A good habit to have is to always pack the Ten Essentials whenever you head out into the backcountry, even if it’s just a simple day hike. While it’s true that you will probably only use a few of them on a routine trip, you’ll definitely appreciate the value of the Ten Essentials when you really need one.
The Mountaineers, an organization based in Seattle for outdoor adventurers and climbers, first assembled the Ten Essentials list back in 1930. They wanted to prepare climbers, hikers, campers, and adventurers for any emergency they encountered while outdoors.
We take a closer look at the famous list and explain why each item deserves a spot on the Ten Essentials.
The classic Ten Essentials
When the list was initially put together, it was only meant to provide a list of items that most outdoor enthusiasts would need should the unexpected occur. The idea was that these items would allow you to better respond in a wide variety of emergency scenarios.
That’s why you shouldn’t treat the Ten Essentials as a packing list; it’s not an exhaustive list and leaves out basics such as proper hiking boots, a sleeping bag, or a tent. Without further ado, here’s the original list:
Sunglasses and sunscreen
Updated Ten Essentials (Systems)
The list was given a much-needed update in 2003, and one of the most significant changes is that instead of listing individual items, the list now uses a systems approach. By making this change, they are still identifying what you should have in case of an emergency, but they are now classified into systems. This allows the adventurer to decide which things within each system best fit their needs.
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
True, some of these systems seem like extra weight when you’re just out for a day hike, but keep in mind that unexpected things can and do happen to everyone at some point or another. A storm may come out of nowhere, trail markers may fade away or disappear, or you may lose track of time and suddenly be enveloped in darkness.
A whole host of things can conspire in an effort to keep you from getting home at the expected time. However, if you’re armed with the Ten Essentials, you’ll be more than prepared in dealing with disastrous situations, and you’ll even be ready to spend an unexpected night or two in the backcountry while the situation gets sorted.
When heading outdoors, you should always have with you a topographic map, even more so if you’re going out on a trip somewhere other than a frequently visited, short, and clearly marked trail. Having a map (and knowing how to read it) along with a compass will be invaluable for orienting yourself in the backcountry.
Navigation can also mean a GPS unit, which you can also use to figure out your location. However, you are risking water damage, dead batteries or poor signal coverage if you rely solely on GPS. Therefore, we recommend having a compass as they weigh next to nothing and do not need batteries. As a bonus, you can also purchase a compass with a sighting mirror, which you can use to flash sunlight to a rescuer or helicopter in case you’re stranded.
No matter the weather conditions of the area you’ll be hiking or camping, you always need some sun protection. The three recommended protection methods are SPF foundation, sunglasses, and sun-protection clothing.
If you’re planning on traveling through ice or snow, remember that you’ll need extra-dark glacier glasses to shield your eyes from the rays of the sun. Even if you’re not heading out during extreme weather, it’s always best to splurge a bit on sunglasses, as they should block 100% of UVA and UVB light.
When it comes to sunscreen, it should have an SPF factor of at least 15, and if you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time, SPF 30. Don’t forget to reapply every few hours (more if you’re sweating) and get some SPF-rated lip balm to take care of your lips.
Sun protection clothing is lightweight and has UPF protection, and its recommended if you are going to be hiking in sunny weather. Always remember to slather some sunscreen on any exposed body parts, such as face, neck, arms, legs, and hands.
Weather conditions can change abruptly in the backcountry, turning chilly, windy or wet in an instant. Therefore, you should pack enough layers in case you are unexpectedly required to spend more time exposed to the elements, or you need to sleep outside. Layers work better than a heavy jacket, as they insulate better and you can shed them or put them on in bits and pieces to regulate your body temperature as the weather changes.
The light source of choice in the wilderness is a headlamp, as they have a long battery life, they are lightweight and small, and allow your hands to remain free. A great option for emergency situations is a headlamp with strobe mode, as they have a very long battery life while in this mode. High lumen flashlights also come in handy as they can be used for signaling if you need rescue. Remember that every member of your party should have their own light, in case they get separated from the group.
You have two choices when it comes to first-aid kits: pre-assembled or personalized. The one you choose is up to you, but many people prefer to do their own kits, so they can fill them with things that suit their needs.
Whichever way you decide to go, your kit should always include over-the-counter pain medication, assorted adhesive bandages, blister treatment, gauze pads, disinfecting ointment, and sticky tape.
You have various options when it comes to fire. The two most common are waterproof matches and a fire starter. If you don’t have access to waterproof matches, make sure you store them in a waterproof container.
When it comes to your firestarter, it needs to be an element that helps you start a fire. Ideally, it will ignite quickly and sustain heat for more than a couple of seconds. Some likely candidates are priming paste, candles, or heat nuggets.
Repair kit and tools
An essential thing your repair and toolkit should have is a good knife. The knife you take is up to your personal preferences, but we recommend a multitool knife with at least one foldout blade, a can opener, foldout scissors and a screwdriver.
As every adventurer knows, duct tape can fix almost anything. To avoid having to carry a roll of duct tape, you can wrap strips around your trekking poles or water bottle so that you can repair things on the fly.
Nutrition (extra food)
You should always have extra food in your pack, at least enough to last you an extra day. Packing an extra dehydrated meal is a good idea, but an even better one is to include items that can last for a while and don’t need to be cooked, such as jerky, energy bars, or dried fruits.
Food digestion will keep you warm, so if you need to set up camp on a cold night, eat something before settling down to sleep.
Hydration (extra water)
You should always have a way to purify water, whether it’s a chemical treatment or filter. Experts recommend that you have at least one water bottle along with a collapsible water reservoir with you. Before heading out, do some research and mark any possible water sources on your map.
This new addition to the list seems to be targeted towards day hikers that run into trouble and need to stay overnight, as most thru or weekend hikers will have a tent with them. Your emergency shelter will depend on the season and your location, but you should at least have an emergency blanket in your pack. You can also think about bringing a lightweight tarp, or even a big plastic bag will do in a pinch.
Beyond the Ten Essentials
There are a few other add-ons you could consider adding to your top ten, depending on your location and activity. For example, insect repellent is a good idea if you’re heading to a tropical climate, you should always carry bear spray when heading out to bear country, and a communication device comes in handy no matter where you go.
Finally, the most important thing to always have is knowledge. You should do your research and find out about weather patterns, potential hazards, and wildlife in the area you’re heading off to. Remember that preparation is about expecting the unexpected.