost in the woods or were behind schedule probably expected to be in the woods or mountains after dark. So no matter how long the hike is, pack a headlamp or a flashlight. Sure, we all have cell phones with built-in lights these days, but those tend to drain the battery quickly, making your phone unavailable for emergency calls or digital maps. Just make sure your headlamp batteries are charged and bring spares, just in case.

4. First aid

A first aid kit should never be missing from your pack. How comprehensive it is depends on the hike in question, but even short day hikes close to home require at least a basic kit. You can buy one pre-made or make your own with items such as bandages, skin plugs, gauze and dressings, a bandage or roll-on wrap, tape, antiseptic, blister prevention and treatment supplies, nitrile gloves, tweezers, a needle, non- prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications, antidiarrheal medication, antihistamine tablets, topical antibiotic, insect repellent, and blister prevention patches. Longer trips naturally require more supplies, and don’t forget personal medications like an EpiPen or insulin.

(Related: How to Remove Cactus Needles, Even Without Tweezers)

A knife or multi-tool and repair patches are essential. Wrap a few layers of duct tape around your hiking pole or water bottle, and carry a length of paracord and an adhesive patch or two on longer hikes in case your jacket or backpack leaks.

6. Fire

If the worst happens, having a way to light a fire for warmth—or an emergency signal—can help you get through an unexpected night outdoors. But items like matches and tires are only useful if you’re in an area with fallen wood. This section may lack trails above tree line or in the snow. So think more about whether you have the ability to heat water, McClure explains, suggesting items like a backpacking stove and a lightweight pot.

7. Shelter

A shelter can mean many things depending on where you’re headed and how long you plan to be out there, but for a day hike, think less “tent” and more “plug.” McClure brings an ultralight emergency bib for warmer hikes and a bisque warmer for winter hikes. An emergency blanket or tarp can also bring peace of mind and save your life in bad weather. Of course, if you’re backpacking, you probably already have a tent ready.

No matter how long your hike is, always bring more food than you think you’ll need. Even on a day hike, you might be surprised how quickly your stomach starts grumbling when you push yourself on a difficult trail. So on day hikes, bring extra snacks like trail mix, cookies, or other high-calorie foods. And on multi-day hikes, pack an extra meal or two.

(Related: What Happens to Food You Leave Outside)

Not enough water can quickly cause dehydration, especially in the warmer months, and that can lead to a whole host of additional health problems — it can even kill you. So pack at least half a liter for the time you plan to hike, and bring more than you think you’ll need, especially on longer hikes.

No matter the season or the length of the hike, always pack an extra layer. Even in summer, temperatures can drop or wet weather can appear, so bring an extra garment or two. Depending on the forecast and where you’re hiking, this could be a cozy fleece, a rain jacket, or a light puffer. Check the forecast before you go and bring that extra layer just in case.

The bottom line

Each of The Ten Essentials may look slightly different depending on the hike you’re planning, but your goal should be to leave home prepared for any eventuality. Just don’t skimp on important tools in the name of weight savings. Think of it this way, McClure says: “You almost never use your spare tire, but you never think about leaving it at home.” So make it a habit to count these 10 and explore with confidence.

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