The Ten Essentials for Backpacking

In the 1930’s, a Seattle-based outdoor education group called The Mountaineers published a list titled the “Ten Essentials“.  This “classic” list, originally intended for climbers, has evolved over time to apply to anyone travelling to the outdoors.  The list was amended by the same group in 2003 to a more “systems” based approach, rather than the original list of simple items.  This system is designed to provide a solution to two questions.  The first is “Can I respond positively to an accident or emergency?” and the second being “Can I safely spend an unplanned night (or more) outside?”

These questions, taken directly from the Mountaineers’ website, are valid for anyone outside, more than 100 yards from the safety of their vehicle or home.

Why the “100 yard” statement?  Because accidents can happen anywhere.  It is not a fear-mongering statement to say one could step off on a little used trail for a planned 1/2 mile, 30 minute hike, twist an ankle, and need to respond to the situation.  Thick woods are thick woods, whether you are 20 feet, or 20 miles into them.  It is very easy to become disoriented and lost.  You may have to spend a night outside, completely unplanned, because you are hurt, sick, or lost, and a search and rescue team is not going to respond to lost hiker that is simply 20 minutes late for dinner.

I have adopted a hybrid approach to the Ten Essentials, merging both the classic and systems lists.  I find that I am more likely to carry this with me on every hike at any distance, as it is lighter than the full systems approach, but more useful than the classic approach.  Nothing is battery operated, and all of the items are simple to operate in any condition.

So what do I carry with me on every hike, even in a local park?

The List

  1. Knife
  2. First-aid Kit
  3. Map(s)
  4. Compass
  5. Sun Protection
  6. Rain/ Cold Protection
  7. Extra food
  8. Illumination
  9. Fire kit
  10. Water Kit

With these 10 items, and even the slightest amount of background knowledge of where you are travelling, anyone can enjoy a comfortable night by the fire, or survive long enough to be rescued from a dire situation.

1. Knife

knife is arguably the most important tool anyone can have.  Food preparation, shelter building, fire-making, and first aid can all be accomplished with the the aid of a knife.

Your everyday, every hike knife should have a fixed blade, with a sheath, such as what I carry, the Morankniv Bushcraft Black.  While it may be a little pricey, a quality knife will give you years of service, and the fixed blade means there aren’t any moving parts to gum up or break.  A blade of roughly 4″ in length is more than sufficient for 99% of tasks.  Anything longer than 6″ starts becoming cartoonish, heavy, and useless for detailed tasks like pulling a splinter, and anything shorter than 3″ is hard to work with for heavier tasks such as batoning wood.

My recommendation is a carbon steel blade, which can be used in starting fires by spark, and holds a much sharper edge for a longer time than stainless steel.  Like any gear, knives take maintenance and care, with carbon steel arguably taking more care than stainless due to the possibility of corrosion.  While a full tang (the part of the steel that goes into the handle) is preferable for durability and strength concerns, I find that the Morakniv’s 3/4 tang is more than sturdy enough to drive handle deep into a tree and stand on. (and no, pulling it out of the tree after this experiment was not much fun)

Look for:

A knife with a fixed, straight (although a few teeth near the handle, useful for cutting cordage are acceptable), carbon steel, 3.5″ – 5.5″ blade and a sheath.  Full tang is preferred, but anything 3/4 length or more is fine.


Knives with fully serrated or concave blades…those are for cutting bread and looking cool.  Folding blades may be more compact, but they break with heavy use.  A knife blade over 6″ means you’re either Crocodile Dundee, or you have need of a machete.  A knife blade under 3″ is a pen knife…good luck splitting a 4″ log.

2. First-aid Kit

Your first-aid kit needn’t be suited for every single contingency you may ever encounter in the woods.  I’ve found that most trail users overpack their kit with items they will never need, in quantities that could supply a major trauma center, and worse yet, don’t know how to use in most situations.  Think about the injuries and health issues you are most likely to face in the backcountry.  Cuts, bruises, and scrapes are the most common.  Burns from campfires, hot stoves, or the sun are not infrequent either.  These are skin injuries.  Some assorted band-aids, sanitary wipes, antibiotic ointment, and one or two larger gauze bandages should be enough to get you out of the backcountry without an infection or worse.  Medical tape should also be a part of your first-aid kit for this same reason.

Following skin injuries, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, cramps, and stomachaches are very common.  Much of the time, this is due to lack of clean water, or failure to consume enough of it.  While totally preventable, this can usually be treated by rest, CLEAN water, and Tylenol or asprin.  I also carry a few antacid tablets, and pepto-bismol capsules.  I find that most of the time, especially in winter, I haven’t drunk enough water, and these items can calm me down enough to have a clear head and determine the root cause of my maladies.

Severe bone fractures, sprains, breaks, and muscle weakness can be a little more complex.  I don’t recommend carrying splints or casts though.  One, maybe two ace bandage wraps can be used in conjunction with found or re-purposed materials to stabilize an injured limb or joint.  They key to injury treatment is R.I.C.E….Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.  While ice may be hard to come by, cool water soaking an Ace bandage is a backcountry substitute.

Antihistamine spray, wipes, or gel is also useful for treating the annoyance of insect bites or poison ivy.  Similarly, if you have seasonal allergies, be sure to take extra medication in your first-aid kit.

If you are travelling in known venomous snake territory, antivenom, if available, is a wise choice.  Just make sure you know it’s uses

Lastly, if you are on prescription medication or know of any specific allergies (bees, peanuts – often found in trail mix, etc), take at least 3 extra days supply with you, and make sure that it is not expired.  This takes some conscious effort to remember, but a routine inventory of your first aid kit should be done periodically anyway.

Adventure Medical Kits sells a well stocked first-aid kit for one that you can augment as needed, or build your own, double bagging it in Ziploc type bags.  For longer trips (or if you’re clumsy or unlucky), think about adding quantity to your supplies.

3. Map(s)

Topographic maps are readily available for almost every square mile of the United States from the federal government.  Most National Parks, and well run state and local parks also publish maps of their specific areas, trails, and facilities as well.  As a “fail-safe”, I rely on the USGS 1:24,000 quads, and supplement them with any local maps I can find.  While some of the USGS maps are slightly outdated, it is the land features, compass declination, and basic road paths I am concerned about. Those things don’t significantly change in most backcountry areas, and for survival or bushwhacking purposes, they are the most reliable.  Many trails are either not marked or otherwise re-routed since the publication of a USGS map though, so I also carry a park map for basic trail junctions and route finding purposes.

The USGS 1:24,000 scale topo maps are detailed enough to find your way just about anywhere, but not so small that you will need to carry 15 of them for a day hike.  When you order/ buy these, note that they’re paper, so they should be folded and protected in a watertight bag, pouch, or container.

Learn to read a topographic map.  Know what different symbols, contour lines, declination, and shading means.  Study the map before you even leave for an area, and mark significant points, notes, or paths with a pencil.  If you don’t know how to look at and interpret a map in it’s most basic form, you effectively have an overpriced piece of fire-starting material.

4. Compass

No, your phone’s GPS is not “essential”.  A compass, and the knowledge of how to use one are though.  At its most basic, in conjunction with a map, a compass can tell any user what direction they are facing, and what general direction they need to go.  With more knowledge and practice, it can tell you where you are by triangulation, and exactly which direction, and how far you to need to travel to get to a given point on a map.  It doesn’t need charging, it’s waterproof, reliable, and most of all…cost effective.  For the price of a single iPhone 6 (even the “low-end” model), you can purchase 37 Silva Polaris 177’s (which I use).  You can put one in every pocket of your pack, shirt, and pants, as “backups”, and still never need to charge them or worry about keeping them dry.

That said, using a compass properly takes practice and learning.  Properly reading your USGS map for the “declination” and setting your compass is essential to route finding.  Knowing what a “bearing” and a “heading” are similarly critical in real situations.

Ultimately though, if you know you’re facing north, (based on your compass), and you know the east-to-west travelling road that your car is parked on road is south of you (based on your map), and your lost (based on the distinct lack of a nearby trail) turn around and walk, crawl, or swim that way.

While I admit that I’m a geek, and I love to carry my phone and use it for GPS logging and path-finding, I am very experienced and practiced in orienteering with a map and compass first, and I always have them in my essentials kit.

5. Sun protection

Sunburns, snow-blindness, heat-exhaustion, and vampires can all benefit from having protection from the sun.  This system is fairly simple.  A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen should all be readily available in your kit. Light colored, breathable, loose-fitting clothing also offers some protection from the sun when you spend all day in it.  While I always wear a wide-brimmed “boonie” hat and sunglasses, I am frequently guilty of not wearing sunscreen.  I don’t personally sunburn easily, but I am aware enough to know that I CAN sunburn, and even with just a farmer’s tan, it could spell a whole host of problems later in life.  In winter, you often need even more protection, because snow and ice reflect sunlight back up towards you from below.

For this reason, make sure you put sunscreen on the bottom of your nose and chin in winter, or on the water.  Don’t ask me how I know.

A wide-brimmed hat, preferably one with a brim that goes the whole way around the hat is a better choice than a baseball cap.  It protects your ears and the back of your neck, in addition to your eyes and nose from direct sunlight.  Make sure that your hat has a neck loop on it for the inevitable wind gusts that would otherwise send it careening off of your head and over the next ridge.

Sunglasses should have a “wrap around” style or side shields.  This not only reduces glare, but helps protect your eyes when you are walking perpendicular to the sun.  I never use expensive sunglasses.  The wal-mart fishing section is a good place to pick up a pair of polarized, wrap-around style shades.  Save the Ray-bans for Miami Beach, or, if you’re Corey Hart, wearing at night.

6.  Rain/ Cold protection

Even in summer, you should carry protection from rain and cold.  Depending on the known conditions, this could be a simple light fleece and a rain jacket.  Even on a sunny, 80 degree day, a sudden storm or a slip into a creek can leave you chilled, and wind exacerbates that.  If you had to spend an unexpected night outside, that fleece, layered with rain protection over it can be a lifesaver.

I personally prefer a poncho over a rain jacket.  My reasoning for this is that a poncho generally is a more useful item overall.  In most cases, it can be used as a tarp with the proper rigging, or even used as a large sack to carry gear.  You simply can’t get more breathable than a poncho either.  If you have one that is big enough, it can even be draped over your pack…you know, the same one that you’re carrying your ten essentials in.

Rain pants, to me, are more of a “comfort” item, but they also have their place.  I find them beneficial when hiking in more open, grassland settings, especially in morning, when the dew on the grass will soak your legs quickly.  They also help, when draped over the top of your footwear, in keeping your socks dry in a downpour.

down jacket is the ultimate coat for backpacking, as it is lightweight, very packable, and warm.  However, if down gets wet (via rain, snow, or sweat) it can turn into a lumpy mess.  If a cold rain is falling and you need your down jacket, cover it with a poncho or rain coat, and be sure to vent as needed to keep yourself from sweating.  I often find that a fleece pullover is a better “all around” piece of insulation for this very reason.

One last word: extra socks fall under this category.  Warm, dry feet are the most important tool for getting you out of the wilderness.

7.  Extra Food

Even on a short day hike, I always carry extra food.  I generally base the amount on the length of my travels.  For a short day hike, I carry about 500 calories worth of food.  For an overnight backpacking trip, I carry two extra meals.  Anything more than two nights means carrying three meals, or 2500 calories worth of extra food.  Compact, calorie dense items like jerky, nuts and seeds, or meat-based meals seem to be the easiest on me.  A package of ramen noodles is cheap, light, and compact as well, and can give one the carbohydrates they need to make that final push up to the ridgeline where their vehicle is parked.

And no, cupcakes and candy bars do not count as “extra food” when it comes to the essentials.  You want the energy to last.

8.  Illumination

Simply put, Illumination is anything you can carry the creates useful light.  This could be a flashlightheadlamp, or candle lantern.

Each has it’s benefits and drawbacks, but the headlamp seems to be the clear winner here.  A flashlight in general requires you to use one hand, and I always seem to set them down somewhere, of course when they are turned off, and tit gets lost in the darkness, because I don’t have a flashlight to use in finding my flashlight.  A candle lantern doesn’t really give off useful light for travelling, and is far more finicky in use.  It also requires matches.

A headlamp however frees your hands, always points where you’re looking, and even the cheap wal-mart Energizer branded models have always been reliable…albeit heavy and not as bright.

Just make sure you have extra batteries.  For the truly primitive, learn how to make a torch.

9.  Fire Kit

Learn all of the primitive fire making techniques you want.  Master them, and enjoy it, but carry a fire kit with you.  When you NEED a fire in an emergency, the last thing you want to do is find just the right wood, in a perfectly seasoned state, and rub it together for half an hour.  Yes, knowing how to make fire with two sticks, or a piece of quartz and the back of your (carbon steel) knife is very useful, but your fire kit saves time and precious energy.

UCO stormproof matches are the ultimate matchstick to have in windy or even wet conditions.  They will burn for about 5 – 10 seconds in a full gale force wind, due to the way they are made.  Matches are easier to use when starting a campfire than a lighter because of the awkward ways you need to hold lighters in order to ignite your tinder.  I carry them in a small waterproof matchcase with extra strikers and a small piece of cotton in the lid to keep them from rattling.

Speaking of tinder, again, you can use found materials such as pine sap, cattail fluff, or bark shavings (and you should when you can), but just the same, I carry cotton balls impregnated with petroleum jelly.  When fluffed up, these take a spark from my ferrocerrium rod, usually on the first strike, and they burn for a good 20 seconds…more than enough to light damp kindling.  Ferro-rods are waterproof, lightweight, and last for thousands of strikes, but make sure you practice a bit at lighting a fire by spark before having to rely on it.

One or two pieces of fatwood (heavily sap impregnated pine) are usually tossed in my bag as well to make life a little easier.

10.  Water Kit

It’s common knowledge that a healthy human being can go without food for about three weeks, but can only go without water for a few days at best.  For this reason, the ability to purify water is of the utmost importance.  There are multiple methods i use, from filters (both pump and gravity style) to UV light (don’t knock it, it really works!), to boiling,  but for my emergency backup, I always carry iodine tablets.  They’re cheap, reliable, lightweight, and compact.  They don’t require batteries, fire, or expending energy to use them.

Yes, they can make water taste funky, but there are extra tablets you can get to reduce this taste, and ultimately, the water is safe.  Follow the instructions (you need more tablets for cloudy or cold water), drop the tablets in, shake, and wait a bit…you’ll have clean water.

I also additionally carry two Nalgene style bottles.  They’re nearly indestructible, plentiful, and well priced.  Most of them have graduated measurements on the side, so you know how much water you have.  Carrying two means I can throw tablets in one bottle, and drink from the other while I wait for them to work their magic.  As a rule of thumb, with two or more bottles, I always begin looking to resupply my water when I have to start drinking from the last full bottle.



All of these items should be with you on every trip, and everyone in your group should have their own setup..  They should be in an easily accessible place, and you need to know how to use all of them properly.  Each item I’ve listed can be used independently of the other items, hence my adoption of them.  I can make clean water and stay warm even if I don’t have the ability to make fire.  I have extra food with me and the ability to make fire even if I lose my knife.  These points are not to be taken lightly.  In most cases, you may only have to deal with a few extra hours outside an irritating cut that you just need to protect until you get back to civilization.  However, there is always a chance that something severe happens, and you may have to use these items to save your own life.