10 must-have items for hitting the trail.
The 10 essentials are ten systems (formerly individual items) you should bring on every hike. They are an asset in an emergency and increases your chance of survival if you must spend a night out. The list has evolved over time from a list of individual items to a list of functional systems – largely a change in mindset, but not of the individual items required. These items are to help keep you alive and safe, but not necessarily comfortable.
Paper map and compass. Never hit the trail without it. A small simple compass that attaches to a zipper works for most hikes. Typically they come combined with a thermometer or whistle. If you are going to be bushwhacking, invest in a larger one.
A map is priceless when you need it. A good map will have up to date trails and 20 foot contours. Map scales vary, but 1:24,000 is the best (highest resolution) with 1:75,000 being 3 times worse resolution, but does show more on the page. If you need a map that I do not have up, send me a message and I can make it within a few days – email@example.com or message me on Facebook.
You can purchase a map at most outdoor stores or print them from home. Most pages on this site have a PDF map of the hike in 1:24,000 resolution with 20 ft contours – free to download and print. Commercially, the National Geographic series is very popular, with a 1:75,000 resolution but expensive. Adirondack Mountain Club publishes a series of paper maps that accompany their guidebooks for about $8 each.
2. Sun Protection
The level of protection you need for your skin and eyes varies from person to person, but sunscreen and sunglasses should be considered. Lip balm is useful depending on the weather.
Sunscreen should be included for most all outings, especially when paddling, summiting mountains, or if it is expected to by a clear day. Remember to protect your face in the winter.
Paddlers should remember that you can get sunburn when it is cloudy due to reflections off the water. Hiking under a tree-canopy lessens the effect of the sun, but taking an extended break on a summit at high noon is enough time to a sunburn.
Consider travel sized sunscreens. They are small and fit easily in your pack. Sample sizes are even better if you can find them.
Eye protection will vary on personal taste and how much time you expect to spend in the sun. Hikers rarely use them during the hike, but may opt for them on summits. Paddlers should consider them, particularly polarized glasses that reduce glare off the water.
Look for a durable and flexible pair – it is only a matter of time until you step on them. A keeper strap may be a good idea too.
Remember that the sun will reflect off water and snow, doubling your exposure to the sun. This is why it is extra important to have sun protection while paddling or in the winter months.
3. Extra Clothes
Are you prepared for the conditions of the day? What if you were to get caught after dark? Accidentally fall into a mud puddle? Get caught in an afternoon thunder storm? Ready for 40+ mph summit winds?
A good trip is ruined quite quickly if you are not comfortable. In warmer weather consider bringing a lightweight rain jacket. It triples as rain protection, wind protection and a slight amount of warmth. An extra long sleeve shirt should also be considered if the weather is not favorable. Zip-off are equally very versatile, providing the option of both shorts and pants with minimal extra weight and bulk. An extra pair of socks is also a good idea.
In colder weather, you should have enough clothes such that if you were to stop moving with all your clothes on you would be plenty warm. This typically means extra layers and possibly a warm jacket. Ideal jacket systems separate the rain/wind protection (shell) from the insulating protection (fleece or down).
Getting caught after dark is far more challenging if you cannot see. During day hikes a low-cost basic headlamp is all you need. More advanced headlamps are desirable on overnight trips.
5. First-aid Supplies
In the backcountry injuries will happen, even to the most careful journeyer. You should be prepared for cuts, scrapes, blisters and other minor injuries. Also prescription medicine, pain reliever and ear plugs should be considered.
Ditch the store-bought varieties and make your own. Start in your medicine cabinet with a ziplock bag. You likely have everything you will need already. Consider how long your trip will be and how many people will be with you. Adhesive butterfly bandaids are a must. Also some sort of tape with loose bandages.
Why it matters: On a recent 4-day trip I cut myself rather deeply with a knife early on the first day – a stupid mistake trying to setup a tarp in a downpour. Fortunately I was prepared and was able to change the bandage every day and it did not otherwise impact the enjoyment of the trip.
Are you prepared to start a fire in the rain? You need both a fire starting device (two types are better) and some kindling. I suggest matches and a lighter – packed in two different places.
I typically use a lighter and keep it with my stove. I also keep waterproofed matches in my emergency kit, in case my lighter is lost or malfunctions.
Expert Tip: Take a book of outdoor matches and wrap them tightly in kitchen plastic wrap. This keeps both water and moisture away from the matches. In total the book will weigh only one gram!
Starting a fire requires more than just a flame. What will you burn to start the fire? Normally leaves or similar kindling will do the job, but if it has been raining for awhile, it is not so simple. I keep a small fire starting log in my emergency kit. I also have TP (toilet paper), a notebook and other flammables that I could use in an emergency situation. Emergencies require using gear in non-conventional ways and when it comes to fire, look through your pack and make mental notes of what would burn.
Running out of water on the trail will happen to everyone eventually. Having tablets or an emergency straw filter in your kit will set your mind at ease, while keeping you safe. A filter weighs more and is better suited to longer hikes.
On day hikes when you do not plan on stopping to gather water, bring what you think you will need, then some. On longer days hikes or overnight hikes, plan your water stops regularly. It is not unusual for some streams to dry up in late summer, particularly at the higher elevations.
Bring what you think you will need, then some extra.
A small pocket knife, ideally with scissors is all you need. The Victorinox Classic SD makes a great knife to put in your emergency kit. It weighs 0.75 ounces, $20 and includes a blade, scissors, file, toothpick and tweezers.
10. Emergency shelter
An emergency blanket (reflective blanket, space blanket, etc) is very small and light, but has tons of uses.
Additional Items to Consider
- Signaling Device – A whistle or mirror.
- ID and money – You never know when you will need your ID and some money. The ID will help any emergency responders. The money is useful if you forgot something and want to bater with another hiker/paddler. Leave the rest of your wallet at home.
- Parachute cord – Small cordage always finds a use. With today’s fibers, 15 feet of high-tech cord will fit in a film canister!
- Equipment repair – Consider duct tape, super glue, thread and needle, and stove/sleeping pad repair kits.
- TP and Trowel – Don’t leave home without it.
One more item…Your Brain!
The most imporant essential that you need to bring is your brain. Read, practice and and gain knowledge and it will pay off in dividends. Keep calm and work through any challenges purposefully.
Creating Your 10 Essentials Kit
An essentials kit needs to be small and easy to carry, otherwise you’d be less likely to carry it. You probably already own all the required items, so get them together into one place.
Repackage bulky products into manageable sizes. Do you need an entire tube of sun tan lotion? 100 Band-aids? Of coarse not, so why bring them. Repackage items in ziplock bags and small containers.