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Ten Essentials for Backcountry Hiking

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

A backpack filled with the 10 essentials

A backpack filled with the 10 essentials

Gear Isn't Everything ... But It Sure Helps

If you've read other articles of mine, you may be rolling your eyes right about now, thinking, ugh, is she harping on this stuff again? Well ... yeah, I can't help it; I'm a big proponent of being prepared, particularly in the backcountry.

And if you're a hiker or any other type of outdoor enthusiast, you've probably heard the term "the ten essentials" at least a time or two. That's okay, though, you can keep reading if you'd like. It never hurts to reinforce the idea.

Besides, it can be easy to get complacent when you've been at this trail-walking thing for a long time without incident. For me, though, being involved with Search and Rescue is a really good -- and, unfortunately, frequent -- reminder that a little bit of gear can go a long way, and even save a life.

Me with my 10 essentials in a light-weight daypack

Me with my 10 essentials in a light-weight daypack

What ARE the Ten Essentials?

A hiker's must-haves

(Photo: That's me, "slack-packing" on the Appalachian Trail with a 24-hour pack.)

To me, the ten essentials are best thought of as ten categories rather than ten items. So, do you need all of it if you're going for just a two-mile hike on a trail you've been over umpteen times before? Well, I'll leave that decision up to you. Besides, one two-mile trail or route can be very different than another.

Me, I have my basic 24-hour pack (for at least 24-hour preparedness on the trail) stocked with ten essential gear, ready to grab and go no matter if I plan to be hiking for one hour or all day and regardless of the trail.

Some of that gear falls under the "just in case" heading, while other items are preventative and sustaining.

For overnight or multi-day treks, I still bring the ten essentials, just more of some things, different versions of others, and additional items I wouldn't take on a day hike. Still, the concept is the same: hike smart, go prepared, be safe.

The following is a list of the ten essentials by category. You can click on a category to skip to that section, where I'll suggest some items I like and have used that fulfill that important part of my hiking gear:

The Ten Essentials Table of Contents

(in no particular order)

  • Navigation
  • Illumination
  • Insulation
  • Hydration
  • Nutrition
  • First Aid
  • Tools & Repair
  • Fire-Starting
  • Shelter
  • Sun Protection
Navigation with map and compass

Navigation with map and compass

Tools for Finding Your Way

Where Am I? Where Am I Going? And How Do I Get Back?

The #1, most essential item in this category is the proper map, preferably a topographic map that shows the shape of the terrain. Without a map, a compass is of limited use. And a GPS can malfunction. With a map, however, along with the skill to interpret it and compare what you see on that paper to the terrain around you, you will rarely, if ever, be lost. Confused for a time perhaps, but not completely confounded, especially if you add some "alternative navigation" skills to that grab bag of tools.

As with all of the gear here, none of it takes the place of common sense or skill of course, and sometimes luck is a factor, too, but it sure helps to have these tools at your disposal.

One such tool is a compass. No batteries required, and the basic skills needed to use one properly aren't all that difficult with some practice. Put together with your map and your head, you should be able to find your way even if you get "momentarily misplaced."

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Add to that some gadgetry like a GPS, and you'll have even more information and resources. Of course, gadgets can break, get lost, or run out of battery juice, so they shouldn't be relied upon to the exclusion of that map. What gets some folks into pickles, though, is being out-of-the-box users -- meaning removing that nice, new gizmo from its package and heading to the trailhead without first practicing with it in their own back yards.

Anyhow, here are a couple of suggestions in the navigation tool department:

A Compass

But not all compasses are created equal. This is the one I use and recommend.

A Handheld GPS

A GPS is a great tool ... as long as you know how to use it of course. But even if you do, I recommend that you always take a back-up form of navigation (especially a map) because we all know that gadgets can fail and batteries can die.

Topographic Maps

Speaking of taking a map at least as a backup, here are two good sources of topo maps....

Find USGS topographic maps online at the The U.S. Geological Survey Store.

Search for international topographic maps by country at East View Cartographic.

Light Your Way in the Backcountry

Because bumping into things hurts

Most dayhikes are intended to be just that: daylight hikes. But sometimes things run a bit long for one reason or another, and darkness catches up. In those cases, or of course if you plan to be out at night or overnight, a light source sure comes in handy.

Our SAR team has been called out numerous times to rescue stranded hikers, climbers, backcountry skiers and others who simply got stuck because they couldn't see. So why not carry a lightweight light source, no matter what?

Flashlights are great, and I always bring a handheld as a backup because I think two sources are better than one, but my primary tool for illumination is always a headlamp for hand-free hiking or moving around camp. Not to mention for seeing what the heck just crawled across my face while I was lying in my tent.

These are two of my headlamp picks, one more for "just in case" than the other:

A Headlamp

For hands-free lighting

This is one of a few headlamps I have in my gear stash.

An Emergency Headlamp

Dependable, even after years of not being used

What good is an emergency light if it doesn't work when you suddenly find you need it? Sure, it's always a good idea to check it before you head out, but how many of us either forget to do that or honestly just blow it off? This is a great product to invest in -- and it's not expensive -- to account for both of those normal aspects of human nature.

Keep Warm and Protected

Because cold is uncomfortable ... and can be a killer

Like most ten essential categories, this one needs little if any explanation. But I'll do it anyway.

While being uncomfortably cold is no fun whatsoever, the real concern is hypothermia, which is caused by a reduction in body temperature. If untreated, hypothermia can result in organ death, heart arhythmias, or disorientation, and that disorientation can even lead to "paradoxical undressing"--removing clothing because one doesn't feel the cold. If the person isn't found and treated quickly, death is very likely.

Sure, there's heat in the feet as they say, but once you stop and the sweat starts to dry, it can get chilly fast. And even a summer day can turn into a snow squall at elevation. In fact, hypothermia often occurs when the temperature is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when there's rain and/or wind added to the mix. So carrying at least some lightweight, emergency insulation along with extra layers of clothing, even on a summer dayhike, is a good idea.

In addition to whatever articles of clothing you might bring along--like a fleece top, a rain or wind shell and pants, a hat, gloves and extra socks, for example--here are a couple of suggestions for "just in case" insulating items:

An Emergency Bivvy

This may not be the toastiest way to spend a night outdoors, but it sure beats nothin'.

I've spent more than a few nights in one of these during Search & Rescue missions. With a closed cell foam pad underneath -- or just some pine needles -- and my small backpack for a pillow, I actually slept quite comfortably even when the outside temperature was in the 20s.

An All-Weather Space Blanket: What a difference it can make


Learn more about hypothermia and its treatment from The Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia & Cold Weather Injuries.



Stay Hydrated

Because dehydration can turn into one's elimination

Sorry, I'm just playing around with words. But seriously....

While people have survived without food for weeks or even months, it's dangerous to go without water for even a day. The generally accepted rule of thumb is that a person needs a minimum of two quarts of clean water per day, but in very hot or cold or dry environments, or if you're physically active, two quarts probably won't be enough to sustain you for days, let alone weeks.

So along with plenty of potable water, it's makes good sense to bring along some form of water purification method as well. Personally, I use a water filter or filtration bottles on my overnight or multi-day trips, while carrying purification tablets or iodine in solution as my emergency method of treating water on both dayhikes and backpacking trips. For more information on treating water on the trail, see Backcountry Water Purification.

There are many types and brands of water containers one can choose from, but I personally prefer bottles to water bladders. Water bladders are great for the convenience of drinking while on the move, and a lot of hikers obviously prefer them, but I like to see just how much water I have. And I've had more than my fair share of leaky Camelbak-type bladders.


There are many types and brands of water containers one can choose from, but I personally prefer bottles to water bladders. Water bladders are great for the convenience of drinking while on the move, and a lot of hikers and trail runners obviously prefer them, but I like to see just how much water I have. And I've had more than my fair share of leaky Camelbak-type bladders, so it's usually bottles for me -- or at least one bottle in addition to a bladder.

I always carry at least two liters or quarts of water on dayhikes, even short ones. On really hot days and long hikes, I carry four liters or roughly a gallon.

I do often use soda or Gatorade bottles to carry water, but I have plenty of Nalgenes as well. They're good for hot liquids too, which the soda and sports drink bottles are not. Nalgenes have the wide mouths that fit most water filters (the kind you pump) on the market.

A 48-Ounce Bottle



Carry Enough Calories in the Backcountry

Because feeling lethargic and hungry can really slow you down

Calories may not be quite as vital as liquids in the short term, but they certainly are important and make you feel better. And I'm not just talking calories here; I'm also referring to sugars, salt, electrolytes, carbohydrates ... basically, fuel and energy.

To satisfy those needs, I always keep a stash of long-lasting food bars and snacks in my daypack, which I replace as I use, and add fresh goodies just before heading out the door. For longer trips, I usually bring some sort of backpacking stove or fuel tablets, along with dehydrated, hearty meals.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

Food Bars - Compact nutrition

Just make sure that you actually like the food you're carrying, so palatability is as important as having a long shelf-life -- foods that won't spoil or melt in your pack.

Dehydrated Meals

These taste amazing when you're really hungry ... and quite good even when you're not.

One of my favorite brands these days is MaryJane's Farm. They have lots of different meals to choose from, some of which are gluten-free, which not only taste really good but also come in very compact packaging.

Here's another brand I like and have been using for years....

Dehydrated Meals

Carry a First Aid Kit

Because sucking on a cut all day ... well, sucks

When I'm not on a Search & Rescue mission, I don't carry a lot of extra medical supplies other than what I might need for myself and to share now and then. So most of what's in my first aid is pretty basic. I always make sure to add some disposable gloves if they're not already included, just in case I do have to tend to someone else. I also include a small pair of scissors and tweezers.

While there are plenty of prepacked medical kits on the market, from personal to professional, you can certainly compile your own basic kits from the drugstore shelves. Be sure to add any prescription medications you may be on or, if applicable, supplies for allergic reactions (ie. Epinephrine, Benadryl) or diabetes. You just never know for sure if you'll be home in time to take your next dose.

Here's a basic commercial kit I recommend:

A Personal First Aid Kit - To treat yourself and maybe a friend

There are a variety of kit sizes and contents to choose from. Prices vary, so see the Amazon listing for options.

This 1-lb kit includes:

  • 4 Butterfly Closure bandages
  • 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 4" x 4" pads
  • 4 Adhesive fabric knuckle bandages
  • 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 3" x 3"
  • 1 Adhesive fabric bandage, 2" x 4.5"
  • 2 Sterile Gauze Dressings, 2" x 2"
  • 16 Adhesive Fabric Bandages, 1" x 3"
  • 2 Non-Adherent, Sterile Dressings, 2" x 3"
  • 1 Pair Gloves, Nitrile
  • Hand Wipe
  • 1 Trauma Pad, 5" x 9"
  • 1 Moleskin, 3" x 4"
  • 1 Cold Pack
  • 1 Bandage, Elastic with Clips, 2"
  • 1 Splinter Picker/Tick Remover Forceps
  • 1 Scissors, Bandage with Blunt Tip
  • 2 Safety Pins
  • Aspirin (325 mg), Pkg/2
  • 3 Acetaminophen (500 mg), Pkg/2
  • 3 Ibuprofen (200mg), Pkg/2
  • 3 Antihistamine (Diphenhydramine 25mg)
  • 2 AfterBite Wipe
  • 1 Mini Rescue Howler Whistle
  • 1 Compass, Button, Liquid Filled
  • 12 Antimicrobial Towelettes
  • 1 Tape, 1/2" x 10 Yards
  • 4 Triple Antibiotic Ointments, Single Use
  • 4 Cotton Tip Applicators, Pkg/2

Backcountry First Aid

Want to learn more about treating injury and illness in the backcountry? Check out these classes by the National Outdoor Leadership School )NOLS):

Carry Tools for Fixing Things on the Trail

Or for toenail clipping. Or splinter removal. Or kindling cutting. Or....

There are a whole slew of things that might need tending to or fixing while you're out and about in the backcountry. Most of them may never come up, but it sure is nice to have some tools other than your teeth and fingernails at your disposal.

My husband never leaves home without his little Leatherman Squirt, which he's got attached to his keychain, and I never hit the trail without a multi-tool either. Some follks prefer and get by just fine with just a knife, but I like the added features of the multi-tools.

Here are the one I use the most:

A Small Multi-Tool



Carry Tools to Light a Fire and Keep it Going

Because fire can be a lifesaver, too

I was on one Search & Rescue mission a couple of winters ago, where the lighter in a lost backcountry skier's pocket certainly saved his life, or at least kept him going until we found him. On another mission, the lack of firestarter may very well have cost a young man his life. Fire certainly has to be treated with respect and can take some practice to start, especially in wet and windy conditions, but the ability to do so is, to me, an absolute must.

Another benefit to having a fire, as long as you also have some kind of container that can take the heat, is that it's another way to purify water.

Here are some tools to help you get it done:

Stormproof Matches: Firestarters you can rely on....

Carry Some Protection from the Elements

Because it beats getting wet

Shelter sure is nice when it's raining or really windy, and it adds warmth as well. I always carry some form of emergency shelter on dayhikes and Search & Rescue missions, and a tent on backpacking trips (though many hikers use tarps and some even hammocks).

Here's what I'm using these days:

An All Weather Space Blanket (Again!)


A Tent

A tent may seem a bit much when it comes to "just in case" gear if you're intending to dayhike, but with the ever lighter and more compact models available on the market, a single person tent or tarptent can weigh less than a pound.

I've always been a big fan of Sierra Designs tents. I find them to be well made and reasonably priced, and I've never been disappointed with any of their models I've owned. Even if I'm backpacking alone, I like having the space of a two-person tent to bring all of my gear inside and still have room to move around and change clothes, especially when it's cold or raining.

Here is a great list from Erik the Black of the lightest tents, tarptents and tarps on the market: The Ultimate Guide To Lightweight Backpacking Tents And Shelters

Sun protection

Sun protection

Protect Your Skin from the Sun's Harmful Rays

Because a sunburn ain't nuttin' nice ... or healthy

Okay, I admit it: If there's one area of the ten essentials I've been remiss about, it's sun protection. Knock on wood, so far I haven't paid the price (that I know of). But, still, I can't leave it off the list, and I'm doing much better these days at practicing what I preach.

Sun protection includes not only sunscreen, but protective clothing and hats and sunglasses as well. Some folks even like to carry lightweight hiking umbrellas for some extra shade.

Here are a couple of sun protection products I've used:

Sunscreen Towelettes

A Sun Hat

I've always thought I looked goofy in hats, but I do prefer wearing one to slathering sunscreen all over my forehead and neck. For one, if I sweat while there's sunscreen on my face, it can run into my eyes and burn like crazy for a long time. A good sun hat solves that problem. And that funny little flap sure helps if you forget the back of your neck and don't have all the hair that I do to cover it up.

How About a Quick Hiker Preparedness Poll - Do you carry the 10 essentials when you hike?

The 24-Hour Pack: Hike Smart, Be Prepared, Be Safe

As a Search and Rescue volunteer, I've participated in many missions that wouldn't have happened in the first place had those we went looking for carried just...

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Comments Or Questions About The Ten Essentials? Do you carry them all in one form or another?

Glenn McCarthy on October 11, 2012:

Excellent Lens - always good to read articles by people who know thier subject

anonymous on June 20, 2012:

Thanks for this. I stumbled upon your blog and it is really making me itch to be out in the great outdoors; I think I'll go hiking this weekend. Thanks!

Grangermdk on May 05, 2012:

Thank you, very useful and informative

Sue Dixon from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK on April 16, 2012:

Excellent advice. In my area Lake District National Park UK) the mountain rescuers are always shocked by the lack of preparation some people take. Blessed.

SayGuddaycom on April 05, 2012:

What about clockwork tools such as wind up flashlights, etc? Do you have an opinion on those and will you be blogging about it if you do?

anonymous on April 04, 2012:

Love this lens! You are so well versed in this stuff and give extremely useful information with personal experience!

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on February 24, 2012:

I'm more of a short trail person, but I can see these items would be essential for a long hike. Well done.

julieannbrady on February 24, 2012:

I think hydration is such an important essential ... and being in overall good shape too.

Einar A on December 13, 2011:

Good starting point for putting together a hiking pack--nicely written! For a water carrier, I like to use a wide mouth stainless steel bottle like a Klean Kanteen or equivalent, because that gives you the option of using your water bottle as a pot for boiling/sterilizing water over the fire, and melting snow.

BlueTrane on November 18, 2011:

Great coverage of this topic...nice checklist!

trees001 on November 06, 2011:

I love all these lenses you have on hiking and gear - they are invaluable in helping put together a "must have" list for our son's birthday. He is hoping to do the App. Trail - or part of it anyway - in the summer. Awesome info - thanks very much!

RTGriffin on September 26, 2011:

Super Lens. Nicely presented. I like how you present items through the 10 essentials

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on August 20, 2011:

Thanks for always being such a strong advocate for preparedness. A hiking trip can go south really quickly when one is missing even one or two of these essentials. Nicely covered.

kTerrain1 on July 28, 2011:

One of the key things of being prepared is actually using the gear. You don't want to be starting a fire for the first time using a steel when your hurt, cold, and hungry.

anonymous on May 31, 2011:

Getting one of your 24-Hour Packs would certainly take care of any guesswork and have the assurance that everything would fit perfectly. I'd add a number 11 for me....someone to carry my pack for me....

Addy Bell on April 05, 2011:

I'm planning my first desert day hike next month, so this is timely advice. Thanks!

MacPharlain on November 09, 2009:

Excellent...thanks for another great hiking resource!

NC Shepherd on November 04, 2009:

Wow, a great job! Now I don't have to worry about doing a "10 essentials" lens.

HorseAndPony LM on September 21, 2009:

This is some great info. We cheat and ride our horses everywhere but we need to start packing some extra stuff. Riding in CO is a lot different then PA. Thanks for the reminder.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on September 17, 2009:

Excellent info - beautifully done and only to be expected from you

Kiwisoutback from Massachusetts on June 24, 2009:

Awesome job, I'm lensrolling to my road trip essentials lens. Squid Angel blessed!

Allan R. Wallace from Wherever Human Rights Reign on June 24, 2009:

Most of these items will last a very long time, but be there if/when you need them. That is a good investment.

ElizabethJeanAl on May 21, 2009:


My name is Elizabeth Jean Allen and I am the new group leader for the Nature and the Outdoors Group.



Bambi Watson on May 16, 2009:

Great advice :-)

Mickie Gee on May 15, 2009:

Having lived in Colorado, I learned about hiking! My most carried items: H20 and snack bar! And--never hike alone!

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