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.
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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?
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
After hiking for some years, it’s easier for me to break down my hiking essentials into two buckets.
What gear do I need to do the hike in an enjoyable way?
What gear do I need if I get hurt, can’t move, and need to survive?
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:
Tools to repair gear and bodies
Tools to alert rescuers
Tools to survive in the outdoors
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.
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:
Hardcopy of Directions – I’ll print out web directions or take a guide book with me. Paper works when your battery dies. Bring along a clear ziplock bag to protect your directions from the rain.
Hardcopy Map – You don’t need to be an expert with map & compass to benefit from a map. Most folks will know enough to look at a paper map and figure out what trail that they’re on, and that will be helpful when you don’t have electronics. Ideally you should take a map & compass class to learn how to really use and understand the map.
Smartphone Navigation – Almost everyone has a smartphone these days, and they generally have everything you need in them for a portable GPS device. Again, the downside is that if your battery dies, you’re out of luck. To save battery life, put your phone in flight mode (with GPS on). When you go out of cell phone range, your phone uses a lot of power trying to acquire a signal, draining the battery quickly. Be sure to download offline maps that work without a data connection. I recommend the GAIA GPS app, it’s worked well for me. And if your phone is not waterproof, be sure to pack a plastic sandwich bag to protect it.
Magnifying Glass – I have small lightweight model to read the tiny details on a topographic map. It has a small LED light on it for the night. As a survival bonus, you can use it to start a fire from the sun if you need to.
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.
Bugs & Ticks– I generally try to avoid bug spray unless I’m hiking in a location with malaria, West Nile or something else nasty. When I do, I just go for strong DEET, which works. I also treat my clothing with Permethrin to keep ticks off me.
Clothing that Covers – If it’s cold out, you want to stay covered. That’s common sense. But it also makes sense to cover up in extreme heat. People of the desert have worn loose fitting and lightweight clothing from head to toe for hundreds of years. Today’s modern fabrics have UPF sun protection built in, and also wick away moisture. I generally wear eco-friendly long pants and long sleeves it because of the protection it offers from not only the sun, but also insects and plants like poison ivy. If the conditions are right, I’ll do short sleeves and shorts though.
Rain Shell – I always carry a lightweight rain shell in case the weather changes. It’s even more handy when your hiking in environments (like the mountains) where the weather can change in a matter of minutes.
Extra Layers – Everyone knows how to layer these days. I usually bring a long sleeve fleece sweatshirt for most summer hiking situations. If it’s very cold out, I’ll bring much more.
Heavy Hat & Socks – If the temps dip on the cool side at night, I’ll bring a winter beanie and heavy winter socks to stay warm. Even though scientists have debunked the myth that more heat escapes from your head, I (non-empirically) have found that a heavy sock and warm hat help keep me toasty.
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.
Nutritionally Dense Superfoods – When choosing foods for a hike, I usually try to cram the most slow-burning calories in the smallest package. ProBars are a great mix of nuts, seeds, and sugar, and are really tasty. A bag of almonds does the trick too.
Warm Food – If I’m doing a cold day hike (or overnight), I’ll generally bring some freeze dried camping food and a small JetBoil stove. It adds some weight to your pack, but I find that sometimes a hot meal is worth it. My lazy guy tip is to just pour the boiling water into the freeze dried bag, stir with your spork, and eat right out of there. No need to lug plates and bowls in your backpack.
Water is more important than food. You can make it about 4 days without water, less in extreme heat conditions. Take water seriously.
1.5L Bottles – If I’m doing a desert hike or overnight hike, I generally keep it simple and just buy some cheap 1.5 liter bottles at the supermarket and put them in my pack. When my reservoir is empty, I dump these into it.
Water Purifier – A water purifier is pretty small and easy to keep in the bottom of my pack. You simply operate the hand pump and all the bad stuff gets filtered out of the water. The MSR model that I have is easy to clean and bomb-proof. I’ve used mine for over 10 years without a hitch.
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.
LED Headlamp – I keep my Black Diamond Storm headlamp in the top pocket of my pack in case I need it. The LED bulbs barely take any power and the model I have allows me to adjust the level of illumination.
Backup Headlamp – I carry a really small and light backup headlamp, the new Petzl e+Lite.
LED Lantern – I like the Black Diamond Orbit because it’s small, light, and the LEDs don’t take much power. Three lamps might be going overboard, but I’ve spent the night in the woods before and having light means you can build shelter, find food, etc., instead of having to sit in one place.
Batteries – Try to make sure your headlamps use the same battery size (usually AAA) and carry some spares in a place easy to find if it’s dark.
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:
Make sure you treat any injuries.
Get somewhere safe where you can wait for a rescue. For example, avoid a stream bed that can flood if you need to wait it out.
Find a place where you can hunker down safely.
Try to stay as close to your original route and/or the trail as possible.
If you have an injury that will probably necessitate a helicopter evacuation, find a place where it can land nearby.
Signal for a rescue.
Build a shelter and get comfortable.
Create smoke and/or noise to alert rescuers to your position.
Getting rescued is usually boring and will probably take longer than you think. Even if you press the button on a PLB, it usually takes a minimum of 6 hours before anyone can get to you.
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.
Here’s what I carry as my emergency hiking essentials.
Emergency GPS Beacon (PLB) – The ACR ResQLink is worth it’s weight in gold. It’s a small GPS beacon that works where cell phones don’t. When you activate it, it sends an SOS with your position to international search and rescue satellites. Read my review of the ACR ResQLink to understand how crucial thing thing is.
Satellite Texting Device – The Garmin InReach (formerly the DeLorme InReach) is not only my backup rescue beacon, but it also lets me send and recieve text messages where cell phones don’t work. It’s great for my family and friends. I’m able to check in and tell them that I’m safe, or let them know I’m running late but everything is okay. It’s about the size of a smartphone and worth the investment.
Lighters – I carry a few cheap Bic lighters in my pack, but you can also opt for a cool waterproof Zippo. Fire is crucial for staying warm and signaling rescuers. Just make sure you keep the fire under control. People trying to signal a rescue have started forest fires before.
Waterproof Matches – Another backup option for creating a fire. The UCO Stormproof match kit also includes some tinder to help you get the fire going. It’s light and easy to keep in your pack.
Fire Starter – The MSR Strike Igniter is just another way to start a flame in case the easier methods don’t work.
Knife – Well, a knife has a million uses, including helping you create other tools and build a shelter. It will also help you scrape tinder to start your fire. Sometimes I use a Swiss Army knife, sometimes a Leatherman, other times I use other knives. Just make sure you have a good blade.
First Aid Kit – I have a small pre-packaged kit. I’ve never used it on myself, but have used it to help other hikers. Light, small, and worth having.
Duct Tape – I keep a small roll of it with me to repair tears or rips on gear, or to cover and seal a wound. You can use the tape from any hardware store, or get Tenacious Tape, which is great. Tip: If you have a new pack and the hip belts are chafing your sides, put duct tape on your skin where the rubbing is occurring.
Cordage – I keep some light guage (3mm) cordage (rope) to help me build a shelter, hoist food off the ground, whatever. Get a bright color utility cord like this, which is easy to see.
Tarp – A general lightweight tarp has many uses. It can be used as a lean-to shelter, a blanket, a way to carry materials such as leaves, and a way to carry water. I use my lightweight tent footprint, which does the job well and works with my tent when I need it. Its grommets make it easy to rig up and work with.
Bivy Sack – Similar to the tarp, this is a lightweight sleeping sack that can help protect me from the elements and keep me warm. If you want extra warmth, simply stuff it with leaves or pine needles. This inexpensive model works really well, is orange and easy to spot, and has reflective material on the inside to keep heat in.
Clear Plastic Bags – You can use clear trash bags or ziplock bags or both. They’re helpful to keep gear dry (like fire tinder), you can store water in them, make a rain shelter, or even make a solar still to get water from condensation.
Toilet Paper – Yes, I’m talking about that emergency! Don’t think you’re going to find leaves when you need them, and even if you do, it’s not fun wiping with them. Get 1-ply toilet paper and put it in a small plastic bag. Add a small folding trowel to dig a hole 200 feet off the trail to dispose of “your business.” And as a bonus, in a survival situation you can use the toilet paper as tinder to start a fire, and the trowel to dig.
Portable USB Battery – I don’t keep this buried in my pack because I want to make sure it’s charged. It’s good to have if your GPS unit and/or smartphone die. I use the Goal Zero model when I hike and also for day to day use. Don’t forget the cable to connect.
Other Hiking Gear To Consider
I wouldn’t call any of these items hiking essentials, but they can be good to have.
Binoculars – I have a lightweight pair of binoculars I use to creep on wildlife. These binoculars from Nikon are nice because they collapse down small into a case.
Trekking Poles – A lot of folks swear by them, I use them sometimes. In a survival situation they can be good tools for creating a shelter and hunting, My favorite model is the Black Diamond Z-Pole which collapses down and is light.
Bear Spray – If you’re hiking in bear country, it’s a no-brainer to keep a can of bear spray handy. It also works on mountain lions, angry dogs, and people. Yes, people. Some hikers are apprehensive when hiking alone, and a big canister of bear spray will keep people away too.
Small Radio – If you are in a survival situation, having a small radio with you will help keep you informed on rescue attempts. A good model like this C Crane CC WX will also have the weather band radio so you can know what’s coming. Keep the radio on at night while you sleep, rescuers will hear it form a distance.
Pain Relief – Sometimes people push themselves more than they’re ready for. I can tell you not too, but it won’t matter. So if you’re doing a really long hike or something longer than usual, it can help to bring some painkillers and pain cream. For cream, I’ve used the very healthy, herbal, non-GMO products from Real Time Pain Relief.
Bonus Tips to Help You Stay Alive
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).