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My 10 Essentials for Hiking and Other Outdoor Adventures


We all like numbered lists, and it is therefore common to see lists of the 10 essentials for hiking and backpacking. But there does seem to be a bit to much presumptuousness that goes along with these lists. Every "authority" seems to act as though their list is the final word on the matter. Well, without trying to be an authority, and without saying this is THE list, I will add my own list of ten essentials for hiking, and comment on the others.

In preparation for this page I did some research online and found one of the earliest lists of 10 essentials for hiking. It was first published in the 1930s by a The Mountaineers, a organization for climbers and hikers based in Seattle. This is it:

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

In recent years they updated the list and made it more of a "systems" list. "Navigation," for example, can include a map, compass, GPS unit, and so on. I would not include "altimeter" on the list, as I have seen some backpacking retailers do, since it is not an essential and is affected by weather (high and low pressure systems), but I like the general idea of the systems approach. Here is the updated list, which appears in recent editions of the book, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers Books, 2010):

1. Navigation (map and compass)
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
3. Insulation (extra clothing)
4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
5. First-aid supplies
6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
7. Repair kit and tools
8. Nutrition (extra food)
9. Hydration (extra water)
10. Emergency shelter

I have no real complaints with either list, except perhaps for the glaring omission of water from the first one. But I do think it is a bit much to recommend that these items go on even the shortest of day hikes, as most "experts" recommend. It is a matter of context, after all. For example, extra food is largely irrelevant if you are in a small wilderness area surrounded by roads, and you are hiking with a group. Long before you are in danger of malnutrition any crisis will be resolved. And rainy day hiking in the northwest in winter does not require sun protection.

Then there are the things left off of these lists. For example, I like to think that skills should be brought along, and are often more important than the physical items. So here is my own list of 10 essentials for hiking. Following that I explain each one in a bit more detail.

1. Appropriate clothing for all potential conditions.
2. Appropriate skills for type of trip and locale.
3. Appropriate attitude.
4. Willingness to think.
5. Fire starter.
6. First-aid supplies.
7. Water.
8. Navigation.
9. Knife.
10. Cell phone.

No, I do not consider these to be set in stone. Nothing really is (and that is why number 4 is so important). There are even those who have hiked hundreds of miles barefoot (not my idea of fun, but I guess it works for them). But here is why each item is on the list:

1. Clothing

It does not matter if you have extra clothing for a day hike close to civilization, as long as you have the clothing you need for whatever conditions could occur in that locale at that time of the year. If you happen to be starting out on the coldest morning of summer in a rainstorm that is supposed to end soon, you are likely already wearing everything you'll need for the worst conditions you'll encounter.

2. Skills

If you are backpacking in a true wilderness, it is more important to have actual practice building a fire than to have three different fire starters. If you are hiking in areas that will require occasional scrambling on steep hills and cliffs, experience doing this is more important than the type of footwear you have.

3. Attitude.

I have seen some people out there in the middle of nowhere, whining and doing nothing to help themselves as they follow their fearless leader. Well guess what? Fearless leaders can step off a cliff or break an ankle. Everyone who is out there should be mentally prepared to take care of himself or herself.

4. Mind.

This would be number one on the list if I had ordered them by importance. I once met three young men in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, ten miles from the nearest road, in t-shirts, with no packs and a bottle of water for all of them to share. This isn't a lack of outdoor knowledge, but a refusal to think. I am pretty sure they spent the night out there without shelter, and it was going to be around freezing. And if you imagine that your fearless leader will do the thinking for you, see number 3.

5. Fire.

Matches are enough for a day hike. Two sources of fire or more make sense for longer trips. Knowing how to use them is most important (see number 2).

6. First-aid.

There are a number of prepared kits you can buy which are light and have the essentials you need for short hiking and backpacking trips.

7. Water.

Bring more than you think you'll need. The weight goes away as you drink it anyhow. On any overnight or longer trips it is a good idea to have two water containers, both for protection in case one breaks and so you have one to drink from while treating water in the other. Water purification is a necessity for longer trips, and knowing how to find and purify water is always a good thing (see number 2 again).

8. Navigation.

Maps should be either waterproof or in a plastic bag or covering of some sort. A compass is more reliable than a GPS unit. Not knowing how to use these things makes them worthless, by the way.

9. Knife.

It can be a small knife, as long as it is rugged enough for emergency tasks like cutting a small tree for to make a splint or crutch, and gutting a fish in case of a week without food.

10. Cell phone.

I almost never turn my cell phone on when hiking. For that matter I haven't turned it on for six weeks now. But whether or not you like them, they are life savers. You might have noticed that on the other list of 10 essentials for hiking, an emergency shelter has the number ten spot. I figure a piece of plastic can shred in the wind and trees, leaving you in a real bind. So knowing how to build an emergency shelter (there's that number 2 again) is more crucial, and a cell phone makes a rescue possible when all else fails.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | My 10 Essentials for Hiking