You’ve probably seen those news stories: “Search and Rescue finds Unprepared Hikers Lost/Injured in the Woods”. But that’s never going to be you right? Yup, we all think it won’t happen to us. But it definitely could. No one expects to get lost, get stuck hiking in the dark or hurt themselves, but they do. (It even happens to super-prepared people.) So what can you do? The classic (and still best) way to be prepared is to bring some essential gear, nicknamed “The 10 Essentials” in the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. (Definitely helpful and required reading for any budding alpinist, BTW.) The essentials are 10 groups of gear you should bring on every hike to ensure you are safe and prepared. Here’s my quick overview of the 10 essentials. I’ve also included a complete list of the ultralight and compact gear I carry as part of my 10 essentials.
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The 10 essentials should come with you on every trip, but that shouldn’t be the only pre-hike preparation you do. One of the most important safety measures you can take when hiking is to leave a trip plan with a friend or family member. That way if you get lost or injured, search and rescue knows where to look for you. Adventure Smart has a great online trip planning template you can use. Planning ahead and preparing is one of the seven principles of Leave No Trace, so it’s an important way to ensure we keep the wilderness wild.
Check out my full checklist of things to do before every hike.
The 10 Essentials
Illumination (Headlamp or Flashlight)
One of the easiest ways to get lost or injured is to end up hiking after dark. Most of us don’t mean to finish the trail in the dark, but stuff happens. You hike slower than you thought, the trail is harder than your thought, or you just spent waaaay too much time at the summit admiring the view. Pack a headlamp or flashlight (also known as torch if you’re British) just in case. Don’t rely on your phone for light. Using your phone as a flashlight drains your battery really quickly which can leave you without a light AND without a way to call for help.
Make sure you pack spare batteries for your light too. If you get a USB rechargable headlamp like the Petzl Actik Core, you won’t have to worry about carrying AAAs. Instead you can just carry a power bank to act as a spare battery for your headlamp, phone, camera and any other USB rechargeable devices you are carrying. Just make sure you remember to pack the right cables!
I also carry a small emergency light inside my first aid kit with my other emergency supplies. I use the Petzl e+LITE because it is tiny, weighs almost nothing and uses a watch battery that lasts for up to 10 years. It’s not incredibly bright, but on the couple of occasions I’ve had to use it in an emergency (or lend it to someone who forgot a light) it was definitely bright enough to hike with.
Nutrition and Hydration (Extra Food and Water)
Hiking is hard work, so you probably bring some water and snacks or a lunch on most hikes, right? But it’s also a good idea to bring a little bit extra in case you are out longer than you planned. Or in case things go really wrong and you need to spend a the night while waiting for help. In addition to lunch, I always have a couple extra energy bars or gels stashed in my pack. Probars are my favourite, especially the chocolate coconut flavour. I also like Honey Stinger energy chews for a quick hit of calories. They taste and look like gummy candy, but have the same electrolytes and carbs as energy gels. Remember to check the expiry dates on snacks that have been in your bag for awhile so they don’t go bad on you.
I bring a reusable water bottle or hydration pack on every hike. I also carry a few water purification tablets like Pristine with my emergency supplies. That way if I run out of water, I can treat stream water that I find along the way. I like the tablets compared to bulky filters since they are lightweight and tiny, so it’s easy to have some with me all the time. I’ve had to use the tablets on some pretty gross looking ponds before, and I’ve never gotten sick. Just make sure you read the directions on the package carefully.
Insulation (Extra Clothing)
Even if the sun is shining in the city, it’s often cold and rainy (or even snowy) on the trail. I won’t go on a hike without a lightweight rain jacket in my pack, just in case. If the forecast calls for cold or wet weather, I might also bring a pair of waterproof breathable rain pants. I also bring a layer like a fleece jacket or thermal shirt for extra warmth.
Since they are the farthest from your heart, your extremities (that’s your hands, feet and head) will usually get cold first. I always have a warm hat or a wool buff in my pack. I pack a pair of lightweight fleece gloves too. A spare pair of socks is also awesome. You can change your socks if they get wet from rain or sweat, which helps to prevent blisters. Plus they double as mittens in an emergency.
A trail description from a guide book or website is great, but that won’t help you when you take a wrong turn, lose the trail or get lost in a maze of unmarked junctions. I’m old school, so I always carry a paper map. If possible, I like to carry a trail map that shows all of the trails in the area. That way I can adjust my route on the fly if I need to. Government issue topographic maps are great, but they don’t always have all the trails.
Although I rarely use it, I also have a compass stashed in my pack. Get some practice using it and make sure you adjust the declination. If you want to learn how to navigate with a map and compass (or if you have no idea what I meant by declination in that last sentence), consider taking a course. I also find this book about Wilderness Navigation really helpful for learning.
For more complicated trips, I sometimes bring a handheld GPS. I have an older Garmin eTrex that is pretty simple to use. Many people now use GPS mapping apps like Gaia GPS or ViewRanger on their phones for navigation. I haven’t used any of these apps (since I’m old school), but lots of outdoors people I trust and respect swear by them. The only thing to keep in mind with using your phone for navigation is battery life. Carry an external battery, shut down any apps you aren’t using, turn down screen brightness and put your phone in airplane mode to save as much battery life as possible.
In an emergency, the ability to start a fire could be the difference between life and death. The warmth of a fire can save you from hypothermia and the smoke can be used to signal for help. I always carry a simple Bic lighter or some stormproof matches in my bag. But it wasn’t until I took a wilderness survival course that I realized how difficult it is to start a fire in the woods. Most things are pretty wet and don’t burn well! There are lots of commercial fire starters on the market, but one of the key things I learned in my course was how to make my own. They are super easy to make and cheap too: just cotton balls with some vaseline rubbed into them. I store them in a tiny Ziploc bag.
First Aid Kit
You never plan for things to go wrong. But they do. I always carry a small first aid kit on every hike. I have a lightweight kit from Adventure Medical Kits that comes with the basics. But you can always put together a kit yourself at the drug store. Whichever route you choose, make sure you know what’s in your kit and how to use it. And ensure the kit includes everything you think you’ll need, including pain killers and other medications that sometimes aren’t included. I always keep my kit in a waterproof bag so it can’t get wrecked. (A cheap Ziploc freezer bag works great.) If you use up some first aid supplies, remember to replace them before your next trip.
The contents of each person’s preferred first aid kit varies. The most common injuries for hikers are small cuts, blisters and muscle pain, so make sure you have supplies to deal with those issues. My kit contains bandaids and adhesive bandages in a few different sizes, medical tape, ibuprofen, antihistamines, antiseptic wipes, moleskin or other blister dressings and some safety pins.
If you get lost or injured (or your hiking partner gets hurt), you might need to spend the night on the trail waiting for help. A simple and lightweight emergency shelter can make all the difference. The easiest form of shelter you can carry is a really big garbage bag. You can cut a hole in it and wear it as a jacket. And if you bring a bright orange garbage bag, you can use it to signal for help too.
Mylar space blankets are also a good option. They are very light, compact and inexpensive. But they are also really flimsy. I carry a more durable (but still really light) SOL emergency blanket that comes in a waterproof pouch and has survival instructions printed right on the blanket. SOL also makes an emergency bivy bag (basically a mylar sleeping bag).
Getting a sunburn can be really debilitating. The sun is harsher in the mountains, especially when you add in the reflection off snow. I keep a small stick of Sun Bum sunscreen in my pack. It comes in a stick form that you can just rub directly on your face so your hands don’t get greasy.
I have really sun sensitive eyes so I wear sunglasses on every hike. Polarized lenses are awesome, since they produce colours that are truer to nature and they work much better at cutting glare on water. I wear Sunski Headlands since they are a great price for polarized sunglasses. (Also – fun colours!) I also wear a baseball cap or wide-brimmed sun hat. I have the Outdoor Research Oasis hat since I can fold it into my pack when I don’t need it.
In an emergency, you need something to cut with. That might be cutting twigs for kindling to start your fire, cutting a branch to act as a splint, cutting up bandages, or maybe just opening a stubborn package of trail mix. I carry a simple and lightweight Opinel single blade knife on most day hikes, but for longer trips you might want to carry a small multi-tool that includes pliers and scissors. Other repair supplies can be handy for fixing broken gear such as Gear Aid Tenacious Tape and zip ties.
It’s important to be able to call for help in an emergency. You are probably already carrying a cell phone, so you can definitely use that to call for help (if you have enough battery left.) However, there is no cell reception on many hikes, especially in valleys or dense forest. You should make sure you have a second method of communication as well.
I attach a small and loud whistle to the shoulder strap of every backpack I own. The sound of a whistle carries much better than the human voice, and you can keep blowing a whistle much longer than you can keep yelling. I use the Fox 40 whistle which is small, loud and has no moving parts that can break.
If you have the budget, consider investing in a satellite messenger device. Since I often hike solo or in remote areas, having a device like this gives me and my family a lot of peace of mind. These devices let you push a button in an emergency to summon first responders. Or you can send messages to friends or family, just to let them know you’ll be late. I use the Garmin inReach mini that lets me send and receive texts via satellite, as well as call for help. It’s not cheap and requires an annual subscription, but I think it’s worth it.
My Lightweight and Compact 10 Essentials Kit
Carrying the 10 essentials doesn’t have to be bulky, heavy or difficult. I carry my first aid kit, emergency light, extra food, water purification tablets, compass, fire starter, sunscreen, emergency blanket and knife in a single Ziploc freezer bag that I keep in my hiking day pack so I’m always ready to go. It takes up a small corner of my pack and I don’t even notice it’s there until I need something out of it. Over the years I’ve refined the gear I use as part of my 10 essentials to make them lighter and smaller, but you can cobble together a 10 essentials kit with budget items and things you probably already own. Here’s my complete 10 essentials kit:
- Illumination: Petzl Actik and Petzl e+LITE with Goal Zero Flip 24 battery pack
- Nutrition: Probars and Honey Stinger Energy chews
- Hydration: water in a 1L Nalgene, Platypus Big Zip Reservoir, or Platypus SoftBottle, plus Pristine water purification tablets
- Insulation: MEC Synergy Jacket, MEC T3 Zip-T thermal shirt (discontinued), MEC Hydrofoil Stretch Rain Pants, Merino Wool Buff, thin fleece gloves, Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks
- Navigation: Paper trail maps, compass, Garmin eTrex GPS and Gaia app
- Fire Starter: UCO stormproof matches, plus vaseline soaked cotton balls
- First Aid Kit: Adventure Medical Kits ultralight first aid kit with bandaids and adhesive bandages in a few different sizes, medical tape, ibuprofen, antihistamines, antiseptic wipes, moleskin or other blister dressings and some safety pins.
- Emergency Shelter: SOL emergency blanket
- Sun Protection: Sun Bum sunscreen, Sunski Headlands sunglasses, Outdoor Research Oasis sun hat
- Knife: Opinel No. 6 Stainless Steel Pocket Knife, Gear Aid Tenacious Tape
- Communication: Fox 40 whistle, cell phone, Garmin inReach mini
That’s what I carry as part of my 10 essentials kit. What’s in your kit? Do you always carry the 10 essentials? Tell me in the comments.
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- How to Leave No Trace (And Why it’s Important!)
- Bear Safety for Hikers, Campers and Backpackers
- How to Find Trail Conditions
- 17 Ways to Save Money on Hiking Gear
- Backpacking Checklist: Gear You Need To Go Backpacking
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