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 see 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 Amazon Prime, 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?
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.
My Take on the Hiking Essentials
Today technology has made hiking much easier. Smartphones allow you to map and overlay weather in real time. LED bulbs are bright and last thousands of hours. There’s a lot of great technology out there that’s helpful. That is, until it fails. So when I pack the 10 essentials, I generally include two options, a high-tech version that works great, and an old-school version that works if the high tech version fails.
Two is one and one is none. – Navy SEAL Saying
Hiking Essentials for An Emergency
The hiking essentials are not just for everyday hiking, but are also designed to help you survive in an emergency. That’s another reason I bring two versions of each essential with me.
If you do find yourself in an emergency situation or get lost, your general workflow will be:
Stop and calm down.
Use you navigation tools to figure out where you are and try to get to where you need to be.
If you are injured or are lost, find a safe spot of land to wait. Ideally it’s in the clear so you can signal rescuers.
Sart signaling rescuers.
Use your hiking essentials to build a shelter, take care of your body, and get comfortable.
Wait for rescuers. Don’t move. Wait where you are.
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 just to 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.
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.
Navigation and maps might be the most important hiking essential. If you know where you are, you should know how to get home. If you’re lost, you’re in trouble. In this case I actually use several devices.
GPS watch with track loaded
Dedicated backup GPS device with maps loaded
Smartphone app with offline maps (make sure you’re in airplane mode)
Paper topo maps
Guidebook or hike printout
Compass to navigate with paper
This is pretty straightforward. Use sunscreen and SPF protected clothing to avoid sunburn (and sun poisoning). I also carry a tarp and cord in my pack so I can erect a shade shelter if need be.
I always bring extra layers in my pack. Clothing is so lightweight and compact-able these days, it’s not a hassle. An easy way to do this is to get pants that convert to shorts. Then use a long-sleeve hiking shirt where you can roll up the sleeves. Bring a fleece layer to top that, and then a lightweight rain shell to cover. If you have all that on, it’ll be like having a winter jacket. A small beanie is light, small, and keeps you warm.
If you’re hiking in the mountains, realize that the temperature can be very different at the summit than at the base.
If you can see at night, you can get things done (like building a shelter). Illumination also helps signal rescuers. Here’s what I bring:
Adjustable LED headlamp
Smaller backup LED headlamp
And don’t forget to pack extra batteries. Practice changing your batteries in the dark.
I just bring a pre-packaged first-aid kit along with some Tenacious Tape if I need to seal a major gash. It helps to take a NOLS First Aid class to help yourself and others.
You can use fire for light, warmth, a rescue signal, to cook food, and more. I try to have a lot of ways to create fire.
Cheap Bic lighters
Cotton balls soaked in vaseline, in a small sealed sandwich bag (used as tinder)
You can also learn the primitive skill of creating a fire with a bow-drill. It’s empowering to know that you can start a fire with some raw materials.
Just make sure you keep the fire under control. People trying to signal a rescue have started forest fires before.
Repair Kit and Tools
If you need to build a shelter, find food, etc., you’ll need some tools.
Duct tape or Tenacious Tape to repair gear
Knife and multi-tool
Utility cord to rig up a shelter or trap
Tent footprint which you can use to haul wood and other materials.
Clear contractor bags to haul and store water
This is a no-brainer. Bring more food than you think you’ll need. 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.
Focus on bringing dense foods with you. Things like nuts and nut bars are great because they pack a lot of calories into a small package.
Water is more important than food. You can make it about 4 days without water, less in extreme heat conditions. Take water seriously. I try to take at least 50% more water than I think I need. My hydration daypack has a big water reservoir, and there’s room to pack cheap 1.5 liter bottles from the supermarket. When my reservoir is empty, I dump these into it.
I also carry a small water purifier so that I can pump water from streams, ponds, or puddles. My clear contractor bags allow me to create a solar still if I need to.
You can splurge on a lightweight tent shelter, but I find an inexpensive tent footprint does the job fine. The tent footprints tend to be pretty durable. I use it with cordage and sticks to create a basic lean-to. I also have an inexpensive bivy sack that I can use as a sleeping back. If you want extra warmth, you can stuff it with leaves or pine needles and wedge yourself in.
Signaling Gear (My Addition)
Signaling for a rescue is just as important as the other items. The sooner someone knows to look for you, the better your chances of survival. I carry a lot of options here.
Here are some other tips that will help you stay safe and alive out on the trail.
Don’t hike in winter conditions unless you have experience doing so. Every year I see dozens of preventable hiker deaths in the winter. Hikers attempt a trail that’s straightforward in the summer, but in the winter becomes a mountaineering exercise.
Don’t push yourself past your limits. Build your strength and distance in a gradual way.
Stay hydrated and fed, even if you aren’t hungry or thirsty.
Heed signs and warnings. Sometimes they seem very basic and aimed at beginners, but they’re there for a reason.
Stay on the trail, avoid shortcuts, and always know where you are and where you’re going.
Leave your hiking plans with a friend or family member, along with a time that you will be back by. If you’re not back by that time, let them know that they should call 911 and alert the authorities of your situation. Usually this is as simple as forwarding a link to a hike web page in an email. Worth the 2 minutes it takes.
Practice camping overnight with your emergency gear in your backyard (or a nearby park).