The 10 Essentials for Hiking

Whether you’re hiking with kids, a large group or by yourself, it’s important to stay safe. And from backcountry trails to day hikes, there is a collection of 10 essential items you should try to carry for emergency purposes. While these items may not seem necessary on such a short outing, if you take on an injury or experience bad weather, they are valuable and possibly even critical for survival.

The 10 essentials are a time-tested list that many outdoor enthusiasts know. However, today, many find it to be a bit outdated. Instead, here is a more modern version that has swapped out obsolete items and replaced them with more current ones. From being able to navigate your surroundings to finding emergency shelter and warmth, here are the new and improved 10 essentials for hiking.

epic hike

The Original 10 Essentials

Before discussing the updated version of the 10 essentials, it’s important to know the originals. The original Ten Essentials list was created by a Seattle-based outdoor recreation organization, The Mountaineers, to help outdoorsy people be prepared for emergency situations. But back in the 1930s, the list looked a bit different. Many items have stayed the same over the years. But with the exception of evolved technology like digital handheld devices and GPS units, certain items like maps and compasses are combined into navigation as a whole. Now, the 10 essentials have shifted into a more systems-like approach.

Still, knowing the original 10 essentials for hiking offers a baseline understanding of what’s important to survive. Here are those items:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp or flashlight
  6. First aid supplies
  7. Fire Starter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

Updated 10 Essential Systems

essentials for hiking 1

Now, let’s dive into the updated version of the 10 essentials for hiking. Before discussing in depth each listed item, here is the new list to compare how it has evolved:

  1. Navigation
  2. Headlamp
  3. Sun protection
  4. First aid
  5. Knife
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Extra food
  9. Extra water
  10. Extra clothes

Keep in mind that the items are a generalized list. Items might change, based on whether you are headed out for a short day hike or a multi-day trip. How complex your hiking trip might become will determine the items, too. You could run into severe weather or need winter gear and survival equipment. However, any climber, hiker or general outdoor enthusiast should carry many of these items in case of emergencies. Let’s explore each.

1. Navigation

Navigation tools are no longer limited to a paper map and compass, although these items do help! But in the modern era, we have more advanced technology, like altimeter watches, GPS communication devices and even our personal phones. So let’s dive into what precisely the updated “Navigation” listing means:

Maps–Whether paper or digital, always have a topographic map to help you find footpaths and indicate other trail markers to get you from point A to point B safely.

Compass–Always carry a true compass backup. Although modern devices like smartphones and GPS systems include a digital compass, these items rely on batteries and are not quite as reliable as a handheld compass. If you get disoriented with low cell signal, a compass (and paper map!) can guide you. Choose a compass with a sighting mirror to alert passing search and rescue teams or helicopters in an emergency.

GPS device–These modern devices will show you precisely where you are via digital map. Designed for rugged outdoor use with weatherproof materials, many GPS units receive signals when cell phones can’t, which makes them great for emergency purposes. Your cell phone might be okay for short hikes, but even that requires a sturdy case and has the potential of losing signal or juice–especially in winter months. GPS units require batteries. So long as you monitor the batteries and carry backups, this is your best device to carry.

Altimeter watch–A useful device for climbers and hikers alike, an altimeter watch can measure your altitude using a barometric sensor that measures air pressure. Paired with GPS data, it can give a close estimate of your elevation. Together, they can help track your progress and determine your location.

Personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger–Should you need to alert search and rescue in the backcountry, these devices are good to have. Unlike our phones, these devices use government and commercial satellites and GPS to alert help of your position. In other words, they will work in extremely remote areas where you may lose cell signal. They can be a life-saving device to carry.

head strap light led headlamp

2. Headlamp

Always carry an LED headlamp. Even if you think it’s a short hike, if you lose the trail, a headlamp can help you find your way back at night. A tactical flashlight is nice to have, but a headlamp will keep your hands free for other tasks like cooking or to hold trekking poles. Bring extra batteries just in case.

3. Sun Protection

Sun protection is an umbrella term, consisting of several essential items. You want to be sure to pack tinted UV sunglasses and a high SPF sunscreen. Sun protection can even mean wearing a long-sleeved shirt and covering your face and head with a hat. In winter months, especially, it can be deceiving when, in fact, the sun is closer to the earth.

  • Sunglasses – Choose a pair of quality sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage and potentially damaging radiation. When hiking or backpacking in snow or ice, choose extra-dark glacier glasses. Seek out tinted lenses with 100 percent UVA and UVB protection. UVB rays, which can burn your skin, can cause cataracts.
  • Sunscreen – Speaking of burning your skin, it’s important to always carry sunscreen. Whether on a two-hour hike or several days of camping, sunscreen can protect your skin from ultraviolet rays, which causes premature skin aging and skin cancer. When headed for extended hikes, choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and one that offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Don’t be afraid to slather it on generously. Also, during the winter months, don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the underside of the chin and nose where bright white snow reflects. Reapply roughly every two hours or sooner, depending on how much you sweat and other factors. Don’t forget the SPF-rated lip balm, too!
  • Sun-protection clothing – While you must still apply sunscreen to exposed areas, like your face and hands, long-sleeved shirts and pants can offer a degree of sun protection, blocking UV rays without sunscreen. Today, you can also find lightweight outdoor garments with synthetic materials that have built-in ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Many also offer a UVA and UVB rating as well. A full-brimmed hat is also an essential for sun protection, covering your head but also your nose, forehead and cheeks.

4. First Aid

first aid kit

This vital essential item has pretty much stayed the same–and for good reason! A first aid kit needs to include all the basic treatments for common injuries: bandages, gauze pads, disinfecting ointment and pain medications. Since you’re out in the wilderness without clean water, nitrile gloves are usually added. But remember to add your own necessary items to the kit. For instance, you may have allergies and need an emergency EpiPen. Obviously, the trip length and size of your party may also play a factor in how large of a first aid kit you need.

It’s not just about the first aid kit, either. You need to know some basic first aid survival skills for common injuries like broken bones and survival techniques like how to prevent hypothermia. Take a few courses to familiarize yourself so you can stay calm and know precisely what to do in the event of an emergency.

5. Knife

Knives are highly versatile, practical tools that each hiker should carry. They can help make repairs, prepare food, make kindling for fires and more. At the very least, choose a basic knife with a fold-out blade. However, for the more experienced, you can find advanced multi-tool style knives, complete with things like flathead screwdrivers, a can opener and a pair of mini scissors.

Considering what all a knife can do, you might as well carry a gear repair kit. These two items can really save the day in dire remote backcountry situations. In the repair kit, ensure you have items like duct tape, fabric repair tape, cords or rope, zip ties and safety pins. You also should consider bringing spare repair parts to fix a water filter, broken tent poles, a fussy stove, a punctured sleeping pad and any other items that can break.

essentials for hiking 2

6. Fire

Whether it’s waterproof matches or a disposable butane lighter, you need to have proper equipment to start a fire. If you know how to start a campfire from scratch using only flint and steel, you’re a true outdoors person. However, for most of us, fire starters are sufficient, starting a fire even in damp conditions. You can purchase fire starters or even make your own through various DIY methods. For instance, you can use lint-filled toilet paper rolls or resin-soaked chipped wood nuggets to start a fire.

Fires are great for cooking, but if you need to boil water, it’s generally recommended to bring along a stove. A stove can provide food for nourishment when logs are wet and you can’t get a fire started. It can also offer some heat in emergencies to prevent frostbite and hypothermia.

7. Emergency Shelter

An emergency shelter doesn't have to be a full four-season tent. Even something as practical as a lightweight tarp or bivy sack can offer an emergency shelter should you get injured or stranded. With a tent back at the site, it helps to have a backup for other activities and outings.

8. Extra Food

It’s a good idea to pack extra food for your trip. If the weather turns nasty and you can’t pack out or you get injured, an extra day’s (or two) worth of food supplies can sustain you until the weather clears or help arrives. Also, pack some extra items that don’t require cooking, in case you run out of fuel. This can be anything from energy bars, trail mix, jerky or dried fruits. Of course, when cooking, remember the seven “Leave No Trace” principles and pack out all waste.

9. Extra Water

woman with water bottle backpack

Extra food is essential, but extra water is critical. Always be sure to carry plenty of water for your trip. As a general rule, most people need a half liter per hour for moderate activities and mild temperatures. However, you need to take into consideration the actual temperature, altitude and how strenuous any activities may be.

For shorter hikes, a water bottle may do just fine. But for longer excursions, a collapsible water reservoir is better. It’s also wise to carry a water filter or water purifier or use chemical treatment tabs. In winter months, a stove can help melt snow for drinking water, too.

10. Extra Clothes

Along with extra food and water, bring extra clothes. If conditions turn for the worse and you wind up soaked to the bone, an extra pair of clothes can prevent hypothermia. During windy conditions or injury, just as you need emergency shelter, you need emergency clothes.

Consider what to wear, covering yourself in a base layer, middle layer and outer shell to protect from wind and wetter elements. Top yourself off with a wool beanie or full balaclava and extra socks and gloves to insulate your extremities. Winter weather brings its own unique set of challenges, so be sure to know what to wear hiking in winter, too.

Ultimately, the 10 essentials are here to help you whenever you run into dire, emergency situations. Even if you know the trail by heart and it only takes you a few hours round trip, you truly never know what might occur. If you trip and break a bone while returning at dusk, you need to be able to stay safe and secure until help arrives. Remember this list and plan accordingly. It might just save your life!

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