hiking essentials

The Modern Hiking Essentials

The 10 hiking essentials are the recommended key survival tools that hikers should bring with them on every hike. The original 10 essentials date back the 1930s. Here's my take on the modern hiking essentials and how to use them.

Don’t care about the why’s of my hiking essentials and just want to jump to my gear list? Click here.

Why the Hiking Essentials?

In your mind’s eye, rewind to the 1930s. There’s no internet, no REI, no Walmart. You want to go hiking. You probably know you to bring some food and water. But what if there’s an emergency?  What do you need to bring then?

early hikers with hiking essentials
Early hikers at what’s now Mount Rainier National Park, sporting some of the items that would become the hiking essentials, and some that are not, like the hiking stick.

The Mountaineers, a Washington State based outdoors club, came up with the 10 hiking essentials to help educate and enable hikers to be safe in the outdoors. That was in the 1930s, and since then the 10 essentials have evolved and been adapted by other outdoors groups like the Boy Scouts. You can sum up today’s hiking essentials as: navigation tools, protection from the elements, insulation / layers, illunimation, first-aid, fire, repair tools, food, water, and shelter.

My Take on the Hiking Essentials

hiking essentials
I carry all my hiking essentials in my pack. If I need to carry more gear based on conditions, I’ll bring a bigger pack.

After hiking for some years, it’s easier for me to break down my hiking essentials into two buckets.

For the first bucket, I have gear like clothing, food, and water. I’ll change gear up based on the weather and location. For example, if I’m hiking in the winter, I’ll bring warmer clothing.

The second bucket is really just for an emergency. It helps to look at a survival situation like a chess match. What will I need if I’m hurt and can’t move? If I have to wait for a rescue? Thinking ahead and running through the scenarios in your mind will help you prepare before you even step out the door.

The hiking gear that’s in your emergency bucket can change based on your outdoors skills. If you’re an experienced outdoorsman who knows primitive skills, you might be able to survive with nothing. Check out the show Naked and Afraid to see what this looks like in practice.

If you’re not adapt at outdoors skills, it’s easy enough to just pack the hiking gear that will make surviving in the outdoors possible. I know some primitive skills, but I still bring lots of gear. The more survival tools you have, the better your chances of survival.

In general my essential emergency gear falls into these buckets:

The reality of getting rescued is that you’ll probably have to wait. Even if you have a backcountry satellite distress beacon (PLB), it might take search and rescue up to a week to actually get to you. Things like location and weather can throw a wrench into a speedy rescue.

Here are my hiking essentials.

Hiking Navigation

hiking essential navigation
Using a GPS is easy, but know what to do when your battery dies.

Any good planner will tell you that backups and redundancy are important, and that holds true for your hiking navigation too. I recommend bringing multiple sources of navigation for your hike in case one fails or is incorrect.

Here’s what I bring:

nighttime navigation
Electronic navigation (in this case, on my iPhone) makes navigation at night much easier.

Protection from the Elements

hiking essential weather protection
Ice on Mt. Washington, NH, on the 4th of July. At the beginning of the hike it was 80F and sunny. Being prepared to handle the elements can mean the difference between a happy hike and dying of exposure.

Most folks don’t prepare for all the conditions on the hike, especially when you hike in the mountains. Conditions can change, and you don’t want to get caught out. Too much heat, too much cold, these things can kill you. Make sure your body is protected from not only current conditions, but all possible conditions. If you have to wait for a rescue, the weather could change dramatically. Be prepared.


cris hazzard eats during hike
Make sure you eat regularly and keep your fuel stores up. You’ll make better decisions. When hungry, the hormone ghrelin is produced in the stomach, and ghrelin has a negative effect on both decision making and impulse control, report scientists.

Plan on eating and keeping your fuel stores topped up during a hike, even if you aren’t hungry. But if you do get in a survival situation, don’t stress. In general, a human can go about 3 weeks without any food. You won’t feel great, but it isn’t life threatening. Here’s the food I bring.


cris hazzard drinks water on hike
A University of Connecticut study found that even mild dehydration can lead to an increased perception of task difficulty and lower concentration levels. Stay hydrated to hike safely.

Water is more important than food. You can make it about 4 days without water, less in extreme heat conditions. Take water seriously.

water refill
It’s simple enough to pick up some 1.5L bottles at a gas station, put them in your pack, and then refill your 3L bladder with them.


hike essential illumination
If you’re caught out in the dark, having a headlamp can mean the difference between life and death.

I always carry a few light sources with me. Sometimes you get lost or run late, and getting back is a breeze when you have a headlamp. And if things go wrong and you’re stuck somewhere, having illumination means the hours of darkness can be productive.

Emergency Gear

essential hiking emergency gear
My emergency gear doesn’t take up a lot of room and lives at the bottom of my pack.

The reality is that all of your hiking essentials can be used in an emergency, but I do bring some hiking essentials that are carried specifically for a survival situation. This hiking gear sits at the bottom of my pack, and in general I “set and forget” it. A simple 3 month repeating calendar reminder tells me when to take it out and check it.

In general, if you have an emergency, you’re going to want to:

My pack might be lighter without this emergency gear, but I’m happy to add a couple of pounds to my pack and know that I’ll probably survive.

lean to shelter
Here’s a simple summer survival shelter designed with some wind protection. With a tarp, you have many shelter options.

Here’s what I carry as my emergency hiking essentials.

Other Hiking Gear To Consider

hiking essentials binoculars
Binoculars aren’t a hiking essential, but it’s great to have them at the ready in case you spot some wildlife in the distance.

I wouldn’t call any of these items hiking essentials, but they can be good to have.

Bonus Tips to Help You Stay Alive

Here are some other tips that will help you stay safe and alive out on the trail.

primitive skills class
One of the things you learn at the Tracker school is how to start a fire without matches. After the classroom demonstration, you get to do it on your own with help from the instructor. You learn how to make fire, shelter, find food, and in general, feel very comfortable living in the outdoors.

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