My 10 Essentials for Hiking and Other Outdoor Adventures
By Steve Gillman
We all like numbered lists, and it is therefore common to
see lists of the 10 essentials for hiking and backpacking. But
there does seem to be a bit to much presumptuousness that goes
along with these lists. Every "authority" seems to
act as though their list is the final word on the matter. Well,
without trying to be an authority, and without saying this is
THE list, I will add my own list of ten essentials for hiking,
and comment on the others.
In preparation for this page I did some research online and
found one of the earliest lists of 10 essentials for hiking.
It was first published in the 1930s by a The Mountaineers, a
organization for climbers and hikers based in Seattle. This is
3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
4. Extra clothing
6. First-aid supplies
10. Extra food
In recent years they updated the list and made it more of
a "systems" list. "Navigation," for example,
can include a map, compass, GPS unit, and so on. I would not
include "altimeter" on the list, as I have seen some
backpacking retailers do, since it is not an essential and is
affected by weather (high and low pressure systems), but I like
the general idea of the systems approach. Here is the updated
list, which appears in recent editions of the book, Mountaineering:
The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers Books, 2010):
1. Navigation (map and compass)
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
3. Insulation (extra clothing)
4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
5. First-aid supplies
6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
7. Repair kit and tools
8. Nutrition (extra food)
9. Hydration (extra water)
10. Emergency shelter
I have no real complaints with either list, except perhaps
for the glaring omission of water from the first one. But I do
think it is a bit much to recommend that these items go on even
the shortest of day hikes, as most "experts" recommend.
It is a matter of context, after all. For example, extra food
is largely irrelevant if you are in a small wilderness area surrounded
by roads, and you are hiking with a group. Long before you are
in danger of malnutrition any crisis will be resolved. And rainy
day hiking in the northwest in winter does not require sun protection.
Then there are the things left off of these lists. For example,
I like to think that skills should be brought along, and are
often more important than the physical items. So here is my own
list of 10 essentials for hiking. Following that I explain each
one in a bit more detail.
1. Appropriate clothing for all potential conditions.
2. Appropriate skills for type of trip and locale.
3. Appropriate attitude.
4. Willingness to think.
5. Fire starter.
6. First-aid supplies.
10. Cell phone.
No, I do not consider these to be set in stone. Nothing really
is (and that is why number 4 is so important). There are even
those who have hiked hundreds of miles barefoot (not my idea
of fun, but I guess it works for them). But here is why each
item is on the list:
It does not matter if you have extra clothing for a day hike
close to civilization, as long as you have the clothing you need
for whatever conditions could occur in that locale at that time
of the year. If you happen to be starting out on the coldest
morning of summer in a rainstorm that is supposed to end soon,
you are likely already wearing everything you'll need for the
worst conditions you'll encounter.
If you are backpacking in a true wilderness, it is more important
to have actual practice building a fire than to have three different
fire starters. If you are hiking in areas that will require occasional
scrambling on steep hills and cliffs, experience doing this is
more important than the type of footwear you have.
I have seen some people out there in the middle of nowhere,
whining and doing nothing to help themselves as they follow their
fearless leader. Well guess what? Fearless leaders can step off
a cliff or break an ankle. Everyone who is out there should be
mentally prepared to take care of himself or herself.
This would be number one on the list if I had ordered them
by importance. I once met three young men in the Sierra Nevada
Mountains of California, ten miles from the nearest road, in
t-shirts, with no packs and a bottle of water for all of them
to share. This isn't a lack of outdoor knowledge, but a refusal
to think. I am pretty sure they spent the night out there without
shelter, and it was going to be around freezing. And if you imagine
that your fearless leader will do the thinking for you, see number
Matches are enough for a day hike. Two sources of fire or
more make sense for longer trips. Knowing how to use them is
most important (see number 2).
There are a number of prepared kits you can buy which are
light and have the essentials you need for short hiking and backpacking
Bring more than you think you'll need. The weight goes away
as you drink it anyhow. On any overnight or longer trips it is
a good idea to have two water containers, both for protection
in case one breaks and so you have one to drink from while treating
water in the other. Water purification is a necessity for longer
trips, and knowing how to find and purify water is always a good
thing (see number 2 again).
Maps should be either waterproof or in a plastic bag or covering
of some sort. A compass is more reliable than a GPS unit. Not
knowing how to use these things makes them worthless, by the
It can be a small knife, as long as it is rugged enough for
emergency tasks like cutting a small tree for to make a splint
or crutch, and gutting a fish in case of a week without food.
10. Cell phone.
I almost never turn my cell phone on when hiking. For that
matter I haven't turned it on for six weeks now. But whether
or not you like them, they are life savers. You might have noticed
that on the other list of 10 essentials for hiking, an emergency
shelter has the number ten spot. I figure a piece of plastic
can shred in the wind and trees, leaving you in a real bind.
So knowing how to build an emergency shelter (there's that number
2 again) is more crucial, and a cell phone makes a rescue possible
when all else fails.