According to The Mountaineers, (and just about every other reputable hiking resource) every hiker should carry the Ten Essentials on every hiking outing. This includes dayhikes as well as long-distance treks. Having these items available in your pack can come in handy if and when you may find yourself dealing with an unexpected situation on trail, ranging from having to spend an unplanned night in the woods to ensuring you have safe water to drink to servicing minor injuries. What started as a recommended list of items has since evolved into a list of thoughtful gear systems designed to help you deal with just about any trail contingency.
In the good ol’ days, all that was required was a map and compass—and knowing how to read them. Today, navigation on trail has become much more technical with the inclusion of GPS devices, mobile apps and satellite communicators. Regardless of how many techie devices you carry on trail, remember that they are only as useful as their batteries last. To ensure that you always have a way to tell where you are, and how to get where you want to go, the map and compass is still one of the most essential Essentials.
Prolonged exposure to the sun at high elevations can have a variety of negative effects. You’re more susceptible to sunburn, and it can also speed up the onset and effects of dehydration. During periods of heavy exertion, it can also exacerbate the potential for heat stroke. And then there’s skin cancer. Take appropriate precautions to ensure that you enjoy your hike and don’t threaten your health by using a good sunscreen, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and, if you can manage, wearing long pants and sleeves.
Mountain weather is never completely predictable. What starts as a warm, sunny day can quickly turn into an afternoon rain- or snowstorm. Nights in the mountains can dip below freezing, even in the summer months. Be prepared for weather and temperature variances by wearing and packing your clothing in layers. This lets you adjust for both warm and cold temperatures, while being prepared to handle them all. Insulation essentials include moisture-wicking baselayers, a down or fleece midlayer and a weatherproof outer layer.
You won’t get very far or get much accomplished in the black of a mountain night if you can’t see where you’re going or what you’re doing. Keep a flashlight and/or headlamp in your pack to help you set up camp and cook dinner after the sun goes down, read a book in your tent or, in case of emergency, signal for help. Many newer headlamps feature different lighting and strobe settings for different uses, including night-vision red lenses, and some are even USB rechargeable. Carrying an extra set of batteries is a good idea.
When you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, cuts and scratches are commonplace, and when hiking for long periods of time, blisters are inevitable. While you can’t reasonably carry every first-aid item imaginable for every injury possible, you can carry some basic essentials to help you manage minor injuries and illnesses. Make sure your kit includes bandages, bandage wraps, gauze, antiseptic wipes, moleskin and tweezers, plus aspirin, digestive and allergy medicines. Don’t forget to include any of your own personal medications.
You’re not expected to carry a lit torch while you hike, but you should have the means to make one if needed. One of the original and oldest essentials, fire lets you cook your dinner, keep warm at night and signal for help. To do this, carry waterproof matches, a lighter or a flint stone. Only light fires in areas that permit them (unless in case of emergency), and then carefully manage your fire to ensure that it doesn’t get out of control. Use only downed and dead wood for building your fire, and fully extinguish it before going to sleep or leaving.
It used to be suggested that you only needed to carry a pocketknife. Then that graduated to multitool with devices like the Leatherman. It is now suggested that you carry a miniature repair kit to help you fix any number of things that could break and/or require repair on trail. This includes multitool with knife, duct tape, patch kits, sewing kit and a boot repair product (e.g., Freesole). If you’re on the trail for an extended period of time and a pack strap breaks or your boot sole rips open, you’ll be glad to have these items in your pack.
Like a car needs gas and plants need sun, hikers need food—and lots of it. Long-distance hikers can burn up to 6,000 calories per day, so staying fueled up is vital to avoid bonking. Choose foods that are dense in calories, carbs, oils and fats; avoid foods high in fiber. Snack regularly while you hike (at least once every hour or so) to stay fueled up over long miles. It is always smart to carry an extra day’s worth of food in case you get delayed by weather, an unexpected detour or just want to take an unplanned zero day to enjoy the scenery.
There’s nothing quite as delicious as icy cold mountain water. Unfortunately, there’s lots of microscopic buggers in many mountain water sources, including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, both of which can cause severe and prolonged digestive problems and discomfort (to say the least!). Protect yourself (and your pup, if you hike with one) by filtering or treating all water from streams and lakes. Pump filters are easy and reliable; UV and chemical treatments are lightweight but can leave silt or unpleasant tastes. If nothing else, boil water for 5 minutes.
You never want to experience an emergency on trail, but you’ll be all the better if you’re prepared for one. If you wind up lost or injured on trail, the most important thing you need is a reliable way to shelter yourself from the elements. This can be a tent, bivy sack or emergency tarp. Then you will need to rely on the other nine Essentials you’re carrying to stay hydrated, warm, fed and have a way to signal or call for help. Consider carrying a satellite communicator (e.g., SPOT), or try to use your cell phone to contact others for assistance.
Leave an Itinerary & Carry an ICE Card
No matter whether you’re going to be on a trail for two hours, two weeks or two months, you should ensure that someone knows where you’re going and when you’re due back, and can notify authorities if you’re overdue. Conversely, if injured, you also want any assisting hikers or rescue personnel who find you to know who you are, who they should contact, and if you have any medical conditions.
LEAVE AN ITINERARY Leaving an itinerary is as simple as writing down where you’re going to be hiking and when you expect to return, and leaving that with someone who will be responsible to notify authorities if you don’t return. Give yourself a little padding in case of unexpected delays. It’s a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary in your vehicle as well.
CARRY AN ICE CARD ICE stands for “In Case of Emergency.” Every hiker should carry something like this in your wallet or personal effects. It’s not enough to just store your info in your phone, as your potential rescuer may not be able to access your phone to get your information. You can create simple (and affordable) ICE cards and tags at ICE Gear.