There’s a reason they’re not called the 10 optionals. The 10 essentials are pieces of hiking gear that could literally mean the difference between life and death in the wilderness and shorten search and rescue operations while increasing their chance of successfully finding you.
Throughout the year, but especially every summer, the media swells with stories of hiker’s near misses, incidents and even deaths on trails and mountains across the country.
The thing that continues to astound me is that the vast majority of these hiking and backpacking accidents and injuries are TOTALLY preventable!
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Too many hikers wander into the wilderness or unknown situations in the outdoors with nothing on them. No water. No map. No food. No shelter. No first aid or emergency supplies, and then totally panic when things go sideways.
Don’t let that be you. Please!
The 10 essentials for hiking are the most basic supplies you could carry with you. They’re not heavy and, luckily, they don’t cost much. So there’s no excuse not to carry them on each and every hike – even day hikes. Even short ones. Even local trails you know like the back of your hand.
What are the 10 essentials for hiking?
- Navigation: preferably a map and compass because those virtually never fail the way GPS devices can and do, but if you want to bring both a map and a GPS – go for it. Make sure you know how to use a map and compass before you head into the backcountry. If you use a GPS, make sure it’s charged and you also know how to use the basic functions like creating way points and navigating between them.
- First aid supplies: buy a premade first aid kit or assemble your own. Just remember to replace any used or expired supplies after each trip.
- Fire starter(s): Whether it’s waterproof matches, a ferro rod, or my favorite – a handful of cotton balls smothered in Vaseline in a small Ziploc baggie, with matches and a lighter to start them – just carry some sort of fire starter.
- Knife or multi-tool: countless uses but can be essential to creating kindling small enough to catch fire, which is crucial when trying to start a signal fire.
- Headlamp: Yes, I bring this headlamp, even on short day hikes, because you never do know when you may end up stuck on the trail longer than expected, possibly into the night or for several days!
- Sun protection: Think sunscreen, a big hat and protective clothing. Not only does it protect your skin in the long run, but being sun burnt can exacerbate the symptoms of dehydration.
- Shelter: This could be as simple as an emergency space blanket, or you could go all out and get an ultralight tarp or bivy.
- Extra water: Carry a little more than you think you’ll need and carry Aquamira or iodine tablets if you get stuck out on the trail in an emergency. My standard is to carry two liters of water, plus electrolytes, unless I know there will be long stretches with no water sources, then I may carry up to 3-4 liters.
- Extra food: Carry enough sustenance for at least one more day than you plan to be out, this could be as simple as a few extra high calorie bars or an extra ramen and oatmeal packet while backpacking.
- Extra clothing: Always bring extra insulating layers, like a fleece or puffy jacket and rain gear to keep yourself warm and dry if you get stuck out there after dark or in a storm.
Don’t get me wrong – sometimes, even the most experienced of hikers get lost, or get injured, or get into a sticky situation, but planning ahead, being prepared, and carrying the supplies you need to take care of yourself can usually prevent a search and rescue situation altogether or worst case scenario – make it easier for teams to find you if you do need to be rescued.
I wish you many (safe) adventures this season! Leave any questions in the comments, I’d love to help out if I can.
Pro tip: some hikers like to keep all their essential hiking gear and supplies in a gallon Ziploc bag so it’s easy to transfer from pack to pack and it never gets forgotten. This becomes an issue after you’ve been hiking for a while and become a pack hoarder, you have a different pack for every occasion and small pieces of gear easily get left behind in the last pack you used.
For more tips on hiking and backpacking gear, check out:
- Exactly what to include on your hiking itinerary
- Backpacking gear checklist: what to pack
- Where to find cheap(ish) hiking and backpacking gear
- Gear I wish I had with my on my long distance hike